Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I love you, John Bellairs

One of the best things about having a mother who works in a school library is getting discards, the books that are too old or grubby or beat up to keep in circulation anymore. This was obviously really cool when I was a bookwormish nine-year-old, but even as a bookfanaticish 30-year-old it's pretty neat.

So this Mother's Day, after doing some mildly backbreaking yard work to thank Mom for bringing me into the world, she gave me a sack of books. Well, most of them are intended for my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful and will be a teacher soon. But I'm calling dibs on the two John Bellairs books.

Back in the 1990s, there was this big craze for horror novels for kids. R.L. Stine novels in particular. Well, I spit on your R.L. Stine novels, do you hear me! They cannot hold a candle to the fiendish works of Mr. Bellairs!

Do your Stine novels have covers by Edward Gorey? I think not! Do they build their horror slowly, using realistic settings and character development? Do they weave a tapestry of horror from commonplace items – a ring made from a bent nail, a cheap Egyptian-style souvenier? Do they leave the reader certain something is wrong but not entirely sure what? I think not!

Mostly, I've read the Johnny Dixon novels, so I'm eagerly re-reading The Curse of the Blue Figurine for the first time since I was about 12 years old. I'm struck by some of the details – the intensely Catholic background of the main characters, the blunt attitude toward death and injury – that I didn't recall. I did recall that Johnny was a fairly nerdy, bright kid with glasses. I have no idea why he appealed to me as a young reader. None whatsoever. There's also the crotchety and eccentric professor, who frankly puts Dumbledore to shame as a weird old mentor figure.

I've also got a copy of The Dark Secret of Weatherend, which stars Anthony Monday. I don't think I've ever read any of the Anthony Monday books so this will be an interesting little treat.

About a year ago, I re-read what must be the most terrifying of Bellairs books. It's a Johnny Dixon book, and the premise is both bizarre and unforgettable. A realistic baseball-playing automaton has been created by a mad scientist. But it only works if human eyes are inserted in its head. Go. Go now and find a copy of The Eyes of the Killer Robot. It's high octane nightmare fuel for 10 year olds.

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