The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs
Originally published 1983
Bantam Skylark, 10th printing, 1986
Genre: gothic, horror, children’s
Synopsis & Review: Johnny Dixon loves ghost stories and listening to radio mystery programs and reading Egyptology books, and the three seem to combine when he finds unearths a small Egyptian figuring and a scroll reading “Whoever removes these things from the church does so at his own peril… Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord . Remigius Baart.” in a church basement. Soon after he removes the figurine, however, Johnny begins suffering nightmares and small gray spiders infest the house. He meets a mysterious man who offers him a ring, and from there on, Johnny becomes more and more tightly enmeshed in a tangled web that seems to extend beyond the grave. Unable to confess his problems to his grandparents or his friend Dr Childermass, Johnny worries less about being bullied and more about whether he’ll live another week.
More Bellairs! TCotBF is the first of Bellairs’ Johnny Dixon books, and introduces another unlikely hero. Johnny differs from THwaCiIW’s Lewis Barnavelt however, in being decidedly less timid and well, hopeless. Like Lewis, Johnny tries his best to keep his worries to himself, suggesting the value of stoicism and self-reliance, but by showing the problems this can create his heroes when taken to extremes, Bellairs also encourages children to seek help from others when they need it. The others in this novel are well drawn, too; Johnny’s grandparents are sensible, affectionate people, not caricatures of well-meaning but useless adults, and the cranky, eccentric, but ultimately soft-hearted Professor Roderick Childermass, PhD is another charming mentor along Uncle Jonathan’s wildly idiosyncratic lines. Also like THwaCiIW, TCotBF is set in the post-war period (though there is a faint air of menace from abroad present here; Johnny’s father is serving in Korea), in a nostalgic depiction of a simpler, sweeter time filled with soda fountains and pick-up baseball games. The pleasant and innocent backdrop makes the manifestations of evil profoundly disturbing, and underscores the importance of defeating them in order to protect the world.
As an adult, I find myself noticing more the strong Catholic backgrounds of Bellairs’ heroes: Lewis mumbles Latin prayers to himself to ward of evil, and Johnny prays for his mother regularly in church and even attends a Catholic school. All the same, the people who fight off evil are secular, learned professors or warlocks, and children who believe. The Church is a background figure, not a major player in Bellairs’ world.
A classic Bellairs. As always, the novel is frightening and moody, but always charming and there are many examples of Bellairs’ odd taste for absurd humor.
Cover: I was mildly disappointed to find that Gorey only drew the cover and frontispiece for the book, and that there are no further illustrations. Both are classic Gorey, the latter depicting a pivotal scene, and the former bringing together all the book’s elements. However, to my slightly cynical adult eye, the cover illustration of Father Baart does somewhat resemble a flasher–but a menacing and undoubtedly evil one!
Eddie turned around slowly. His mouth was set in a tense scowl, and his eyes were like two gray stones. When he spoke, his voice was dangerously calm.“Come over here and say that, John baby.”Johnny was terrified. He wanted to run, but his feet wouldn’t move. Even with a broken arm Eddie could make mincemeat out of him. The muscles in both his arms were like ropes, and his chest was like a cement wall. He would break his glasses and give him two black eyes and a split lip. He would beat Johnny to a pulp.“I…I…” Johnny began, but he couldn’t get the words out. Rooted to the spot with fear, he watched as Eddie began walking slowly toward him. And then something strange and totally unexpected happened. Johnny felt a sharp pain in his ring finger, and it seemed to him that the yellow stone flashed. And then a strong wind began to blow. It sprang up out of nowhere and blew past Johnny. The bushes that grew in the courtyard flailed madly to and fro. Bits of paper sailed up into the air, and a cloud of yellowish dust flew at Eddie. Coughing and sputtering, Edie staggered backward. The wind blew harder and threw him, stumbling and reeling, against the brick wall. Bottles flew this way and that, and when Eddie stuck out a hand to steady himself, it came down on a piece of broken glass.
Eddie howled and jerked his hand toward his mouth. He sucked at the bleeding cut. Then silence fell. The wind died as suddenly as it had sprung up, and the yellow dust settled. Eddie looked at Johnny, and Johnny looked at Eddie. And which of them was more frightened it would have been hard to say.
20 April 2009