Born in 1938, the late John Bellairs published two little-known novels before finding critical acclaim with The Face in the Frost. Inspired by the works of Tolkien, it was his first foray into the world of fantasy fiction—though it certainly wasn't his last. After the success of Frost, he published the debut installment of his Lewis Barnavelt series—The House with a Clock in Its Walls—in 1973, which jump-started his lifelong career as a writer of young adult mysteries with supernatural twists. That same book headed to the big screen in 2018 with Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles, and you could argue that Bellairs' brave boy-hero is the predecessor of a certain boy wizard.
In celebration of the film's release, we're taking a look at some of John Bellairs' best work. From a story about brothers and their magical gargoyle to a novel about a 13-year-old's battle against evil, the following books have Gothic chills and thrills that'll entertain readers of any age.
The Face in the Frost
Arguably Bellairs' most famous novel, The Face in the Frost injects adult humor into horror and fairy tale lore, spinning a first-class "good vs. evil" story. The action centers around the skinny-limbed Prospero—who may not be that Prospero, but who has an equal knack for wizardry. He joins his necromancer pal, Roger Bacon, on a quest for a mysterious book, whereupon he comes face to face with his arch-nemesis and a battle unlike any other...
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
If Lewis thought orphanhood would be the biggest surprise of his life, he better think again. Upon arriving at his uncle’s house, he discovers that his new guardian isn’t the man he expected. In fact, he isn’t like anyone Lewis has ever met. Uncle Jonathan is actually a warlock—though he's not as talented as his witchy neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman. Surrounded by so much magic, Lewis tries a bit of his own hocus pocus, only to resurrect the home's former owner and the dangerous clock she once hid inside its walls. Filled with Gothic suspense and fantasy, this Bellairs novel is a wild ride that’s “perfect for the pre-Stephen King” set (Booklist).
Like many of Bellairs' books, the original edition of The House With a Clock in its Walls featured cover art and illustrations by Edward Gorey, an artist and author known for his drolly disturbing work.
The Gargoyle in the Dump
Just when brothers Michael, David, and Fonsy are on the verge of boredom-related deaths, they stumble across something extraordinary: While excavating the dump for possible treasures, they find a living, breathing, talking gargoyle that demands they give him a home. Suddenly, the boys’ uneventful summer turns into the greatest one of their lives, as their unusual friend shares his wild stories and pranks the neighbors. The Gargoyle Dump is a never-before-published story that’s as fun, whimsical, and charming as Bellairs’ more well-known works.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 1
The Curse of the Blue Figurine
The Curse of the Blue Figurine introduces another young Bellairs hero: Johnny Dixon. With his mother dead from cancer and his father off fighting in the Korean War, the 13-year-old is sent to live with his grandparents in their Massachusetts town. It’s here that Johnny swaps ghost stories with the locals—most notably Professor Childermass, who regales him with tales of an insane, dead priest. But when Johnny visits the haunted church and takes an old figurine from the basement, he realizes that Father Baart’s spirit is still very much alive.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn
Like Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday is a curious young hero who finds himself in the middle of peculiar circumstances. To support his struggling family, he works at the local library, where the shelves hold not just books but secrets pertaining to a dead millionaire's treasure. But when Anthony and his supervising librarian start following the trail of clues, it becomes clear that someone—or something—will stop at nothing to prevent them from getting their hands on the trove.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 2
The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt
Now the best of friends, Johnny and Professor Childermass are always getting into supernatural shenanigans. This time, they’ve turned their attentions to H. Bagwell Glomus, the once-great cereal king who hid his will long, long ago. Despite countless investigations, no one has been able to locate the document—or collect the $10,000 reward. Enter Bellairs’ unlikely duo, whose search takes an unexpected turn when an evil mummy tries to stand in their way. The second entry in Bellairs’ Dixon series, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt marks the first appearance of Byron Q. Ferguson—Johnny’s happy-go-lucky friend better known as ‘Fergie’.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 3
The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull
Professor Childermass has mysteriously vanished—and Johnny will not rest until he finds him. Something strange is in the air, but he believes the key to solving his friend's disappearance lies in a tiny, magical skull. His hunch proves correct when said skull unleashes demonic forces into the world, leading Johnny and his two sidekicks—an Irish priest and a Boy Scout—to a creepy island off the coast of Maine. Can they defeat whatever evil resides there, save Childermass, and escape with their lives?
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 4
The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost
Johnny Dixon is beset by nightmares—frightening visions of abandoned schoolhouses, swarming insects, mocking crowds, and an ominous stained glass window come to life. When the troubled young boy’s behavior takes a turn for the diabolical, Professor Childermass and Johnny’s friend Fergie soon discover why: Johnny is possessed by the spirit of the evil Warren Windrow. To break the spell and save Johnny’s life, Professor Childermass must fight magic with magic, unraveling the mysteries of his protégé’s dreams and unlocking the dark secrets of the Widrow estate.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 5
The Eyes of the Killer Robot
Cliff Bullard, the big left fielder for the New York Yankees, is a powerhouse at the plate. In fact, he’ll hand over $10,000 to anyone who can strike him out. Johnny and the professor think they have the winning ticket in the form of a local inventor who once built a robot that could throw a baseball at 110 mph. But when the pair finally boots up the old hunk of junk, it transforms into a killing machine. Now, they’ll have to pull the plug on this dangerous contraption before it’s too late.
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The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 6
The Trolley to Yesterday
The sixth installment in the Dixon series sends Johnny, Fergie, and Professor Childermass on mind-bending journey 500 years into the past. When the professor discovers a trolley that transports its riders back to the days of Byzantine Empire, everyone climbs aboard. Exploring the lively streets of Constantinople is extraordinary. But the professor is on a secret mission to rewrite history. He intends to save the people of the Church of the Holy Wisdom from destruction and death at the hands of advancing Turkish armies.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 7
The Chessmen of Doom
Johnny and Professor Childermass leave Duston Heights for the wilds of northern Maine in this puzzle-filled adventure. Childermass is surprised to receive a letter from his estranged brother Peregrine, and shocked by what the letter says. By the time you get this, I will be in the next world, if there is one. But Peregrine presents an intriguing proposition in his final words: He’s promised his brother his bountiful estate in Maine if he can solve one last riddle. So Johnny and the professor head north to crack the puzzle. How hard could it be? Turns out, they may have taken on more than they bargained for.
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The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 9
The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie
Johnny and Professor Childermass are no strangers to life’s dark side, but this may be their most sinister adventure yet. Halloween is in the air when Johnny and Fergie get their hands on a mystic drum festooned with strange symbols and bones. Just give it a few taps. What’s the worst that could happen? When the instrument awakens an evil sorceress and merciless zombie, all of Duston Heights is at risk of being consumed by darkness. Can Johnny and the professor stop the fearsome Priests of the Midnight Blood and send them back from whence they came?
Before his untimely death in 1991, Bellairs had mapped out the plot of The Drum, the Doll, and the Zombie. Fantasy and sci-fi author Brad Strickland was commissioned to complete the work—and upon the book’s release, penned three more Dixon novels.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 10
The Hand of the Necromancer
Brad Strickland conjures the ghosts of Salem—and captures Bellairs’ gothic magic—in this bewitching narrative, his first complete Dixon novel written after Bellairs’ passing. Haunting Duston Heights is the story of Esdrias Blackleach, a feared necromancer from the Salem witch trials era. Accused of using dark magic on his fellow townsfolk, Blackleach died mysteriously before he could be brought to trial. But that doesn’t mean he’s gone for good. Now, a Blackleach descendent intends to raise the wicked sorcerer from the dead. And Johnny and the professor are the only two who can stop him.
The Johnny Dixon Mysteries Book 11
The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder
It’s a rainy afternoon in March, and Johnny could not be more content. Why? He and his good friend Fergie are warm and cozy amid the stacks at the Duston Heights Library. When Johnny heads home, Fergie stays behind, scanning the shelves in search of an enchanting read. He stumbles upon The Book of True Wishes by Jarmyn Thanatos. The mysterious volume seemingly knows everything about Fergie, and promises to make the boy’s wildest dreams come true. But dark magic lurks between the lines. Soon, Fergie falls under the spell of a wicked sorcerer, and Johnny and Professor Childermass must do whatever it takes to rescue their friend.
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Featured photo: poster of "The House with a Clock in Its Walls" via Universal Pictures