Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Written by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
A Dell Yearling Book, Published 1973

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs, is the first book in his Lewis Barnavelt series of gothic horror novels for young readers.

Orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, ten-year-old Lewis comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1948. Lewis is lonely, frightened, nervous about meeting his unknown relative, and worried about what his future holds:

It seemed to Lewis that all he could think of these days were questions: Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me? [p. 4]

This could be the beginning of any number of orphaned-children novels. But Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan turns out to be a wizard – the scandalous black sheep of the family. And the story soon takes a unique and uncanny turn: Together with neighbor Florence Zimmermann (who just happens to be a witch), Lewis and his uncle must locate a magic clock hidden somewhere in Jonathan’s spooky mansion, before it destroys the world.

The clock was the handiwork of Isaac Izard, an evil warlock who was the original owner of Uncle Jonathan’s house. Izard practiced black magic and lived a hermetic existence there in the mansion along with his wife Selenna until her mysterious death. Isaac himself died shortly after that, one night during a wild thunderstorm. And though no one understands why he did it, Izard devised a clock that would bring about the end of the world and hid it somewhere in the walls of the house. Now every night Lewis and his uncle search for the clock while they hear it ticking off the minutes leading up to doomsday.

Bellairs’ story is decidedly creepy, but also whimsical and endearing. Uncle Jonathan’s house has some very surprising characteristics – such as stained glass windows with pictures that change without notice. And a secret passageway that leads to Mrs. Zimmermann’s house next door. And Jonathan and Florence are constantly engaged in good-natured bickering, and delight in addressing each other with pet names like “Hag Face,” “Frizzy Wig,” and “Weird Beard.”

Lewis is portrayed as a very real boy, with a real child’s insecurities and fears, forced to deal with very exotic and peculiar and even perilous situations. His desperate struggle to maintain an unlikely friendship with a popular boy in his class at school serves as the main mechanism for some of the most dangerous action in the book. And although he’s certainly instrumental in the effort to destroy the forces of evil, he’s not portrayed as a superhero. In the end, he’s content to sit around a bonfire with his uncle and Mrs. Zimmermann, drinking cocoa and eating chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the bonfire eventually turns into a jack-o-lantern, with a scowling orange face – but then, Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, after all.

This was my introduction to John Bellairs and Lewis Barnavelt, and I’d definitely like to read more titles in the series. I loved the eccentric characters and bizarre storyline. And Edward Gorey’s illustrations were a special treat, and a perfect match for Bellairs’ mix of ordinary everyday action with a supernatural element. It all combines to make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a delightful experience for readers of all ages.

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Review: The Grey King

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1986, 165 pages

“You see,” Will said, “it’s the first quest, without help, for me – and the last, because this now is the raising of the last defence the Light can build, to be ready. There is a great battle ahead . . . not yet, but not far off. For the Dark is rising, to make its great attempt to take the world for itself until the end of time. When that happens, we must fight and we must win. But we can only win if we have the right weapons. That is what we have been doing, and are still, in such quests as this – gathering the weapons forged for us long, long ago. Six enchanted Signs of the Light, a golden grail, a wonderful harp, a crystal sword . . . They are all achieved now but the harp and the sword, and I do not know what will be the manner of the sword’s finding. But the quest for the harp is mine. . . .”

The Grey King, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novel for young people, is the fourth and next to last book in her five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence (also the title of the sequence’s second book). It continues the story of Will Stanton and his struggle against the forces of evil – the Dark.

We first met Will (in The Dark Is Rising), as an eleven year old country boy – the youngest member of a large, happy family. In the course of that novel, Will learns he isn’t just any ordinary eleven year old – he’s also the last of the “Old Ones,” immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the ravages of the Dark. In The Grey King, Will is continuing his quest for the “six enchanted Signs of the Light.” His search for the “wonderful harp” is set in Wales, and Welsh folklore plays an important role in the book.

At the novel’s opening, Will is recovering from hepatitis – he’s been very ill, and that illness has caused him to forget much of the ancient knowledge he possessed as an Old One. To recuperate, he’s sent to stay with his Auntie Jen and Uncle David Evans on their farm in Wales. There he meets the “raven boy,” Bran Davies – a boy about his own age, with the white hair and pale skin of an albino, and strange golden eyes. Surprisingly, Bran seems to know all about Will and is ready to help him in his quest to find a golden harp that will produce music to “wake the Six Sleepers” and prepare for the final battle between good and evil:

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

The two boys become friends, and as they set out on their adventure, Will gradually begins to recover his memory and the prophecy he once memorized:

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
. . . .
By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie . . .
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.

And as Will learns a bit of the Welsh language from Bran, and starts to compare the local place names and geographic features around his uncle’s farm with the memorized lines of prophecy, the final battle comes closer and closer.

The Grey King was first published in 1975 and was the winner of the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1976. And though it’s classified as a children’s book, in many ways it’s the most “adult” of the first four books in the sequence. (I haven’t yet read the final novel in the sequence, Silver on the Tree.) There are more adult situations in this one, and more explicit violence. Also, the frequent use of the Welsh language does slow the action down at times – possibly a problem for some younger readers. Unless, of course, they speak Welsh.

The Dark Is Rising sequence is proving to be just as powerful and addictive as I always imagined it would be. My favorite book in the series is always the one I happen to be reading at the moment! But The Grey King is definitely one of the best. Although I missed the presence of Merriman Lyon a bit (he figures in this book, but only briefly), I enjoyed the Welsh setting and the introduction of a fascinating new character in Bran Davies. His story and the mystery of his birth and birthright seem to be at the heart of the entire saga.

Review: Greenwitch

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997, 147 pages

. . . As Jane looked at the huge image that they had made, out of leaves and branches . . . . she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. [p. 34]

Greenwitch is the third book in Susan Cooper’s mythic five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence. In it, the reader once again meets up with the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, who were introduced in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone.

The tale begins with the Drews, along with their Great Uncle Merriman, returning to the Cornish seaside village of Trewissick, the setting of their earlier adventure. The ancient grail once discovered by the children has been stolen from its museum home by the forces of evil (the Dark), and a new search has to be mounted to find and recover it.

They’re joined in their quest by a mysterious stranger – a young boy who is the nephew of a friend of Merriman’s. The Drews are puzzled by the fact that while this newcomer is about the same age as young Barney, at times he acts much more like an adult. And their great uncle seems to treat him as an equal. The boy turns out to be Will Stanton, introduced in the sequence’s second book, The Dark Is Rising. Of course, Great Uncle Merriman knows what the children don’t: that Will is, in fact, the last of the Old Ones – immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the evil domination of The Dark.

The search for the missing grail once again involves the children in a series of exciting, and sometimes dangerous events. It also introduces them to the Greenwitch – a framework of leaves and branches made into the shape of a woman – that for centuries has been constructed by the women of the village and then thrown into the sea to bring good luck to the fishermen.

I really enjoyed Greenwitch. While it sometimes feels a bit like it was written solely as transition, it’s also interesting and entertaining on its own. It ties strands of the various books together quite nicely, and brings all the major characters together for the first time. And it’s also the shortest of the five books in the sequence – which helps make it a good, fast-paced read.

I also found it very appealing that the book gives Jane Drew a chance to take center stage away from all those males for a while. Only Jane is permitted to be present at the ceremony where the village women construct the Greenwitch, and she forms a kind of mystic bond with the creature – a bond that will become very important in the struggle to overcome the forces of darkness.

Review: The Dark Is Rising

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Simon & Schuster, Aladdin Paperbacks; 244 pages

 

“The Walker is abroad,” he said again. “And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.”

Much like Lucy walking through the wardrobe’s magic doorway into Narnia, or Alice plunging down the rabbit hole – Will Stanton, in The Dark Is Rising, enters his magnificent adventure quite suddenly on a seemingly ordinary day.

Will went downstairs to pull on his boots, and the old sheepskin jacket that had belonged, before him, to two or three of his brothers in turn. Then he went out of the back door, closing it quietly behind him, and stood looking out through the quick white vapour of his breath.

The strange white world lay stroked by silence. No birds sang. The garden was no longer there, in this forested land. Nor were the outbuildings nor the old crumbling walls. . . . Will set out down the white tunnel of the path, slowly, stepping high to keep the snow out of his boots. As soon as he moved away from the house, he felt very much alone, and he made himself go on without looking back over his shoulder, because he knew that when he looked, he would find that the house was gone.

But it isn’t really an ordinary day – it’s Midwinter Day, and Will’s eleventh birthday. And it’s also the day on which Will learns that he isn’t just the youngest child in the large Stanton brood. He’s the last of the Old Ones, immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the forces of evil – the Dark. And, as the book’s title tells us, the Dark is rising.

After Will steps out into this strange new world, he’s introduced to another Old One, Merriman Lyon, the Merlin-like figure who will be his guide and teacher on the journey of discovery that will introduce Will to his new powers and responsibilities. And they will be allies in the battle against the Black Rider.

Steeped in Celtic mythology and revolving around the legends of King Arthur, The Dark Is Rising, which was a Newbery Honor Book for 1974, is the second work in Susan Cooper’s five-book sequence of the same name. It follows 1965’s Over Sea, Under Stone [see my review of that book], and is very different from that book although there are a few obvious tie-ins. Merriman Lyon appears in both books, although his identity as an Old One was more shadowy in the first. In general, magic and folklore play a much more open and prominent role in The Dark Is Rising than they did in the first book.

Both books involve a quest for ancient artifacts that are vital in the struggle to keep the forces of darkness from overwhelming the world. In The Dark Is Rising, Will learns that he is the Sign-Seeker whose quest is “to find and to guard the six great Signs of the Light, made over the centuries by the Old Ones.” The Circle of Signs that Will seeks is one of the four Things of Power to be used in the final battle against the Dark, and is a set of six circular ornaments, each made of a different material – wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone. When the signs are brought together, the Dark is powerless against them.

Unlike the Drew children in Over Sea, Under Stone, Will and the other Old Ones are aided by their ability to communicate with each other using the “Old Speech,” and by their power to move easily back and forth in time. As Merriman tells him:

“You will see, Will. . . we of the Circle are planted only loosely within Time. The doors are a way through it, in any direction we may choose. For all times co-exist, and the future can sometimes affect the past. . . .”

This series has been an exciting discovery for me. I’ve enjoyed all three of the books I’ve read so far (I’ll be posting a review of the third book soon, I hope). Susan Cooper’s ability to draw the reader into a world of myth and magic with a seemingly effortless blending of the real and the fantastic is very appealing. She has a wonderful way of showing us her story unfolding, rather than simply telling us about it. We get to know her characters through their interactions within the narrative, and I think that makes them feel more real. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the story of Will Stanton and his quest, in the last two books of the sequence.

Review: Over Sea, Under Stone

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000; 196 pp.
Originally published by Jonathan Cape (London), 1965

Ever since he had learned to read, Barney’s greatest heroes had been King Arthur and his knights. In his dreams he fought imaginary battles as a member of the Round Table, rescuing fair ladies and slaying false knights. He had been longing to come to the West Country; it gave him a strange feeling that he would in some way be coming home. [p. 4]

In Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novel for young readers, the Drew children – Simon, Jane, and Barney (short for Barnabas) – along with their father and mother, have come to Cornwall to spend their vacation in the seaside village of Trewissick. They’re staying with their Great-Uncle Merry in his mysterious Grey House. Soon after arrival, while the grownups are off tending to their grownup business, the three kids are left to explore their new surroundings. After uncovering a hidden entrance to the attic, they find an old manuscript that looks like a treasure map. And that’s when the adventure begins.

The manuscript turns out to be the key to the hiding place of an ancient artifact from King Arthur’s court. And soon the three youngsters, along with their enigmatic great uncle, are caught up in the ages-old legend of Arthur’s battle for Good against Evil. There are enemies in the village who are also searching for the object, and will go to any lengths to get it. Not wanting to give too much of the plot away, I’ll just say that the three Drew kids end up vanquishing the forces of darkness, at least for the time being (well, you knew they would), and almost uncover the secret of their Great-Uncle Merry’s true identity.

This is the first book in Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence of five novels (named for the second novel in the series), and I understand that it’s very different from the other four. It actually reads more like a mystery novel than fantasy. For one thing, at first glance anyway, it doesn’t have a lot of the trappings of traditional fantasies – no fairies, demons, dragons, magic, witches or wizards – although some of those things are hinted at. And it’s set in modern-day England (well, fairly modern), but it has a timeless quality that I found very appealing – thankfully, there are no cell phones, instant messaging, or computer games to distract the Drews from their quest.

I’ve been intending to read this book for years , and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can see why it’s been a favorite of kids and adults alike, ever since it appeared 30-odd years ago. The story is exciting, with lots of twists and turns and near-disasters. The characters are well-developed, and the action is mostly plausible, given the fact that we’re dealing with a cosmic fight between the forces of light and darkness. I can’t wait to get started on the next title in the series.

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Written by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic Inc., 1999, 312 pages

There’s something to be said for being the last person on the planet to read and review a book – you certainly don’t need to worry much about plot summaries or “spoilers.”

And if I’m not the last person to succumb to the HP experience, then I’m in a group with a very small membership. I’ve seen a couple of the films and read all about the legal fracas over who has the right to talk about the books and who hasn’t. Like everyone else, I’ve been aware of the phenomenon of Harry Potter for years.

But until now, I had resisted reading any of the books. Not sure why, really. I guess deep down I just felt, as my husband always says, there are some forms of virginity that shouldn’t be tampered with. Well, I’ve finally shed the innocence and read the book and become an initiate. And it wasn’t at all painful.

So, for any other Potter virgins out there orbiting Jupiter, the bare (and I mean completely skinned) bones of the story are these. Harry Potter is a young English orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle and cousin Dudley – the Dursleys. The three Dursleys mistreat Harry and force him to sleep in a cupboard under the staircase. As Harry’s eleventh birthday nears, he begins to receive mysterious letters which his uncle attempts to hide. But on the eve of his birthday, Harry is visited by a giant named Hagrid who is there to bring Harry his admissions letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry finds out for the first time that he’s a wizard, and the son of wizards – a fact his aunt and uncle have kept from him all these years.

A month later, Harry makes the journey to Hogwarts and on the way meets two other young wizards-in-training, also just arriving – Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The three soon become fast friends and have many adventures and fun times learning the ins and outs of wizardry. Harry eventually tangles with the evil Voldemort, the “Dark Lord” who killed Harry’s parents when he was just a baby (that’s when Harry was a baby, not Voldemort – is this making any sense?), and who is seeking the Sorcerer’s (read: Philosopher’s) Stone in order to restore himself to power. After their struggle, good triumphs over evil, Voldemort is vanquished after nearly killing Harry, and the Stone is destroyed (or said to be, anyway). After that, the school term is over and everybody goes home for their summer holidays.

I know I haven’t said anything about Harry’s owl, or his magic broomstick, or the sorting hat, or Professor Dumbledore, or Snape, or Quirrell, or quidditch, or Fluffy the three-headed-dog. Or Voldemort drinking the unicorn blood. And there’s a lot more to be discovered. Ms. Rowling does have an imagination – you have to give her that.

I never really understood why the publishers thought they needed to change the book’s title for the American market – why “sorcerer’s stone” should be any more acceptable or convey any more meaning than “philosopher’s stone.” I assume they wanted potential readers to make the connection with Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, where sorcerers play a mighty role. And I suppose the term “philosopher’s stone” does have a slightly less romantic sound – unless you’re a student of alchemy.

I must admit I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. Well, I’ve always liked fairy tales and stories that involve magic, so I suppose that’s not so surprising. And I can see how once a kid reads the first book, he/she would want to go on and read the whole series – I’m a series addict myself. What I don’t understand is what makes these books so special to young readers. As I say, it was enjoyable, but certainly no better than any of Lewis’s Narnia books, and nowhere near as interesting as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence (I’m on the third book in that series and Harry and Hogwarts pale by comparison).

So while I’d definitely recommend it as a good read, I can’t say I’m making haste to read any of the other Potter books. I certainly have no plans to buy any – if I do read another, it’ll have to come from the library or a book swap. Given the evidence of her recent behavior, I’d say Harry and his friends have already brought J.K. a lot more money and fame than is good for her. She doesn’t need my $8.99.