Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review - The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland

Short review: Johnny Dixon's father is possessed by an evil ghost, and it is up to Johnny, Professor Childermass, Fergie, and Brewster to save him.

While on vacation
Father possessed by a ghost
Mystical rescue

Full review: After John Bellairs died, Brad Strickland took up the task of continuing the Johnny Dixon/Professor Childermass series of stories (and the Lewis Barnaveldt series as well, but that's neither here nor there). The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost is a workmanlike but ultimately unsatisfying installment to the series. Even though the all of the elements of a Johnny Dixon adventure are present in the book, somehow the parts don't add up to as effective a story as those found in the prior books.

In a sense, the book feels almost like Strickland is going through the motions, checking in each box needed to make sure that the reader knows that this is a Johnny Dixon book: Professor Childermass makes a "gooey" chocolate cake, the Professor's nose is described as resembling an overripe strawberry, Fergie Ferguson is around to be Dixon's bolder and more athletic friend, Brewster, a supernatural character impersonating an ancient Egyptian deity not seen since The Trolley to Yesterday makes a reappearance, and so on. To a certain extent, it seems as though Strickland felt that he needed to make sure each of these signature elements was included for the reader to think that this was a "real" Johnny Dixon adventure. I almost got the feeling that I was reading the literary equivalent of a "paint-by-numbers" picture.

This wouldn't be so disappointing if the story itself was better. The story centers on Johnny's father, whose spirit is abducted by an evil spirit bent on taking control of his body, transforming Johnny's father from a mostly absentee Air Force officer father into a completely absentee father. With the help of Professor Childermass, Fergie Ferguson, and Brewster (impersonating a Thunderbird), Johnny travels into the spirit realm to defeat the evil villain and bring his father back. One of the primary weaknesses in the story is that the question as to why the evil villain chose to target Johnny's father in particular is never explained, even though Johnny, with the experience he and Professor Childermass have amassed dealing with supernatural threats, is one of the worst possible choices for a being from beyond to mess with. From a storytelling standpoint, it is obvious that if the villain picked someone Johnny didn't know, the story wouldn't work, but by having this unexplained choice as the centerpiece of the book, the contrived nature of the plot becomes glaring. The villain is also fairly bland and poorly defined: He is evil simply because he is evil. His minions are his minions simply because they are his minions. There is no background to the villain that gives him any kind of goal or reason for being villainous other than to simply spread nastiness about.

Overall, if one were a huge fan of the Johnny Dixon series and really wanted to read more adventures featuring Johnny, Professor Childermass, and Fergie, then this might be worth picking up. On the other hand, a fan would probably get more enjoyment out of going back and rereading the earlier books instead.

Previous book in the series: The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder

John Bellairs     Brad Strickland     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I would go back and read the others, I just prefer it that way, but this one sounds very good for a ghost story.

    1. @fredamans: It is quite good. I recommend starting with the first in the series - I will probably go back and review the earlier books at some point in the reasonably near future, just because I am a completionist that way.