The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

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A rather busy month has left little time for either reading or writing, although I did manage to finish a short story, The Fate of Master Wenang, inspired in part by a fragment from Songling Pu’s Strange Stories from A Chinese Studio and also to read John Bellair’s wonderful short novel The Face In The Frost.

The Face in the Frost has long been regarded as a classic of fantasy fiction and it’s easy to see why – filled with wry humour and a genuine sense of dread and unease, it focuses on the journey of two wizards, Prospero and Roger Bacon, and their attempt to confront a great evil which threatens not only them but also their very world.

There are echoes here of T.H White’s The Once and Future King, particularly in the early part of the novel, a sense of creeping horror not unlike Mervyn Peake’s Boy in Darkness or Titus Alone and a picaresque narrative that Voltaire himself would have been proud of. Bellairs, however, was very much his own man and, as always, comparisons are odious and serve only as minor signposts into this beautifully written work.

The fantastical and the mundane (or at least what might be considered mundane in the life of a wizard) are woven together seamlessly, and similarly the slide from humour to horror, often accomplished in the space of a paragraph or two, is handled with deceptive ease.

The strange creatures who menace Prospero and Bacon at the start of the book, the crumbling, superficial village of Five Dials disintegrating around Prospero, the cursed grove in which he finds a vital clue are all genuinely creepy moments with a real sense of spectral ‘otherness’ underscoring them and the unsettling, shifting face of the landscape as the protagonists move towards the books final confrontation is as twisted and strange in its own way as the chaos warped climax of Moorcock’s Stormbringer or, once again, the work of Mervyn Peake at its darkest.

While short on plot (although a great example of what Hitchcock referred to as ‘the maguffin’), The Face in the Frost is graced with strong characterisation, a wealth of imaginative detail and a forceful narrative that brings the reader on, eager to know what will happen next.

Not without justification, Lin Carter called The Face in the Frost ‘one of the best fantasy novels to appear since Lord of the Rings’ although, unlike J.R.R Tolkien’s work Bellairs makes a virtue of brevity.

My only regret is that I waited so long to read this book. Deservedly a classic and essential reading for anyone interested in the history and development of the fantasy genre.

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