Monday, December 31, 2012

Bellairs Brontë Hornung

The Face in the Frost
by John Bellairs
Recommended Ages: 12+

John Bellairs (1938-91) specialized in writing spooky tales of the mysterious and macabre for younger readers. One of the most mysterious and macabre things about him is the fact that he went on writing them after his death. It turns out that four of his books were completed by Brad Strickland based on sketches left unrealized at the author's death; Strickland then went on to write at least nine more books based on characters Bellairs created. This accounts for the strange fact that 31 novels are listed on Bellairs's bibliography, though he only lived to write 18 of them. There may be more pseudo-Bellairs spookiness to come, including a film franchise. Is this a good thing? I suppose the jury is out. Some fans of Bellairs may appreciate the chance to see his work continue, compensating in some degree for his untimely loss. Others may feel emotions ranging from irritation at having to distinguish between books Bellairs really wrote and those ghost-written after his death, to heartbreak at seeing a most unique creative mind lose control over the fruit of his imagination.

My personal feelings, however, are not mixed. I do not plan to read anything to which Brad Strickland set his hand. The way I mean to mourn for the genius of John Bellairs is to read all the books that he actually wrote, period. To that end, I made this book my first real purchase at the Amazon Kindle Store (not counting dozens of books that can be "bought" for $0.00). After reading its 11 chapters in one swift, delicious afternoon, I find that the $7.39 I spent on this Kindle book was a really good deal. I look forward to keeping it, treasuring it, re-reading it, singing its praises, and sharing it—starting here, with you.

Most of Bellairs's work was aimed at a juvenile audience. Evidently this is because his publisher, from some time in the early 1970s, discouraged him from trying to write adult fantasy, a genre that had not yet begun to thrive. So Bellairs devoted most of his novels to the adventures of young Lewis Barnavelt, Johnny Dixon, and Anthony Monday. First, however, he gave us this one book about a grown-up wizard named Prospero (not the one in The Tempest by Shakespeare), his best friend Roger Bacon, and their chillingly dangerous search for the root of a great evil that has begun to darken their unnamed country. Bellairs did write a short prequel to this novel, but it was lost when the fantasy anthology in which it was to be published, wasn't. He also started to write a sequel to this book, titled The Dolphin Cross—but neither Bellairs himself, during the last decade of his life, nor his ghost-writers since, ever finished it. So there is a wistfulness in enjoying this book, wherein one recognizes its integrity as one of the finest early examples of the wizard novel and regrets the unfulfilled prospect of more of the same.

In this respect, Bellairs's masterpiece (really his first novel, though it was his third book) begins to attract comparisons to the writings of Mervyn Peake. Both authors were powerhouses of adult fantasy before it became a bestselling genre. Both of them died too soon, leaving behind the torso of unfinished novels for other authors to complete. Both authors had a flair for rich, descriptive, strikingly original utterance. And both authors had a distinct way of blending whimsical silliness with dark, Gothically spooky stylings. The key difference is that Bellairs did it in much leaner, economical prose. His action moves at a brisk pace, taking both characters and readers farther in fewer words. This book, in which so much promise is tantalizingly but compactly embodied, shows Bellairs to be a master of charm, eloquence, and wit, the soul of which is brevity. It is not a long novel. But I think it could be a great one.

Prospero and Roger are admirable wizards. Undeniably goofy, in the cracked-but-great tradition of Gandalf and Dumbledore, they study hard—setting an example for all aspiring wizards. But while they have weird powers at their fingertips, they also have tender and noble hearts, and very human dreads and terrors. And so, as they explore the creepy mystery behind the unseasonable frost spreading across the land, and the evil face that traces itself in the frost on so many people's windows, and the stirrings of violence and chaos that threaten to set the Northern and Southern Kingdom at each other's throats, you can't help feeling their fears and sorrows along with them. In short, you will love them, and thrill to the creepy mystery-adventure through which this book leads them. And then, if you are as sensible as I trust you will be by now, you will place The Face in the Frost in your bookcase or Kindle folder alongside such beautiful tales of wizardry as The Last Unicorn and The Wizard of Earthsea.

by Charlotte Brontë
Recommended Ages: 14+

This 1853 novel is important in many ways. For one, it is the last novel to be completed by any of the three celebrated Brontë sisters, and it shows the furthest development of an artist whose career as a published author started with Jane Eyre. It draws on its author's experiences as an English teacher at a boarding school in Brussels, where (among other unhappy experiences) she suffered from loneliness, homesickness, and possibly an inappropriate but unrequited attachment to her married employer. It also depicts characters based on other people Ms. Brontë knew, reacts critically to styles of art and entertainment she had experienced, and expresses a deeply negative view of Roman Catholicism as a facet of the author's devout Protestantism.

If its narrator, an outwardly cool but inwardly troubled young lady named Lucy Snowe, really reflects the author's attitudes and feelings, this novel must then reveal Charlotte Brontë to be anything but the model of a conventional, Victorian girl—demure, dutiful, spotlessly virtuous in thought and deed, etc. Rather, it seems to be the confession of a spiritually troubled young woman who suffered greatly from solitude, heartbreak, and depression; who, while bearing these afflictions, sought to make her own way in the world, armored with a fiercely independent spirit and at times a biting wit; who frankly admitted feeling unlawful desires and entertaining such mental house-guests as jealousy, peevishness, a dread of ghosts, and near-suicidal despair. It is a daring story in that its narrator is sometimes unreliable, deceiving the reader or playing coy with the nature of her afflictions (such as exactly what became of her immediate family); even its ending is ambiguous, suggesting that something dreadful happened but inviting the reader to imagine a happy ending instead.

We first meet Lucy Snowe as a girl staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton and the latter's son Graham, along with an even littler house-guest named Paulina Hume. No sooner is the stage set for some melodrama than this episode passes, and the setting changes, and we find a grown-up Lucy waiting at the bedside of an elderly invalid who confides the heartbreak of her life during the first of the book's many moving passages. Through some tragedy or another, Lucy finds herself alone in the world and decides to try being a governess or a teacher somewhere across the sea. She settles in a country called Labassecour (somewhere in the neighborhood of Belgium), in the capital city called Villette (modeled on Brussels), at a boarding school directed by a Madame Beck, quickly moving up from being a nanny to Mme. Beck's own children to teaching English in the school itself. All this time she suffers from the culture-shock of being surrounded by people who speak a different language and practice a different religion; until, left alone during a school break, she becomes so completely miserable that it almost kills her.

This crisis is not so much relieved as succeeded by a new set of problems. Lucy loses her heart to a handsome, English doctor who (she belatedly reveals) is our own Graham Bretton from the beginning of the book. But as kind as "Dr. John" is (don't ask), he never gives his heart to her. Lucy's torment is exquisite as she schools herself to bury her passion for Graham while, at the same time, trying to ensure that he chooses the right girl of two beautiful cousins. Then she starts to have feelings for the brusque, moody M. Paul Emanuel (the "M" stands for "Monsieur," silly)—a relative of Mme. Beck's, who teaches literature and other subjects when he isn't trying to bring Lucy under the discipline of the Catholic Church. Even as it grows increasingly obvious that their love can never be—their religious differences being only one of the reasons—Lucy's desperate need for some kind of happiness becomes so unbearably urgent that it may make you squirm. And does she find it? Ah! That's where the book cheats you; or rather, it forces you to choose between the happy ending you would like and the probable ending that you wouldn't.

Make no mistake, this book will lead you on a gruelling journey. It is a fascinating one, though—full of scenes and characters and ideas and details that form a speaking picture of Lucy Snowe, Villette, the school, and a whole remarkable way of life. Perhaps as deeply as any novel can, without becoming unreadable, it explores the inner workings of one woman's heart in a situation in life that is not conducive to a conventional storyline with a tidy ending, a neat resolution, or poetic justice for its good and bad characters. It is, in fact, more or less a slice of life with all the unpoetical injustices left in and, where a happy ending is wanted, at best the memory of a circumscribed period of incomplete happiness, followed by... Well, whatever life brings next.

If you want the girl to end up in Mr. Rochester's arms, read Jane Eyre. To meet a young woman whose mundane outer struggles and colossal inward ones continue indefinitely, this is your book. The other story may be more in line with your romantic ideas. But this one seems, at times, to be opening your heart and reading it back at you. I'm neither a woman, nor a teacher, nor a foreign traveler, nor a victim of unfulfilled love... but I recognize many of the feelings Lucy Snowe feels in this book. And so in struggling to understand Lucy, one might perhaps feel a comforting sensation of Being Understood.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE ADVISORY: To understand some of the dialogue in this book, it may be helpful to study a year or two worth of French. Evidently Charlotte Brontë assumed that her appreciative reader would have such a background of linguistic study. It might be interesting to know how these passages play in French translations of the novel, but enough said.

The Black Mask
by E. W. Hornung
Recommended Ages: 12+

Published in the U.S. under the relatively pedestrian title Raffles: The Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman, this is the second collection of adventures of gentleman burglar A. J. Raffles and his school chum, sidekick, and biographer Bunny. These characters seem to have been invented as foils to Holmes and Watson, the celebrated creation of Hornung's friend and brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. Though they are not so well-known today, anyone who reads British fiction written in the first quarter or so of the 20th century must have had their interest piqued by references to Raffles, whose name stood for a while as a proverb for any merry rogue who made off with millions while posing as a sportsman, a magnetic figure of fashion and culture, admired by men and women alike.

In this book, however, Raffles has moved beyond the phase of his career when he plied his criminal craft under the cover of being a celebrated cricket player. Presumed dead since his escape over the side of a cruise ship in The Amateur Cracksman, he has returned to England resolved to stay dead in the eyes of the law. Bunny, meanwhile, has done a bit of time for their joint crimes, and has emerged into a society that does not promise much to a man of his experience. The pair are reunited in the guise of an elderly invalid and his personal attendant, resuming their criminal lifestyle while taking pains to uphold the public's belief that Raffles is dead.

All in all, the eight capers in this volume are cloaked in a vapor of melancholy that sets them apart from the rollicking fun of the previous set. Raffles daringly swipes a priceless artifact from under the very noses of a museum's guards, only to admire its beauty for a while before sending it to Queen Victoria as a jubilee gift—a display of sentiment that even Bunny considers unlike his worshiped friend. One chapter is devoted to the story of a tragic romance with an Italian girl, another to Raffles' narrow escape from gruesome death at the hands of a vengeful crime boss. There is a duel of wits (to the death) with a fellow tradesman; the revival of an "old flame" with a married woman, leading Raffles to fake his death a second time; an interlude of more or less successful burglaries carried out on bicycles, while our rascally heroes hide out under a new identity; and finally—and I mean finally—the Boer War, in which the patriotism in Bunny and Raffles is so stirred up that they risk exposure and death to fight for their country. And these risks become all too real when they recognize a corporal in their unit as an enemy spy.

The end really comes for Raffles in this book, yet somehow it is not the end of the stories published about him. E. W. Hornung went on to write another book of Raffles stories—A Thief in the Night—as well as a novel—Mr. Justice Raffles. The same author wrote a considerable number of other books, which are listed here. And while hard copies of these entertainments can vary from cheap reproductions to expensive used books, the free Kindle book makes for a fiendishly clever way to steal an hour of fun out of a snow day, a rainy afternoon, a dull lunch break, or a holiday at the beach.

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