Remembrances: Wayne Hammond

“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the old boy was feedin’ you a line of bull, but…like I say, he loves good stories, and he sure know how to tell ‘em!” Grampa Dixon, in The Curse of the Blue Figurine, was speaking of madcap Professor Childermass, but he might as well have been describing author John Bellairs.

Readers of fantasy know (at least) his The Face in the Frost, that strange, funny phantasmagoria set “several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter,” which tells the adventures of “a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either.” This was the first of John Bellairs’ novels in a sub-genre one might call the Eccentric Fantasy, or the Nightmare with Comic Relief. His oddball heroes unwittingly activate talismans, or awaken evil spirits, or in some way run afoul of supernatural forces beyond their ken and almost beyond their ability to survive. In so doing, they enter a living nightmare which they will not exit without chills and thrills aplenty and absurd humor more or less. It is an unlikely combination, the spine-tingling and the rib-tickling, but one which Bellairs brings off with great success, each extreme enhancing the other.

In some ways, though, John Bellairs’ later books are very different from The Face in the Frost. In these, beginning with The House with a Clock in Its Walls and including the non-supernatural mystery The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, the chief protagonists are not professional wizards like Prospero, but children, none of them a super-boy or girl, occasionally resourceful but with children’s fears and limitations; their mentors are elderly (though spry), and even when skilled in magic are amateurs compared with their sorcerous adversaries; and these children and their adult friends face evil not in an imaginary land like that in which Prospero journeys, but in the good old U.S.A. While The Face in the Frost is a crazy-quilt of the familiar and the fantastic, Bellairs’ later stories are so firmly rooted in actuality that the ghost of Eliphaz Moss could, perhaps, haunt the reader’s own neighborhood and the eerie estate of Weatherend could lie just beyond the next hill.

John Bellairs is a native of Michigan, was educated at Notre Dame and Chicago, taught in Minnesota and Illinois, and now lives in Massachusetts north of Boston. Both his Midwestern origins and his adopted Northeast are reflected in his books—in the New Zebedee, Michigan of Lewis Barnavelt (The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring), the Hoosac, Minnesota of Anthony Monday (The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, The Dark Secret of Weatherend), the Duston Heights, Massachusetts of Johnny Dixon (The Curse of the Blue Figurine; The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt; The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull; The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost; The Eyes of the Killer Robot).

To these might-be towns he brings real memories of the 1940s and ‘50s, when Lewis and Anthony and Johnny and John Bellairs himself were young—for nostalgia’s sake, maybe, but the period matters: to a modern reader accustomed to laser beams and VCRs, a technological response to ghosts and spells and clocks that wind down toward Doomsday seems less likely in the years of radio dramas and Wild Cream Oil than it would be in a more recent setting. Fergie, in The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost, considers that “the rushing wind and their flashlights acting funny…might be caused by electromagnetic forces, or X rays” — but Bellairs does not write Tom Swift (or more to the period, Rick Brant’s Electronic Adventures). To defeat the powers of darkness, his heroes rely instead on their ingenuity, on boldness and bravery, and on their love for one another. By emphasizing these best qualities of humankind, John Bellairs raises his stories above the level of ordinary thrillers and shows us the way out of nightmares even of our own making.

"John Bellairs: An Appreciation"; ©1987, presented at the 1987 Mythopoeic Conference