Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Having misplaced my paperback copy of The Face in the Frost, and curious about it's unfinished sequel, I purchased Magic Mirrors: The High Fantasy and Low Parody of John Bellairs, which includes The Face in the Frost, the sequel The Dolphin Cross, and two earlier Bellairs works- St Fidgeta and Other Parodies and The Pedant and the Shuffly. John Bellairs was perhaps best known for his supernatural thrillers for children, starting with The House with a Clock in its Walls.

Magic Mirrors begins with The Face in the Frost, published in 1969, a fantasy novel, which manages to be comic and unsettling by turns. The book starts out cheerfully enough, with an elaborate description of the bizarre home of Prospero, the book's protagonist, which would do a Jack Vance proud:

Inside the house were such things as trouble antique-dealers' dreams: a brass St. Bernard with a clock in its side, and a red tongue that went in and out with the ticks as the tail wagged; a five-foot iron statue of a tastefully draped lady playing a violin (the statue was labelled "Inspiration"); mahogany chests covered with leering cherub faces and tiger mouths that bit you if you put your finger in the wrong place; a cherrywood bedstead with a bassoon carved into one of the fat headposts, so that it could be played as you lay in bed and meditated; and much more junk; and deep closets crammed with things that peered out of the darkness off the edges of shelves, frightening the wits out of the wizard as he poked around looking for jars of mandrake root or dwarf hair in aspic. In the long, high living room--heated by a wide-mouthed green-stone fireplace--were the usual paraphernalia of a practicing wizard: alembics, spiraling copper coils, alcohol lamps--all burping, sputtering, and glurping as red, purple, and green liquids boiled, dripped, or just slurched uncertainly in their containers. On a shelf over the experiment table was the inevitable skull, which the wizard put there to remind him of death, though it usually reminded him that he needed to go to the dentist. One wall of the room was lined with bookshelves, and on them you could find titles such as Six Centuries of English Spells, Nameless Horrors and What to Do About Them, An Answer for Night-Hags, and, of course, the dreaded Krankenhammer of Stefan Schimpf, the mad cobbler of Mainz.

Prospero's peaceful, contemplative life is interrupted by some mildly off-putting phenomena, and the visit of his friend Roger Bacon, who has come to consult with Prospero about a mysterious book that Prospero had asked him about (there's a funny aside as Roger narrates his misadventure with his brazen head). The two embark on an investigation into the provenance of the book, which takes them to the library of another eccentric wizard (a comic interlude, with another humorous allusion to HPL's works), where they realize that an old colleague of Prospero's is behind the phenomena which have been hounding him. This precipitates a perilous errand to obtain a magical bauble co-created by Prospero and his former acquaintance.

After the whimsical opening, Bellairs plunges the reader into some truly unsettling scenes, as the sorcerous attacks on Prospero increase in intensity, and their focus shifts from unnerving the wizard to a more lethal bent. This particular scene gives a taste of Bellairs' ability to put a subtle chill up the reader's spine:

He had not gone a mile when he saw, off in a clearing beyond some beech trees, the light of a campfire. At least there’ll be someone to talk to, he thought, and he stepped off the road into the swishing wet grass. But as Prospero got near the fire, he saw that there was no one tending it and that it was burning in a very strange way. The flames moved back and forth as if blown by suddenly shifting breezes. As he watched, the movement became rhythmical. Prospero looked about him with growing fear, and he noticed that there was a little stream running nearby. He was drawn by what he first took to be a reflection of the firelight on the water. But as he knelt by the stream, he saw that the faint glow came from beneath the surface of the water. There, on the bottom, in a speckled green trembling light, was a smooth triangular stone, and on it was painted his face. The moving water was slowly flaking away the paint, or whatever it was, and the face appeared to be slowly decomposing. He saw a thin film, like a piece of dead skin, wriggle off the portrait-mask and float away down the stream. And the face underneath… Prospero felt his own hands on his wet cheeks.

Against all his instinct, he plunged his own hands into the greasy-feeling, incredibly cold water and picked up the stone. Without looking at it, and holding it at arm’s length as if it were a rotten dead bird, he took it to the fire, which was dancing faster now- it was moving to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. He knew the words that must have been said. “When the fire dies, let him die too.”

He pulled a burning stick out of the fire and held it to the painted stone as he carefully recited a spell he could just barely remember. When the face on the stone was completely blackened, the thing turned into an awful viscous mush in his hand, like a potato left in a damp dark cellar. With a disgusted shudder and a quick jerk of his left arm, Prospero threw the pulpy thing into the stream, where it hit with a gulping sound. Now the whole stream began to boil, and out of the lurching, hissing water rose a smoke shape with arms. It moved toward Prospero and settled around him in swaying layers of mist. He felt as if his eyes were made of blank white chalk. And the thing was throbbing, to pump the life out of him. Prospero stared with open eyes into that stony nothingness, and he shouted a word that sorcerers can only speak a few times in their lives. The whiteness began to break, and he could see night through the cracking clouds. Now he began to speak like someone reciting a lesson: “Michael Scott is buried in Melrose Abbey. A light burns in his tomb day and night. And it is stronger than your freezing white. Go! In his name,

As the narrative moves along, the protagonists realize that their enemy has stumbled upon sorceries that have the power to warp the fabric of reality- night terrors abound, causing a frightened populace to dismantle the social order. In one particularly horrible scene, Bellairs shows that evil need not take a sorcerous form:

“We’re going over to the north to burn that town… Bow…what’s its name?”

“Bishop’s Bowes,” said the innkeeper. “Why are you doing this?”

“We’ve finally figured out what’s going on. Town’s full of evil people. Witches. I have an order here from Duke Harald to burn it to the ground. Here, look at it. Not that you have anything to say in this.”

He unrolled a long parchment that trailed lead and yellow wax seals on twisted strings of skin. The signature, a cross with a letter on each point, was so large that it covered a quarter of the page.

“They deserve it, too,” the leader went on. “You’ve seen the things. Half the people in Wellfont are afraid to go down into their own cellars. Shadows moving, screams from kettles when there isn’t any fire. Well, a little fire’ll teach ‘em. A couple of my men are out getting wood for torches. Do you have any pitch?”

“In the basement. I use it on the roof.”

“That’s fine. We’re going to use it on the roof, too.” He laughed, spitting flecks of brown beer on the muddy floor.

It's tempting to make the point that this was written while the Vietnam War raged, (it was published in the year that the investigations into the My Lai massacre took place so news of My Lai could not have been a direct influence), but, sadly, John Bellairs is not around to verify if this was meant allegorically.

After that particular bit of dialogue, the supernatural horrors seem a little less horrific, although Bellairs still describes them with his characteristic flair:

In the roadside towns, the wizards picked up stories and rumors. One man told how frost formed on the windows at night, though it was only the middle of September. There were no scrolls or intricate fern leaves, no branching overlaid star clusters; instead, people saw seasick wavy lines, disturbing maps that melted into each other and always seemed on the verge of some recognizable but fearful shape. At dawn, the frost melted, always in the same way. At first, two black eyeholes formed, and then a long steam-lipped mouth that spread and ate up the wandering white picture.

If there's one flaw with The Face in the Frost, it is that the climactic confrontation takes place off-stage. At one point, in a twist that will have some readers cringing (but which I loved), a fleeing Prospero stumbles into a most unusual place, and (less felicitously, though Madonna would approve of this part) enlists additional aid in his efforts. The end is rather abrupt, which is also the major flaw of The House with a Clock in its Walls.

While Magic Mirrors, at $25, is pretty steep in price (I prefer paperbacks anyway), I'd recommend it for any fans of Bellairs' young-adult fiction, fans of the "Harry Potter" books (which I still haven't read), or fans of "weird fiction" who don't mind comic relief (Bellairs' protagonists are the sort of scholarly types that HPL wrote about, though they know what to do about Nameless Horrors).

Perhaps, I'll tackle the other portions of the book in a later post. I've been going on about this book for quite some time.

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