The House with a Clock in Its Walls

April 17, 2009 at 9:48 pm (Children's lit, Gothic, Horror, Juvanalia) (, , )

The hOuse with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
Originally published 1973
Dell Yearling, 20th printing, 1974
179 pages
Genre: gothic, horror, children’s

Synopsis & Review: Following the untimely death of his parents, Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his heretofore unknown Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan is a very minor sort of warlock, and lives in a Victorian mansion filled with stained glass windows, fireplaces, mysterious nooks and crannies, and all manner of odd antiques. Unfortunately, the house is also filled with clocks, in order to drown out the ominous ticking of a clock hidden within the very walls of the house. When Lewis raises the very evil dead in an effort to impress his friend Tarby, he, Uncle Jonathan, and their witch neighbor Mrs Zimmerman must rally together with all their knowledge or the arcane and ridiculous in order to prevent Doomsday.

The first of Bellairs’ juvenalia, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is also among his very best. From the start you sympathize with orphaned, chubby Lewis, and are fascinated and entertained by Uncle Jonathan and Mrs Zimmerman, and the world of magic and illusion they unveil.  Bellairs populates his world with believable and very human characters, and adds inventive comical flourishes that give it a depth and interest many adult gothics lack; Isaac and Selenna Izard are disturbing and creepy villains without even being present through most of the action, while Lewis has very few heroic qualities, being chubby, non-athletic, and timid. Bellairs’ taste for the absurd is strong, manifesting in both tiny bits of background and broad jokes, and his creation of eerie atmosphere superb. The pace is relentless; I stayed up til my eyes were closing on their own, then finished it first thing upon waking up–and I was re-reading it!

This is probably my favorite of Bellairs’ books, and one I strongly recommend as a starting point. Bellairs never patronizes his audience, and Edward Gorey’s illustrations are a perfect match for Bellairs’ suspense, spookiness, and whimsy.

Cover: This is my all-time favorite Bellairs cover, and an all over good cover to boot. It’s eerie and conveys the book’s atmosphere, and it’s got a bitchin’ psychedelic look. I would frame this and hang it in my library.

Jonathan did a lot of other things that Christmas. He put candles in all the windows of the house–electric ones, not real ones, since he likes the electric kind better–and he put strong lamps behind the stained-glass windows, so that they threw marvelous patterns of red and blue and gold and purple on the dark, sparkling snow outside. He invented the Fuse Box Dwarf, a little man who popped out at you from behind the paint cans int he cellarway and screamed, “Dreeb! Dreeb! I am the Fuse Box Dwarf!” Lewis was not scared by the little man, and he felt that those who scream, “Dreeb!” are more to be pitied than censured.

15-16 April 2009



  1. The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring « the stacks my destination said,

    […] was so enchanted by my re-read of THwaCiIW that I picked up the next book I had in the Lewis Barnavelt collection, which was the third (and […]

  2. The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch « the stacks my destination said,

    […] also: Witches’ Children by Patricia Clapp, The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, the Harry Potter books by JK […]

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