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The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder Paperback – 28 Sep 1995
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This book can be read in conjunction with "The Ghost in the Mirror" which takes place simultaneously with `Witch-Finder' and stars Lewis Barnavelt's friends, Rose Rita Pottinger and Mrs. Florence Zimmermann.
When orphaned Lewis Barnavelt, now age thirteen, and his Uncle Jonathan go on vacation in Europe, they drop in on their English cousin Pelham, who owns the ancestral Barnavelt Manor. The housekeeper's son Bertie, who is blind, takes Lewis on a tour of the old mansion and grounds.
Lewis is especially interested in the maze, which he has read about but never seen, and his new friend Bertie shows him the trick of reaching its center. From the description given in `Witch-Finder,' it was probably a hedged labyrinth of the sort that became fashionable in the late sixteenth century (see M.R. James's story, "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance" for a similar tale of a maze and the awfulness at its center).
All is well, until Lewis discovers an old map of the maze with what might be a treasure in the center. He sets out on a midnight excursion, accompanied by Bertie, to the hidden heart of the maze.
Instead of treasure, Lewis accidentally unleashes a demon that summons the ghost of the witch-finder Malachiah Pruitt, three hundred years dead. Lewis and Bertie barely escape the maze with their lives.
Back during Cromwell's reign in England, Malachiah Pruitt had accused one of Lewis's ancestors of witchery and tried to have him burned at the stake. Now Pruitt's ghost has been set free by Lewis and Bertie.
`Witch-Finder' is full of deliciously spooky occurrences, and I enjoyed the `Sherlock and Watson' role-playing of the two boys as they try to solve the horrible predicament they've gotten themselves into (along with everyone else in the mansion).
Lewis Barnavelt accompanies his uncle Jonathan to England, where they are visiting an older cousin. The cousin also has a housekeeper, and Lewis soon befriends Bertie, the housekeeper's blind son. Bertie and Lewis soon begin exploring happily in a hedge maze, until they find a strange monument in the center. When they pry a brick loose, some invisible, laughing creature escapes and chases them back to the house.
Soon afterward, the adults at Barnavelt Manor start behaving strangely. The cousin becomes sly and cackling, the housekeeper is like a sinister wind-up doll, and the gardener is snarling. Lewis suspects that somehow, this is all connected to a psychotic Puritan witch-finder, Malachiah Pruitt, who once made life miserable for Lewis's ancestor... until the ancestor struck back somehow. And now Pruitt is somehow back for revenge against the Barnavelts.
It's always sort of a guilty pleasure to read one of these books, where horror is handled in a way both lavish and sparing. Something as minor as the rustle of twigs or a funny-looking gravestone can be significant and can strike horror in the reader. Writing-wise, this is one of the better ones. Strickland, who completed the book, knows well how to flesh out Bellairs' storyline. The atmosphere is chilling and almost claustrophobic, in that the walls keep closing in on our heroes. The main problem, perhaps, is that there is relatively little humor leavening the story, except for the continuing Watson-Holmes joke between Bertie and Lewis. On the flip side, late in the book is one of the most touching scenes I have ever read in a Bellairs and/or Strickland book, between Lewis and Jonathan.
Characterizations are very nice. Lewis gains a little more self-confidence and loses a little weight; Jonathan is a little less zesty than usual, but he is also absent for large sections of the book. Bertie is a nice sidekick for Lewis, and his means of knowing that there is something wrong despite his blindness is well done. (The best meaning of stiff-upper-lip) The housekeeper and cousin are a little two-dimensional, but then dimension is not needed. Malachiah Pruitt is a wonderfully sinister villain -- great idea, to make one of the Puritan witch-hunters a psychotic wanna-rule-the-world type. (Though his ambitions to rule the world did feel a little tacked on)
For those of you who are not yet ready to read Stephen King, try these John Bellairs books. Spooky, bone-rattling fun.