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Those who have discovered John Bellairs’ one true novel for adult readers, The Face in the Frost, die a little inside when they contemplate what else we might have had from this incredible writer had he not focussed on earning his bread and cheese with so-called “juvenile” tales. (Though even those are pleasurable reading for adults, and I will describe them separately below.)
Besides that novel, Bellairs early in his career produced two now sadly little-known gems of adult reading: St. Fidgeta and other Parodies and The Pedant and the Shuffly. That last is a short but warm-hearted spoof of the fantasy tale, richly amusing. The first is, as the title says, parodies, in this case parodies of Roman Catholic reading matter of various kinds, from hagiography to sermons, and though each has a little sting here and there, they are also at bottom warm-hearted; one need not be a Roman Catholic to appreciate the humor, which is uproarious, for the parodies make fairly clear what the original forms must look like. But neither of those works is a full novel, the form at which Bellairs eventually excelled.
Bellairs’ novels follow a clear pattern. They begin in whimsical wit—in the case of the book we are now considering, in an explosion of warm, humorous, whimsical wit—and they sustain that whimsey throughout; each is a tale that would be worthwhile reading just as whimsical humor. In this phase of the tale, we meet the characters, and see their human side: their quite human foibles and follies are treated with that same light, deft touch. We can be forgiven for thinking that the whole tale will be such warm, light whimsey. Let us see a little of the protagonist, Prospero the wizard (no, not that Prospero).
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.
Nahum bowed and spoke. Most intransigent monarch, two wanderers, whose years hang about them like millstones, though their wisdom rattles beads in the nursery of the mind, seek humble access to your cloud-bedizened person.”
The wavy eyes grew bigger behind the bottle glass. “Oh, good heavens!” It’s Prospero and Roger. Come in. Nahum, you should stop studying rhetoric books and go back to Beowulf. I like the alliterative style better.”
Nahum bobbed again. “My crest is cropped by croaking cranes. I go to drown in doleful dumps, dead-drunk with drearihead.” He turned and left.
A little later, as Prospero was soaking in a large porcelain tub with eagle-claw legs, the mirror began to sing:
“O-over-head the moon is SCREEEEAMING,Most of the time, the mirror’s singing voice might have been compared with that of a tubercular reed organ: but when it hit high notes, Prospero thought of children with long nails scraping on blackboards. So it was not surprising that the wizard soon emerged from the bathroom, wet and dripping and wrapped in a yellow-damask towel that looked like a Byzantine cope.
Whi-ite as turnips on the Rhine….”
“All right,” he said quietly. “Let’s see what we can see.”
The wizard peered deep into the fathomless depths of the murky mirror, and when the swirling mists cleared, he found himself watching a 1943 game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. The Cubs were behind 16-0 in the eighth inning.
Prospero stood silently watching for a few seconds. Then, with an evil grin, he produced from behind his back a large cake of soap. “Now watch it, whiskers,” said the mirror, alarmed. “Don’t you dare…Ak Hoog! Glph…Hphfmphpph!”
Prospero scribbled wildly on the mirror with the cake of soap, signed his name with a flourish, and went downstairs, chuckling.
If that were the whole scope of the book, we would be well and truly rewarded for reading it, and many another book like. Such things done this successfully are far fewer in number than the count of attempts at them.
But such is by no means the scope of the book: it is far larger. There is truly cold, chilling terror lying invisibly in wait.
A large part of Bellairs’ genius is the manner in which he can run the whimsey dead into the terror before readers know what has hit them, then skate right on through and back to the light touch. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it: “lively, witty, unpretentious, The Face in the Frost takes us into pure nightmare before we know it—and out the other side. This is authentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about.” Indeed it is, oh indeed. There are writers who can do whimsey deftly, and there are writers who can do terror deftly; there are, I suppose, a few who are capable of both. But how many are capable of intense levels of both seamlessly mixed in one tale?
The terrors Bellairs evokes are not so easily conveyed by brief, isolated passages as is the whimsey, for, with the terrors, he builds, like the artist he is, layer on layer of effect cumulating in the instant of shock. (And, besides prohibitive length, there is the difficulty of my wanting not to disclose anything too material about what actually happens in the tale.)
Well, let us scan a few of the more superficial—but brief—examples.
With a quick push, Prospero unstuck the little window. Down below, the road ran past the front door of the inn. He chose the famous prayer that contains the phrase “negotium perambulans in tenebris,” and he began to sing it in a loud voice, rising to held high notes at the middle and the end of each line. He got his answer. Out of the dark willow thicket opposite the inn a little cloud of dead leaves flew. They spun a dusty whirlwind in the middle of the road, until one shot up at Prospero’s open window. His hand was on the latch, and the slamming of the black wooden frame was instantly followed by a splat. The leaf slid down the window, streaking it with the wet sticky gobs of an insect’s innards.
With a cry Prospero shoved the melting thing aside and got to the door, opened it, and ran down the hall. The walls were caving, bulging, stretching wildly—one door fell before him and tried to wrap itself around his legs. Prospero kicked at the door hysterically and finally got to the stairs, which were covered with a brown fog. As he felt his way down the quivering steps, the whole staircase gave way with a rushing hiss and he landed on his knees in the cold liquid that had been the floor. The walls of the large downstairs room, though blurry, were still there, and he felt for the door, not daring to look back to see if anything had followed him from that terrible blind chamber. Lifting the twisting, bucking bar from the back door, he plunged outside and ran through the streets, where the cobblestones oozed like mud and slate roofs turned to dripping black slime. Stone walls ran in viscous rivulets, and the head of the little old man appeared gabbling fiercely. When Prospero got to the church, the bell tower rang five scraping, cracking, howling notes and toppled slowly at him. He raised his arms to shield himself, but the tower, still ringing, turned to mist as it fell and blew away in long sinuous swirls. The wizard dropped to the ground, covering his face with his hands.
Do not judge, from those snippets, that Bellairs relies on black slime and ooze for his effects of terror. The passages above, and some others like them, are only incidentals to the main business of terror Bellairs presents; indeed, that is what makes the larger terrors so awful—we are made to understand that these seen terrors of the ooze-and-slime sort, horrid as they may be, are only minor, casual side effects of the larger evil whose mere existence calls them up.
Moreover, even these incidental terrors are not so simple as they seem; in the brief passage above, we see, beyond (or above) the ooze factor, a larger, truer terror; not that of touching foul substances—that of having all of reality collapsing around one, of the very world itself turning to foul substances, of holes opening into utter nothingness. Bellairs is thoroughly aware that the greatest terror is that without a clear face, a distinct outline—it is the vaguely sensed thing in the shadows, whose shape and form we cannot perceive and dare not guess at. It is the face—or is that a face?—seen in the frost.
Here is a sample of a less explicit and action-filled, but equally disturbing, scene:
They stopped at the edge of a walled graveyard. In the bright moonlight a slate-roofed chapel stood under the dripping yellow leaves of a huge half-dead willow. Prospero and Roger got out and followed the farmer over a rickety wooden stile. Inside the yard were narrow roof-shaped tombs—replicas of the coffin lids that rotted below—flat, thick ground-level slabs, and church-window-pointed uprights. Years of weathering had peeled irregular paper-thin layers from the slabs, so that the remaining letters lay in puddles and islands of flint. The farmer, kneeling, pointed to a long stone that was cracked into six or seven jagged pieces.
“Look at these. Tell me what this means, if you can.”
The broken words, some filled with dark blobs of moss, said “empty”, “dark”, “hollow”, “doomed”. All the gravestones were alike. The words repeated were the same—nothing else was left.
Roger gently grasped the man’s shaking arm.
“Come. We’ll take you home.”
As they left the churchyard, Prospero turned to look at the little chapel. The willow’s limp strings were moving over the broken shingles in an ugly caressing way. There were letters on the slates:
IT IS NOT LONG TIL-He saw that “TIL” had had two Ls—the second had slid halfway down the roof.
Graveyards at night are inherently chilling, but the frisson of horror here comes not from the fear of a cold hand on the neck but from contemplation of evil’s crude, infantile message: empty; dark; hollow; doomed.
Bellairs’ language use we have now seen to be masterly; what of plot, setting, characterization?
His setting, Bellairs makes clear to us, is an earlier period in our world.
(Indeed, it is one we can pick out pretty exactly, as if that mattered. Prospero’s master, deceased by the time of the tale, was Michael Scot, who lived from 1175 to 1234; Prospero’s boon companion in the tale is Roger Bacon—yes, that one—who lived from 1214 to what is estimated as 1294; so the tale takes place in the middle to late part of the thirteenth century.)
Mind, Prospero’s world—Cubs-Giants ball games in its future or not—is not quite the world we find in history books, for working magic is a commonplace in it. Nonetheless, having anchored the tale in a pretty set period of our world (and a reasonably set location, somewhere in the north of Europe, for Roger Bacon leaves Britain and visits Prospero as an easy consequence), Bellairs is relieved of the need for establishing the world as a whole and freed to describe such bits of it as are necessary to give the tale flavor. That he does exceeding well, making it sound a place he has been to (that, I suppose, is the essence of doing settings well—giving the reader the impression that you are describing a real place that you have been to and walked around in). The settings are not one of the great strengths of the tale, in that there is no bizarre and wonderful new universe for us, but they are handled in a pleasing and workmanlike manner.
The more I write these little dissertations, the less significance I find to assign to plot as an element of fine tales. The plot of a tale of enduring value is a vehicle, a means to expose the characters to the things the author purposes to bring them to; it is not a thing of so much value in itself, and our main requirement—my main requirement—is that it have no obvious flaws, no gaps of logic or credibility. That said, the plot theme of The Face in the Frost is a familiar one: a seemingly overwhelming evil, irresistible, inexorably driving all before it. Again and again, it mocks the protagonists, their all-too-human feebleness, their lack of strength to stand before it; yet stand they must.
Now Prospero and Roger are not comic figures, not the classic inept, bumbling wizards; they are men of some power, and also—and this is crucial—of some dignity and of strengths that are human, not simply wizardly. They will do what they can do because there are certain things that being rightly human entails. As someone or other put it, you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.
And on the wall opposite the door a watery light pattern appeared. It was full of skeletal winding shadows, and it formed, like the frost patterns, a distorted blank face. The long mouth moved and a harsh, flat, angry voice spoke.
“Put it back. Put back the globes.”
Prospero stood there in the middle of the room, and in the ghastly light the face threw on everything, his own face looked corpselike and frozen. He swallowed hard, and all the ridged muscles in his face and throat convulsed.
“No. I will not.”
Is that not the essence of profound good (and, equally, of profound evil)? I will not. With such themes, it is not the theme that determines quality, it is the author’s handling of it; Bellairs here has handled it excellently—neither trivially nor ponderously.
Characterization is important to the successful tale, second only, I suppose, to language use. Bellairs here, and in his juveniles as well, balances character wondrous well: his characters are neither genial bumblers favored by fortune nor flawless ramrods of virtue. They are (as with, I guess, most successful character creations) real and full human beings with, as I put it earlier, foibles and follies, but also with dignity and strengths. They can take an occasional pratfall without losing that dignity, and they can defeat deep evils without needing to first, or in consequence, achieve apotheoses. They are people we can and do like, and, more than like, respect.
The Face in the Frost is one of those precious books that readers familiar with recommend to good friends of known sensibilities with the air of a connoisseur uncorking a comet vintage. Its delicacy and fine balances make its whole greater even than the sum of its parts, though those parts themselves are each sufficiently delightful. It is one of my own very favorite works, and I recommend it highly, along with his two earlier adult books, each a little gem.
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The first thing a reader interested in Bellairs’ work past the adult-targeted Face in the Frost needs to know is that care needs to be exercised in selecting what is truly John Bellairs’ work from that of work based on either incomplete manuscripts of his or simply his established characters. That does not by any means signify that such work by others (“others”, so far, means Mr. Brad Strickland) is not also and perhaps equally entertaining; it means that if you want to sample true Bellairs for the taste of it, you need to know what you’re getting.
As to what happened after The Face in the Frost was published, here is what Mr. Strickland, in a foreword to a reissue of The Pedant and the Shuffly, wrote:
And then came the book that set the course of his writing for the remainder of his life. John first wrote The House With a Clock in Its Walls (1973) as a contemporary adult fantasy. It was different—the blessing and the curse of writers. In fact it was so different that his publisher passed on it, and he tried at another house. A perceptive publisher, Phyllis Fogelman, observed that, with some rewriting, House would make a dandy novel for young readers. John complied….
It is tempting, and it would be very easy, to say a number of profoundly acid and scathing things about Ms. Fogelman’s likely future in the afterlife (not to speak of that of whoever at his first publisher’s made the rejection decision), considering what the world lost when Bellairs turned from writing for adults to writing for children. His children’s books are, to be sure, good of kind, but Face, and even the children’s version of House, make it clear that Bellairs had a special genius, which those events denied to the world. But, in fairness, we need to recall Dr. Sam’l Johnson’s famous dictum that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”: the financial rewards of writing adult fantasy, even superlative fantasy, are likely not equal to those of writing successful juvenile novels (which Bellairs’ were). Well, someday in the hereafter, when we all have access to the extraordinary library of John Charteris, it won’t matter; in this life, all we can do is rail at the Philistenes and mourn.
Bellairs’ juveniles are all pleasant reading, even for adults, but there is a clear falling-off in quality: the first, the above-cited House With a Clock in Its Walls, shows clearly what we almost had; the next, The Figure in the Shadows, still has a deal of Bellairs’ special force, but is clearly a lesser work than House; the next yet was lesser yet, truly a book much more for children than adults, and thereafter that was the level of his output. No one can read another’s mind, but to me the balance read like books written to pay the rent, though even rent-payers, when written by a first-class writer, are decent enough things.
Although only those first two juveniles are included in the full lists here, I table below all of Bellairs’ juveniles, including those finished up by Brad Strickland from notes or partial manuscripts (I don’t know which) left at Bellairs’ death. Mr. Strickland has written, and continues to write, more books wholly on his own using the established Bellairs characters, none of which books are listed below; but if you try and like any of the books below, then do also consider his.
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The important Bellairs site on the web is the delightful Bellairsia, but there is also The Compleat Bellairs. And besides those, there are useful summary articles, including one at the Tor site, The Autumnal Genius of John Bellairs by Grady Hendrix, and another in the online Notre Dame Magazine. There is another page, The John Bellairs Read by Todd Wellman that discusses just Bellairs’ young-reader books.
An interesting sidelight page is Why the Link Between Edward Gorey and John Bellairs Remains Unbreakable, a lengthy and interesting discussion of its topic.
There are also some Bellairs-related blogs, starting with the one from Bellairsia, the John Bellairs Review; and there is a “Bellairs community” of fans at Fans of John Bellairs.
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I acn find no print resources dealing with Bellairs; sorry.
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This page was last modified on Thursday, 15 April 2021, at 4:06 pm Pacific Time.