Archive for July, 2016

John Bellairs’ Gothic Mysteries for Kids

Posted in Children's Books, Chubby Lewis Barnavelt, Edward Gorey, John Bellairs, Johnny Dixon and the Professor, Mercer Mayer, Rose Rita with tags , , , , , on July 17, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas

One of the perks of working at a bookstore is that one usually finds like-minded souls to share one’s literary interests with. One such person for me, is my friend Denise. Denise shares my interest in the macabre and particularly that special niche of speculative fiction for young adults. Denise and I are both fans of the renowned illustrator Edward Gorey and we are both amateur collectors of publications featuring his artwork and droll contes cruels. Whenever one or the other of us finds a decent copy of a Gorey book or at least one which features his artwork on the cover, we pick it up and if we have it, we offer it to the other for inclusion in their collection. In one of our many discussions about Gorey books, Denise asked me if I had ever read the John Bellairs’ books for young adults, many of which featured covers and illustrations by Edward Gorey . I was not familiar with them so she recommended I check him out.

Apparently, before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there were John Bellairs’ Gothic mysteries for children. The formula consisted of an awkward child (usually a bookish boy, although there is one offshoot book dedicated to a young female friend of one of the boys from a main series) who finds himself involved in some sort of supernatural mystery which he solves with the occasional assistance of an adult guardian.

Gorey cover for "The House with a Clack in It's Walls".

Gorey cover for “The House with a Clack in It’s Walls” (1973).

His first book was “The House with a Clock in It’s Walls”, which has since become a widely read children’s classic. This was the first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series (popularly known as the “Chubby Lewis Barnavelt” series), which was followed by two more books, one of which was the aforementioned offshoot featuring Lewis’ best friend, Rose Rita. After this point, Bellairs was assisted by author Brad Strickland, who later took over the series entirely after his death. The same goes for his other major Series, Johnny Dixon and the Professor.

Rose Rita spills the beans to Uncle Jonathan in "The Figure in the Shadows" (Illustration by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

Rose Rita spills the beans to Uncle Jonathan in “The Figure in the Shadows” (Illustration by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

I wish I knew about these books when I was a lad, because they would have been right up my alley. There are witches, warlocks, ghosts, mummies, ancient curses, you name it. The books are like the Rowling books, entertaining, but not afraid to show the darker side of childhood. Lewis is an orphan, and Johnny Dixon’s mother is dead, and his father is a fighter pilot in the Korean War. These children usually are taken in by friendly family members  who love them and provide them with chocolate chip cookies and an emotional anchor to grab onto in between their fantastic forays into fighting the dark forces.

Lewis Barnavelt sips a warm drink with his Uncle Jonathan and their neighbor Florence Zimmerman, who happens to be a good witch. (Illustration by Edward Gorey, from "The House with a Clock in It's Walls").

Lewis Barnavelt sips a warm drink with his Uncle Jonathan and their neighbor Florence Zimmerman, who happens to be a good witch. (Illustration by Edward Gorey, from “The House with a Clock in It’s Walls”).

Reading them as an adult, I am surprised just how dark they get; in “The Figure in the Shadows” (1975) for instance, the spirit of a dead necromancer tries to possess Lewis’ body so he can re-enter the physical world and continue his maleficia. Fortunately, Bellairs provides some moments of levity sprinkled throughout so the books don’t end up traumatizing their target audience.

Not everything is about fighting monsters though. The main characters deal with real life issues as well. There are bullies to dealt with and lessons aplenty on personal responsibility, dealing with loss, etc..

"The Figure in the Shadows" (cover art by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

“The Figure in the Shadows” (cover art by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

One of my favorite things about the books are the illustrations and the cover art. Most of the first editions of the original books featured cover art by Edward Gorey, who usually provided an illustration for the frontispiece as well. Other notable illustrators are Mercer Mayer, who did the cover and some illustrations for “The Figure in the Shadows”, and “The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring” featured artwork by Richard Egielski.

Most of the popular titles got a new look featuring cover art by Bart Goldman, which are okay, but they’re too flashy and lack the dark subtlety of the Gorey covers or even the Mercer Meyer. They do however retain the original inside illustrations.

Frontispiece illustration by Edward Gorey for "The Curse of the Blue Figurine" (1983).

Frontispiece illustration by Edward Gorey for “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” (1983).

If you’re interested, I recommend starting with “The House with a Clock in It’s Walls”, although Denise would tell you instead to start with “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” (1983), which is the first book of the Johnny Dixon series. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

My Lost Book Review: The Dark Eidolon

Posted in Clark Ashton Smith, S.T. Joshi, Uncategorized with tags , , on July 5, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas
A while back, the bookstore I work for asked the staff to write book reviews for the new website they were creating. They had to be brief, and on titles which were likely to be carried at one of our numerous locations. I chose “The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies” by Clark Ashton Smith. Unfortunately, the way the log in is set up on the computers at work, the credit for the review went to the last person to submit one, so my piece is attributed to another employee. To rectify this, I am reposting it here for you all to peruse.
Tagline: Excellent introduction to this macabre bard of the weird

“Clark Ashton Smith was an artist, sculptor, author and poet, known mostly today through his association with Horror icon H.P. Lovecraft. Although Smith did dabble in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos during his tenure with Weird Tales magazine, he was a master storyteller and wordsmith in his own right, specializing in exquisitely written fantasy tales and poems which smack of 19th century Orientalism and Gothic Horror. Featuring a generous selection of his sublime short stories, prose poems and metered verse, this collection by Penguin Classics, replete with an enlightening introduction and copious explanatory notes by Weird Tales scholar S.T. Joshi, is a great introduction to this macabre bard from the Golden Age of Pulp.”