Last month I talked about John Bellairs's children's book The House with a Clock in Its Walls and said my daughter wanted to read all the books in the Lewis Barnavelt series. We've just finished The Figure in the Shadows. Like the first book, it was wonderfully creepy and spooky. Reading it made me think of a famous passage from Stephen King's Dans Macabre (1980):
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
Bellairs's work sits squarely in terror. For most of The Figure in the Shadows we only know that something scary is on the way. The scary thing only appears in the final chapters; even then it's barely seen. On page 78, Lewis Barnavelt receives a scary postcard that says, in Latin, Venio ("I come"). Such a postcard -- a POSTCARD -- should not be so scary. But it is VERY SCARY. The next scary thing, an old newspaper blowing around in the wind -- A VERY SCARY NEWSPAPER -- appears on page 119. My daughter and I were TERRIFIED.
With this book, Bellairs reminds us that a figure in the shadows can be much more frightening than, say, a well-lit monster. No one has written a full-length biography of Bellairs. I wish someone would.