The House With a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
Published by The Dial Press, 1973
The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a children's chapter book, halfway between fantasy and a ghost story. For many of us older folks it is a shining beacon of good young adult literature, and of a good spooky story. Despite being forty years old it remains fairly popular today, and you can probably find a copy at your local library. There are editions as recent as 2004, along with dozens of older editions.
The book starts in the Summer of 1948. Lewis is travelling to live with his mysterious uncle after losing both parents in an auto accident. He doesn't know much about his uncle, a Mr. Jonathan van Olden Barnavelt, aside from the fact that his elderly aunts didn't like him. He is pleasantly surprised to find that his uncle is quite nice, unusually interesting, and extremely odd. He lives in a sprawling Gothic mansion, and despite appearing to be somewhat afraid of clocks, the house is full of them. They spend Lewis' first night playing poker using French war tokens as markers, along with the elderly Mrs. Zimmerman who lives next door. It slowly also emerges that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are both some sort of magician.
Even so, life goes back to normal pretty quickly -- which for Lewis means being teased about his weight and being chosen last (if at all) for sports teams. In an attempt to win the friendship of one of the cool kids, Lewis promises to perform a magic spell. And not just any spell, but the biggest he can think of -- raising the dead. Well, Lewis is a smart kid, and his uncle has a big library. Soon he's ready to raise his first corpse, but he ends up raising something a bit worse than even he feared...
This is one of the best children's books around as far as black magic and zombies are concerned (the traditional sort of zombie, not the viral-brain-eater sort). It has lighthearted magic, a super-nerdy hero (most of the fun magic involves reenacting historical battles), lots of scary noises (and corpses) in the night, and an interesting historical perspective. And, of course, a small but entertaining set of characters.
While it is an excellent book, it is also a bit dated. It has a number of references that are cryptic today, even to adults. Other references aren't cryptic at all, but aren't quite what we expect in a modern children's book -- for example, the enticing description of Uncle Jonathan's very cool hookah (used for tobacco, of course). This mostly just serves to make it even cooler, but young children may have trouble following parts of the story. While it is often recommended for ages 8-12, I would expect it to be a read-aloud book for most children under 10 (and a good one!), and continue to be entertaining to children on up through 15 or so -- although older children are likely enjoy it just as much, despite being older than the protagonist.
This is the first in the Lewis Barnavelt series, which is the first of Bellairs' series. The next book in this series is The Figure in the Shadows, which is also a very good read. It should be noted that Bellairs only finished three of the Lewis Barnavelt books before he died, and the later nine books were either completed or entirely written by Brad Strickland.
Accelerated Reader level: 5.4