After a brief conversation I had with a fellow reader about how I was just too old to have ever read any Goosebumps (I had already progressed to Stephen King by then), I thought back to what I had read as a child that scared me, and The House With a Clock in Its Walls tops the list.
It’s the first book I stayed up late to finish, because I was too scared to fall asleep.
It’s the first book that ever gave me nightmares.
And, bonus, it’s illustrated by Edward Gorey.
The copy I read in fifth grade was a library book, and sure enough, I managed to track down this one through my county system as well. (Inter-library loan is the best.) My curiosity was piqued–I had to read it again to see what had terrified me so thoroughly.
I blazed through the book in one sitting–it is a children’s book, after all–and to be on the safe side, I did it in the bright sunlight of an early morning, with the window open to let in the mercifully cool breeze. The heat has finally broken here, and I couldn’t be happier. Plus, the story begins at the tail-end of summer, so it seemed perfect.
For all that I didn’t remember, after so many years, the exact plot, a few details jumped out at me that had become lodged in my nightmares without me realizing their source: the twin circles of light that reflected off the evil witch’s spectacles, a harbinger of her menacing presence; the idea (not original to this story, but new to me when I first read it) that evil spirits can’t cross moving water; and the dread I feel sometimes that small details about my surroundings have changed without me noticing. (One of the features of the mansion that is the setting for most of the book involves magic stained-glass windows that change their scenery at will. Lewis, our child hero, is fascinated by them at first, but to me as the reader, they were always sinister. I used to be terrified that I’d wake up one morning and my windows and bed would be in different places in my room.)
But the thing that stayed with me all this time, the quote from the preparation for the final showdown that I actually remembered and made me laugh out loud when I reread it, was this:
“I see,” she said. “It sounds very reasonable. If you’re in a chess game, draw to an inside straight. If you’re playing tennis, try to hit a home run. Very intelligent.”
Our heroes find the titular clock by making up their own silly ritual that involves candles in every window, a player piano, dress-up, and a game of poker that they play until the Ace of Nitwits appears:
Instead of clubs or hearts, it had ears of corn and green peppers all over it. In the center was a dopey-looking man in a flat black hat called a mortarboard, the kind of hat that college professors wear to graduations. Ice cream was heaped on the hat, and the professor was tasting it with his index finger.
Deliberate kookiness, and eventually bravery too, triumph over evil, and I’d say everyone lives happily ever after, but that’s not strictly true, because this is only the first book in the series and plenty of other things happen to little Lewis. But none of them scared me the same way this story did, so I hardly remember them at all.
I don’t think I’ll have nightmares this time (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I start dreaming about stained-glass windows again), and I’m glad I took the time to revisit one of my childhood classics.
Maybe next time I feel the urge I’ll track down a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins. I must have read that five or six times, I wonder how it’s held up over the years…