Book Review: “The Figure in the Shadows” by John Bellairs

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The Figure in the Shadows
by John Bellairs

This sequel to The House With a Clock in Its Walls finds pudgy orphan Lewis Barnavelt a little older but not much wiser.

Lewis, you may remember, has been living for the past year with his wizard uncle Jonathan in the little town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan is not very magical, really, but his next-door-neighbor and close friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, is a very learned, good witch. Nevertheless, neither Jonathan nor Mrs. Zimmermann think Grandpa Barnavelt’s “lucky coin” has any magic in it, when they dig it out of the old Civil War veteran’s trunk.

All the same, Lewis takes to wearing it around his neck, and thinking of it as a magic coin. And when he and his best friend, Rose Rita Pottinger, put the coin to a very spooky magical test, he awakens a nasty force. At first it seems as if the coin will help Lewis, giving him courage and strength to deal with a bully at school. But then it starts to get out of his control, and he begins receiving ominous messages. And a dark figure that smells like wet ashes begins to stalk him.

In a scene that reminded me, somehow, of The Lord of the Rings, Lewis reluctantly lets Rose Rita take the coin from him. She tells him that she has dropped it down a sewer, but Lewis suspects otherwise. One day Lewis takes an opportunity to steal the amulet back from his best friend, but before he can do anything with it, the dark figure rises up to claim him. And in a terrifying race against the elements, on a blizzardy Michigan December night, Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmermann and Uncle Jonathan have to find Lewis before the evil spirit of the amulet/coin takes him to its… gulp… home.

It’s yet another creepy, gothic story, featuring a hero who somehow manages to hold our sympathy while also being a coward, weakling, and crybaby. He is, after all, only a chubby little boy, and what happens to him could happen to anybody– well, at least, anybody whose uncle and neighbor are wizards– even in the Middle America of the late 1940s. The story also explores the dark and light sides of magic in an interesting way. Take, for instance, this exchange in which Mrs. Zimmermann has been explaining how a Michigan farmer in 1859 might become a practitioner in the dark arts…

“You know,” she said slowly, “it must have been awfully lonely on farms in those days. No TV, no radio, no car to take you into town for a movie. No movies at all. Farmers just kind of holed up for the winter. Some of them read the Bible, and some of them read– other books.”

“You read those other books, too, don’t you, Mrs. Zimmermann?” said Rose Rita in a small firghtened voice.
Mrs. Zimmermann gave her a sour look. “Yes, I do, but I read them so I’ll know what to do when something awful happens.”