Initially, one would think that a truly talented author's quirky, unique style could not be very nearly duplicated. But Brad Strickland is doing a fine job with the characters that Bellairs created, and this is one of his best efforts.
Lewis Barnavelt and Rose Rita Pottinger have to participate in a talent show whether they like it or not. When they hit on the idea of doing a magic show (fake, not real), they end up consulting a friend at a museum who allows them to borrow some books on stage magic. But when Rose Rita picks up an old parchment scroll, she inadvertantly lets a drop of blood fall on some magic dust -- and the dust turns into a living spider. The two of them flee, but Rose Rita brings the scroll, with intent to return it.
Except she then starts acting oddly. When the talent show results in a dismal failure, Rose Rita is left with a burning hatred and a wish for revenge. Then she starts dreaming of becoming a giant spider, and hearing the voice of the scroll's previous owner -- Belle Frisson, a sorceress who now wants to use Rose Rita to rise again and live forever.
This is labelled as a "Lewis Barnavelt" book, but at least half of it focuses on Rose Rita. While fans of Bellairs will be well acquainted with Lewis's insecurities, Strickland takes the opportunity to delve into a few of Rose Rita's. He also manages to give us a message about revenge and hatred and grudges without beating the reader over the head with it. The Message is simply there.
How much of a "Bellairs" book is this? Very much so, and not just in terms of having creepy beasties and a megalomaniac villain. The pacing and tone are very correct, as is the usage of maybe-it's-real-maybe-not ancient magics. I could have used a little more bickering between Mrs. Zimmerman and Uncle Jonathan, but the comforting scene between Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman makes up for that.
Strickland does an excellent job with the evil sorceress Belle Frisson, and uses the ever-growing, evil-spirit spider very well also. The idea of a drop of blood turning powder into a malevolent spider is not just good spinechilling material, but it also is quite Bellairsesque.
This is an amazing spinechiller. I do warn you though: Arachnaphobics should definitely not read this book, or they'll never sleep again.