The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs

Published 1969
Review by Tim

This is a long-time favorite of mine, a fantasy that expertly blends light-hearted humor with a sense of dark menace. Our heroes are a pair of elderly wizards named Prospero (not the one you are thinking of!) and Roger Bacon. The setting is a barely disguised medieval Europe, and the text is replete with anachronisms.

Prospero lives in one of the Southern Kingdoms (which are an eclectic collection of tiny city-states closely resembling medieval Italy), ruled by an eccentric wizard named King Gorm. Prospero's house is a truly baroque and tasteless affair constructed with almost Victorian over-elaboration. The inside of the house is littered with curios and oddments, much of it magical, including a temperamental magical mirror:

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,
Whi-ite as turnips on the Rhine..."

Most of the time, the mirror's singing 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 . . .

"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 8th 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.

Now, after something like that, you'd think it would be difficult to establish and hold an atmosphere of tension and menace and yet, only a few paragraphs later, Bellairs accomplishes just that:

He looked absently around the cellar as he waited for the pitcher to fill, and suddenly his eye was caught by the fluttering of an old cloak hanging on a wooden peg. And in that instant Prospero got the odd notion that the cloak was not his, and might not be a cloak at all. He stared intently at it as the fluttering of the garment became more agitated. And then it turned to meet him. With empty flapping arms it floated across the cellar floor, swaying in a sickening nightmare rhythm. Prospero clenched his fist and felt his pulse beating in his palms; he fought the rising fear as the cloak flapped nearer, for with all his heart he did not want it close to him.

Soon after this, Roger Bacon comes to visit, with dark tidings of menacing apparitions spreading across the Northern Kingdoms. The two wizards decide to investigate together, and so goes the story.

John Bellairs is mostly a writer of children's stories and, so far as I can ascertain, The Face in the Frost was his single foray into fiction meant for a more mature (well, barely) audience. That is a pity, because his whimsical humor mixes well with his tightly plotted adventures. Since it has been 30 years since this book was published, it's probably a forlorn hope that he'll ever produce another. I count myself lucky to have found this one.

April, 1999