The books of John Bellairs cast a spell over my childhood. The first one I read was The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which I chose from a shelf filled with Goosebumps titles solely because the cover was illustrated by Edward Gorey. I knew Gorey’s style from the opening credits of Mystery! on PBS. Along with the Bellairs books and the Sherlock Holmes stories, Mystery! was my window onto a world that was stranger, older, and darker than suburban Northern California in the early 1990s. It was somewhere a chubby kid—one whose idea of fun invariably seemed to alienate his fellow students—could see himself going places in. Maybe solving mysteries or digging up lost cities. Or even learning to practice magic himself.
The House with a Clock in its Walls was Bellairs’s first and best supernatural story for middle grade readers. Its shadows are darker than in all his subsequent tales, perhaps because it was adapted from a version he wrote for a grown-up audience, rejected by his publishers in favor of the juvenile rewrite they suggested. My twelve-year old self is happy Bellairs’s first efforts were retailored to young readers, but my present self longs to read the original manuscript.
The plot of the film is different from the book, but it gets the weirdness right, and more explicitly offers permission to kids to just go ahead and be as weird as they like, because it might just be their ticket to powerful magic. The visuals and the reworked storyline are just a little too clean and silly, more Disney’s Haunted Mansion than the dusty, chilly realism of Bellairs’s sentences. But the film’s heart is in the right place, and as it is for the spellcasters in the story, that grants access to a deep well of dark, weird, delightful magic.