SUNDAY SPECIAL: John Bellairs Juvenilia
If you didn't love John Bellairs as a child, we're not exactly not friends any more, but I may not come to your birthday party. Sorry.

John Bellairs, for all those of you who are now alone on your birthday, wrote YA novels about young Catholic teens and pre-teens, more often than not orphans, beset by terrible spiritual forces against which they fought with the aid of crotchety old men.

You are now thinking: "That sounds terrible. That sounds like any number of awful YA fantasy novels." You are wrong because in your heart you are evil and cold. John Bellairs' books work because of two things:

(1) The richly-detailed texture of life as a quiet religious-minded introvert in freezing, aging New England and Michigan towns of the 1940s and 50s. There are paper-collection drives headed by the local nuns, and there are reeking opera houses next to five and ten stores on deserted main squares named after long-forgotten Civil War heroes, and there are smoky poker games held by members of the local Magician's Union because this is the North and labor is king. This is the best possible setting for a story about wizards. New England is steeped in death already!

(2) John Bellairs's imagination is ridiculous and powerful. Imagine the best time travel story you can think of. Seriously, do it now. We will wait for you.

Okay. Is it killing Hitler? Is it killing Hitler, then realizing that you can't kill Hitler because it creates paradoxes? Is it realistically any better than that?

Here is John Bellairs's time travel story, The Trolley To Yesterday.

(Note to publishers: make your books look like this if you want kids who read too much to think they are totally awesome. More minimalist pictures of old men whose eyes you cannot see leading gawky adolescents into darkness; more falcons)

Old Professor Childermass is doing renovation work on his basement when he finds an abandoned electric trolley station stretching off into the unknown depths of Massachusetts. He realizes in short order that this is a time machine built by God knows who, some previous owner of the house, and he decides that the best possible use of that time machine is to go back and prevent the siege of Constantinople so that Byzantine culture could flourish further into the Renaissance. He also travels with the physical manifestation of the god Horus, which is a tacky plastic souvenir falcon that he has discovered at some previous, undisclosed point in the story. Also there are moody Templar ghosts milling around somewhere.

The best-known of his novels is probably The House With A Clock In Its Walls, which delivers on what the title promises: there is a house, owned by a kindly magician named Jonathan Barnavelt for good measure, and by God there is a clock in its walls. When the clock gets wound up, the world ends. All of this wouldn't be a problem, since the wizard who constructed the clock died before he could actually activate it. But then Jonathan Barnavelt's nephew, the young orphaned questioning Catholic who loves reading Stoddard's histories and eating chocolate bars, decides to impress the popular kid in school by swiping Jonathan's magic books and summoning a dead woman's soul back from Hell, with predictably fun consequences for everyone.

In short: Bellairs writes books for kids, books stuffed with magic and an irreverent misuse of Catholic iconography. And until he died in 1991 and was replaced by the significantly less fun Brad Strickland, Bellairs was the best in the world at producing YA fantasy that actually felt like the product of someone's alarming childhood and well-developed fanciful muscles.

That is what we all know about John Bellairs, if we are good people. But DID YOU KNOW that Bellairs didn't start out wanting to be a YA writer? That he thought he would be the next Tolkien, the next C.S. Lewis? That he was forced to do a quick hatchet job on The House With A Clock In Its Walls to turn it into a book for young readers, because no one was willing to publish his work otherwise? That like rival children's book great Roald Dahl, Bellairs pretty much hated kids and schemed every day to publish the sequel to his one adult fantasy novel, The Face In The Frost--schemes that eventually drove him to an early grave???

And DID YOU KNOW that The Face In The Frost, the only non-YA book Bellairs would ever admit to having published, was not his first published work at all? That Bellairs's first published work was in fact a slim volume of Catholic whimsy, St. Fidgeta And Other Parodies, New York: Macmillan, 1966? That the flap copy describes the book as "one of the merriest books in many a moon"? That the copyright on one of the pieces in the book is held by the Thomas More Association?

The book has been out of print for roughly forty years. Perhaps this is right, perhaps this is wrong--the book has the feeling of something written by a person who has just dropped out of seminary school and is considering his options. It is, in the end, now your decision. Due to my association with an unwholesome used bookstore in the heart of the pagan island of Manhattan, I have acquired a copy, and I am posting a copyright-violating excerpt.

A sample from John Bellairs's first published work: St. Fidgeta And Other Parodies. After this, an apocalypse of haunted row houses and windy church litany.

Mother Ximenes' Handbook For Grade School Nuns

I. Things Catholic Children Should Know

1. The equator is eight thousand miles long. Do not accept contradiction on this point.

2. The uranium story: Once a little boy was digging in his back yard, and he found a piece of uranium. He held it up in the air, and a plane which was passing overhead stopped dead. It did not move on until the little boy buried the uranium again. That's how they found out what uranium can do.

3. The mother of St. Louis IX of France said to him when he was a boy: "I would rather see you fry in hell than ever see you commit a mortal sin."

4. There is a priest living in the walls of St. Sophia's Church in Constantinople. He will come out when the church is returned to Christian hands.

5. The ouiji board story: A group of irreverent young people were playing with a ouiji board one night, and they asked it if there was a God. The ouiji board said YES and the roof fell in, killing everybody.

II. Ways to Cultivate the Fear of Dying in Mortal Sin

1. Point out how difficult it is to make a perfect Act of Contrition just before death. To prove it, have your students put their heads down on their desks and imagine that they are dying horribly, miles from any priest. Then ask them to try to be sorry for their sins without being afraid of Hell. If any of them think they can do it, punish them.

2. Tell this story: Once there was an old man who hadn't gone to Mass or Communion for years. Whenever he got sick, he would call a priest, but every time the priest came, the old man would say "You can go away. I feel better now." Well, one dark, windy night the old man became deathly ill, and he tried to get a priest. It was midnight, so all the priests at the church were asleep, and no one answered the phone. Then the old man sent his little daughter to the church to fetch a priest, and when she got there the rectory and church were dark and still. The wind howled cheerlessly, and there were unexplained rustlings in the bushes. The little girl rattled the doors and pounded on the windows, but nobody came. Then she noticed a little window in which a flickering red light was burning, but before she could try it a deep voice from behind the windowpane said "Go home. There will be no priest for this man tonight." The little girl ran home and told everyone what had happened, and everyone remarked that it was strange a priest should say such a thing. Later it was discovered that the window was in the chapel! The old man died miserably, of course.

3. Make your students memorize the Litany for a Happy Death, which may be found on p.1017 of the complete Breviarum Defunctorum. It runs thus:

When the numbing chill of my last illness creeps slowly northward from my stony toes...
Then God Help Me!

When my skin turns slowly from its normal peachy hue to the color of cream cheese...

When my red corpuscles can hardly drag themselves along the footpaths of my arteries...

When my pores, like tiny mouths, are gasping for life, and some of them are collapsing with an audible sigh...

When the rattling in my throat drowns out the clatter of my beads...

When the dreary moaning about my bed has changed to an expectant hush...

When the fading breath of life dribbles fitfully from my chalky lips...

And when at last Sister Death comes to drag me away...
Deliver me to the right address!

III. Conversion Tactics

If you have, say, a little girl in your class whose mother is Protestant, do at least some of the following things:

1. Lecture at great length on the sorrows of a mixed marriage.

2. Say things like "Susie, your mother isn't Catholic, is she?" and tell her that her mother might be converted through prayer and good example.

3. Mention to the class that Protestants have a funny way of saying the "Our Father." Ask Susie if this isn't so.

4. Point out that Protestants can get to Heaven but that when they get there they may not know what it's all about.

IV. Ways of Raising Money

1. "Raffle Your Grandmother Out of Purgatory." This kind of drawing has always been successful. The winner gets a plenary indulgence for some deceased member of his family. Not that one can buy indulgences, of course; that was settled long ago. But one can make donations.

2. At Christmas have your students sell sick-call kits door to door. Some children persist in calling them "death kits", but this should be discouraged.

3. Have drives of all kinds: paper drives, bottle cap drives, jelly jar drives. The students who work the hardest should be given a reward. For instance, you might let them make new paper covers for the textbooks.

4. Point out to your students that the sisters will starve if thoughtful mothers do not deluge them with pies, cakes, and assorted pastries.

V. The May Procession

This event should be prepared for by months of rehearsal in the church. Though the students will be missing class time during these months, they can recite Our Father's and Hail Mary's, and you had better see to it that they do. The collected prayers can be put into a Spiritual Bouquet for the pastor. By way of encouragement, you might tell your students that the U.S. record is held by St. Semina's grade school in Los Angeles, which once amassed 9,686,723 Hail Mary's, together with a comparable number of Our Father's and Solemn Doxologies, in two months. The bouquet was sent to the parish priest in a pickup truck.

The Human Rosary is the most important part of any May Procession. Children will fight to be made part of this living chain of tributes, and boys have been known to squabble viciously for the privilege of being an Our Father. You should choose carefully those who will make up the crucifix, taking into account height as well as moral character. And it might be well to get a fat boy to be the little round medal.

One note about May Queens: It is best for the sisters to govern the choice of the girl for this part, especially if the school has lots of boys in it. Experience shows that the boys will choose some horrid little snit who has been trolloping all over the school. Girls, on the other hand, will choose some homely thing with pigeon toes and a runny nose. What you want, of course, is someone who will grow up to look like the Catholic Art Calendar representations of Mary.

- John Bellairs, 1966, at great length

Posted by future on Sun, 27 Jul 2008 16:58:31 -0400 -- permanent link

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