John (Anthony) Bellairs (1938-1991) Biography
Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1938, in Marshall, MI; died of cardiovascular disease March 8, 1991, in Haverhill, MA; Education: University of Notre Dame, A.B., 1959; University of Chicago, M.A., 1960. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Archaeology, history, Dickens, wine-tasting, cheese, Latin, "trivia of all kinds."
Freelance writer. College of St. Teresa, Winona, MN, instructor in English, 1963-65; Shimer College, Mount Carroll, IL, member of humanities faculty, 1966-67; Emmanuel College, Boston, MA, instructor in English, 1968-69; Merrimack College, North Andover, MA, member of English faculty, 1969-71.
Authors League of America, Authors Guild.
Woodrow Wilson fellowship; New York Times outstanding book citation, 1973, and Michigan Young Readers award nomination, 1980, both for The House with a Clock in Its Walls.
St. Figeta and Other Parodies, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1966.
The Pedant and the Shuffly, illustrated by Marilyn Fitschen, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968, with a foreword by Brad Strickland, Mythopoeic Press (Altadena, CA), 2001.
The Face in the Frost, illustrated by Edward Gorey, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969, reprinted, Dial (New York, NY), 1999.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls (first book in the "Clock" trilogy), illustrated by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1973.
A Figure in the Shadows (second book in the "Clock" trilogy), Dial (New York, NY), 1975.
The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (third book in the "Clock" trilogy), Dial (New York, NY), 1976.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, illustrated by Judith Gwyn Brown, Dial (New York, NY), 1978, reprinted, Puffin (New York, NY), 1997.
The Curse of the Blue Figurine (first book in "Blue Figurine" trilogy), illustrations by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1983, reprinted, Puffin (New York, NY), 2004.
The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt (second book in "Blue Figurine" trilogy), illustrations by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1983, reprinted, Puffin (New York, NY), 2004.
The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull (third book in "Blue Figurine" trilogy), illustrations by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted, Puffin (New York, NY), 2004.
The Dark Secret of Weatherend, Dial (New York, NY), 1984.
The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost, Dial (New York, NY), 1985.
The Eyes of the Killer Robot, Dial (New York, NY), 1986.
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb, Dial (New York, NY), 1987.
The Chessmen of Doom, Dial (New York, NY), 1989.
The Trolley to Yesterday, ilustrations by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1989, reprinted, Puffin (New York, NY), 2004.
The Secret of the Underground Room, Dial (New York, NY), 1990.
The Mansion in the Mist, Dial (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Brad Strickland) The Ghost in the Mirror, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Brad Strickland) The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Brad Strickland) The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie, illustrations by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Brad Strickland) The Doom of the Haunted Opera, illustrated by Edward Gorey, Dial (New York, NY), 1995.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls and The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn were made into television movies, both produced by Diane Asselin. The Ghost in the Mirror was adapted as an audiobook by Recorded Books, c. 1995. Following Bellairs' death, Brad Strickland continued to produce several books featuring Bellairs characters.
For a generation of mystery fans, the name John Bellairs conjured up images of spooky houses, wizards, magic, and ghosts. A former teacher, Bellairs drew upon both his childhood memories and a vivid imagination in penning a number of popular mysteries featuring enterprising adolescent detectives. Although the Michigan-born author passed away in the early 1990s, his novels have remained popular, and several of his series characters, such as enterprising young progatonists Jimmy Dixon, Lewis Barnavelt, and Rose Rita Pottinger, have been cast in new adventures by author Brad Strickland.
What makes a book by Bellairs unique within the young-adult mystery genre that boasts such popular writers as R. L. Stein and Alvin Schwarz is the author's mix of classic horror elements and traditional "coming of age" themes. Characters like Lewis in The House with a Clock in Its Walls and Rose Rita in The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring do not merely thwart evil sorcerers and doomsday plans. They also worry about their looks, get lonely, and wonder if anyone will ever really like them. Bellairs once asserted that most of his novels (and many of his characters) were based on memories from his own childhood.
Bellairs was born in Marshall, Michigan, where his father was a saloon owner. Due to the unstable nature of the family business, his mother often worried about money. Even as a young boy, he was very aware of his mother's monetary concerns; when he began writing, he created teen characters who get into trouble while trying to find ways to make their families financially secure. Despite his family's money troubles, Bellairs enjoyed much of his childhood. He was especially fond of his hometown, which was full of eccentric and immense houses, wooded areas, and great play spots.
Bellairs' first novel was the fantasy The Face in the Frost. Inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series, The Face in the Frost tells the story of two magicians and their attempts to stop a third sorcerer who has acquired a deadly book of spells. In the course of their quest, Prospero and Roger Bacon travel to enchanted kingdoms, fight numerous evil doers, and confront hideous creatures. "The tale is rich, hilarious, inventive, filled with infectious good humor, grisly horrors, slithering Evil, bumbling monarchs …, "extolled Lin Carter in Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. "Bellairs is a marvelous writer who has obviously read all the right books with enthusiasm, and his own venture into the genre is one of the most exciting debuts in a long time." A writer for A Reader's Guide to Fantasy was equally laudatory, calling The Face in the Frost "a very scary book .… It is also a very funny book, sometimes broad, sometimes subtle."
Common to all of Bellairs' mysteries is an unspoken stress on the need for friendship. Most of the dangers faced by his young characters come about because they misuse magical properties or objects, and they deal with the resulting dilemmas with the help of a wise and loving older friend or relative. "In all Bellairs's books … it is through friendship that the supernatural forces are conquered," wrote Craig Shaw Gardner in an article for the Washington Post Book World. Gardner went on to explain that Bellairs' books do not succeed on the basis of friendship alone; the novels also work because they "are filled with detailed and funny reminiscences of what it felt like to be young."
Bellairs followed The Face in the Frost with his first young-adult mystery, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. On one level the story of an orphan's adjustment to living with his mysterious uncle, the novel is also a tale of ghosts, magic, and the possible end of the world. After his parents die in an accident, ten-year-old Lewis moves to New Zebedee to live with his eccentric uncle. From the start, life with Uncle Jonathan is full of surprises. His house is a marvel of bizarre architecture complete with secret passages and mysterious nooks. Before Lewis has a chance to really explore his new home, however, he finds out that his uncle and kindly Mrs. Zimmermann next door are both wizards, and both are looking for the source of a mysterious ticking sound. What ensues is a chase involving two dead but still very evil wizards and their unearthly plot to bring about the end the world.
Natalie Babbitt, reviewing The House with a Clock in Its Walls for the New York Times Book Review, noted that Bellairs includes "a great many good ingredients in this occult tale" and added: "The freshness of the writing is very appealing and the horror sections are sufficiently chilling to last long after the story is over." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly was also positive, praising the book's illustrations by artist Edward Gorey and stating that, "for devotees of the genre, here's the genuine article, a ghost story guaranteed to raise hackles."
Bellairs brought Lewis, Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman back in A Figure in the Shadows, the sequel to The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Once again, magic is a key part of the plot when Lewis accidentally summons the shadow of a ghost by using an evil enchanted coin. Mrs. Zimmermann, Lewis, and friend Rose Rita take an eventful vacation in the third book of the "Clock" trilogy, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. Critics responded favorably to the second and third books in Bellairs' trilogy, and many comments noted the author's ability to maintain his mix of humor, magic, and horror. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books dubbed A Figure in the Shadows "often amusing, adroitly constructed and paced."
Bellairs created a new team of detectives for his "Blue Figurine" trilogy. In this series, which includes The Curse of the Blue Figurine, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt, and The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull, Johnny Dixon, Johnny's grandma and grandpa, and cranky Professor Childermass face ghosts, evil sorcerers, and assorted physical dangers. While some critics did not feel Bellairs' second trilogy was as successful as his first, others were impressed by the author's ability to maintain a balance between laughs and suspense. This mix of humor and tension is also evident in Bellairs' other young adult mysteries, such as The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb and The Dark Secret of Weatherend, where, once again, an intrepid young sleuth and his older partner foil an evil-doer's nefarious plot.
After Bellairs' death, the author's son asked writer and professor Brad Strickland to complete two novels Bellairs had left unfinished. The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie and The Doom of the Haunted Opera were completed by Strickland in the style of Bellairs' own work, much to the delight of many of the late author's fans. In the first, Johnny Dixon joins Childermass in battling a voodoo cult when they try to save the life of an elderly friend of the professor, and in The Doom of the Haunted Opera Lewis and Rose Rita team up to battle the evil Madame Sinestra and her plan to take over the world at the head of an army of undead zombies. Stephanie Zvirin wrote in Booklist that the authors' use of comedy in The Doom of the Haunted Opera "leaven creepy scenes and ghostly encounters," while the "ably devised bit of supernatural fun" they concoct for The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie is "perfect for the pre-Stephen King set."
Bellairs enjoyed getting feedback from readers young and old readers, many of whom sent him odd tokens and gifts. When asked about his writing, Bellairs would frequently explain that his main goal was "to keep things simple." He once said: "I write because I like to fantasize, and because I love to talk .… My books are simply meant as entertainment."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Carter, Lin, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1973, pp. 165-167.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 37, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Reginald, Robert, Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature: A Checklist, 1700-1974, Volumes 1 and 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1979.
Reginald, Robert, Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, 1975-1991, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Searles, Baird, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin, A Reader's Guide to Fantasy, Avon (New York, NY), 1982.
Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995.
Booklist, July, 1994, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie, p. 1942; August, 1995, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Doom of the Haunted Opera, p. 1946.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1975, review of A Figure in the Shadows; January, 1977, review of The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring; October, 1978; June, 1983; April, 1984.
Horn Book, July, 1986; April, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1973, Natalie Babbitt, review of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, p. 8; October 9, 1988.
Publishers Weekly, March 26, 1983, review of The House with a Clock in Its Walls; July 12, 1993, review of Vengeance of the Witch-Finder, p. 81.
Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1984, Craig Shaw Gardner, "Reading on the Edge of Your Seat," pp. 13-14.
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