Everything I Need to Know About Catholic Traditions I learned from John Bellairs

OK, maybe not, but his books were the first time I heard about the mystical traditions associated with the urim and thumim, about the Blood of Hailes, and a lot of other things that are not part of the modern school curriculum. Which tells you that Bellairs did not write down to his young readers.

I first encountered his books either through the PBS TV show Once Upon a Classic or the Saturday morning book dramatizations on one of the Big Three networks. It was The House with the Clock in its Walls, which was published in 1973. I remember it being creepy and cool, the story that is. I didn’t read the book until later, and then to my delight, the public library had a lot of Bellairs’ books with the Edward Gorey covers and interior pictures. (I met Gorey through Mystery on PBS, and then crossed paths with his Odder work here and there.) Bellairs had three main series for younger readers, all of which were Gothic mysteries with a touch of horror, and all of which I enjoyed. I suspect that’s where my “eccentric relative of main character with esoteric knowledge” sort of characters originally came from.

His three main young reader series all feature a boy and either an eccentric relative (uncle who just happens to be a wizard) or mentor (Miss Eels the librarian in the Anthony Monday books; a slightly odd professor in the Johnny Dixon stories). In each case, something has happened to the boy’s parents that either they are out of the picture (death, deployment to Korea for Dixon, financial problems so that the boy has to work for Anthony Monday). The boys rise to the occasion with some help from their mentors, and from minor characters with even more eclectic knowledge. There is spiritual danger, physical risk, mystery, all sorts of neat stuff. Evil is punished, and the merely irritating get what they deserve.

Through the books, I learned important things like, oh, how to make a Hand of Glory (please don’t try this at home), what certain relics might do, how the gems of the High Priest’s ephod related to the Ark of the Covenant (don’t try that one at home, either), the joys of dropping a drawer of a card catalogue (which I knew already, alas), and so on. Granted, some of those were probably not all that relevant to a kid growing up in the Great Plains, but one never knows.

I highly recommend the original books, those written between 1973 (House with a Clock in its Walls) and 1991. Bellairs died young, and although others have finished his existing manuscripts and expanded some of the story ideas, the reviews for those are mixed, and I have not read most of them. His adult stories are also dang creepy, well written, and fascinating.

*It turns out I was not far from Hailes Abbey. If only I had known . . . Roslyn Chapel had to suffice my itch for the Esoteric. (Go for the Katherine Kurtz stories. Skip Dan Brown. Please.)



10 thoughts on “Everything I Need to Know About Catholic Traditions I learned from John Bellairs

  1. John Bellairs is great! I’ve been hooked ever since I was first intrigued by the creepy title of ‘The House with the Clock in its Walls’. I let people think I got them for the youngsters, but the kids are all grown up and I’m still reading them. Bellairs could mix the ‘everyday’ and the ‘scarily supernatural’ with a sure touch I’ve never seen equalled–and which the recent movie totally missed, IMO.

  2. I read one Dan Brown book (Da Vinci Code) and had serious problems with it. For some reason, I already had Angels and Demons, and it got walled quickly. If I have to read a D. Brown book, I’d stay with Dale. Never did understand why he wanted a V-tail on a B-52, but…

    • … he wanted an air dreadnought, and the concept was darn near one. Pushed the tech envelope, but good thrillers. Not even sure I’d mulch a Dan Brown book; you never know what might seep into the compost.

    • Why a V tail? Likely radar signal reduction. The BUFF had a BIG tail/rudder at nearly right angles with the body. That’s a massive corner reflector sending signal right back where it came from. V (aka Swallow) tails mitigate some of that by sending the radar energy off in a different direction rather than where it came from. Look at the F-117 or F-22 for examples. B-2 totally skips the tail although that really requires major Improvements in computer assisted flight control as shown by its YB-35 and YB-49 ancestors and the test pilots they killed.

  3. A “Hand Of Glory” is just the thing you need when you’re locked out of your home. [Very Big Crazy Grin]

    Or so a character in Robert Weinberg’s The Devil’s Auction said about the one her father gave it. đŸ˜‰

    • You’re very welcome! They are great eerie fun. The creepiness and scary stuff are far more psychological than out-right gore.

      • No kidding! His short fantasy The Face in the Frost is a masterclass in scary atmosphere.
        Who could resist this?
        “Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either.”

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