It's 1951 and Johnny Dixon is in seventh grade. He has recently come up from Long Island to live with his grandparents in Duston Heights, MA. His mother died less than a year ago of cancer and his father accepted a position as a jet pilot in the Korean War.
A shy kid and fond of books, Johnny hasn't made any close friends yet at his new school and has attracted the attention of the class bully. He worries about this, but when he makes a new friend in the cranky old Professor Roderick Random Childermass who shares his love of books, chess and fudge-y chocolate frosting, he's happy enough.
Then the professor tells him a ghost story about the villainous Father Baart who was supposed to have caused the death of two parisoners of Duston Heights in the 1890s before vanishing. Rumors persist of sightings of the black-cloaked priest in the pews and of an occult artifact left behind in the church....
Making a detour into the church to avoid his bully, Johnny finds himself in the church alone and decides to do some exploring. He finds a hollowed out book in the basement containing an Egyptian figure and a warning - which he of course ignores and he winds up taking the object home.
Things begin to get weird.
I remember being a little confused by this one when I first read it. Bellairs puts in a lot of period detail into the story and there are many scenes that develop the personality of the characters, but slow down the plot. There's a nice little aside explaining the fictional town is named after Hannah Duston, who was captured in 1697 after a raid on Haverhill and escaped by killing and scalping her Native American captors. Certain elements such as the origin of certain accursed objects and why Johnny ends up in the precise remote rural location where the evil is strongest are never explained. There's a bit of impatient hand-waving by the professor about those bits that didn't sit well with me then or now. Despite that, this improved my impression of the book and I look forward to re-reading more of these soon.