Every time I reread The Face in the Frost, I mourn the fact that John Bellairs gave up writing adult fiction for young adult fiction. (Not that there’s anything inappropriate in the Face in the Frost. In fact, I read it as a kid)
However, when I actually read his young adult works, I have to admit I’m also grateful they exist. And, while I think the House With A Clock In It’s Walls is wonderful, I think his Johnny Dixon stories could be his most gothically horrifying. In particular, the first one, The Curse of the Blie Figurine.
(This comes with the caveat that I’ve never read any of his Anthony Monday books. Which I only know exist thanks to Wikipedia. Say what you will but it does help you find more books than a card catalog drawer. Oddly enough, I remember hearing a description of The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn but had no idea it was by Bellairs until earlier today)
And it comes down to this. The characters in The House et al and its sequels start off knowing magic is real. Indeed, some of them have one foot in the door from the get go. Frankly, that makes things less mysterious and scary.
Johnny, on the other hand, is just an ordinary little boy. He’s a lot more defenseless against the forces of darkness. His chief ally, the wonderfully grumpy Professor Childermass, may be learned and brave and cranky but is no wizard.
Indeed, in the Curse of the Blue Figurine, the characters struggle to even believe that they really are beset by the forces of darkness and magic. Even accepting that ghosts and curses are real is part of their journey. There is a profound sense of helplessness.
Of course, in later books, with the characters gaining more experience, the sense of horror receded. I remember finishing the Eyes of the Killer Robit as a child as deciding that I was done with the books. A murderous golem who also plays baseball is a neat idea but it’s no Castle of Otfanto.
Rereading The Curse of the Blue Figurine for the first time in decades, I was impressed by the slow burn creepiness. When o first read it, I missed the humor of the House et al but I can kw see how it does its own thing.
(And, yes, I know Edward Gorey illustrated many of Bellairs books. And that’s just awesome )