Saturday, October 21, 2006

Unexplained Noises are Best Left Unexplained

by the Chronicler of Mare Caelorum (Oct. 16, 2006)
(Originally published at

Sound advice, from John Bellairs' very whimsical and secretive wizard Prospero ("not the one you are thinking of, either," Bellairs tells us), to his stoic housekeeper Mrs. Durfey - and incidentally, a pretty good rule of thumb for fantasy writers in general, one that Bellairs adheres to faithfully and effectively in The Face in the Frost.

Good authors know that over-explaining is the death of storytelling, and John Bellairs was nothing if not a fellow who knew his work. He knew that readers like to use their imaginations, and despise stories that take us on a breathless, regimented forced-march. Many of us read to escape, and aren't willing to give up our time to a writer far too much in love with their own intricate plots, nor trade a mundane reality for a make-believe world that insists on controlling where our thoughts roam at all times.

Face, fortunately, doesn't fall into the complexity trap. It is a deeply satisfying and undemanding read. Bellairs sketches out just enough of the oddly funny and frightening world of the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom to help us form a picture, and relies on his matchless descriptive power to keep us wanting to see more. No need to lead us down the path, he simply maps it out and makes us want to follow it.

Bellairs' storytelling gifts were many, and fully on display in The Face in the Frost, which I consider his finest book among a cohort of superb stories. He made his career as a successful children's or young adult's writer, it is true, but all of his books have the sly, clever, grown-up humor of a man who tells everyone he writes for kids, but is really writing for himself and for anyone else who wants to get lost in bramble-filled woods pursued by strange, gibbering creatures, or explore the houses of wizards with their anachronistic curios, haunted cellars and bedsteads with bassoons carved into the headposts.

Chief among his gifts is the humor Bellairs imbues in his characters, in this case, Prospero and his friend Roger Bacon (most probably the one you are thinking of), as they delve into the mystery of who is trying to kill the former through frighteningly powerful - if erratic - magic, and why.

Another Bellairs' touch is his longtime embrace of the old, scary connotations of magic. Mischief and horror - leavened by the hilarious or even just the buffoonish - loom large in the wizardly craft as practiced in the Kingdoms.

John Bellairs never achieved the fame of later authors who followed the trail he blazed - one thinks of the Lemony Snicket books, with their dark children's humor and mysterious twists, or the Harry Potter child-wizard phenomenon, that has ensnared kids and adults alike. Which is a grand pity, because his work (often illustrated by the magnificently weird Edward Gorey), surpasses both in simplicity and quality, in my opinion (and above all, in sympathy - for his characters and readers alike). Bellairs was telling stories, not building a "brand" or helping create a publishing empire.

Selfish readers (like myself) enjoy nothing better than a secret book known only to a handful of close henchmen and confidants. The knowledge that a favorite "undiscovered author" is still safe from the withering and unforgiving glare of popularity is a source of comfort and shared - if slightly guilty - delight. But Bellairs deserves far more than the relative obscurity that has been his reward up to now. I hope that when the readers of his Snicket and Potter godchildren finish those books, they'll trace their lineage and find the master in their ancestry.

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