Ginger Nuts of Horror
When I was a kid, Lewis Barnavelt was one of my best friends.
We were introduced by Mercer Mayer. Mayer had done the illustrations for a series of books featuring one of my other best friends, J.D. Fitzgerald and his older brother T.D., The Great Brain himself. I had pretty much exhausted my relationship with J.D. (though I would, of course, revisit our shared early adventures pretty regularly) and was looking for a new companion in my elementary school library when I stumbled across The Figure in the Shadows. The artwork was familiar, Mercer Mayer at his best, and a description of the book sounded promising -- if scary -- so I knew I had to check it out, both literally and figuratively. The trouble was, The Figure in the Shadows was the second book in the series, and I knew, even at that young age, that you had to start with the first, even if it had pictures by some guy named Edward Gorey, rather than Mercer Mayer.
That night, I devoured the first three books in John Bellairs' series, and met the boy who would change my life: Lewis Barnavelt.
From our first meeting, Lewis and I seemed destined to be friends. After all, we had a lot in common. I wasn't an orphan like he was, but I was growing up in a small town much like New Zebedee, where Lewis is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan as The House with a Clock in Its Walls begins. (Truth be told, my hometown bore absolutely no resemblance to New Zebedee, but why let a little thing like objective reality interfere with a new friendship with a fictional character?) More importantly, Lewis and I were both loners, given to reading and moping, fairly unpopular with our classmates, poor at sports and a little, well, chunkier than we should have been. And we were both cursed, oddly enough, with "purple corduroy trousers, the kind that go whip-whip when you walk."
It was easy for me to become friends with Lewis; I didn't even have to imagine it. When you're that age, the friends you make in books are more real than people in the "actual" world... I'm not sure that feeling ever changes, to be honest, but that's a thought that might require therapeutic intervention if I pursue it much further.
I will say this, though: friends like Lewis Barnavelt? J.D. Fitzgerald? The Three Investigators? Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace? Those are some of the best friends I ever had: always there for me. Always willing to hang out. Reliable. Resolute. Wonderful.
As I grew up, though, I didn't treat them particularly well. I discovered girls, and other friends, like Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone and Paul Atreides from Dune. I kind of forgot about Lewis, and his Uncle Jonathan, and their neighbour Mrs. Zimmerman, and, of course, Rose Rita...
I forgot, that is, until I had child of my own. I was wandering through the kids' section of a bookstore when we were on holiday and was stopped in my tracks by a chunky hardcover collection of those first three John Bellairs' novels: The House With a Clock in Its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. Of course I bought it. And of course, that night, when everything was quiet, I read those books.
I had forgotten just how scary they were. Bellairs apparently wrote the novels with adults in mind, then shifted the language somewhat to suit younger readers, while doing nothing to curb the at-times overpowering dread. And I had forgotten a lot of the specifics, of course: I had spent thirty-odd years reading horror novels, and the sounds in the walls and the curses on the jewelry had, I admit, blurred together a bit. I did realize, though, that it was the Bellairs novels that gave me my first taste of horror, and, in their way, shaped my future career. And my nightmares.
And my friend Lewis was there, on the first page, riding that bus into New Zebedee, wearing his purple cords and freaking out about the future.
He might not have known where he was going, but for me, it felt like coming home.
Robert Wiersema is the author of five books, most recently the short story collection Seven Crow Stories. But he also worked in bookstores for over 20 years, coordinated author events for Victoria, B.C.'s Bolen Books in Canada and is one of the country's busiest book reviewers.
A mysterious young woman rises from the sea . . . the ghostly wife of a country singer follows her husband from town to town, exactly a peculiar vengeance . . . a hitchhiker grants a boon to the young man who picks her up . . . the disappearance of a young boy changes the life of his older brother . . . the last circus comes to Henderson . . . the wildly successful prodigal son returns to the town where he grew up to find his first love waiting for him . . . an expectant mother is tormented by a crying within the walls of her home. . . . In his debut collection Seven Crow Stories, bestselling novelist Robert J. Wiersema draws on myth and folktale, ghost stories and fairy tales to share a glimpse of the worlds bordering our own.