Review: THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs

“P.S. Unexplained noises are best left unexplained.” – Prospero’s note to his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dufrey

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, Olmstead Press, 1969.

What I Read

 The Face in the Frost is humorous, low fantasy novel with Poe-esque foreboding. The protagonist Prospero (not that wizard) is threatened and stalked by an unknown enemy. His old friend Roger Bacon (implicitly not that fellow) brings him crucial information. Together they begin a road trip/fact-finding mission.

Bellairs is a master of setting. He combines humor and horror in his description of towns and landscapes. Throughout the novel, the author surprised me with flourishes of figurative language, such as the following:

“…(B)ehind him floated large silent owls. They drifted and hung like paper lanterns…” (70)

I can’t pinpoint when my initial impression (“Too many details!”) changed to full immersion in the wizard’s journey. Suffice to say, the setting reflects the transition from his everyday life to increasing peril. A good example is the lead-in to his encounter with a ghost. There was typical foreshadowing: the locals spoke of a spooky forest and a rusty barrier showed an attempt to keep its denizens at bay. Yet the sense of danger was elevated by Bellairs’ earlier depictions of normal sights and sounds of August (albeit unusually cool). Prospero’s harrowing foray into the cursed forest was nothing like his previous travel through woodlands.

Besides his awesome powers of description, Bellairs uses dialogue and snippets of backstory to great effect. Despite this being a stand-alone novel, Prospero and Roger’s friendship seemed to have a long history. When Roger disappeared less than a third into the book – just as Prospero discovered the identity of his tormentor – his reaction of fear and hope felt real. (And I did miss Roger!)

What didn’t I like?

Authorial asides* using second-person which bumped me out of the character’s point of view. For example, “It was as if you were half asleep” (75) could have substituted the character’s name.

The last third of the novel has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe. A key supporting player, Millhorn, is introduced suddenly – after Prospero is dropped into our contemporary world.

The climax felt abrupt. Rereading it, I liked that the protagonist used both recently-acquired and previously-mentioned items to conquer the villain. That was clever. However, I wanted to know more about a certain Lovecraftian object.

What I Learned

While enjoying the interplay between Prospero and Roger, I had a brick-in-the-head moment: “Maybe I can grow my protagonists’ friendship BEFORE they’re forced to rely on each other!”

I tossed three chapters out of my work-in-progress and wrote 3214 words of new dialogue and description. (I’m not sure how many words I deleted, what author Mary Catelli calls “antiwords.”) I restored a confrontation between Argenta and bullies, which I initially worried would be too intense for readers 8-12.


*FOOTNOTE: I have discovered several authors have quirks related to their “authorial voice,” for lack of a better term. Some address the reader directly, in the style of old novels. It’s meant in fun, but it can be annoying. Other authors insert asides, discretely or intrusively.