Those of you who know me know I like to read books that have been turned into movies and compare the two. In fact, most of the books I read end up that way. Today I finished The House With a Clock in Its Walls, and before that I read The Green Mile. I plan to watch both of these movies in the immediate future, with this book’s movie coming out in a couple weeks.
I don’t read many books aimed at younger audiences, and if I hadn’t been so intrigued by the movie trailer, I wouldn’t have even known this book existed. I don’t know what it was. I suspect its Jack Black that keeps the trailer fresh. My wife and I go to the movies every week (thanks AMC Stubbs!), and so we see PLENTY of trailers on repeat. Right now the one I hate the most is the one for “Bumblebee.” I hate everything the “Transformers” movies have become, and this new spinoff doesn’t look any more impressive. But every time I see the trailer I just want to punch the screen. Can we let the “Transformers” franchise die please? Anyway, I always love seeing the “House with a Clock in Its Walls” trailer. My wife and I are always walking around quoting Jack Black, “It’s a kimono!”
Yes, I’ve decided that’s it. It must be Jack Black that I love so much about this trailer. I mean, look at this shot of him!
He’s just so wonderful. But anyway, I’m here to talk about the book, not the movie I’m anxious to see.
The book was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. Bellairs sadly died in 1991, a quarter century too soon to see his book turned into a movie. Turns out this book is the start of a series that’s still being written today.
The story follows a recently-orphaned kid named Lewis Barnavelt who is sent to live with his uncle Jonathan in Michigan. Jonathan is a plump old warlock (or “boy-witch” as Lewis puts it) who takes an immediate liking of Lewis. He and his neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann take good care of the hurting boy, baking him cookies and letting him win several hands of poker they play with a massive pile of foreign coins.
At first, Jonathan knows nothing about the magical history of the house he’s moved into, a three-story mansion with more rooms and old furniture than you can shake a stick at. Since most of the book is set in the house, this creates a nice charming contained area for Lewis to explore. Nicknacks and old books populate the limitless mansion, along with glass stained windows that move when he’s not looking.
Lewis isn’t a stupid kid, though, and he starts to pick up on the weird stuff going on. In particular, his uncle Jonathan wandering around at night listening to the walls, trying to find the source of a mysterious ticking clock the previous owner of the house left. The ticking drives Jonathan so mad, he purchases dozens of other clocks to cover it up.
When Lewis learns of magic, he’s naturally fascinated. The magic is innocent enough at first with illusions and little tricks like eclipsing the moon, but eventually he gets in over his head when trying a spell himself that raises the dead. Lewis is far from the prodigy that is Mr. Potter, and the rest of the story revolves around him trying to stop the person he’s raised from the dead from using the hidden clock to destroy the world. Big stuff.
Three quick things I love about this book:
- The characters
- The short length
- The art
Lewis is a troubled kid, what with the deaths of his parents and all. He’s also overweight, which earns him quite a bit of prodding from classmates. And yeah, sure he almost brings about the end of the world, but he does it trying to impress a popular kid at school. Lewis makes typical mistakes we all would in his position. And Mrs. Zimmermann and Jonathan give him plenty of room to both make those mistakes and learn from them.
Honestly, they’re who I love the most in this book. Jonathan (who I’m sure Jack Black will NAIL) and Mrs. Zimmermann bicker like an old married couple, but they’re absolute sweethearts. Reading this book was like watching the marriages of the Lockhorns and Gomez And Morticia Addams combined. And they take such great care of Lewis. Mrs. Zimmermann is always making him doughnuts or chocolate chip cookies with cider or cocoa (it’s no wonder he’s overweight), while Jonathan provides just the right amount of emotional support and cooky uncle. They both are also fiercely protective of Lewis. When Jonathan finds out Lewis’ best friend is mean to him, he wants to splat him like a bug. And Mrs. Zimmermann doesn’t hesitate to save Lewis from the very woman he raised from the dead, charging into harm’s way to rescue him. They’re simply the best.
When I’m in between heavier reads like Stephen King or Michael Crichton, it’s nice to have something smaller to clean my mental palate. That’s usually where manga or a shorter book comes in. And after reading something like The Green Mile, I definitely needed this short and sweet little tale about a kid discovering magic. Like I said earlier, I don’t read many books aimed at younger audiences (I have no particular reason why, just don’t), but I will from time to time. After seeing “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” I had to track down The Little Broomstick, and I enjoyed it.
The art was another welcome addition to the book, and I’m not talking about the front cover. Rather, illustrator Edward Gorey drew up these little sketchy images throughout the book that I felt matched the tone perfectly. The book has an overlying gothic theme, and the accompanying line work is just icing on the cake. I’m the kind of person who always sees the movie actors as the people they’re based off in the book if I read it after watching the movie. When reading Shawshank Redemption, I pictured and heard Morgan Freeman as Red, the narrator. Can’t help it. But here, Jack Black constantly battled with Edward Gorey’s illustrations for representation in my mental theatre as I read the book. You know how you always picture the book scenes you’re reading in your head? That’s what I mean here. Below is an example of the art.
Let’s talk magic for a second as I wind this down. I suppose reading this book in 2018 after Harry Potter has sort of set the standard for what magic should be, it was refreshing to see this book have such a loose system of ruleless spells. Things just kind of work because the author says they do, and I believe him because he convinces me that’s just the way the magic works.
Look, my fellow writers will know this. One of the greatest difficulties in writing a book where magic exists is establishing the rules. How do spells work? What powers the magic? Can anyone use magic, or can only certain bloodlines make use of sorcery? I mean, the list goes on and on. I struggled with that a little in my book The Last Fire Mage. Crafting rules that both make sense and are consistent can be a bit of a challenge.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series (my favorite fantasy series ever), magic can only be used by certain people born with the gift, and there’s all different kinds of spells from mending glass to elemental sorcery. She goes off the concept that magic is based on true words, that is old speech used by the dragons and not typically spoken by men. But everything and everyone has a true name. Men might call something a stone, but if you know the old dragon word for stone, you can use that stone in a spell. Or if you know the old speech for raven, you can call ravens to you. Likewise, people all have a true name, and it’s kept secret from most, reason being you can quickly gain power over someone if you know their true name. It’s a brilliant system that lasted well from 1964 to 2001 in multiple books.
Bellairs’ magic is loose. He never really takes the time to establish why spells work, why some require symbols and others just verbal components. He mentions that Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann both went to college and earned degrees in magic but doesn’t delve deeper. And perhaps that’s for the best since he only has 179 pages to tell this story. Plus, this is a book aimed at a younger audience. Rowling didn’t launch into a huge explanation about the history of magic at the start of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I’m willing to let the lack of explanation stand here. It’s not a huge issue for me.
If the book has a weakness, I’d say it lies in pacing. The climax comes rather abruptly. I don’t mind the ending, but the big scenes where plot points are moved forward are spaced unevenly throughout the book. And the villain is a tad underdeveloped. I would have rather liked to know more about Serenna Izard’s past. At one point, she hints at being buried alive with her husband, but that is never brought up again. I mean, if a villain is bent on destroying the world, I want to know more about them. Hell, we knew more about her dead husband (who didn’t get resurrected) than we did her. Why did she want to destroy the world? Your guess is as good as mine.
Izard’s resurrection is another problem I have, and this goes back to the magic. In just about every story I’ve read or seen where resurrection is involved, it’s a hefty task. Only the most skilled magic users can do it. Even in Dungeons and Dragons, the cost and skill level required to perform a resurrection is massive. But here, Lewis just copies a symbol and some words out of a book, then performs the spell in the graveyard. If I remember right, it’s his first time using magic, and it just works. Jonathan mentions black magic at one point but doesn’t delve any further into it. The spell doesn’t have any physical components or ingredients. It’s literally just an incantation and symbol. For a big trick like raising the dead, you’d figure there’d be more to it, more consequences at least. Lewis’ consequences come from who he resurrected, not the act itself. That’s a problem for me, someone who loves shows like “The Originals” where resurrection wasn’t some petty little- okay it was sometimes, depending on the needs of the plot, but Elijah is too important! Sorry, I got lost for a moment there.
One funny trait of the book is Lewis’ Catholic impulse. The book starts out with him saying specific prayers and makes mention to little bits of Lewis’ faith throughout. This obviously comes from his Catholic upbringing, but it’s interesting to see that make its way into a gothic magic mystery book. Maybe that’s just me personally, but I thought it a funny inclusion. Magic and the church are not treated as enemies here, rather just two things that exist in Bellairs’ fictional world.
While I had fun reading this book, I doubt I’ll pick up the series. I’ll probably just watch the movie, blog about it, and be done. I’ve got too many other things on my list to read now, including another posthumous publication by Michael Crichton (one of my favorite authors) and the second Dark Tower book.
On a side note (because I can’t stop talking about the movie), have you noticed how the second “Goosebumps” movie looks terrible without Jack Black? It’ll probably suck.