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Book Review

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book of the “Lewis Barnavelt” series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

It is 1948. When 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt’s parents are killed in a car accident, he’s sent to live with Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan. Jonathan has a large, interesting house and warmly welcomes his nephew.

Lewis likes his uncle, though he’s puzzled at the way Jonathan goes into a trance when he hears bells chime. Jonathan and neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann play games with Lewis and make him feel at home. Once he is settled in, they share a secret: Uncle Jonathan is a practitioner of magic, and Mrs. Zimmermann is a witch.

They say the former owner of the house, Isaac Izard, was an evil warlock. Somewhere within the walls of the house is an enchanted clock that they can hear ticking. They must locate it so they can disable it. Jonathan has placed many other clocks around the house in an effort to drown out its noise.

Classmates have always teased Lewis, an overweight child, and the kids at his new school carry on the tradition. When a popular boy named Tarby breaks his arm and can’t play sports with his friends, he hangs out with Lewis. Lewis tries to impress Tarby by telling him about Uncle Jonathan’s magical abilities.

Tarby comes over one night and gets to see some of the magic, but he’s bored by it. Lewis decides he’s got to up his game, so he tells Tarby he can raise the dead. Although he’s been forbidden to touch Uncle Jonathan’s magic books, he finds a necromancy spell and writes it down. He and Tarby meet at the cemetery. Lewis’ spell works, and he inadvertently raises Mrs. Izard, the widow of the man who used to own Jonathan’s house.

Eventually Lewis has to tell others what he’s done. Eventually, Lewis, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann learn that Isaac Izard and his wife placed the enchanted clock in the walls of the house for a terrifying purpose. When activated with a key, it would raise Isaac to life and bring about Doomsday.

A new neighbor moves in across the street, with the help of a mean, fortune-telling hobo known as Hammerhandle. They soon learn it is Mrs. Izard. Lewis finds the hidden clock, but accidentally leads Mrs. Izard to it. Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann battle Mrs. Izard. Lewis smashes the clock, and Mrs. Izard returns to dust. The Doomsday plot is foiled.

Tarby, afraid of getting in trouble for the cemetery incident, refuses to spend time with Lewis anymore. Lewis makes friends with a neighbor girl named Rose and enjoys living with his uncle.

Christian Beliefs

When Lewis feels nervous about his new surroundings, he says some of his altar-boy prayers in Latin and English. In the prayers, he asks why God casts him off while the enemy afflicts him, and he wonders why his soul is troubled. He asks for God not to judge him but to let him live a happy life.

Lewis’ Baptist aunts have warned him that Uncle Jonathan smokes, drinks and plays poker. Lewis says these things aren’t considered so bad in a Catholic family. Hammerhandle asks Lewis if he reads his Bible. He tells the boy there have been signs, and there will be more, that show the end of the world is at hand.

Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmermann and Lewis try to figure out why Izard would want to hasten Doomsday. They recall all that’s been written about a new earth that will be much better than the present earth. They decide this must be Izard’s motivation. Lewis recalls the words of an old hymn about choosing the good or evil side.

Other Belief Systems

Uncle Jonathan practices magic. His friend Mrs. Zimmermann is a witch. The deceased former owner of his house was an evil warlock who would have pulled out his mother’s teeth to get some devil magic.

A common method of using magic is to put a spell on a solid, normal object. Jonathan is convinced the clock inside the walls is under such an enchantment. His magic books contain spells, pentagrams, talismans and long incantations.

Lewis is particularly interested in a book called Necromancy since it talks about raising the dead. When Jonathan expresses concern for Lewis, Mrs. Zimmermann replies that they’ll do something to help him if the devil appears or they find that the end of the world is near. Jonathan’s magic allows him and the others to see and experience sights and sounds of far-off places. He tells Lewis they aren’t really in those places; it’s an illusion.

Lewis uses a spell he’s copied from Jonathan’s book to raise the dead. His hand seems to move by itself as he writes down the name of the person he will raise. He and Tarby hear a sound and see a light in the tomb after Lewis casts the spell.

Jonathan tells Lewis the omega symbol on Izard’s tomb represents the Last Judgment or the end of the world. Something evil chases Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman and Lewis until their car crosses over a bridge. Jonathan explains that witches and other evil things can’t cross running water. The trio uses a magic eight ball to help them search for the clock, and when it initially fails to work for them, Jonathan asks if they should get out the Ouija board instead.

Hammerhandle has a reputation for being able to tell the future. Mrs. Izard tells the others the Day of Judgment is at hand. She says when her lord and master comes to meet them, it will be a very different world. It is unclear whether she’s referring to God or using the titles to describe Isaac Izard.

Mrs. Izard carries a Hand of Glory, a severed hand that presumably belonged to her dead husband. It has a candle sticking out of it and magically immobilizes Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann. Lewis sees the reflection of the Hand of Glory in the glass from the clock, so he doesn’t turn around and look directly at it.

When Lewis wonders if their old neighbors will move back, Jonathan says that house will have to be cleansed — certain rites have to be performed since the unclean spirit that inhabited the house left behind bad auras.

Authority Roles

Lewis’ parents die in a car accident. Uncle Jonathan is an unconventional, friendly practitioner of magic. Mrs. Zimmermann, a kind witch, is his neighbor and friend. They both grow to care for Lewis and his well-being.


The Lord’s name is used in vain. H--- and darn appear.



Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Smoking: Uncle Jonathan smokes a hookah pipe. He and other characters sometimes smoke cigars.

Bullying: Lewis’s classmates, including Tarby, give him a hard time for his weight and lack of skill in sports. Tarby also hits and threatens Lewis.

Disobedience: Lewis reads and finds spells in some of the magic books Jonathan has forbidden him to touch. He feels bad but does it anyway.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

9 to 14


John Bellairs






Record Label



Dial Books for Young Readers


On Video

Year Published



New York Times Outstanding Book Citation, 1973


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