In honor of Halloween, all this month I’m going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call “‘Round Midnight”.
John Bellairs, I guess you could say, was the thinking man’s R.L. Stine. He, like Stine, made a career churning out a panoply of childrens’ horror books, but while Stine’s work (which isn’t without its merit, mind you) is full of grotesque images, and often aspires to be kiddie Stephen King, ends up being blackly comic self-parody often reminiscent of the Evil Dead series. Meanwhile, John Bellairs’ books took their inspiration from classic American ghosts and ghouls writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe, and often relied more on atmosphere, and suggestion to create fear, than whatever screwed up thing came into the author’s head. The Figure in the Shadows, was one of my first forays into the horror genre at large, and as such, this article will be more of a nostalgic retrospective/recommendation than a review.
Even though it’s not as well known as his (quite delightful) gothic mystery, The House with a Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows was one of the first books to truly terrify me. Sure, certain scenes in Harry Potter books (the first appearance of the Dementors, for example) and the dread-filled Series of Unfortunate Events spooked me, but it wasn’t until this book, that I ever trembled with fear while reading. It tells the story of Lewis Barnavelt, a kid who has the unfortunate habit of getting into trouble with the invisible world, finding a coin with magical powers, that unfortunately is also connected to a malevolent spirit. He’s appeared in other books of Bellairs’, including The House with a Clock in its Walls, and is different other kids’ fantasy protagonists, because of how roundly average he is: he has an above average intellect, but isn’t a genius, he’s kind of overweight, and has no special powers to speak of, making him the quintessential everyman. This helps the reader to sympathize with how truly out of his depth he is, when he’s thrown into situations beyond his comprehension.
Even though he does go on to many other adventures after this one, Bellairs does a good job making you disregard this, and fear for Lewis’ life during particularly tense moments. The supporting characters are also pretty well developed, and are far more competent than Lewis at dealing with his ghost problems. But where Bellairs really excels is taking the sublime spookiness of the best ghost stories, and combining them with a propulsive overarching plot. He knows how to create tension and atmosphere, emphasizing the almost existential loneliness of Lewis’ hometown of New Zebedee, Michigan to great effect, especially during the scene when the ghost approaches Lewis’ home.
The famed illustrator Edward Gorey slummed it drawing for Bellairs’ books, and added to the creepy mood with his subdued, starkly beautiful depictions of the events of the aforementioned scene. This specific passage, was the one that made my heart pound with dread and horror, and nearly put me off Bellairs’ work forever, until I realized how much fun it was being that terrified. And that thrill of controlled fear is what’s been bringing me back to horror fiction ever since.