Bellairs Creates Some Wonderfully Quirky Personalities, And Every Character Vibrates With Life

I was lucky enough to find a used bookstore in Toronto that had copies of several of John Bellairs’s children’s books in the old Bantam Skylark softcover editions, for only $3 each. The special thing about them is that, unlike the “updated” cover art on new editions, these older versions feature the Edward Gorey cover art—and they’re the editions I read as a child.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine is the first in Bellairs’s longest-running series, featuring 12-year-old Johnny Dixon and his friend, Professor Roderick Childermass. (Like all Bellairs protagonists, Johhny is a smart, somewhat lonely boy who gets along better with adults than with most kids his age, and who has a close friendship with an intelligent and sympathetic adult.)

The story is set in 1951, and Johnny’s mother has just died. His father, who was an air force pilot during World War II, has jumped at the chance to fly in the Korean War, and has sent Johnny to live with Grandpa and Gramma Dixon, in Duston Heights, Massachusetts. He and his grandparents go to St. Michael’s Church, and he attends the attached Catholic school.

One winter night, after Johnny and his Grandpa have helped to shovel out Professor Childermass’s car, the Professor tells Johhny the story of Father Baart, a 19th-century priest, formerly the rector of St. Michael’s, who may have been an evil sorcerer, and who is said to haunt the church. When Johnny finds a blue figurine and an ominous warning hidden in a hollowed-out book in the church basement, he becomes convinced it has something to do with Father Baart.

I found John Bellairs’s books incredibly frightening when I was a child. Even though they don’t hold the same level of suspense for me these days, they’re still lovely and charming to read. Bellairs creates some wonderfully quirky personalities, and every character vibrates with life, from Johnny’s Gramma to the school bully. I love Johnny, who is a shy and timid, a bookworm and a worrier—not the kind of kid who regularly stars in horror novels.

The most entertaining character is Professor Childermass, a small, middle-aged man with a bad temper and a kind heart. And he has a fuss closet!—a place where, dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, he can vent his frustrations by ranting, yelling, cursing, and pounding on the walls. On the inside of the door is a sign, bearing the words:

TO FUSS IS HUMAN;
TO RANT, DIVINE!

I love it.

It’s such a shame that this book, and all of Bellairs’s kids’ books, were re-issued without the Edward Gorey covers, because they were, and are, such an integral part of my enjoyment of the books. Unlike many illustrators, who seem never to have opened the book, or even glanced at a synopsis or description of the characters, Edward Gorey always drew actual scenes from the book, and the characters always looked exactly right. I couldn’t find a good picture of the cover, but the drawing of Father Baart is perfect; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cover that was so right.

PoodleRat

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