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Book: The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull

February 15, 2011
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If you like YA fiction, gothic mysteries and/or supernatural chills and quirky characters, but you haven’t yet read any John Bellairs, then I don’t know what to tell you except Get On That. Seriously — these books are so much freaking fun.

This one features my favorite Bellairs characters: Johnny Dixon, and his friend, the cranky and odd Professor Childermass. Johnny, who lives with his grandparents in post-war Duston Heights, Massachusetts, is a quiet kid. Smart, a bit odd, kind of a loner, rather timid. However, he has two very good friends: the lanky and down-to-earth Fergie, and the Professor, who lives across the street from him in a giant, falling-down mansion, and who makes enormous gooey chocolate cakes and treats Johnny like an adult and whips his butt at chess.

Aside from the thoroughly fantastic creepy gothic mystery storyline, what I love about this book and all the other Bellairs books is how it doesn’t treat younger readers like idiots. Grownups are cranky sometimes. Like, seriously cranky. And the Professor smokes a lot. And they send their kids to the corner store for a bottle of brandy (and — very important — there are no after-school-special subtexts about the parent being an alcoholic, and the kids don’t nip tastes — the kids just buy the bottle along with all the other groceries and take it all home to the adults. Because they can handle it. One supposes that it was legal for kids to do this, at the time, or maybe just a small-town phenomenon. I don’t know.). Johnny can be extremely timid and a big scaredy-cat, but he WANTS to be brave and so he sloppily, shakily, pulls out his courage and does whatever needs to be done. Sometimes he is really not happy about it. He’s not an impossible example.

I don’t know. I feel like our culture is currently a mixture of oversexed and overexposed, and also extremely fearful and overprotected. The atmosphere can be extremely disapproving/judgmental in general, and it’s just a relief to read a book where really truly scary things happen, and kids are in danger, and they somehow find their way out of it without having special powers, and they are able to handle it, even if they are scared out of their wits the whole time. And the assumption is that the readers can handle it. There is a very strong dark undercurrent to all the Bellairs books, and that makes them delicious and scary and oh I love them so much.

Off my soapbox now.

Anyway — in this installment, the Professor disappears one day, and Johnny has strong reason to suspect that there is an evil supernatural power at work keeping the Professor trapped somewhere. With the help of his best friend Fergie (who doesn’t really believe all this supernatural crap) and the (WWII PSTD-afflicted) priest Father Higgins, they set off on a pretty creepy adventure to find their friend.

I have a distinct memory of reading this book while walking home from school. (yes, I walked home and read at the same time.) I was probably in fifth grade, and it was an extremely spooky experience to be reading this book with the autumn leaves swirling around me. I loved spooky books even then.

Anyway. Hand me a John Bellairs and I’m happy for a couple of hours (they are short and tightly edited). This one is one of my favorites.

Also, can we just have a tiny discussion about the complete non-need to create new covers for these books? The original John Bellairs novels are illustrated by Edward Gorey. Hello?! WHY would you need to redo these covers? EDWARD GOREY, people. (I know you are with me on this, Kate.)


The other cover is sort of creepy, but why? Why? I am very picky about book covers and I don’t believe in messing with the classics (and that goes for Nancy Drew and Judy Blume texts, as well.)

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2011 6:44 pm

    You’re the YA book blogger here, but have you read The Girl with Silver Eyes? It’s a really good book till the lame ending, though it isn’t Gothic, it has supernatural elements that fit so well, that you don’t think are gimmicky.

    Regarding “feel like our culture is currently a mixture of oversexed and overexposed, and also extremely fearful and overprotected”: so true. Makes me think of The O.C. (2003-2008?) *chortle* I have a theory on this that I’m working on right now actually, though mostly as a way to recapture my adolescence…

    • February 15, 2011 7:31 pm

      Hmm, that sounds familiar. I’ll have to check it out.

      O.C.? Is that a TV show? (no really — i have no clue)

      Anyway — yeah. It’s kinda stupid. I am kind of sick of modern culture.

  2. February 16, 2011 6:44 am

    This sounds like fun. And I’m with you on the cover. Nothing can compete with Gorey!

  3. February 16, 2011 9:12 am

    a gree totally about gorey-LOVE him.

    i may look into these books for my son. he had a hard time finding books he enjoys. right now hes readin Judah Friedlanders How to beat up Anybody. (google it if you need to) its funny and all, but not exactly ‘literature.’

    • February 16, 2011 9:16 am

      He might enjoy these if he likes slightly creepy books. I LOVE these books ohhhhh so much.

  4. February 26, 2011 7:45 am

    That is one of the reasons I enjoy Priestley’s books as well: Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, etc. They are scary and bad things happen, usually to the kids in the stories. Reminds me of Gorey’s The Gastlycrumb Tinies. I think kids like being scared to some degree and I think they are much more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for. There is a lot of ugliness in the world that kids should be exposed to and yet sometimes it seems to me that we try to be overprotective as far as not exposing kids to scary things and having that “everyone is a winner” mentality when it comes to kids’ sports and yet television is filled with all kinds of inappropriate sexual images and sexual stereotypes that plant the wrong ideas in kids heads about men and women and sex. Now you’ve got me on the soapbox!

    Bellairs’ books are what hooked me so hard on Edward Gorey when I was a kid. All those great Gorey covers. If I was ever to go back and collect these I would hunt down the Gorey covers.

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