THE HOUSE WITH THE WEST IN ITS WALLS: I can’t recall now what made me think of John Bellairs. I was on the S2, heading down 16th Street toward the house where I grew up, when I remembered his funny, weird horror books for kids. In Bellairs-land, Catholicism is more of an atmosphere than a creed; his towns are populated by struggling families, fierce nuns, librarians and professors, and people who’ve made pacts with the Devil. Probably my favorite Bellairs books are The House With a Clock in Its Walls, The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, and The Curse of the Blue Figurine. Try to find the editions with Edward Gorey illustrations. After his death, other authors churned out books under the Bellairs name. I tried one of the postmortem books (The Mansion in the Mist, I think), and it was everything I expected, so I can’t recommend those.
But the thing I noticed yesterday about Bellairs is how he helped furnish my mind. I first learned from Bellairs: “A great reckoning in a little room”; the Litany of Loreto; the Latin for “Judge me, O God” and “I come”; what the Urim and the Thummim were; and many more shards from the religious and literary life of the West. Later, when I learned the real significance of these items, the shock of recognition made them even more powerful than they would have been if I’d never heard them before.
The Last Unicorn (a classic of fine writing and wisdom) did much the same for “The sweet and bitter fool shall presently appear.” I suspect Agatha Christie initiated many children, raised atheist or Jewish-ish as I was, into the basic, taken-for-granted mental framework of Christianity. Clearly you can become Christian without that kind of preparation–people do it all the time–but there’s a certain mindset that is likely to view Christianity as simply irrelevant without some sense of what it would be like to be Christian. There are questions and emphases that distinctively mark Christianity (like the emphasis on redemption through suffering and humility)–it’s not that Christianity is the only thing that ever deals with these subjects, of course, but rather that these subjects provide the framework for Christian thought. Even many of the varieties of atheism that inhabit the Christian world can only be understood against the background of the religion they rejected. And in order to understand Christianity, you have to know why people would believe it; you can’t dismiss it all as a childish search for comfort. (Christianity? That ferocious, unslakable tornado of a religion? It is to laugh. Comfort is not one of the things I was looking for, and, thus far, it hasn’t been one of the things I’ve found.)
Basically, Christianity is a very strange thing for anyone to believe. I think I would have had less ability to understand it if I had not been steeped in books that took it, and the cultures it has created, for granted. Bellairs was a very (very) small part of that; he helped me see what an imagination might do, if it had grown up implicitly Catholic and literary. He didn’t dilute the strangeness of the religion, but he did show me one way of living within it, and I think that helped make the religion itself more believable. He also (and I do realize this is a separate issue) helped to embed me in the Western world, in its books and its recurring images and its native sources of horror. He made it more believable that Shakespeare would be important enough to change my life. And that, too, turned out to be true.
Requiescat in pace.