The Face in the Frost

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

John Rateliff discusses another almost-forgotten classic of fantasy, The Face in the Frost:

Several centuries (or so) ago,
in a country whose name doesn’t matter,
there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero,
and not the one you’re thinking of, either.[1]

At the very back of the original 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide by Gary Gygax et al. (1979), tucked just before the index and glossary, was a little half-page section called “Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading.” This suggested reading list combined works that were major, direct influences on D&D (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Conan series, Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, Vance’s The Dying Earth) with works filled with characters, monsters, villains, plots, magic items, and the like that aspiring DMs could happily loot for their own campaigns. Gygax’s list ranged from hacks like August Derleth, Gardner Fox, and Lin Carter to sublime fantasy masters like Lord Dunsany and Tolkien and most points in-between (Zelazny, Moorcock, Poul Anderson, de Camp & Pratt, Lovecraft). Most of the twenty-nine authors he listed were either well-known pulp writers or recognized masters of the genre, but one obscure little gem made his list: John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost.

Prospero and Roger Bacon, the two main characters
in a story that seems crammed with wizards, were wizards.
They knew seven different runic alphabets, could sing the Dies Irae
all the way through to the end, and knew what a Hand of Glory was.
Though they could not make the moon eclipse,
they could do some very striking lightning effects
and make it look as though it might rain
if you waited long enough . . .
Both of them had used [magic] mirrors to visit
or look at other times and places;
this naturally affected their speech, their mannerisms,
and (God knows) the character of Prospero’s house.

– from the Prologue

Possibly the single best fantasy novel to come out of the 1960s, and by my reckoning one of the ten best fantasy works of the century, The Face is the Frost has never achieved great fame. Lin Carter, editor of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series (which from 1969 to 1974 reprinted most of the best of classic fantasy and helped launch the careers of up-and-coming writers like Beagle and Kurtz), went so far as to rate it one of the three best books since The Lord of the Rings,[2] but noted that it “has received virtually no recognition as yet, overlooked alike by reviewers and fantasy buffs.” Despite praise from Le Guin (who wrote the blurb for the paperback edition), Peter S. Beagle[3], and others, it remains obscure and, ironically, one of its author’s few works to slip out of print. His young-adult novels are found in most neighborhood libraries and proved so popular that another author has been commissioned to continue his series since Bellairs’ death, while his only work of adult fantasy is now only available secondhand, in e-book form, or as an audiobook.[4]

In the roadside towns, the wizards picked up stories and rumors.
One man told how frost formed on the windows at night,
though it was only the middle of September.
There were no scrolls or intricate fern leaves, no branching
overlaid starclusters; instead people saw seasick wavy lines,
disturbing maps that melted into each other and always seemed
on the verge of some recognizable but fearful shape.
At dawn the frost melted, always in the same way: At first
two black eyeholes formed, and then a long steam-lipped mouth
that spread and ate up the wandering white picture.
In some towns people talked of clouds that formed long opening mouths.
One man in the town of Edgebrake sat up all night, staring
at a little smiling cookie jar made in the shape of a fat monk;
it stood on a high cupboard shelf, smiling darkly amid shadows.
The man would not tell anyone what was wrong, or what he thought was wrong.
Doors opened at night inside some houses, and still shadows
that could not be cast by firelight fell across beds and floors.
People who lived near forests and groves dreamed
that the trees were calling to their children;
in the daytime, pools of shadow that floated trembling
around the trees seemed darker than they should have been,
and when the children showed an unusually strong desire to play
in the woods, panicked parents locked them indoors.
Voices rose from empty wells,
and men locked their doors at dusk.

The Face in the Frost tells of Prospero, a kindly old wizard who wakes up one morning to the sudden realization that someone is trying to kill him. With his best friend and fellow wizard Roger Bacon, he sets off on a quest to find out who is behind the sinister magical attacks. After a few harrowing encounters, he learns that an old rival has acquired a magical book so powerful that with it he can do any number of terrible things. In fact, the evil book is too powerful; a book that reads you and ends up devouring its owner’s mind, turning him into a channel whereby it can eventually destroy reality itself by letting things enter our world that do not belong here — ancient elemental forces bound long ago that now seek to escape:[5]

He had been staring for some minutes when the clouds
began to move very strangely. They came apart in places,
in stringy rips and seams, like torn cloth. The sky that showed
behind was dark red . . . The shadows below contracted to pinpoints
and shot suddenly out into acre-wide blots. Across the road that ran
toward Brakespeare the ground opened, a huge saliva-strung mouth,
and out of it crawled shapes with arms and legs. . . In a loud splintery
ripping of wood . . . the front door flew open and something
Prospero refused to look at stepped in . . .

Stopping the evil wizard seems impossible, since he seems to have died some seventy years before, but Prospero vows to try at whatever cost to himself, journeying on through a darkening landscape to challenge an enemy who grows stronger and stronger the more he reads of the magical book. Perhaps one of the most effective things about The Face in the Frost is that the heroes are thoroughly human and heroic only in their determination. Despite being powerful wizards, Roger and Prospero are not superhuman but only two old men. They get cold, wet, tired, and frequently frightened and are grateful for simple comforts such as a pipe or a soft bed and a good meal after long hungry days on the road. They lack the rather austere dignity of a Gandalf or Merlin — it’s hard, for example, to imagine Gandalf putting up with a cranky but competent magic mirror, summoning the ghosts of flowers, or living in a house filled with “such things as trouble antique dealers’ dreams,” or Merlin having a weathervane shaped “like a dancing hippopotamus” that when the wind blows makes “a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof.” Eddison’s Lord Juss (The Worm Ouroboros; see March’s column) has a bed proper for a hero, carved with scenes of derring-do; Prospero’s bed has “a bassoon carved into one of the . . . headposts, so that it could be played as you lay in bed and meditated.” In short, Bellairs’ heroes are frankly rather silly old men — more hobbit than magi.

“. . . and so I went to work on a brazen head
that was going to tell me how to encircle England
with a wall of brass, to keep out marauding Danes
and other riffraff. I think something went wrong . . .
At any rate, when I chanted the formula the next day
. . . I heard a sound like crumhorns and shawms, and behold!
All of England was encircled with an eight-foot-high
wall of Glass! . . . The first boatload of Vikings
that came over after the wall went up turned around
and went back, because it was a sunny day
and the wall glittered wonderfully.
But the next day, when they came back,
it was cloudy. One of them gave the wall
a little tap with an ax, and it went tinkle, tinkle,
and now there is a lot of broken glass on the beach.
Not long after that I was asked to leave.”

– Friar Bacon and the Brass Head

Humor . . .

The preceding description of the book probably conveys the impression that it is more horror than fantasy — a grim little work describing a desperate attempt to stave off the end of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in fact a comic masterpiece — a hilarious account that constantly celebrates its author’s love of out-of-the-way historical trivia. Parodies of Lovecraft and various fantasy cliches punctuate the story, sandwiched between the horrors in such a way that it increases the effectiveness of both the humorous and the scary portions of the work. No other work known to me is both funny and frightening at the same time; it’s a mixture that has reduced any number of would-be horror movies to the status of shlock. Bellairs shows that, contrary to common opinion, it can be done, and done brilliantly.

That The Face in the Frost is, on its surface, such a funny book no doubt accounts for its being relatively ignored by critics and historians of the genre. There has always been a bias against taking comic works seriously and of recognizing them as great art comparable in quality with their more solemn peers. Even those few comic masterpieces that gain an indisputable place in English or American literature (e.g., the work of Mark Twain or Chaucer) are valued by critics more for their social commentary than for the humor that keeps people reading them even after all these years. Similarly, Bellairs’ achievement has been underprized, despite being (in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin) “Lively, witty, unpretentious.”[6]

Once he was actually inside the forest . . . Prospero knew
what was wrong. There are times when you feel that you hear
doors slamming in the distance, voices calling your name;
you see blurred things, far away or very close up,
that look like people until you focus on them. That was
the trouble. The whole place seemed slightly out of focus,
very slightly off . . . [Prospero] had to stare at a tree
for several seconds before it looked like a tree
and not a leaning furry shadow . . . The light on
the forest floor, even at noon, was dim, with little
wavering circles in clusters here and there.
The circles moved back and forth in a way
that Prospero did not like; the branches
shifted and did strange things
just out of his line of vision.

– Prospero enters the Empty Forest

. . . And Horror

Side by side with the story’s humor lies its horror. Unlike Lovecraft, whose quaint, mannered fictions are intellectual curiosities that leave the reader completely unmoved, Bellairs’ book is truly frightening; The Face in the Frost has been known to give impressionable readers nightmares. Many sections read like transcriptions of actual nightmares, described with such evocative power as to capture some of the actual feeling of the original dreams. Like M. R. James, who seems to have influenced him more than any other author, Bellairs grounds his horrors in mundane settings — a darkened cellar, an empty road, a wooded clearing, an unfamiliar room in a roadside inn. But beneath the comfortable veneer lurks the nightmare, able at any moment to warp the scene in disturbing ways as the evil pursuing our heroes manifests itself once more. Despite taking place in a fantasy world, his horrific scenes are filled with realistic touches that make them easy to imagine transferred to our own surroundings, giving his more nightmarish sequences considerable impact. All in all, it’s a good book not to read when alone in a darkened room.

Perhaps Bellairs’ most impressive technique is his mastery of the adjective. Bellairs demonstrates over and over again how heaping on carefully selected adjectives can create sharp mental pictures and vivid impressions of scenes, and how evocative details help the reader imagine the scenes as if it were happening to him or her. There is nothing vague about his disquieting descriptions:

He had not gone a mile when he saw . . . the light of a campfire . . . and
stepped off the road into the swishing wet grass. But as Prospero got near
the fire, he saw that . . . it was burning in a very strange way. The flames
moved back and forth as if blown by suddenly shifting breezes . . . he
noticed a little stream running nearby. He was drawn by what he first took
to be a reflection of the firelight on the water . . . There on the bottom,
in a speckled green trembling light, was a smooth triangular stone,
and on it was painted his face. The moving water was slowly flaking away
the paint . . . and the face appeared to be decomposing. He saw a thin film,
like a piece of dead skin, wriggle off the portrait-mask and float away
down the stream . . . . [T]he fire . . . was dancing faster now — it was moving
to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. He knew the words that must have
been said: “When the fire dies, let him die too.” . . . [T]he whole stream
began to boil, and out of the lurching, hissing water rose a smoke shape
with arms. It moved toward Prospero and settled around him . . . He felt
as if his eyes were made of blank white chalk . . . Prospero stared
with open eyes into that stony nothingness, and he shouted a word
that sorcerers can only speak a few times in their lives . . .

The Face in the Frost and Your Game

As Gary Gygax himself put it in his review of The Face in the Frost (The Dragon #22, February 1979), the book is “an absolute must for any D&D player . . . can not be recommended too highly.” If Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth provided D&D with its fire-and-forget magic system, Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost certainly provided the concept of the traveling spellbook. Beyond this, Bellairs’ setting of the South Kingdom (a medley of autonomous duchies and the like) and the seven kingdoms of the North makes a pretty good ready-made campaign world for a homebrew campaign, and both his good wizards and the villains employ any number of interesting spells that would make interesting additions to the d20 system. From small details like animated leaves detaching themselves from trees and attacking travelers to the grand scheme of the evil wizard using the book to melt reality into something unpleasantly nightmarish, the book is full of things to enrich a D&D game. The mysterious undecipherable book obviously owes something to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and the whole plot could easily be transferred to a modern-day d20 Call of Cthulhu or d20 Modern game.

Other Works

While The Face in the Frost is Bellairs’ only fantasy novel for adults, he wrote fifteen young-adult horror-fantasy novels which also contain a number of interesting motifs that could be adapted for an ongoing dark-fantasy or horror RPG. Among the best of these are The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the first of the Lewis Barnavelt books (all set in Michigan in the 1940s) and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, one of the Johnny-and-the-Professor series (set in Massachusetts in the 1950s); a third series, the Anthony Monday books, was set in modern-day Minnesota. After Bellairs’ death in 1991, Brad Strickland completed four more books in the first two series (one of which, The Doom of the Haunted Opera, is especially recommended) and has since written six more books on his own using Bellairs’ characters, with a seventh due this August. The more recent of Strickland’s stories are essentially Cthulhu Mythos books for young adults, odd as that sounds (The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge is a sort of recasting of or sequel to “The Colour Out of Space,” for instance), and it provides an interesting extension of the Lovecraft Circle into new territory.

Bellairs also wrote two books before The Face in the Frost: a thin Thurber-ish tale called The Pedant and the Shuffly (not recommended) and a delightful collection of parodies of pre-Vatican Council Catholicism called St. Fidgeta & Other Parodies (highly recommended).


[1] “The one you’re thinking of” is, of course, Shakespeare’s Prospero, the hero of The Tempest (c.1611) and probably the most famous wizard in English literature if we exempt traditional figures such as Merlin or modern creations like Tolkien’s Gandalf.

Roger Bacon is, by contrast, a real person and one of the most learned men of his time (the thirteenth century — among other things, he was the first European to discover gunpowder); after his death, legends gathered about the name and transformed his reputation into that of a master wizard whose deeds were retold a few centuries later in an old Elizabethan chapbook (Friar Bacon) and play (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by one of Shakespeare’s early rivals, Robert Greene).

[2] Lin Carter, Imaginary Worlds (1973), pages 165-167. The other two absolutely first-rate fantasies to appear in the preceding twenty years were, in his estimation, Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) and Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain (1971), both of which he published in the Adult Fantasy Series. It’s worthwhile to note that he rates these two and The Face in the Frost above other worthy competitors he discusses such as Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy and Kurtz’s Deryni, the latter of which was a discovery of his and also published in the series.

[3] “To read [Bellairs] is to realize what a loss his death was — not simply to fantasy . . . but to the English language, and to the art of storytelling, which he served so well in the short time he had.”– Peter S. Beagle, tribute quoted on a Bellairs tribute site. (Another Bellairs tribute site is the Compleat Bellairs site.)

[4] The original hardcover (Macmillan, 1969) is long out of print, and the most readily available version is probably the Ace paperback editions (1978 and 1981, IBSN 0-441-22529-2) through one of the many used book services. There have also been two later small-press editions in various classics-of-fantasy series. Ironically, while unavailable in book form, an unabridged audio reading is available (Recorded Books Incorporated #94434, 1995, read by George Guidall).

[5] The mysterious book, with its odd pictures and undecipherable script (of which Bellairs provides a sample in the book), is almost certainly inspired by the Voynich Manuscript, a book written in an unknown alphabet and an unknown language that exists in a single copy of unknown origin (now in the Beinecke Library at Yale). It has been traced back to Bavaria in the 1570s but not beyond; Voynich himself, who discovered it in Rome in 1912, believed it belonged to Roger Bacon (d.1292). No one has ever been able to prove this, but Bellairs clearly availed himself of the legend when constructing his book, as Clark Ashton Smith had done thirty years before when he based his imaginary tome “The Book of Eibon” upon it (see “The Holiness of Azedarac”, Weird Tales, 1931).

[6] Ursula K. Le Guin, blurb for the Ace paperback edition. Le Guin also appreciates the book’s darker side, since she goes on to say “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.”


  1. Bill says:

    What a gem. If I had any writing ability, I’d use it to eloquently convince your readers to visit a used bookstore, and obtain a copy.

    But I don’t. I’ll just say that I’ve been reading since I was three, and I can’t think of many books that I’d look forward to rereading more, and leave it at that.

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