In the first chapter of John Bellairs’ strange and wonderful young-adult novel The House With a Clock in Its Walls, the protagonist, a ten-year-old boy named Lewis, stays up late reading the ninth volume of John L. Stoddard’s lectures, a late-19th century travelogue that he finds in his eccentric uncle’s library. Here’s how Bellairs describes it:
He was reading about how the Scotch nobles had murdered poor Rizzio right in front of Mary, Queen of Scots. Stoddard compared Rizzio to a purple-velvet plum spurting plum juice in all directions. The nobles dragged the poor man, kicking and screaming, into the hallway, where they stabbed him some more. Fifty-six times, said Stoddard, though he didn’t say who counted the stabs. Lewis flipped the page and bit into a peppermint patty. Now Stoddard was talking about the permanence of bloodstains and wondering whether or not the stain on the hall floor in Holyrood really was Rizzio’s blood or not. Lewis began to yawn. He turned off the light and went to sleep.
That passage captures bookish children’s fascination with horrible things, as well as their ability to set them aside—the peppermint patty is a great touch—but it also tells you something important about Bellairs’ project. Here’s how Stoddard actually described David Rizzio’s murder:
Rizzio, clinging to the Queen’s dress, piteously cried: “Save my life, Madam! Save my life, for God’s dear sake!” The assassins rushed upon him. A terrible scene ensued. The table with its lights and dishes was overturned. Mary fainted. At last the frantic clutch of Rizzio on Mary’s robe relaxed, and he was dragged out into a narrow passageway and stabbed repeatedly, until his shrieks were hushed in death. Those who have visited Holyrood will recollect the stain upon the floor said to have been caused by his blood.
This is, indeed, a passage that might stick in a child’s mind if he or she read it late at night, as Lewis does in the novel. But there’s no one counting the stabs, no digression about the permanence of blood stains, and most of all, no “purple-velvet plum spurting plum juice.” (How generous to credit such a vivid image to Stoddard!) Whether Bellairs didn’t have a copy of Stoddard at hand and misremembered the passage or deliberately altered it, the result is the same: he made his source material bloodier and ghastlier, confident children would come along for the ride. And they did, in droves.
Which brings us to the first trailer for Universal Pictures’ adaptation of the book, directed by Hostel’s Eli Roth. The previous adaptation, narrated by Vincent Price for his TV special Once Upon a Midnight Scary, set the bar very, very low, so it’s no surprise Roth looks to have filmed the definitive version of Bellairs’ novel. Giving this movie to a horror director was a great idea, the set design looks top notch, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are in fine form, and it looks like Roth has nailed the puzzle-box aspect of the novel without making it look too video-gamey. And even in the trailer, it’s clear that there’s plenty of nightmare-fuel for kids, from dead-eyed dolls to the hand of glory.
But the scene in which Jack Black says, “You’re perfectly safe,” right before purple tentacles erupt from a door behind him and Lewis asks, “That’s safe?” in disbelief? That’s exactly the kind of broad, kid’s movie comedy The House With a Clock in Its Walls doesn’t need. Kids know when they’re being condescended to, and with a PG-13 rating, not many children young enough to appreciate that joke are going to see it anyway. We’ll find out in September what Roth learned from Bellairs, but let’s hope that line is an anomaly. Give the kids their purple-velvet plums spurting plum juice. Some of them are going to love it.