The Ghost in the Mirror: Gothic creepiness for all ages

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book review John Bellairs The Ghost in the MirrorThe Ghost in the Mirror by John Bellairs

I may not be the best person to review John Bellairs’ The Ghost in the Mirror, since it is clearly one book of many in a series, and I’ve only just arrived. When I picked up my copy from the library, I had no idea that it was part of a larger set, when in fact, Bellairs has written sixteen books that contain the characters found within this book.

I should say at this point that Bellairs’ passed away in 1991, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. Brad Strickland has completed many of his stories, including this one. But I certainly couldn’t see a drop in quality, or any obvious change in style. But then again, I’m a newcomer and this review can only judge the merits of this one particular book. It may therefore be inadequate in assessing its worth as part of a longer-running series, but maybe I can fairly review The Ghost in the Mirror without either the baggage or advantage of the other books.

Mrs Zimmermann is a witch who has lost her powers and is feeling a bit lonely since her good friends Jonathan and Lewis Barnavelt have gone to Europe. She has her young friend Rose Rita to keep her company, but Mrs Zimmermann is troubled by eerie shadows and visions that appear on her walls and ceilings every night.

But she believes that her old teacher Granny Wetherbee is trying to contact her, asking her for help. So she and Rose Rita are soon on a road-trip to Pennsylvania (where Granny Wetherbee used to live) in order to solve the mystery. The adventure really starts when the two of them drive through a tunnel…and arrive on the other side to find themselves in the middle of 1828’s freezing cold winter (as opposed to 1951’s warm and muggy summer).

Rose Rita is nervous, but Mrs Zimmermann is excited, as the two find themselves a part of a Pennsylvania Dutch family who are in serious trouble. The Wiess family are the victims of slander, with their Grandpa Dexel accused of hexing, and the two time-travelers know what tragic fate awaits the family should they not take action against the forces that oppose them.

Throw in some magic mirrors, sinister spells, buried treasure, and a spooky graveyard or two and you have a satisfying read, especially for young readers who enjoy getting spooked. There are a couple of clichés: Mrs Zimmermann gets temporary amnesia, and the main villain pauses in his evil plan to give a lengthy monologue about the whys and wherefores of his evil, but the pace is brisk, the characterization is solid, and the plot-points hang together nicely and are brought to their logical conclusion.

I enjoyed the friendship between the elderly Mrs Zimmerman and the young Rose Rita (how often do you find an old lady/young girl team-up in children’s literature?) and there is a critical eye fixed upon the damaging consequences of gossip and hearsay.

For a time-slip adventure, there is little in the way of exploring life as it was lived in a different time and place (though I did appreciate a detail that explained that Pennsylvania Dutch weren’t actually Dutch at all). There are other little tidbits of course, such as the food and transportation used in the 1800s, as well as plenty of arcane knowledge about the magical arts, but the past isn’t brought vividly to life (though I guess that such things aren’t really the point of these stories.)

I’m sure that getting the most enjoyment of these books relies on one’s foreknowledge of the other books in this series, where the characters appear as old friends rather than new acquaintances, and the problems that they face have context (such as how Mrs Zimmermann lost her powers, why Rose Rita cringes every time she thinks of her first dance, and what exactly Jonathan and Lewis got up to in Europe — though perhaps that last one’s in a later book).

So my advice to you is: start at the beginning with The House With a Clock In Its Walls. With an atmosphere that’s somewhat reminiscent of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, which in turn is based on the dreary stylings of Edgar Allan Poe, I’d recommend John Bellairs to young readers (or old) who enjoy a little Gothic creepiness mixed into their reading material.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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