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When Johnny Dixon takes a tiny skull from a haunted dollhouse, demonic forces are released,capturing Professor Childermass and leading Johnny on a harrowing chase to a deserted island off the coast of Maine.
"Phooey! Phooey on winter and snowy white snow and jingle bells and walking in winter wonderlands! Bah! We should never have come up here in the first place!"
It was a cold February night in the year 1952, and snow swirled around the picturesque white houses and the sprawling old Fitzwilliam Inn in the beautiful little New Hampshire town of Fitzwilliam. It whitened roofs and the grass of the town common, an oblong park that the town was built around, and fell on the heads and shoulders of two people who were trudging slowly around the common. One of these was a short, red-faced elderly man, Professor Roderick Childermass. He had a strawberry nose and wildly sprouting muttonchop whiskers, and he was wearing a battered, shapeless fedora and a threadbare and dirty tweed overcoat. His hands were jammed into the pockets of the coat, and as he stomped along, he kept making bad-tempered comments. Walking next to him was a pale, bespectacled boy named Johnny Dixon in a red stocking cap and a blue parka and galoshes. Johnny was shy and nervous-acting. He kept looking anxiously at the professor, and every now and then he would open his mouth to say something. Suddenly he would change his mind and stay silent.
"Winter paradise indeed!" snorted the professor, glancing fiercely this way and that. "I'd like to give a piece of my mind to the boneheads who settled up in this godforsaken wilderness! And to the cheapo types who run the state and don't provide enough money to clear the roads or sand them in the wintertime!"
"Please, professor!" Johnny said in a mild, placating voice. "Don't be angry, please, don't! Everything'll be all right! It really will, you'll see! We've got a room at the inn for tonight, and they're towing your car right now. It's not so bad, really it isn't! And I'm having a good time. The town is wonderful, and I like the inn a lot, and I like going places with you. So don't worry—it'll be all right!"
The professor stopped scowling. He turned and smiled kindly at Johnny, and then he reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Well, as long as you're not too disappointed," he said. "I'm sorry I lost my temper, but I get wrathful every time I think of that slippery road, and us skidding and sliding into that ditch! I wanted to show you New Hampshire in the wintertime, and it really is quite beautiful in the snow. We were having a good time, and then that dratted accident had to happen!" The professor paused. He turned and looked across at the large shadowy inn on the far side of the common. Its windows glowed yellow, and smoke curled from the tall chimneys. All around the common, houses were filled with lamplight. Candles winked in the darkness here and there. Snow swirled everywhere, and was piling up on gateposts and ledges and roofs. It was a lovely, dreamy Christmas-card scene.
"Ah, well," said the professor. "I suppose things could be worse!" A gust of wind hit him, and he shivered. "Brrh! But it is getting cold out here! How about it? Shall we head back to the inn and have a nice hot drink by the fire before we turn in? I think a hot toddy or a brandy or two would improve my disposition immensely."
Johnny agreed, and they started back. As they drew near to the inn, they heard the grinding sound of an engine, and, turning to their left, they saw a tow truck crawling up out of the dark hollow behind the inn. Hanging from the tow chain was the professor's maroon Pontiac. Its right headlight had been gouged out, and the right front fender was a shapeless mass of dented, squashed metal. The two travelers watched solemnly as the tow truck rolled past. Again Johnny shot a glance at the professor, and he was relieved to see that the old man was taking things calmly.
Johnny liked the professor a lot. He had met the professor a little over a year ago, right after he came to live with his grandparents in the city of Duston Heights, Massachusetts. At the time he had been scared and lonely: his mother had died recently, and his dad had gone off to fly a jet in the Korean War. Later his dad had been discharged from the Air Force, but he had re-enlisted because the Air Force had needed his special skills as a pilot. The professor had befriended Johnny, and his friendship had been like a wonderful gift: he played chess with Johnny, taught him to bake cakes, and went places with him. He argued with him about war and politics, and really listened when Johnny tried to give his opinion about something. For a shy kid who was used to being ignored by grown-ups, this was really something incredible. Johnny was proud to be the professor's friend, and he was willing to forgive him when—every now and then—the professor lost his famous temper.
A little later the two of them were relaxing in one of the parlors on the first floor of the old inn. It was a cozy room, with its cushiony armchairs and sofas, frilly-shaded floor lamps, and faded, tattered red Oriental rug. A fire was roaring in the fireplace, and its light flickered over old dusky paintings and a gilded banjo clock with a brass eagle on top. The professor was sitting in a saggy armchair by the fire with his shoes off and his feet propped up on a low footstool. In his hand was a glass of brandy, and he was smoking one of his black-and-gold Balkan Sobranie cigarettes. His eyes were half-closed, and the look on his face said that he was at peace with the world. Johnny was standing over by a low bookcase in a corner leafing through some of the books. He was trying to find one that would be fun to read in bed.
The professor sipped his brandy and smiled blissfully. "Aaah!" he said. "Sitting around and doing nothing is one of the great underrated pleasures of life! Tomorrow I know that I will have to do something about that wretched car, but right now I wouldn't move a muscle to save it if it was about to fall off a—"
"Hi there!" said a friendly, rumbly voice by the door. "Can I come in and join you guys?"
The professor and Johnny turned and looked. It was the owner of the inn—a man about sixty years old, with grizzled gray hair and a leathery, seamed face. He wore a plaid shirt and a saggy, unbuttoned woolen sweater, old stained work pants, and battered hiking boots. He was smoking a pipe and leaning against the doorpost with his arms folded across his chest, looking very relaxed and at home.
"Of course, of course. Please come in!" said the professor, motioning with his hand. "There's an extra chair here, right by the fire, and it is your inn, after all! Have you met my young friend, John Dixon? He's my partner on this ill-fated northern expedition."
Mr. Spofford walked across the room and shook Johnny's hand warmly. Then he went to the armchair that stood near the professor's and sank into it. He leaned back and stared at the fire, puffing his pipe for a minute or two. He looked tired, and was obviously glad to have a chance just to sit and catch his breath for a bit.
After a few more minutes of silent meditation, Mr. Spofford turned and smiled at the professor. "They get your car outa that ditch okay, did they?"
The professor nodded glumly. "Yes, they did. I'm going over to whosis' garage tomorrow morning to see if it will be possible to drive the filthy heap of rust back home. But for now, I'm just glad to be here, safe and sound."
"Glad to have ya, glad to have ya," said Mr. Spofford pleasantly. He leaned back and blew a stream of smoke at the mantelpiece. "I see by the way you signed the guest book that you're a professor, Mr. ... Mr. ..." He paused and grinned apologetically at the professor. "I'm sorry. I hate to admit it, but I couldn't read your handwritin'. Mine's nothin' t'brag about, but yours is worse. Is it Chilmark or Chillingsworth or what?"
The professor glared at Mr. Spofford. His handwriting was awful, and he knew it, but he hated to have people comment on it. "It is Childermass," he said stiffly. "Roderick Childermass, Ph.D."
Mr. Spofford looked shocked. His hand flew to his mouth, and there was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Johnny was bewildered. He glanced from one man to the other. What on earth had happened?
The professor set his brandy glass down on a table by the armchair. He stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray and folded his hands in his lap. "My dear sir," he began, coldly, "there are a few traitors and renegades in our family history, but on the whole, Childermass is an ancient and honorable name. There was a Childermass at the battle of Agincourt, and another with the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. So may I ask why my name has given you such a turn?"
Mr. Spofford gave the professor an embarrassed sidelong glance. "Oh, it ain't nothin' against ... against you personally. Or ... or your family name. It's only jist that, well, we got this clock here that we show to visitors sometimes, an' it's s'posed to be haunted, an' ... well, it's called the Childermass clock."
Now it was the professor's turn to be astounded. His mouth dropped open, and he looked positively aghast. "Good Lord!" he said, in a slow, awestruck voice. "So that's what became of it!"
At the word haunted Johnny's eyes lit up. He had been listening to this conversation with growing interest, and now he was totally fascinated. "Hey!" he exclaimed. "Is it really haunted? And ... and can we see it? I'd really like to ..." His voice trailed off. Embarrassment overcame him, and he wondered if maybe he had said something he shouldn't have.
The innkeeper glanced quickly at Johnny, and then he turned back to the professor. "Do ... do you know about this darned thing? I mean, why it was made and what it's for, an' ... an' everything?"
The professor sighed. He picked up his brandy glass, swirled the liquid inside, and took a sip. "Alas, yes," he said gloomily. "I know far too much about that clock. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised to hear that it was haunted. Not one bit. So it's here! Good gravy! It was stolen when the old Childermass place—our family home, up in Vermont—got broken into about ten years ago." The professor paused and smiled wryly at Mr. Spofford. "I assume," he went on, "that you wouldn't have told me about the clock if you had been the thief yourself. So would you mind telling me how in blazes it wound up here, at this place?"
Mr. Spofford shrugged. "No. I wouldn't mind tellin' you. It's a weird story, though: y'see, it got left on the front porch here, one night durin' a snowstorm. Next mornin' my wife stuck her head out the front door, an' there 'twas, with a piece o' burlap sackin' pulled over the top of it. No note with it, er nothin'." Mr. Spofford paused and stared at the fire. "Somebody musta wanted t'get rid of it," he added in an odd tone of voice.
There was a brief silence. Johnny could hear the banjo clock ticking and the fire crackling. Suddenly Mr. Spofford leaped to his feet.
"Well!" he said a bit too loudly. "Would you two like t'see the darned thing? How about it?"
Johnny said yes, he'd love to see the clock, and the professor agreed. They followed the innkeeper out of the parlor and around a couple of corners, and then down a wide hall that ran from the front to the back of the old building. On their left rose the staircase that led to the second floor. On their right were closed doors. Mr. Spofford opened a door at the far end of the hall, and he flipped a light switch. Johnny and the professor found themselves in a small disorderly room full of broken or unused pieces of furniture. There were cane-bottomed chairs with the seats smashed out, and end tables with broken legs. Against one wall was a stout workbench with a vise clamped to one end, and next to it was a dusty library table. On the table stood the clock.
It was quite large for a shelf clock: two feet wide and about four feet high. The case was made of dark, close-grained wood that shone with varnish. The upper half of the clock was a lot like the shelf and mantel clocks that were made by the Willard Brothers of Massachusetts back in the early 1800s. There was a churchy pointed "roof" on top, and it was flanked by two carved wooden spires. The face of the clock was made of white painted metal with black numerals, and the hands were of curly, fancy cast bronze. Painted neatly on the face were the words M. Childermass fecit and the date 1889. In the bottom part of a clock of this sort, you usually saw a pendulum behind a square glass door. But in this case, what you saw was a dollhouse room. It was made to look like the parlor of a well-to-do Victorian house of the 1870s or '80s. Everything was done very carefully in miniature: when Johnny squatted down and peered into the shadow-box room, he saw a red Turkish carpet on the floor and an oval antique table with a green plush cover. On the table were an oil lamp, a pair of glasses, and a Bible.
Next to the table was an old-fashioned easy chair, upholstered in black leather. On the left was a fireplace, with candlesticks and a mantel clock, and against the rear wall was a sideboard with two tiny wine decanters on it. Above the decanters hung an oil painting in a gilt frame. A fussy, curly backed, red velvet sofa stood against the right-hand wall, and near it a door stood ajar, showing a cloak and a top hat hanging on pegs in the hallway. The wall to the left of the fireplace had a built-in bookcase, and before it stood a doll that was made to look like an old man. It had a silky gray beard, a black suit, and a black string tie. The doll appeared to be studying the bookcase, and its hand was stretched out in the act of taking a book from a shelf.
Johnny and the professor squatted down, with their heads close together. They peered into the room, taking in all the odd, intricate details.
"Over there—look at that!" said the professor, pointing a long, tobacco-stained forefinger. "Those things on the shelves on the left side of the fireplace. Aren't they marvelous?"
Johnny looked at the row of built-in shelves. Instead of books, these shelves held objects: teeny baskets of fruit, a set of scales, a wine bottle, and a skull.
"That skull has always kind of fascinated me," said the professor, reaching farther into the room. "It was brought back from California by my granduncle, and I suppose that it is ivory, or maybe it's bone. At any rate, it's a very curious little doojigger, and cleverly made, but I cannot for the life of me figure out why my father decided to put it into this room. After all, the room is supposed to be an exact replica of the study of our old family home up in Vermont, but there was never any—ah!"
With a sudden indrawn hiss, the professor jerked his hand back. The tip of his finger had accidentally touched the miniature skull.
Johnny was alarmed. "What is it? What's wrong?"
The professor examined his fingertip curiously. "Hmm ... Well, there's nothing wrong, actually. I just got the oddest sensation from touching that skull. But I suppose it's all my imagination—there seems to be no harm done."
"Cut yourself, did you?" asked Mr. Spofford, stepping forward.
"No, no—nothing of the sort!" said the professor, waving him away. "I'm just an old man, and my nerves are on edge after the trouble we've had today."
Mr. Spofford glanced quickly at the professor, and he seemed to be about to say something. But he changed his mind and turned instead to the clock.
"It's really somethin', ain't it?" he said, patting the side of the heavy wooden case. "By the way, professor. You said you knew the guy who made this thing. Would you mind tellin' me about this M. Childermass? I'd kinda like t'know."
The professor straightened up and turned to face Mr. Spofford. "Very well," he said dryly. "If you're dying to know, I'll tell you. The clock was made by my father, Marcus Childermass, and it took him five years to do it. He began work on it shortly after my granduncle, Lucius J. Childermass, died. The doll is supposed to represent Uncle Lucius, who died in a very strange manner, and very suddenly, in this room—or rather, in the room of which this is a replica."
Johnny turned and stared in wonder at the professor. "You never told me anything about that," he said in a half-accusing tone.
Excerpted from The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs. Copyright © 1983 John Bellairs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 30, 2012
I originally read this book when I was about nine or ten, and it stuck with me for years--I loved the unsettling atmosphere, the mystery, and the overall feeling of the book. I didn't read any other John Bellairs books as a child, but because of the impression this book left on me, I went in search of more John Bellairs books as an adult, and I find that I can still enjoy the creepiness and can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, even more than 20 years later. I would recommend any John Bellairs book, but this one in particular still has the ability to haunt me just as it did when I was ten.
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Posted September 28, 2008
This book was so awesome! I think this book was scary and fantastic! I read it for school and I would read multiple chapters a night! I couldn't seem to put the book down! This book was truley amazing! Believe me, it's worth every penny!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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