Occasionally, I just want to read a story that scares me – not something that truly horrifies me, which is an unpleasant experience, but something that makes me jump. Of course, there are options in ‘grown-up’ literature – John Wyndham, as I hope my review of The Kraken Wakes made clear, can be pretty creepy, then there’s HP Lovecraft (I found the Penguin collection The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories a good place to start) or you could pick up one of my favourite collections, American Supernatural Tales, edited by weird tale expert SJ Joshi, and turn straight to T.E.D Klein’s ‘The Events at Porloth Farm’ for true terror and an annotated further reading list all in one. But when I was six or seven years old and living in Washington DC near a library that allowed you to take out up to twenty books at a time (I think one of the hardest things about the move to the UK was adjusting to a measly eight-book limit), it had to be John Bellairs.
It’s hard for me to judge how well Bellairs is known nowadays – no-one I know has ever heard of him, but then he is primarily a US author – but in brief, he wrote several series of children’s horror books, a few stand-alones, and, I think, an adult novel as well, back in the 1970s and 1980s (this site is more well informed than I will ever be.) My favourites were the 1950s-set Johnny Dixon novels, partly because The Curse of the Blue Figurine was the first Bellairs book I read, partly because I think they are some of Bellairs’ most chilling works, and partly because of the classic character of Professor Roderick Childermass, Johnny’s eccentric friend (I can still remember the way Bellairs introduces us to Professor Childermass in The Curse of the Blue Figurine by noting that Johnny and the professor knew they would get on because they both realised that a good chocolate cake ought to be more chocolate filling than cake; so true!) Perhaps that’s why The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, the third in the Johnny Dixon series, was always one of my favourite Bellairs; the professor is in jeopardy and Johnny has to save him, with the help of skeptical friend Fergie (I remember first learning the word skeptical from this book...) and Catholic priest Father Higgins. (As in all the best horror, Catholicism and its trappings feature heavily in the Dixon series.)
A quick summary of the opening of the novel will probably be helpful here. Before Professor Childermass goes missing, he and Johnny visit the Fitzwilliam Inn in New England, where they have the Childermass clock, one of the professor’s family heirlooms. Inside the clock is a dollhouse room replica of his uncle’s living room, and the professor tells Johnny about how his uncle was mysteriously found dead here on his birthday. One of the furnishings of the room is a minature skull, which Johnny is compelled to take with him after seeing a re-enactment of Uncle Lucius’s death in the dollhouse in the middle of the night. Shortly afterwards, the professor disappears – and Johnny sees a glowing jack o’ lantern face in his window, so believes supernatural powers are involved. Dun da dun...
It’s impossible to review books fairly that I read and loved as early as I read this series, and I’m not 100% that The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull would stand up to adult scrutiny. But what I think Bellairs did teach me – and what he still does exceptionally well – is how to scare. It amazes me still how many horror stories I read that don’t get this basic but delicate craft right, but all the points that Bellairs ticks off are still the things that the books that frighten me today do well. So how does he do it?
1. The nameless menace. A technique that Wyndham also uses frequently, Bellairs knows that the first rule of horror is not to personify the evil that menaces your heroes. The imagination is so much more frightening than any descriptions. So in The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, when Father Higgins and Johnny are discussing the professor’s possible kidnapper, Father Higgins says “It may not even be a somebody that’s done it – from all that you’ve told me, it is more likely to be a something that did it. One of the powers of darkness, in other words.” I’m shivering...
2. The sacred defence. Although not essential, I do think that the frequent use of crosses, holy water and other blessed objects as weapons in Bellairs somehow adds to the fright factor; there’s something about Latin incantations and Biblical references that makes horror more resonant. This is appallingly done in many horror novels I have read, but Bellairs is subtle enough to pull it off: Father Higgins manages to see off one evil spirit with a silver crucifix he claims contains two splinters from the True Cross. (This may have something to do with the inherent eerieness of Christianity itself, with the emphasis on resurrection and Jesus’s thousand-year rule over a kingdom of the saved.)
3. Evil as the enemy. Bellairs is fond of warlocks as villains, but throughout most of this novel the enemy seems to be evil itself, as personified in their antagonist Warren Windrow. This becomes more frightening when evil is associated with some sort of operating genius, as in this passage, also from Father Higgins: “John... it is becoming more and more clear to me that we are dealing with some kind of incredibly evil intelligence, a disembodied spirit that has decided to attack you and the professor for some reason. The skull and the jack-o’-lantern face and the scarecrow you saw on the ferryboat – they are all manifestations of that evil mind.”
4. Too awful even to describe. A favourite Lovecraftian move, Bellairs borrows this trope as well. Emphasising that the horror you are dealing with is so dreadful that even to see it or hear about it may addle your mind forever links to ancient ideas about knowledge as corrupting, and makes the unseen menace even more frightening. Bellairs isn’t quite as good as this as Lovecraft, but he still uses it to effect, as when he has Higgins declare “What awful, ghastly unnameable thing is going to happen to the poor man?”
5. The One Ring. Again, not an essential trope, but used to great effect in a few horror stories I have read (as well as in Lord of the Rings which obviously isn’t part of the genre!) Johnny becomes obsessed with the minature skull from the dollshouse, and can’t let go of it, believing it is a good luck charm; of course, it’s leading him into even greater peril. A similar thing happens when they first try to rescue the professor and he won’t go with them, claiming that there is a treat prepared for him on his birthday and he doesn’t want to miss it; they know that if he stays in his prison too long, he’ll suffer the same fate as his Uncle Lucius. There’s something about the willing participation in one’s own destruction which is disturbing.
6. The final explanation. Bellairs is very fond of having an authority figure, such as the professor or Father Higgins – or in a book from another series, The Dark Secret of Weatherend, a librarian – explain the supernatural happenings at the end of each novel. There’s no attempt to make them credible – the explanation is couched in the same kind of language that the rest of the book has been written in – but somehow the scientific detachment of this explanation often makes this the scariest moment in each novel. Try this from Professor Childermass at the end of The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, as he explains the role the skull from the Childermass clock played in their adventures. Uncle Lucius, the first to fall victim to the curse of the clock, had kept Windrow’s skull in a hatbox, but, when Lucius died: “what they found [in the hatbox] was a teeny-tiny skull, the same one that wound up on the shelf by the fireplace in the dollhouse room that some of us here have seen... Warren Windrow was a young warlock. And after he had gotten his revenge on Lucius, his evil, disembodied mind had thought up a way to pass on the curse. Aaaand, since no one in the Childermass family knew that a full-size skull had been in the hatbox, nobody guessed that the lovely delicate minature was a real skull!” And, on why “my father didn’t get blitzed by the power of Windrow’s skull... he never touched it. I mean, his fingers never actually came into contact with the filthy thing... I think Dad must have handled the skull with tweezers, and that was what saved him. I, on the other hand, was not so lucky. My finger grazed the skull that night in the Fitzwilliam Inn, and it nearly got me killed.” No space to quote it all, but the final explanation usually hits all five previous points, and then more.
When beginning this post, I wasn’t sure that my claims for Bellairs were going to stand up to critical scrutiny. But having finished it, I find myself tense, jumpy, and a little bit scared, even though it’s broad daylight and there are hairdressers screeching and dogs barking in the salon under my flat. So I feel I can say with confidence that as far as fear goes, Bellairs is the master. Now to get hold of a copy of The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt...