Friday, January 21, 2011

Vanished in the mist

The Prince of Mist is a little bit of supernatural horror. A piece of juvenalia (I'm using this term incorrectly, as this book was not written during the author's youth, but is written for youth) from an author who has become known for his work for adults, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Evidently, this was his first published work. I'm can't seem to find much to say about it -- I listened to it quickly and its details have vanished from my brain.

It is 1943 and war is raging in Europe. A watchmaker seeks to protect his family and buys an abandoned seaside home in which they will wait out the conflict. His three children are each deeply affected by the move: his youngest daughter hears voices, falls down the stairs and goes into a deep coma, his son finds an overgrown garden behind the house populated by statues of circus performers that seem to be able to relocate themselves and change poses, and his older daughter is haunted by strange dreams. Max and Alicia (the older daughter) befriend a local boy, who takes them snorkeling around a shipwreck. Yes, something evil is hanging about the house and the ship ... a Dr. Cain, otherwise known as the Prince of Mist. Dr. Cain is in the position of fulfilling dreams, but he does so at a terrible cost. Long ago, someone tried to renege on what he owed; the doctor is patiently waiting to collect.

I didn't like this much. The war (never explicitly identified, but the date can lead you to only one conclusion: World War II) seems superfluous to the story. The trains run on time, there's plenty of gasoline and other essentials, not one character in the novel seems affected by the war. (I take that back: Max and Alicia's new friend Roland mentions that he will soon be drafted.) Perhaps the author is comparing the evil of Dr. Cain to the evil of war, of Nazism? He's not describing that evil, though ... is this a leap he expects the reader to make? There's nothing wrong with that, I guess -- but that seems like a big topic for a short horror novel. If the setting is important, then the characters sound off. The teens don't sound like teenagers from the 1940s, their dialog seems very modern. The Faustian bargain that is originally struck with Dr. Cain seems one of interest to adults, not teenagers. The whole thing seemed very belabored to me, almost like it didn't come easily to the author.

Were I susceptible to horror, I might have had a soupçon of anxiety about when and where the Prince would show up, once his story was completely told, but the audiobook production just made me giggle. It is full of sound effects and "eerie" music that telegraphs every creaky plot turn in the novel. Even once I knew the sound effects were coming, they'd be so oddly interjected into the story that I'd often try to figure out what was making such a noise around me (outside my earphones). The music would occasionally overwhelm the reader's voice, plus it was so obviously "atmospheric" that I wondered if the producers were being ironic in some way. After all, shouldn't the writing stand on its own here? Don't Ruiz Zafón's descriptions and word-painting provide all the atmosphere we need?

We learn at the beginning of the audiobook that the author himself wrote the brief piece of piano music that is played at the very beginning and end of the story. (This music is not the music that underlies [or overwhelms] the reading.) It's ... nice, I guess. It's interesting that he's a composer as well as a writer. Ruiz Zafón is also "interviewed" (someone reads a question, which he answers -- it's clear they are not in the same room together) at the end of the audiobook. He explains that this was the book he wrote when he decided to become a full-time author, and that the story been percolating for a long time.

The narrator is Jonathan Davis, heard before by me here. Just a few days after finishing, I really can't remember much about his performance, good or bad -- it must have been professional and well-done, but the music and sound effects clearly took up most of my ear space!

Or quite possibly, it is simply not my cup of tea and I've forgotten it.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves
Narrated by Jonathan Davis
Hachette Audio, 2010. 5:06

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