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I don't read John Bellairs very often because of the thing that keeps happening with The Face in the Frost. This thing, which I will eventually learn to stop doing to myself, is that I remember that it has been a long time since I read The Face in the Frost, and that it is one of the great fantasy novels-- smart, funny, compassionate, knowledgeable about Renaissance magic-- and I start to reread it in circumstances which involve it being after dark, or being by myself in a strange city, and only then do I remember that it is also one of the two or three books which reliably scare me senseless, every single time. (The other two that I can think of are Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness, which will give you permanent scars if you are the sort of person who likes to keep books on the side of your bed, and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which is simply uncopable.)

So the association of Bellairs with extreme grace and erudition but also spending the next two weeks looking twitchily over my shoulder has kept me from reading many of his kids' books, especially since the impression I tend to get from them is that all of the qualities, good and creepy alike, are somewhat toned down.

But I feel like it, every so often. I don't know why. Why do people read horror in the first place? That's a question a lot of critics have spent a lot of time on, and that no one is ever going to be able to answer fully and in a way which satisfies everybody.

One of the reasons I read horror, though, is that it's a genre that gives as much weight to history as I'd like to see it given. In many horror stories, it is perfectly true that the past is neither dead nor past, and there is also the lovely practice that many writers play with of making up cool-sounding academic things. Volumes of forbidden lore half made up and half really there in the library but nothing like so alarming, the infinite cross-references that writers who are in on the joke can make to each other... this sort of textual play is not nearly so traditional in other genres. And this particular volume of Bellairs, with its professor named for Roderick Random and its plot that comes damn close to actively paraphrasing M.R. James' 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' but doesn't, quite, in little loving ways-- this book makes me happy.

It might make the rest of you, happy, too; the only thing I find somewhat mentally uncongenial about it is how incredibly, incredibly Catholic it is. John Dixon lives with his grandparents, since his mother's dead and his father's in the Korean War; the professor across the street tells him a ghost story that took place at their parish church, regarding the disappearance of a former priest there, and John finds a thing that priest left behind, with a note saying that whoever takes it out of the church is at risk of their soul. Of course you can guess what happens from there. I enjoyed the well-evoked fifties-working-class Massachusetts small town, and the way that everyone in John's life does care about him, and is trying to help him, and does sensible things, and yet. This is certainly the only book I've read in which a person who is haunted is sent to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist saves his life by mistake, without knowing it, and through doing something which would reasonably affect both the haunted person's mental state and state of being possessed.

Competent, congenial, creepy as hell: John Bellairs all over. Now it will be another few years before I read any more of him.


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March 2017

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