Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review - The House With a Clock in Its Walls/The Ghost in the Mirror by John Bellairs (with Brad Strickland)

Short review: A clock winds towards doomsday in one story, and time travel is the key to the next.

To impress a new friend
Lewis does something stupid
And Rose time travels

Full review: This is an odd pairing of books, as The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the very first young adult story Bellairs wrote (and the first featuring Lewis Barnaveldt) whereas The Ghost in the Mirror was written twenty years later, and not completed until after Bellairs' death.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls introduces the characters of the Lewis Barnaveldt series, starting (naturally) with Lewis Barnaveldt, a bookish, overweight boy orphaned by the accidental death of his parents who goes to live with his quirky uncle Jonathan. Adjusting to life in a new town with a bachelor uncle in a large and sometimes scary Victorian house proves difficult for Lewis. Jonathan is a kindly guardian, but inexperienced with children, and Lewis, unskilled at "boy" pursuits like sports, has trouble making friends. Things are not made any easier when Lewis discovers that his uncle is a wizard, because he also discovers that the house has a clock hidden somewhere inside the walls that ticks constantly.

Lewis makes an unexpected friend with a boy who is the exact opposite of Lewis, but things start to go sour. In desperation, Lewis tries to impress his only friend by conjuring some magic using his uncle's books. Things, of course, go awry, and Lewis conjures up an evil spirit - the wife of the former owner of Uncle Jonathan's house. She quickly sets about trying to raise her husband form the dead and finish the enchantment he started that was supposed to end the world (the ticking clock in Uncle Jonathan's house is the clock trying to countdown to doomsday). The evil sorceress is foiled in part by Lewis' neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (a witch who is friends with Uncle Jonathan), and by some quick thinking by Lewis. In the end, Lewis figures out that "friends" that you have to run silly risks to impress aren't really friends at all, and ends up making a real friend in the person of the tomboyish Rose Rita.

The Ghost in the Mirror is classified as a Lewis Barnaveldt book, but Lewis and his uncle Jonathan appear in it almost not at all. Mrs. Zimmerman and Rose Rita take center stage here, setting out on a trip to visit Pennsylvania. On the way, they find themselves transported back in time to the 1840s, where they are taken in by the Weiss family, who turn out to be Mrs. Zimmerman's ancestors. Drexel Weiss, the family patriarch, is under suspicion of being a witch. Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman try to help, but Mrs. Zimmerman ends up losing her magic powers.

Rose Rita and Drexel's granddaughter Hilda continue to investigate, and figure out that the accusations against Drexel and the loss of Mrs. Zimmerman's powers are both caused by the Weiss' hateful neighbor. After a number of scary escapades, the villain is ensnared by his own magic and all is well. Mrs. Zimmerman recovers her powers, and via a quirk of time travel, gains even more power than before.

It isn't entirely clear why these two novels were put together in one volume, but on the whole, they are a decent representation of Bellairs' work, spanning from his first foray into children's fiction to a work that was half finished when he died. Both stories are good, and both have scary villains, creepy scenes, and hair raising escapades. The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the better story, but that should not be surprising as it is probably Bellairs' best story overall. Both Lewis and Rose Rita are misfit children who remain comfortable with their misfit ways, encouraged by the unconventional guidance of Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. I did not read any Bellairs as a child (I was never exposed to his books), but I wish I had.

Subsequent book in the series (The House with a Clock in Its Walls): The Figure in the Shadows

Previous book in the series (The Ghost in the Mirror): The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring
Subsequent book in the series (The Ghost in the Mirror): The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder

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