The Figure in the Shadows
John Bellairs' books are very dark, gothic, and spooky. I remember reading them when I was a kid, and finding them incredibly terrifying. They no longer terrify me, as I've seen enough of the real world to be terrified by it, but the atmosphere is still as dark and spooky as I remember.
Lewis Barnavelt is an orphan, and is living with his Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan. His Uncle Jonathan is a wizard and the best friend of an even more powerful magician, Mrs. Zimmerman, their next-door neighbor. Lewis is chubby and very insecure; he spends his lunch hours hiding out at home because he doesn't want to be picked on by the tough kids at school. His best--and only, other than Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman--friend is Rose Rita Pottinger.
We quickly realize how insecure Lewis is at the beginning of the book, when he sneaks his Sherlock Holmes hat out of the house in a bag. He wants to wear it on Main Street, only for a few blocks. Rose Rita doesn't understand why he doesn't have the self confidence to just wear it whenever and wherever he wants to. But Lewis's fears prove correct: bully Woody Mingo steals it from him and saunters off nonchalantly.
That evening, in an effort to cheer Lewis up, Uncle Jonathan proposes a diversion. Lewis' great-grandfather Barnavelt's trunk is still in the house, and it seems like a good night to unpack the trunk. The diversion works. Lewis is admittedly dismayed to learn that his great-grandfather never actually saw any action in the Civil War, having been shot in the leg after a poker game. But the stories are fascinating, and when Lewis is given his great-grandfather's lucky coin, he hopes that perhaps things will change. Mrs. Zimmerman quickly dashes that hope, however, as she quickly tests the coin and proclaims that it is, unfortunately, not a magic amulet.
Lewis keeps it anyway. At school things get rougher. He catches Rose Rita fighting with Woody Mingo, and is devastated that his best friend--a gu-url--is fighting his battles. He dreams of being strong, brave, of beating the living daylights out of Woody Mingo. He and Rose Rita continue building their balsa galley in their spare time. One night they decide they need to find a Latin motto to decorate the flag, and check out the books in Uncle Jonathan's library. Most of Uncle Jonathan's books on magic have been put away, as he was concerned about Lewis's unhealthy interest in them. But he missed one, and the children find Mrs. Zimmerman's dissertation. They're scanning through it when Lewis finds a passage about testing amulets in another way, a method that will detect extremely rare and powerful amulets. Rose Rita is bored, but Lewis insists they test his lucky coin. Rose Rita holds the books while Lewis performs the ritual. The elements respond to the ritual, and Rose Rita is shaken as she asks Lewis if anything happened. Lewis impassively says no, and they get back to work on their galley.
But Lewis is lying.
The rest of the book carries us along with Lewis as things really begin to change for him. He gets into a fight with Woody Mingo, and a force outside of himself propels his fist into Woody's nose at the moment when he himself was hesitant. It worked; Woody began to leave him alone. Lewis' friends notice that he is different, but chalk it up to his abortive attempts to diet and get into shape. Finally Lewis gets the courage to tell Rose Rita the truth: the amulet did respond to the ritual. She takes it from him and tells him that she dropped it into the sewer. In reality, however, she keeps it, thinking that perhaps it will be of benefit to him when he is an adult.
Bereft of his talisman, Lewis is tormented once more by Woody Mingo who senses that Lewis is his normal cowardly self again. One day Lewis has the sudden thought that perhaps Rose Rita didn't destroy his amulet. He searches for it, and the series of events that follows nearly culminates in Lewis' death. Fortunately, Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman, and Rose Rita save the day.
John Bellairs wrote three separate series of middle-grade stories: the Lewis Barnavelt series(with Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman, and Rose Rita); the Anthony Monday series(with Miss Eels and her brother, Emerson Eels); and my favorites, the Johnny Dixon series(with Professor Roderick Childermass, Fergie, Father Higgins, and some othre assorted characters). There is no question that the stories are dark and frightening, but there is also no question as to where Mr. Bellairs aligned himself. The stories always end with good triumphing over evil. There is a lot of occult mythology in the stories, and perhaps it is this that gets them challenged or banned. It is a pity, though, because the characters are compelling and the stories fascinating. It doesn't matter how many times I've read these stories; I still enjoy them each time.
Mr. Bellairs is dead, and the series was continued by Brad Strickland. The books are available in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon in new editions. If you haven't read any, I'd recommend starting with A House With a Clock in the Walls, which is the first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series. Go! Read! Rebel!