Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Impressions, John Bellairs' The Dolphin Cross

Along with the full, illustrated text of The Face in the Frost, the John Bellairs omnibus Magic Mirrors: The High Fantasy and Low Parody of John Bellairs has the extant text of an unfinished sequel The Dolphin Cross. While an entertaining read, this fragment does not reach the Empyrean heights of The Face in the Frost- the horrors presented are more concrete, as opposed to the existential terrors that Prospero faces in TFitF, and our beloved Prospero is more prone to a self-deprecation that only surfaced a couple of times in that book. In the fragment, Prospero (like the one we are thinking of) is sent to exile on a remote island after being kidnaped. The South Kingdom, with its 572 petty rulers, is facing internal strife as a strong leader begins amassing more power after winning the typically nominal kingship. One particularly moving passage describes Prospero's youth, when the former apprentice went "underground" during a previous war. A hilarious passage has Prospero posing incognito as a once-prosperous leech gatherer. The villain of the fragment is portrayed with typical Bellairsian creepiness (the description of his cutlery is wonderfully unsettling. Once again, Bellairs shows his descriptive flair when writing of a building:

The castle was something to stare at. It looked like what Buckingham Palace might look like if it ever went on a two-week drunk. Essentially, it was a big stone strongbox covered with cornices and pediments and balustrades and balls and vases. But instead of being all triangles and rectangles and squares, as such places usually are, it was droopy crescents and parallelograms and lurching unidentifable shapes. Every angle was out of kilter.

Once again, Bellairs demonstrates that he knows his craft, and his Lovecraft. Reading The Dolphin Cross is a bittersweet exercise- while it was nice to revisit Prospero (and, for a brief interlude, Friar Bacon), one wishes that one had a complete novel. Additionally, while a good read, TDC falls short of the giddy heights and eerie lows of its predecessor.

Also included in Magic Mirrors is the breezy, absurd fantasy The Pedant and the Shuffly, and St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies which is an affectionate, though irreverent, satire of Vatican II era Roman Catholicism. As can be expected, the humor of the book is best appreciated by Catholics who can laugh at such conundrums as whether consuming an olive in a martini breaks a Lenten fast. The Lawful Neutral wing of the church would probably be offended by the book, but the youngish, hip-ish roller skating nun who teaches in the inner city Catholic school will love it. The rise and fall of St. Floradora (whose existence was extrapolated from a skeleton discovered during an archaeological dig in Pompeii, so you know where this is going...) is one of the most uproariously funny things I've read in a long time. To give a taste of the deadpan, off-kilter humor of the book, here's an excerpt from the hagiography of St. Adiposa:

St. Adiposa, author of numerous anti-ascetic tracts. She decided that a life intentionally cut short by overweight could be consecrated to God... St. Adiposa died at 93 when the floor of her cell collapsed. Her life principle of caloric immolation caused much debate about her status as a martyr, but the Council of Trent shelved the matter, and there it stands.

Of course, the entertainment value of the book is wholly dependent on one's familiarity with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and one's attitude toward irreverence. It's safe to say that Jorge de Burgos would have hidden this one away in the Finis Africae section of the library.

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