WANT a good, creepy read? A children's librarian I know always says she gets as many requests for scary books as any other kind, right up there with horse stories and baseball novels. And she always shows kids books by John Bellairs.
Bellairs has written a few adult books, including the well-received The Face in the Frost. But he is best known for his children's books, especially The House With a Clock in Its Walls, which was a "New York Times Outstanding Book" for 1973. Bellairs wrote two sequels to House, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, and then went on to write five other young adult books, all of them published by Dial, the most recent of which is The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull.
Excepting The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (a straight mystery adventure), John Bellairs' children's books deal with the supernatural, and Skull is filled with mysterious jack-o'-lanterns and skeletons appearing out of nowhere, along with the disappearance of the hero's best friend, the elderly Professor Childermass. Twelve-year-old Johnny Dixon sees strange things in the windows of Childermass' house, and runs over to investigate. When he gets inside, the house appears to be deserted, but what happens next is Bellairs at his creepy best:
"Halfway to the window Johnny froze. He had seen something out of the corner of his eye, a sudden image in the small rectangular mirror that hung over the bureau. He turned and looked. In the mirror he saw the professor's face, looking haggard and disheveled. His eyes pleaded and, as Johnny watched, his lips formed silent words. 'Help me.'"
Bellairs, though, is far more than just a creepy storyteller. The best children's authors, from A. A. Milne to Beverly Cleary to Daniel Manus Pinkwater, all draw on their own experience, as children and parents, to give their characters verisimilitude. Bellairs' stories are often set in the early 1950s, when the author was a child and the books are filled with detailed and often very funny reminiscences of what it felt like to be young then. Skull has some wonderful, off-hand passages about the main character's everyday life, like the following:
"That evening, after school, Johnny and Fergie went to the movies together. This was a Friday night habit of theirs, and they went in good weather or bad, to lousy movies or to good ones. On this particular Friday, they happened to land a really rousing, slam-bang pirate movie. They always sat way down in front and munched popcorn and made smart remarks, until the usher came down and threatened to throw them out if they didn't shut up."
It's this balance between the supernatural and the everyday, told with Bellairs' humor, that makes his books so special. Because of this, Bellairs' most successful books have been The House with a Clock in Its Walls and The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the first book about Johnny Dixon (just published in paperback by Bantam; the second is The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt). Both these books introduced series, and in each Bellairs spent more time "setting the scene" with his own brand of humorous detail. But luckily, Skull doesn't lack in that department, either, with Bellairs taking the time to show scenes of everyday life in between all the spooky doings.
Bellairs' books also nearly always feature a strong friendship between a child and an older adult, usually lovable eccentrics like Professor Childermass. In Skull, Bellairs expands this theme in the developing friendship between Johnny Dixon and Father Higgins, a priest Johnny believes to be a stern authority figure, until Johnny visits him about midway through the book:
"Johnny's mouth dropped open. He was completely dumbfounded, and also very amused. So Father Higgins played the guitar! He normally looked so stern and forbidding that . . . well, it was like finding out that the mayor loved to roller skate! As Johnny watched, the priest put the strap of the guitar around his neck, played a few opening chords, and then launched into a loud, lusty chorus."
As in all Bellairs' books, it is through this friendship, and the acts of both Johnny and Father Higgins, that the supernatural forces are conquered. In the end, it's the power of friendship that wins in Skull, and, as in the other Bellairs' books before it, the novel is not only very creepy, but very reassuring as well.