I got these books by mistake since I confused them with John Bellairs’ other middle grade gothic horror/magic series starring a boy being raised by his grandparents. I cut myself some slack for this one, especially since I also read this Johnny Dixon series as a child and the titles were familiar. I do still want to do a re-read of the Lewis Barnavelt series, so I’ll have to get my hands on those soon.
My idea in getting these was to read the series from the beginning and so I used the list in the front of the books. I was a good chunk into The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder before I started thinking about how it seemed to assume I knew all the characters, and then I double checked on Google and figured out this book wasn’t even written by John Bellairs. The lists in the front of the editions I got are not in series order, which was very irritating and confusing. I also tend not to like books written or finished after the author died because it feels like such a cash grab to me and an excuse to keep the estate going for the heirs (except in cases like Robert Jordan, where he was on board with it). In this case, Brad Strickland did fine because these are pretty rote mysteries, but when I read The Chessmen of Doom afterwards, you could definitely tell the difference. There’s something about John Bellairs’ writing that’s different and seems slightly more surreal and scary.
Both books follow Johnny Dixon and his friends Fergie and Professor Childermass as they get involved in a supernatural mystery. I think the thing I enjoy about these books is the complete randomness and real evil that Bellairs describes. Other middle grade mystery series tend to be very straight forward and don’t grapple with cosmic darkness, but Bellairs will have an evil magician trying to destroy the world with comets, and the only people standing in the way are two 11 year olds and a history professor. They’re spooky in a non-pandering or condescending way to young readers, and I think that’s the reason for their staying power.
Also, I really wish the publisher had kept the original Edward Gorey covers. They’re so scary and he’s such an amazing artist that it doesn’t make any sense to me to re-cover them since they feel so timeless. I remember being so unnerved by the book covers that I was scared of going in that aisle at the library. I mean, which is more atmospheric and enticing:
<— This or this? –>
Anyway, recommended for elementary school kids who like being scared a little. I like these but they’re not that deep and I think anyone older than 12 would probably find them too simple.
Warnings for children in mortal peril.