At first glance John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost is a bit of an anomaly, both in his own body of work and in Appendix N. It is the only Bellairs work cited by Gary Gygax in Appendix N, and ended up being Bellairs’s first and only fantasy novel directed at adults. Bellairs began work on The Face in the Frost in the late 1960s after reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He created his protagonist Prospero as a reaction to the might and nobility of Gandalf, rendering Prospero and his fellow wizard Roger Bacon as more down to earth, crotchety, and occasionally downright fearful of their circumstances.
The Face in the Frost was published in hardcover by Macmillan in 1969, with quirky pen-and-ink illustrations by his friend Marilyn Fitschen that reinforced the alternating whimsy and dread of the story. The book did well enough for Bellairs to turn to full-time writing, with his next work The House with a Clock in its Walls was also a dark fantasy, although set in the late 1940s. Supposedly Bellairs had difficulty selling The House with a Clock in its Walls until a publisher suggested rewriting it as a young adult (YA) book. The House with a Clock in its Walls proved to be a huge critical and sales success, so much so that Bellairs would remain best known as a YA author for the rest of his career, completing a total of 15 books for young readers.
It’s interesting that The Face in the Frost did not differ dramatically in mood and tone from Bellairs’s gothic mysteries for young readers, yet it was never re-marketed as a YA work. Ace Books published The Face in the Frost in paperback in 1978, but its odd man out status as Bellairs’s only substantial adult work may have contributed to it going out out of print after Bellairs’s death in 1991. It was then only available only in specialty press editions until it was finally republished in 2014 by Open Road Media, although unfortunately without Marilyn Fitschen’s illustrations.
The Ace Books paperback cover by Carl Lundgren (also the cover artist of Dragon magazine issues 50 & 68) renders Prospero as an archetypal high fantasy wizard and captures some of the eeriness but none of the whimsy of The Face in the Frost:
It’s unclear when Gary Gygax first encountered The Face in the Frost, but it may have been fresh on his mind as he was writing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In The Players Handbook Gygax explicitly states that magic-users must consult their spellbooks in order to memorize their spells, which echoes Prospero’s habit of studying his spellbook at night before the next day’s journey and adventures. In contrast the Original Dungeons & Dragons box set merely states that a given spell (slot) may only be used once a day–no mention is made of memorization or spell preparation.
It appears that Gary Gygax wanted to provide a narrative and theoretical underpinning to what may have originally been a game balance decision. He found much of his answer in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, but The Face in the Frost may have helped to reinforce his design choice. To the dominant Vancian strain and the acknowledged influence of de Camp and Pratt’s Enchanter books may we now add The Face in the Frost as a direct influence on the AD&D magic system?
Update 04/29/2019 – Daniel Collins of Delta’s D&D Hotspot points out that Gary Gygax specifically cited The Face in the Frost as an influence of the AD&D magic system on p.40 of the Dungeon Masters Guide: “If your players inquire as to how spells work, or fail to do so, you can explain, without difficulty, the precepts of the AD&D magic spell systems. (For background reading you can direct campaign participants to Vance’s THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD and THE DYING EARTH as well as to Bellairs’ THE FACE IN THE FROST.)”
The Face in the Frost (trade paperback/Kindle ebook)
Bellairsia – Celebrating John Bellairs – The website of all things Bellairs.
Magic Mirrors (NESFA’s Choice) (hardcover) – features the illustrated version of The Face in the Frost as well as Bellairs’s rather obscure works for adults, St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies (1966) and The Pedant and the Shuffly (1968). The real treasure here though is the manuscript fragment for The Dolphin Cross (circa 1980), which was to have been a sequel to The Face in the Frost. Bellairs’s young adult writing must have been too demanding and lucrative however, as The Dolphin Cross remained uncompleted at the time of his death.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Lewis Barnavelt) (paperback/Kindle ebook) – this is Bellairs’s breakthrough YA book from 1973 and is actually quite similar in style and mood to The Face in the Frost, albeit the protagonist is a young boy in Michigan in the late 1940s. The House with a Clock in its Walls was the first Bellairs book to be illustrated by the great Edward Gorey, who would go on to provide artwork for 12 out of 15 of Bellairs’s YA novels.
Players Handbook (1e) (RPGNow affiliate link)
Dungeon Master’s Guide (1e) (RPGNow affiliate link)
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3 thoughts on “Episode 11 – John Bellairs’s “The Face in the Frost””
Great podcast, as usual.
Moorcock is still alive, as far as I know. I believe that he is the only living Appendix N author, but I could be wrong.
Thanks for being such a keen listener! You’re right as always, Moorcock is the last of the Appendix N giants to walk among us. Jack Vance was the most recent to pass away, back in 2013.
What a great book and great podcast. I found the scene in the abandoned woods particular chilling, as was five dials (I’m writing this after the fact – I believe it’s five?)