Since the advent of Harry Potter, the popularity of teen and children’s writers has skyrocketed. As many adults are reading these books as kids are and bookstores have assembled whole sections of their stores for the wide variety of teen material available. Much of the volume of material available tends towards teen science fiction and fantasy, following in the Potter and Hunger Games trends. Other writers have branched out into suspense and even horror. But this isn’t a new genre. A few spectacular writers broke ground in these genres decades ago. One of these early few was the esteemed young adult writer John Bellairs.
Bellairs wrote several books in the mid to late 60s, ranging from religious parody to fantasy. In the early 1970s, he wrote a dark fantasy novel for adults, but publishers recommended he rewrite the book for young readers and in 1973, The House With a Clock in its Walls was born. With artwork by the legendary artist Edward Gorey, The House With a Clock in its Walls found immediate success.
Bellairs’ flair for the macabre along with Gorey’s edgy panels drew together a uniquely dark story. His characters were realistic, flawed, and captivating. The villains had no issues torturing and killing children, much like the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales and this stark look at the supernatural underbelly of 1950s New England went on to win 5 literary awards between 1973 and 1982. He went on to win 13 more awards for his other books as well. But Bellairs wasn’t done.
He went on to write a total of 15 children’s horror novels primarily focusing on three main characters. Of those 15 books, 12 were stunningly illustrated by Edward Gorey. Notably, the Dial hardcover library editions of Bellairs’ books feature wraparound dust jacket artwork by Gorey and a unique font, creating a wondrous and foreboding atmosphere before even opening the books themselves.
What’s truly remarkable about Bellairs’ work, however, is how enduring it is and how well it has aged. Each book comes in at around 150-200 pages, but the length belies the quality of the content. Evil wizards and sorcerers abound and time travel, human sacrifice, and Armageddon are common themes. They aren’t simply dark, though. The characters are well-written, the stories cohesive and self-contained. For an adult going back to re-read these books, they have managed to stay compelling and powerful and should be a must-read for the kid who loves a scary story in all of us.
John Bellairs died in 1991 at the age of 53, but he left a legacy of fiction for all of us to treasure. Several movies and shows have been made of his work based on The House With a Clock in its Walls and The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, but they are extremely difficult to locate and have low production value. Eric Kripke, of Supernatural fame, has been rumored to be working on a current movie adaptation of The House With a Clock in its Walls, but the project has yet to have materialized. Kripke is said to have been inspired by Bellairs’ work as a child. With any luck, a modern movie of Bellairs’ seminal work will inspire a whole new generation in the years to come.
For those that are interested, most of John Bellairs’s books are in print (and have been continuously since their release) and available on Amazon or at your local library. An original set of the Dial hardcover library editions can run upwards of $500.00 on eBay, even for ex-library copies. A fan tribute website still runs to this day.