John Bellairs

The Figure in the Shadows

Figure in the ShadowsThe Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Blue FigurineThe Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

The Mummy, The Will and the Crypt

TMWC

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Puffin, 1996

I re-read this novel this month. I had been looking for it (new and used) for a long time – I finally found it at Mr. K’s in Charleston, SC for $1.50.  I really cannot emphasize what a difficult time it was locating this book.  I think it was out of print for awhile? I am surprised they did not charge at least $3 for it.  It was originally published in 1983, but the copy I read is the 1996 edition.   I have a bit of a history with this book. I attempted to read it once when I was a small person.  But I grew bored with it and did not get far into it.  A year or so later, I picked it up again and found it gripping and intense and scary.  I remembered it a few years ago and started hunting for it.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt is the second in the Johnny Dixon series of novels written by John Bellairs (1938 – 1991).  I have never read the first, but it is quite famous.  I own the next in the Johnny Dixon series and I have never read that one. I intend to do so once I make a bit more headway into my to-be-read-mountain.

Is this a “kid’s” novel? I suppose, technically, it is.  It’s to be found in the kid’s section, the size and language are accessible to most kids, and the main character is a young boy.  However, it is written in the Gothic-style that Bellairs is known for.  Reading along, you do feel that Bellairs was influenced by Lovecraft.  I find Lovecraftian influences everywhere, by the way.

This novel is a bit somber.  The young main character is shy, anxious, and intense.  He’s a good kid that plays chess, is in the Boy Scouts, and has no friends his own age.  His best friend is a retired ex-military professor who lives in the house across the street from Johnny’s grandparents. Johnny lives with his grandparents because his mother passed away and his father is overseas in the Korean War.  So, the novel, though published in the 1980s seems to be set in the 1950s.

The MWC

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Bantam 1983

There are several elements that are great about this novel.  The first is the Lovecraftian-horror-Gothic style.  I love it.  And nowadays children are not supposed to read such things.  Their “literature” is sanitized and factory-produced.  Bellairs’ novels have this macabre feeling to them that is just not “okay” with the yuppie-parenting of today.  I don’t have any offspring, but if I did, I would definitely have this on their bookshelves.  It is not grossly horrific.  It is not filthy.  It’s just creepy and Lovecraftian and excellent for rainy autumn nights.

The second element which I absolutely love (and which also makes the novel “unacceptable” for children) is the element of religion.  Bellairs is a graduate of Notre Dame and University of Chicago.  He was most likely Roman Catholic.  And Johnny Dixon is too.  And I absolutely approve of the way religion is written in this novel.  This is not a novel about religion – and Bellairs does not make it into one.  However, he does not write a sanitized “religion doesn’t exist in the world” novel, either.  He doesn’t preach or turn the novel into some pseudo-morality tale soggy and dripping with Bible interpretations.  Bellairs writes it all perfectly.  Johnny is a Roman Catholic. Let’s not make that into a thing.  It is what it is.  There are Roman Catholics in the world and Johnny is one of them. Not really anything remarkable about this.  And the novel does not make a big deal of it – but you know when Johnny is about to enter the Crypt that he’s making the Sign of the Cross.

The main character is so interesting and the reader loves empathizing with the kid. He’s an honest kid – neither impossibly awesome, nor pathetically lame.  He’s real, which might be why he is so relate-able.  Authors need to learn how to write like Bellairs – everything so smooth and yet, so meaningful.  Macabre and not gross.  Honest, but yet a good yarn. I hear this is not really Bellairs greatest work – I cannot wait to read more and really be wow-ed by J. Bellairs.

4 stars