The Childermass Clock is a large shelf clock designed and built by Marcus Childermass, father of Roderick Childermass, to commemorate the life of Lucius Childermass, who had recently died mysteriously. The clock was later kept in the Childermass family home in Vermont until it was stolen but it eventually resurfaced in New Hampshire about a decade later (The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull).
Lucius Childermass, the granduncle of Roderick Childermass, died in the Childermass family home in Vermont on December 26, 1883. Roderick's father, Marcus, chose to memorialize Lucius and "worked on the clock every chance he could get" but, busy with other commitments, completed the clock five years later, in 1889 (Spell, ).
It is presumed the clock was on display at the Childermass family home in Vermont upon construction until it was stolen sometime in the early 1940s. Its whereabouts were unknown until it resurfaced "durin' a snowstorm" at the front door of the Fitzwilliam Inn in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Roderick Childermass, with Johnny Dixon in tow, is reunited with the clock when he visits the inn in February 1952.
The clock was a large shelf clock, about two feet wide by four feet tall. Its exterior was made of dark, varnished wood with a pointed top. The face was white-painted metal with the Latin words M. Childermass fecit and the date 1889. In the bottom part, where the pendulum was usually located, with a small dollhouse room with all aspects carefully recreated in miniature. The room depicted a Victorian mansion of the 1870s or 1880s:
Everything was done very carefully in miniature:...red Turkish carpet on the floor and an oval antique table with a green plush cover. On the table were an oil lamp, a pair of glasses, and a Bible. The wall to the left of the fireplace had a built-in bookcase, and before it stood a doll that was made to look like and old man. It had a silky gray beard, a black suit, and a black string tie. The doll appeared to be studying the bookcase, and its hand was stretched out in the act of taking a book from the shelf (Spell, 11-2).
The timepiece, more so the miniature display it reveals, is one of Bellairs's more memorable moments and another homage to the work of author M. R. James. The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull greatly expands on James's short story "The Haunted Dolls' House", the tale of one Mr. Dillet who comes across a larger than life dollhouse, itself a Gothic manor full of diminutive items of impeccable detail. Living there are dolls:
"...a gentleman and lady.... There were two children, a boy and a girl. There was a cook, a nurse, a footman, and there were the stable servants, two postilions, a coachman, two grooms."
Both the clock and dollhouse are models commemorating actual people and situations. Though nothing is said of their history, the figures in the dollhouse represents a family that went through some personal tragedy in the 1750s. Professor Childermass however knows the history of his family clock all too well:
The doll is supposed to be represent Uncle Lucius, who died in a very strange manner, and very suddenly, in this room - or rather, in the room of which this is a replica (Spell, 14).
But what makes both dioramas special is that causal viewing tells only half the story. Each is an enchanted item that requires some sort of activation, in this case, the touching of something inside the miniature rooms.
The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he [Mr. Dillet] put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had - not stirred, perhaps, but yielded - in an odd live way as he pressed it.
Professor Childermass, too, sets the magic in motion by touch.
With a sudden indrawn hiss, the professor jerked his hand back. The tip of his finger had accidentally touched the miniature skull.
Johnny was alarmed. "What is it? What's wrong?"
The professor examined his fingertip curiously. "Hmmm. . .Well, there's nothing wrong, actually. I just got the oddest sensation from toughing that skull. But I suppose it's all my imagination - there seems to be no harm done (Spell, 13)."
Still, touching items does nothing immediate to the story. Both Dillet and Childermass examine the tiny rooms, continue on to the evening, have their dinner, and retreat to bed without incident. It is here where Bellairs shifts gears. Where it was Dillet that touched the dollhouse and is subject to supernatural visions, Childermass is unaffected (for the time being). Instead, it is young Johnny Dixon, during a restless night, who awakens suddenly and has the urge to investigate the clock.
Johnny was surrounded by darkness, not the darkness of a small room, but an immense well of blackness. It was as if he were standing in a great hall or a cathedral. Before him, like a window in the night, was a lighted room. It was small and seemed very far away, yet somehow he could see very detail. It was like the dollhouse room in the old clock, but it was a real room in a real house. It was night, and Johnny could see snow falling outside the window at the back of the room. The oil lamp on the table was lit, and a fire burned in the white marble fireplace (Spell, 18).
Dillet awakens as well to find the object of recent memory flooded in supernatural light and is drawn to the haunted object.
There was no striking clock within earshot - none on the staircase, none in the stable, none in the distant church tower. Yet it is indubitable that Mr. Dillet was startled out of a very pleasant slumber by a bell tolling One.
He never asked himself, till the morning hours, how it was that, though there was no light at all in the room, the Dolls' House on the kneehole table stood out with complete clearness. But it was so. The effect was that of a bright harvest moon shining full on the front of a big white stone mansion - a quarter of a mile away it might be, and yet every detail was photographically sharp. There were trees about it, too - trees rising behind the chapel and the house. He seemed to be conscious of the scent of a cool still September night. He thought he could hear an occasional stamp and clink from the stables, as of horses stirring. And with another shock he realized that, above the house, he was looking, not at the wall of his room with its pictures, but into the profound blue of a night sky.
From here out the two stories diverge and go their own way, with neither Dillet nor Dixon connected in any way to the observed actions. The midnight vision Dillet sees in the dollhouse tells the story of revenge on an innocent offspring for the sins of the parents. Similarly, Johnny steps into a dream-like vision where, in a full-size room, he sees Lucius Childermass smothered to death by a supernatural figure. Here the vengeful Warren Windrow seeks retribution against the family name that condemned him to death, attempting murder through supernatural means on an innocent member of Lucius's family that would only touch the skull and activate the spell.