Movie Review: The House with a Clock In Its Walls

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.

The Library of Gentle, Compulsive Self Deception

Compulsive book buyers are great rationalizers. And for years, my best rationalization was this: the size of your personal library is like the sail on a ship.  The bigger it is, the farther you go on the winds of passing interest. So in preparation for that day when I would finally feel like sitting down and dipping into, say, The Collected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, I justified having a nice copy sitting on my shelf. For twelve years. Unopened.

You never know when you’ll want to read a certain book, I used to say. And if you don’t have the book at arms length, the urge to read it might be gone by lunchtime, never to return.  I could die with Rilke’s letters (or The Golden Bowl, The Song of Roland, The Anatomy of Melancholy, etc.) unread! There was actually a whole period of my life where thoughts like this made me uncomfortable. Somewhere in my mind, I was continuously prepping for a final exam on everything, assigned by nobody, scheduled for never.

The price I paid was lugging around an expanding library that could’ve served a small prep school for the entire decade of my twenties, all of which I spent living in tiny New York apartments at the rate of about one every two years.  I may have been renting garrets in slums, but I had a library fit for a Renaissance duke, which might sound romantic if it weren’t so ridiculous.

And oh, how ridiculous it was. I once paid $600 to ship some of my books into storage, only to ship them back the following year for even more money. I would get annoyed when people opened the blinds in my room, letting in sunlight that might bleach the spines of my precious volumes. I would buy used paperbacks on impulse, only to wriggle them into tight spaces in my shelves not far from their duplicates, which I had bought years earlier and forgotten about. “Have you read all these?” people would ask on the rare occasions when I let visitors into my apartment. At which point I would quickly change the subject.

Whatever opportunity or challenge my life presented, there was always a little voice in my head telling me that the solution was to be found in a book I did not yet own.