Mon
Sep 23 2013 2:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: John Bellairs

The Face in the Frost John Bellairs In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Tim is on his own this week with a look at the lesser-known novel The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs.

This is one of the novels Gary Gygax specifically mentioned by name, and its greatest claim to close-to-fame is that Lin Carter named it one of the three “best fantasy novels to appear since The Lord of the Rings” in his detailed survey of fantasy fiction called Imaginary Worlds.

That Lin Carter endorsement shows up on the back cover of the 1978 Ace edition and on The Face in the Frost’s Wikipedia page, so it must be important.

But if I can take a detour here for a minute—and why can’t I? It’s not like Mordicai is around to stop me this week!—then I think it’s worth mentioning that Imaginary Worlds, in addition to its ringing endorsement for the Bellairs novel, has plenty to recommend it to the Appendix N fans among us. Imaginary Worlds is something akin to a 1973 paperback version of Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons written by an unabashed fantasy enthusiast who also happened to be a pretty good fantasy author himself. And it came out the year before Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax released the first iteration of D&D. But Lin Carter’s non-fiction tour through fictional fantasy ends up providing some fascinating context for many of the writers and works that would later appear in Gygax’s Appendix N. Plus, it gives some insight into how those writers and works were perceived in the early 1970s, when D&D was gestating. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Imaginary Worlds is some kind of secret decoder ring for Appendix N readers, but it is definitely worth your time if you want to see (a) some sense of how these authors related to one another historically or (b) how much Lin Carter can gush about his favorites and provide passive aggressive dismissals of his least favorites. Both aspects make it worth a look.

Back to The Face in the Frost! That’s why we’re here! John Bellairs wrote it, and it’s full of wizards!

Other than the Jack Vance books, this is probably the most wizardy of all the Appendix N volumes. I certainly can’t think of another that’s as magic-centric. The story of the story goes like this: Bellairs—who would go on to write childen’s fantasy books illustrated by Edward Gorey—found himself in England, read The Lord of the Rings while he was there, and wanted to play around in the genre, specicially with a Gandalf-like character because he found Tolkien’s Gandalf to be relatively flat. So if you approach The Face in the Frost as an attempt at writing a more fully-realized wizard, you’ll be in the right frame of mind. And if you approach the novel as an attempt to write a wizard buddy comedy with the looming threat of another, mostly unseen, wizard, then you’re really on the right track.

This Bellairs novel is like Gandalf and Gandalf teaming up to fight an invisible Gandalf. Sort of.

The two wizarding buddies are named Prospero and Roger Bacon.

Seriously.

You probably know Prospero from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which you haven’t read unless someone assigned it to you at some point or you are a wonderfully-amazing person who loves Shakespeare as much or more than I do. And you may know Roger Bacon as a 13th century philosopher/scientist/Franciscan friar. But Bellairs isn’t using those historical and/or literary characters as his protagonists. He’s just stealing their names and letting you know he doesn’t take all this stuff too seriously. The Face in the Frost is a comedy, mostly, with some scary stuff that becomes increasingly weird as the story progresses. The plot kind of falls apart in the final third of the novel, but the book isn’t plot-driven anyway. It’s about the characters, and a few entertaining sequences, and some banter and some narrative flourishes and a sense of lets-have-fun-writing-about-wizards. It’s not quite Terry Pratchett silliness, but it’s closer to that than to J. R. R. Tolkien. And it’s quite entertaining on a scene-by-scene basis, like a sitcom with a couple of great actors in the lead roles.

Here’s a glimpse. In the first chapter we meet Prospero, who is using his magic mirror to see into the future and/or alternate reality of 1943 where he watches the Chicago Cubs play the New York Giants. After some scenes of puttering around the old wizard workshop, the doorbell rings, and as he opens his front door, he sees a shadowy figure:

As Prospero watched, the figure raised a threatening arm and spoke in a deep voice:

“Kill them all!”

At this Prospero did a strange thing. He began to smile. His long wrinkled face, which had been set in a tense frown, was now creased by a delighted grin.

“Kill who all?” he asked in an amused voice.

“All those blasted, pesty, nitty insects!” the figure roared.

That’s the introduction of Roger Baco,n and indicates the tone for most of the novel. Not quite parody, but playing with parodic elements and using humor to undermine the self-seriousness of the post-Tolkien fantasy genre. Bellairs pulls it off most of the time, and he makes the characters interesting enough that we care about their interactions even if some of the jokes don’t quite land. And then he does this other thing—something I’ve already alluded to—by pitting his buddy wizards against an unseen threat. It’s a powerful technique to drive the characters into action while not getting in their way by cutting to scenes of the bad buy scheming or wringing his hands. It’s kind of like Jaws, if the shark were an incorporeal evil wizard who could make things very cold and uncomfortable. That might not seem scary, but would you want to be haunted by a face…in the frost? I think not!

Anyway, that unseen threat is a former colleague of Prospero who goes by the name Melichus. Bellairs avoids having either of his characters refer to the bad guy as “Mel,” but if this were actually a D&D game, that would be the first thing the players start to call him. So I’ll call him Mel, out of respect for the game. And old Mel wants a shiny crystal ball thing that doesn’t really matter, and the plot gets increasingly less interesting as Mel draws Prospero and Roger Bacon toward the climax of the story.

But Bellairs does give us a really cool sequence where Prospero tries to thwart an invading army by destroying a stone bridge with his magic. Only, he realizes that he has no idea how to destroy a stone bridge, and he tries to use some Tarot cards and some chanting and nothing seems to work until he unleashes a fury of cards and magical commands and, well, it gets messy.

That’s surely the kind of stuff that influenced Gygax and earned The Face in the Frost a place on the hallowed shelves of Appendix N. The magic is messy in this book. It often doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as intended, and even when it does work, it’s not the sort of magic that’s super-powerful wizard laser beams or massive fireballs. It’s cantrip-type stuff. Enchanted mirrors. Little magical trinkets. Making notes and drawings in books. Trying to find the card and the right word that makes the stone bridge go boom.

It won’t change your life, or the way you play your favorite role-playing game, but for a diversion into the slightly-wacky, slightly-ominous, slightly-amusing world of wizard pals and ice cold curses, The Face in the Frost will serve you better than most. And unlike Shakespeare’s Prospero, this guy doesn’t quit at the end. So if you were writing a sequel to Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds, in your fannish enthusiasm you might say…John Bellairs: better than Shakespeare.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

23 comments
Tim Eagon
1. Tim_Eagon
I read this book last year around Christmas and loved it, particularly how it veers from buddy comedy to horror and back again (the chapter where Prospero visits the strange village is so creepy; I read it twice). Also, I love the smart ass magic mirror and the idea of wizards in alternate worlds watching stuff from Earth like a baseball game, which I'm totally stealing for my next D&D campaign.
Bridget McGovern
2. BMcGovern
Interesting--as a kid, I had a few copies of Bellairs' YA work, including The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn and The House with a Clock in it Its Walls, all of which I really enjoyed (and not just for the Edward Gorey illustrations). I'll have to see if I can dig those up, and hunt down The Face in the Frost in the meantime. Thanks, Tim!
BilboJ
3. BilboJ
So what were the other two 'best fantasy novels' since LOTR, according to Lin Carter?
BilboJ
4. Angiportus
I recall the Carter book--his over-prescriptive chapter on names really ticked me off; he confused his subjective preferences with something more universal. But I did take his advice and read The Face in the Frost. It was good all right, I especially liked the mirror...and there were some spooky bits that really hit hard.
Brent Longstaff
5. Brentus
This book was an interesting blend of horror and comedy. I really liked it, although not until I grew up. As a kid I couldn't get through it despite loving all his horror/mysteries for young readers. I reread all his books recently and was pleased to see that the suck fairy had passed them by; they are still really good.
Alan Brown
6. AlanBrown
This is the first book of the D&D series that I flat out had never heard of before.Ya learn something new every day...
BilboJ
7. Stefan Jones
How odd . . . I could swear that I'd read this book, likely on the Gygax recommendaiton, but don't remember anything about it!

I remember Bellair's The House with a Clock in its Walls a bit better. It really gave me the chills in a few places.

I'll have to see if I can get both of these via Google Play.
BilboJ
8. Doug M.
I think you're underrating the horror elements here. They're quite strong. The "strange village" is truly creepy, and the final battle at the end -- with the barometer all wrong, the sky changing color, and the things crawling out of the earth -- is hair-raising stuff. Until a few pages from the end, it's not clear whether this is a buddy comedy with some scary bits, or a horror fantasy with some funny bits.

Otherwise, it's a fine book, and worth reading, but... slight. It's a talented writer having fun playing with some tropes. (The comparison that comes to mind is _A Night In The Lonesome October_, which juggles horror and comedy in a rather similar way, and is similarly slight.) Even in the early 1970s, there were a dozen books with a better claim to "greatest fantasy since Tolkein"; notthing against FitF, but I think this was another case of Carter elevating a personal preference to the level of a universal truth.


Doug M.
Chuk Goodin
9. Chuk
I loved this one as a kid and haven't read it since. (I also liked his kid-level mystery/horror stuff, some of it was downright creepy but usually in a subtle way, and it all had this neat environment and style to it.)
Chuk Goodin
10. Chuk
@8. Doug M,
Yeah, "slight" is a fair judgement of it, I think. I haven't read the Carter but even as not much of a fan of Lord of the Rings I wouldn't hold TFitF up to it in comparison.
Evan Langlinais
11. Skwid
I enjoyed this while reading it (it's got some fun prose, in particular) but overall my memory of it is that it was weirdly old-fashioned and, as others have said, slight. Not something I'd recommend to most folks.
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
HEY DID YOU TAKE A DETOUR WITHOUT-- WHY I OUTTA-- KIDS THESE DAYS-- UPHILL, BOTH WAYS--
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
6. AlanBrown

Yeah, I just saw this-- long day-- & I was like "wait was that even on the list, it must have been but who?"
BilboJ
14. Tehanu
You left out how Prospero turns a calabash into an Amish box carriage (instead of turning a pumpkin into a princess's coach). This is one of the most original and charming comic fantasies ever and I'm delighted to see such a nice mention of it.
BilboJ
15. Nathan Carson
Definitely an Appendix N item that was never on my radar. More than anything, this post convinced me to order a used copy of Imaginary Worlds. I look forward to this column every week because I enjoy reading about fantasy as much as I enjoy reading fantasy. Sometimes more!
Anton Casares
16. AntonRCasares
A friend recommended this to me recently, so glad to find some other positive comments, but as always too much to read and too little time :(
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
15. Nathan Carson

My particular poison is meta-fiction, like Harry Potter's Tales of Beadle the Bard, or Vampire: the Masquerade's Book of Nod.
BilboJ
18. Eugene R.
BilboJ (@3) - Carter's three "best fantasy novels since Lord of the Rings" were Bellairs's The Face in the Frost, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, and Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain (which last was published as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, for which Mr. Carter was an editorial consultant).
James Nicoll
19. James Davis Nicoll
When I was the secretary for WATSFIC, the University of Waterloo's SF and gaming club, the officials would head out en mass to buy more books for the club library*. Unfortunately we needed majority to agree to buy something and since we had four officials and not a more useful odd number, we'd get 2:2 splits. I remember one trip in particular we only ever had two books that we all agreed on: Pel Torro's Galaxy 666, which we were all determined to not buy, and Bellair's Face in the Frost, which we did buy.

* Since dispersed thanks to the whims of the Federation of Students.
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
18. Eugene R.

OMFG The Last Unicorn is face meltingly good. The cartoon has led people to under-rate it, to think of it as a cute 80s nostalgia piece but that book is the REAL DEAL. Highly recommended.

19. James Davis Nicoll

At my university there wasn't a gaming club-- the chess club having gone defunct-- so a friend & I restarted it as "Evil Geniuses For a Better Tomorrow."
Tim Eagon
21. Tim_Eagon
I remember reading that this book, the de Camp & Pratt's Harold Shea series, and Vance's Dying Earth series were the three major influences on the D&D magic system.
BilboJ
22. Kirth Girthsome
This is one of my personal favorites, it's a nice portrayal of a wizardly investigation, then it plunges the reader into some genuinely unsettling horror set pieces, then lightens things up with a comedic vignette. As far as influence on Gary, there is a scene in which Prospero has to study a necromantic spell in order to investigate a wizard's grave. The scene involving his efforts to find out what happened is creepy as hell.

There's also a very funny shout-out to H.P.L.
BilboJ
23. Mark F.
This has been one of my "comfort" books for thirty years. I went so far as to pick up a second "lending" copy. It's full of great throw -away atmosphere lines, such as how parents locked their children indoors because voices in the dead forest called to the youngsters. Also, Bellairs uses dry, dusty crumbly things to the same effect that other authors use slimy, gross, putrid things. It deserves both the praise and criticism that has been mentioned and it's still highly recommended.

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