This week, the movie “The House With a Clock in its Walls” will finally be here, but did you know that the film was inspired by a book that was written in the Merrimack Valley?
A 1973 Gothic horror novel for children, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” was written in Haverhill by the late John Bellairs. Set in the imaginary town of New Zebedee, Michigan, it’s the first in a series of successful books starring young orphan Lewis Barnavelt, who — spoiler alert! — moves in with his Uncle Jonathan and soon discovers he has new skills, which include raising the dead.
Though it was not Bellairs’ first literary success, this book opened the door to a magical new world and launched his career as novelist for a younger audience. “He wanted to write well, and he admired many literary writers, but he also wanted to sell books, so he was delighted when he found that writing books for young adults was an ideal medium,” says the author’s ex-wife, Priscilla Bellairs, who was married to the author for 15 years before their 1984 divorce.
“I write scary thrillers for kids because I have the imagination of a ten-year-old,” John Bellairs told science fiction and fantasy magazine Locus in 1991. “I love haunted houses, ghosts, witches, mummies, incantations, secret rituals performed by the light of the waning moon, coffins, bones, cemeteries, and enchanted objects.”
Pick any of Bellairs’ books for young people and you can see this enthusiasm for the mysterious, supernatural and unexplained at work. Bellairs wrote 15 of the books while living in Haverhill: three in the Lewis Barnavelt series; four starring Anthony Monday of Hoosac, Minnesota; and eight books featuring 13-year-old Johnny Dixon that are set in Duston Heights, a fictional city located on the Merrimack River in northern Massachusetts.
Those who knew the author say that Barnavelt is a representation of a young Bellairs, who grew up awkward and bullied in Marshall, Michigan. “He based Lewis on his own childhood experience,” Priscilla Bellairs says. “He was overweight and he was self-conscious about that.”
After earning degrees at Notre Dame and The University of Chicago, Bellairs published his first book, “St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies,” in 1966. He used the proceeds to move to England for six months. After returning, he moved to Massachusetts, where, in 1968, he met Priscilla Braids through friends. The two married just eight weeks later. He got jobs teaching English, first at Emmanuel College in Boston and then at Merrimack College in North Andover, all the while writing and rewriting “The House With a Clock in Its Walls.”
Bellairs died suddenly in 1991, less than two months after his 53rd birthday. He left behind some unfulfilled contracts and unfinished manuscripts, so his literary agent hired author and Bellairs fan Brad Strickland to complete them. Strickland wrote seven additional Lewis Barnavelt novels. His new work, “An Insider’s Guide to New Zebedee: People, Places, and Things in the Lewis Barnavelt Series Created by John Bellairs,” was released in August.
Priscilla Bellairs, to whom “The House With a Clock in its Walls,” is dedicated, lives in Newburyport now. She’s waited all summer for the movie’s scheduled Sept. 21 release with as much anticipation as the rest of her former husband’s fans — or perhaps even more, considering she got a sneak peek behind the scenes last fall. She traveled to Atlanta, where the movie was filmed, at the invitation of director Eli Roth. “We visited the set and met the producer, the director, Cate Blanchett and Jack Black and Kyle MacLachlan and Owen Vaccaro … it was phenomenal, and they were wonderful to us,” she says.
Strickland also visited the set. He shared on social media that he was “heartened” by the knowledge that Roth and producer Brad Fischer are great Bellairs fans, and that every major cast member read and liked the novel. “All the actors we met were enthusiastic about making a film that carries the patented Bellairs mix of horror and humor,” Strickland wrote.
Priscilla Bellairs and Strickland were even invited to share their inside knowledge with the cast and crew. “They asked questions, and they were eager to know what we thought of the sets they had designed and the decorations of the rooms. … They explained some of the things they had changed from the book. They were very open about the discussions that went into it,” Bellairs says. “It was just a fabulous time.”
This experience, Bellairs says, contrasts with an early attempt to turn the book into a movie that was met with resistance by the author, who felt that “Night of the Living Dead” director George Romero’s treatment wasn’t really true to the spirit of the story he wrote. (An extra bit of Merrimack Valley trivia, and an interesting case of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure: This original treatment resides in the Haverhill Public Library’s special collections after being tossed into the trash by Bellairs and retrieved by a neighbor, who donated the manuscript to the library.)
Later efforts, after the author’s death, were stalled by copyright issues that resulted in years of litigation between Priscilla Bellairs and the author’s two living siblings. The siblings still lived in their childhood home in Michigan and initially had no idea they had inherited the rights to the material. “John had been pretty much alienated from his family for most of his adult life, and they had shown very little interest in his literary career,” Bellairs says.
This time around, according to Bellairs, the movie seems much more in keeping with the original spirit of the book. “They certainly were respectful of the material, and they seemed to want to be authentic,” she says, adding that her former husband would have been just as excited about the movie’s release as his fan club. “I so wish he were here enjoying it,” Bellairs says. “Not that he was a publicity hound. He was, in some ways, really shy, but he loved movies, and having his own work made into a movie was really always a goal.”
When asked if this could be the beginning of a series, Bellairs says, “I certainly hope so.”
John Bellairs, who would have been 80 now, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery on East Broadway in Haverhill. His official cause of death was listed as cardiovascular disease, but Priscilla Bellairs puts the blame on a different problem. “The fact is that his blood alcohol level was .45 when he died, and he had been desperately alcoholic for the last two years of his life, so the real cause of death was alcoholism. That wasn’t in any of the papers,” she says. The couple had divorced by then, but remained on good terms. “It was very sad from my point of view, the way things went. He was such a good writer, and he was at the height of his fame. … It was just really, really sad. I wish that could be an example to others to not go that route, but I know it doesn’t always work that way.” Buried alongside the author is the couple’s only child, Frank, who died in 1999 at the age of 29.
A painting of John Bellairs is now in storage at Cogswell ArtSpace in Haverhill. It originally was part of an art project that hung in the city’s downtown. This painting incorporates symbolic elements from the author’s life and work, including the house that inspired the book. Look at it closely and you may spot where the artist, reluctant to sign her work as a rule, hid the words, “Famous author John Bellairs by not so famous artist Sheila Foley,” a detail that “would have delighted John,” Priscilla Bellairs says.