The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the first in a series of mysteries/horror stories for children by John Bellairs (1938-1991), featuring Lewis Barnavelt, an overweight, recently orphaned ten-year-old boy who is bad at sports and who likes to read. After his parents are killed in a car accident, Lewis comes to the town of New Zebedee, Michigan, to live in a creepy but fascinating 19th-century mansion with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan. He soon learns that his uncle is a wizard, but not a very good one, and his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann, is a much more powerful good witch. Lewis hears a strange ticking sound coming from all the walls of the house, and finds out that there is a clock planted in the house, but no one knows exactly where, or for what purpose. Jonathan has filled all the rooms with clocks, and he wanders the halls every night to turn them off.
As it turns out, the previous owners of the house were Isaac and Selenna Izard, a couple of evil wizards, who had placed the clock in the house to count down the minutes until the end of the world. On Halloween night, Lewis decides to impress a popular boy named Tarby by raising a spirit from the dead. Lewis and Tarby go to the cemetery at midnight, and Lewis ends up raising the spirit of the evil Mrs. Izard, who eventually moves into the house across the street and causes several frightening incidents. Meanwhile, Lewis and Tarby drift apart. Lewis, Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmermann have to discover where the clock is located and how to stop it before it brings about the end of the world.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a wonderful story for children, and for people of all ages. The town of New Zebedee is clearly based on Bellairs’ home town of Marshall, Michigan. In fact, the house is based on the Cronin House in Marshall. My parents live very close to Marshall, and I have seen the actual house. In fact, I recognized many of the locations in the book, including Mansion Street, the Rexall drugstore, and Marshall’s famous fountain. Lewis is a wonderful protagonist, very likeable but with enough flaws to make him seem real. In fact, he reminds me of another of my favorite characters, Sebastian in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, who is also overweight, book-loving, and bad at sports. Very young children might find the book scary, but it certainly is less scary than some of the later Harry Potter books. It is perfect for Halloween. The creepy but charming illustrations by Edward Gorey complement the story very well.
Sadly, Bellairs died young, after writing several more books about Lewis Barnavelt, as well as two other series for children (Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon). After Bellairs’ death, author Brad Strickland continued the Lewis Barnavelt series. A movie of The House with a Clock in Its Walls will be released very soon, and I hope it will be as good as the book. It will be interesting to see whether the movie keeps the book’s original setting, in 1948, or if it modernizes the story.
I do not know how I missed this book as a child. I always loved “creepy old house” books. The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston was a favorite. And I lived very close to Marshall, so I don’t know how I could not have known about a book that took place there. But somehow I missed out on it as a child. I am very glad I discovered it now.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is available from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.