When I was 12 or 13, my grandmother on my mom’s side, with whom I share a great love of reading and words, gave me a curious little paperback. I can’t remember if it was a birthday or Christmas gift, or perhaps one for Halloween. I had never heard of the author, but I was taken by the full-cover front and back illustrations with these strangely simple but simultaneously wonderful drawings of a pale, lanky boy in a red-hooded sweatshirt encountering a statue of a crusader (on the front) and a wispy apparition floating out a window (on the back).
My interest was also piqued by the title – “The Mummy, The Will, & The Crypt” – which was just perfectly provocative for me at that age. It didn’t take long for me to dive into the adventure of a lonely teenager named Johnny Dixon, and his closest friend, a cantankerous elderly old professor named Roderick Childermass. The story weaved the challenges that come with being awkward, shy and young with mysterious riddles, ghosts, and a gothic castle protected by an undead guardian.
I couldn’t put it down. And when I was finally finished, I had to find more. I went to the library and hit the mother lode. Though some of the plots get confused after a while, the incredible titles still stick in my head: “The House With A Clock In Its Walls,” “The Curse of the Blue Figurine,” “The Eyes of the Killer Robot,” “The Dark Secret of Weatherend,” “The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Tomb.” And almost all of them with those wonderfully weird illustrations.
Today is the anniversary of the death of the man who wrote those stories that fueled my teenage imagination. John Bellairs (1938-1991) wrote a number of gothic mystery novels for young adults featuring characters like Anthony Munday, Lewis Barnavelt, and my favorite, Johnny Dixon. He created numerous adventures filled with mystery and history and the struggles of growing up, fitting in and dealing with loneliness.
The wonderfully strange Edward Gorey did the illustrations for 12 of Bellairs original work, as well as several incomplete manuscripts finished by writer Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death, and several of Strickland’s original works using Bellairs’ characters until Gorey’s death in 2000. Gorey also created his own Edwardian-styled hand-lettered illustrations in works like “The Gashlycrumb Tinies, “The Doubtful Guest,” and the introduction to “Mystery!” on PBS. He even won a Tony Award in 1977 for costume design for a Broadway production of “Dracula.”
Last night, I was talking with my Dad on the phone and the topic turned to books. He said I should write one some day. He’s not the first one to say it.
I’d like to write a book. I’ve thought about writing a book. I’ve started writing several books. But I’ve never finished a book. I’ve just got so many interests and enjoy so many types of writing that it’s difficult to commit to one idea.
But by chance, I noticed it was the anniversary of John Bellairs’ death. And I remembered reading his books and what they meant to me, and I can’t help but feel a bit inspired. And I do have spring break coming up next week. So maybe I’ll set aside some time to write and see if anything gothic adventures come out.
Thanks John and Edward, for the wonderful adventures my imagination got to experience with both of you. R.I.P.