When I was a kid, my dad and I read books together. It’s a bittersweet memory, since we’ve been estranged for most of my adult life. My favorite author then was John Bellairs, who wrote Gothic horror set during the era of his own childhood in the 1950s. The early editions had covers and sometimes illustrations by Edward Gorey, and between Bellairs and Gorey, I grew up with a lifelong love of the macabre. This weekend, I had to do an assignment for my editing class on a book I knew well, and I decided to revisit my tattered old paperback of The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull.
Bellairs wrote about the eerie adventures of three protagonists–Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon–all young teens who don’t quite fit into society. Orphaned or otherwise left in the care of relatives, the boys befriend elderly neighbors and battle the forces of evil. In The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass, a wonderfully grumpy old man who lives across the street, get tangled up with a family curse and a sinister miniature skull. When the professor disappears, Johnny teams up with his friend Fergie (who is basically the Fonz) and a Catholic priest named Father Higgins to rescue him before it’s too late.
It’s hard to evaluate a book you loved as a child with any degree of objectivity. The story moves slowly, especially considering how short the book is compared to modern-day middle grade titles like the Percy Jackson series. Bellairs’ work has an earnest, gee-whiz sentimentality that doesn’t play well in our cynical age, but that’s one of the reasons I like it. The double-glazed nostalgia–both from Bellairs in writing about the idealized era he grew up in, and now me in revisiting the book twenty-five years after I first read it–creates a misty, forgiving filter that hides most of the book’s shortcomings.