Flashback Fridays: Tick Tock, Tick Tock . . .

You’re a young orphan sent to live with your uncle in his strange old house.  But things are far from what you expected when you arrive.  There’s a mystery about the old mansion . . . a dangerous dark magic that may just be ticking down to the end of the world . . .

Do you remember:

The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, illustrated by Edward Gorey (Puffin, c1973)

Lewis Barnavelt is an orphaned boy sent  to live with his uncle Jonathan, a man living in a mysterious old mansion.  It turns out Uncle Jonathan, and his quirky neighbor are both sorcerers of the good variety–and  Lewis finds life a bit more interesting than he expected.  But Lewis can hear a mysterious ticking sound in every room of the old mansion . . . like there’s a clock within the very walls of the house.  His efforts to impress the local boy by showing off his knowledge of magic land him in a whole heap of trouble when he inadvertently raises one of the dark wizards who used to live in the mansion  . . . and the mysterious clock speeds up.  Now it’s up to Lewis to stop the impending end of the world . . . if he can.

 This was one of those books.  You know the type, the one that everybody tells you to read.  The one that the teachers, your parents, the librarians all tell you “oh, you should read THIS.  You’ll love it.”  And because simply everybody is saying this, the last thing you desire is to even open that book. At least, that’s how I was.  I’ve a score of books that it took me years to read because of the silly resistance I had to reading anything over-enthusiastically recommended to me.  Thus I didn’t read this story until in my 2os, and I really kicked myself then for not reading prior to that.  For all that it was a hugely recommended book at the time, nowadays it’s a bit sad and dusty on the shelves . . . the darkly gothic adventure with a nice blend of whimsy just hasn’t caught the eye of many readers of the recent generation.


Such a lovely little gothic novel.  If you want  a story that’s spooky without being out and out horror or short ghost stories, this one fits the bill.  Magic, dark and light, the end of the world, necromancy and adventure.  Lewis is a lonely boy with a lot of stuff to overcome from his life . . . and his character is not so charming from the start.  His actions are part and parcel of what leads to the crisis in this story, and it is only through taking responsibility for those actions and deciding to try and fix what he did wrong that he begins to  change into the kind of character that is heroic and positive.

Of course, this book is made all the more marvelous by the Edward Gorey illustrations.  Skimming other’s reviews and commentaries of the book, it’s clear that these illustrations are not merely icing on the cake but an integral part of the book, helping set the tone, the scenes and adding to the reader enjoyment.


What I didn’t know at the time I read this book is that it’s really only the first in a series of stories.  The first six of these adventures featuring Lewis Barnavelt were written by John Bellairs (with the sixth being completed by Brad Strickland) .  Strickland then was approached to continue the series, and wrote six more books. All of the stories continue to be stories of paranormal and gothic-style adventures.  A few of the later stories might be available on the library shelves for avid readers, but quite a few have been mostly out of print for years. Bellairs also wrote the Johnny Dixon series (illustrated by Edward Gorey) and the Anthony Monday Mysteries (also illustrated by Gorey.) Each of these series contains explorations into the paranormal and magical as well.  To be honest, Bellairs is really one of the cornerstones of Middle Grade spooky/paranormal style adventures and I wish his books were more available on the library shelves.

Any Bellairs fans out there?  Comments welcome!


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on November 2, 2014, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I didn’t hear about this book until about a year ago (and while in my 30s). I was surprised to find a copy at my school library and not my public library and nabbed it because Gorey did the illustrations. It was fabulous! I wish I had found it as a kid as it is so up my alley!

  2. True story: these books were how I found out about Inter Library Loan. I got the first one from the library when I was a kid, then found out there were others. Our postage-stamp library didn’t have them, but the librarian told me they could borrow it from one of the other regional libraries if *they* had it. I was a fiend with the ILL requests for series books after that. 🙂

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