He Was the Famous Author

The Prolific Years of John Bellairs (1980-84)

For his next novel Bellairs jumped from Dial Publishers to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who released The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn in 1978. This adventure was the debut of a new set of characters including Anthony Monday, a more slightly more older and more mature character than Lewis, and elderly librarian Myra Eells. Based in the rural Minnesota community of Hoosac, country familiar from Bellairs' days in Winona, the book was a rare departure in that the author used no supernatural elements.

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

"Treasure was John's attempt at a Hardy Boys kind of book," says Brad Strickland. "I think he sort of planned a faux Gothic series: apparently supernatural mysteries would turn out to have mundane explanations but given his interests and reading, perhaps inevitably they became true Gothics as he went along."

The story, of Anthony and Miss Eells slowly unraveling the mysterious puzzles of the philanthropist title character, would later be adapted for television as The Clue According to Sherlock Holmes. The House with a Clock in its Walls also got the television treatment, as one of the three books highlighted in the Vincent Price-hosted anthology, Once Upon a Midnight Scary, airing in 1979.

Bellairs remained unpublished for the next five years, though he did keep up the writing - including a 30-plus line ode to the Septuagint under the name of Nittany Blodgett:

Sing of scholars short and tall
In Alexandria's columned hall
Candlelight that makes you squint
Working on the Septuagint.
We don't know the names of any
Not the one, nor not the many
Septuagint once meant seventy
Oh would it not be sort of heavenly....

While writing became somewhat difficult, perhaps it eventually became therapeutic for him since he would go on to have two books published in 1983, two in 1984, and one each in 1985 and 1986. Now earning enough money to live off of with his writing, his new-found parade of publishing was kicked-off with his return to Dial and the release of 1983's The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the first book in the popular and long-running Johnny Dixon series.

Just as John's boyhood town of Marshall was transmogrified into New Zebedee, John's adoptive New England became the setting for his latest adventures. Dixon is similar to his Michigan-based counterpart Lewis Barnavelt, left to live with older relatives (this time his grandparents) when his mother dies of cancer and his father is called to serve in the Korean War.

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Throughout the series, the young, shy protagonist is paired up in true Bellairs fashion with easily one of the author's most popular figures, the kind but crotchety Professor Roderick Childermass. Loud, self-opinionated, and set in his ways – arguably like his creator – the professor is also a kindly soul, who befriends Johnny, eventually helping him overcome a terrible curse involving a former priest at the local church.

Interestingly, Bellairs reintroduced some of his Catholic upbringing into the Dixon series including nefarious Father Baart and St. Michael's Church, both of which were influenced by people and places in Marshall. While the Barnavelt and Monday series casually referenced Lewis' role as an altar boy and the associated Latin prayers or some lesser-known saints, Johnny attends a parochial school taught by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and interacts regularly with the priest, Father Thomas Higgins, who goes on to become another long-running and popular character in the series.

In the sequel, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt (1983), Byron "Fergie" Ferguson was introduced as a friend closer to Johnny's age who befriends him while at Boy Scout camp as they come uncomfortably close to a millionaire's lost will.

The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull

Professor Childermass falls under a deadly family curse brought upon by a skull in an heirloom clock in their third outing, The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull (1984). The malevolent Windrow clan responsible for the Childermass curse returns to seek vengeance on those who defied them - mainly Johnny Dixon - in the only true sequel, The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost (1985). This unlikely trio of Dixon, Childermass and Ferguson was teamed up for most of the 1980s, battling supernatural events throughout the northeast. Bellairs was at his best and most productive during this period, describing Spell in a 1990 interview as "one of the best if you consider the best to be a book that turns out as good as you want it to be."

The Dark Secret of Weatherend

Perhaps, however, as a way to avoid getting stuck in a rut with the Dixon series or being typecast as only a “children’s author,” Bellairs played around with other projects during this time. There were, of course, the further tales of Prospero and Roger Bacon that remained to be written, though what attempts there were, if any, are now assumed lost. In a 1990 interview, Bellairs revealed that, because “you make a lot more money” writing for adults, he had tried his hand at adult detective novels. The author described his efforts as “lousy.” Al Myers remembers visiting his old college friend around 1987 and remembers John writing and “living a life of genteel but comfortable literary poverty, with boxes of books and manuscripts all over the place and the same typewriter he had used in college occupying the place of honor on his desk.”

During this time he also returned to the seldom-used Anthony Monday series with the chilling The Dark Secret of Weatherend (1984) and The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb (1988). The adventures of Anthony and Miss Eells, along with her brother Emerson, are almost identical to that of Johnny and Professor Childermass in sharing supernatural plots and gothic overtones. His subsequent books, each taking roughly half a year to complete, became slightly formulaic, though each unique: The Trolley to Yesterday (1989) is a time-traveling jaunt to the infamous Turkish battle at Constantinople in 1453, and The Secret of the Underground Room (1990) moves the Dixon-Childermass story to Bristol and the English countryside. While an interesting departure, Secret proved to be something of a low point. Due to health problems, Bellairs was unable to dedicate his allotted time to the book, which ended up his shortest ever and with a distinct “rushed” feeling throughout the text.

grave site

If the 1980s were the Johnny Dixon decade, perhaps the 1990s would have switched gears and focused on another set of characters. A fourth Anthony Monday title, The Mansion in the Mist, was completed that took Monday and Miss Eells to, if not Dimension X, another dimension whose inhabitants are keen to rule both their world and Anthony’s, thereby taking the series in a step toward the science-fiction realm. If Bellairs truly found himself needing to break away, he found comfort in revisiting characters that hadn’t been heard from since 1976, Lewis Barnavelt and Rose Rita Pottinger. The new novel, The Ghost in the Mirror, picks up where we last heard from Lewis and Rose Rita and sets out to rectify the problem of a powerless Mrs. Zimmermann.

There were changes in John’s personal life, too, mainly his moving from the house he had lived in since moving to Haverhill in the 1970s to an apartment complex a few blocks away. It was there that John died on Friday, March 8, 1991. John was buried in Haverhill’s Greenwood Cemetery; his marker contains two inscriptions: that “he loved to write stories that children loved to read,” and a line from Virgil, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent."

The Mansion in the Mist was published posthumously in 1992.

A year following his death, the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites installed a Historical Marker in Marshall that dually honored the house of the Jeremiah Cronin Jr. family and John Bellairs. On hand for the celebration were Virginia Cronin; Frank and Suzanne Bellairs, John’s brother and sister; and a handful of people dressed up as figured from John’s books. An article in the Marshall Chronicle noted that Phyllis Fogelman, former president and publisher for Dial Books, saluted Bellairs by saying, in part, “We know that John would have been very moved by the affection and admiration of his hometown friends, and we join you in celebrating this memorial."