The Figure in the Shadows
by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Mercer Mayer
The Dial Press, 1975
The Figure in the Shadows is the second book in the Lewis Barnavelt series. These books can be read out of order, but it is probably best to start with The House with a Clock in its Walls unless you are looking for an easy entry into the series; if you are looking for that, then this is the book to start with. As with the other books in this series, this is a fantasy/ghost story written for tweens/young adults.
Lewis Barnavelt is back, and is settled into a calm and relatively uneventful life with his uncle. Of course, his uncle and his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann, are magicians, of the real-live-magic sort, so life is never completely uneventful. In addition to this, Lewis has a new friend -- a girl in his class by the name of Rose Rita. (Don't worry, Lewis is just 10-years-old, and there is no mushy stuff here.) Rose Rita is a bit of a tom boy, and she does her part to help keep life interesting. But the really interesting part comes when Lewis' uncle brings down an old chest full of Civil War artifacts squirreled away by his grandfather, and Lewis finds his lucky coin. It emerges that the coin is, if not lucky, then certainly magical, and it appears to be calling some sort of spirit to Lewis.
This book is quite spooky, but perhaps a bit less so than The House. It is also a bit shorter, and a bit easier to read. Because of this, it is a pretty good entry point into John Bellairs' works, particularly if you don't mind reading the books out of order (the adventures are independent, so there is no great importance to story order). Lower-level readers may be confused by some of the dated references and vocabulary in the first book, but The Figure, while still set in the late 1940s, is written in a more accessible style. The themes of bullying and self-image are stronger in this book, but not so strong that they overwhelm the story. The creepy factor is also lighter in this book, which is slightly disappointing, but it's still a good spooky story... and a great story overall.
It is somewhat disappointing to find this book illustrated by Mercer Mayer (who most of us will be more familiar with from the Little Critter books), rather than Edward Gorey, but not to worry, Gorey will be back for Bellairs' later books, and Mayer does a very good job illustrating this book. It is interesting to see the various characters represented in such different ways, and quite frankly, Gorey's best works in any these books are the cover art.
The next book in the series is The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, which will focus on Rose Rita, and which is also a roaring good read.
Accelerated Reader level 5.5