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I first read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel The Prince of Mist about two years ago, and then again in the original Spanish, and then recently again in English. The translation is very good, as Zafon’s novels tend to be translated very well, although there are elements of the story that I feel need some critical editing, I also think that this is probably one of the most successful horror novels for children and young adults that there is.
The story focuses on a boy named Max, whose family leaves a big city during the war (the author has clarified that this story takes place in England during World War II, but everything is left pleasantly vague) to a seaside village, where they move into a mysterious house with a truly creepy statue garden featuring a menacing clown statue. At the village Max and his sister Alicia make a friend named Roland who is embroiled in this supernatural Faustian bargain struck with a mysterious figure who goes by the Prince of Mist. The trio spend the summer uncovering secrets as they come of age.
This novel is indicative of Zafon’s style and future works (including the spectacular adult novel, Shadow of the Wind) particularly in his elegant prose. It was written in 1993, during the height of the American Goosebumps phenomena (a slightly cheesy series of preteen horror novels written in the style of Animorphs, in a monthly serial ghostwritten format) but not translated into English until 2010, possibly spurred on by Zafon’s popularity as an adult novelist. But this Spanish novel does not have a trace of camp, and the comedy in it is far from cheesy. The scares are not safe. They do not ascribe to any theory that children cannot handle horror in the most complex and unsettling fashion.
And that’s the crux of this novel: there is nothing satisfying about it. There is no clean ending, there is no comforting message at the end. The idea of an evil that exists with no clear way to vanquish it is not the usual message that exists in children and young adult horror – G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed” simply does not apply here. Zafon creates a dragon (perhaps, quite Biblically, the Dragon) that can’t be defeated and cannot be killed. The price that the Prince of Mist extracts from these young people is distinctly unfair but it is relentless and it is not comfortable.
Instead, Zafon seems to indicate that sacrifice and acceptance of the mistakes of others is a commendable trait. And this is not only unsettling, but it is also an unsatisfactory ending – something that Ruth Graham, writer of the Slate editorial Against YA (I’m not going to link it: and I’m sorry for those readers who are a bit sick of this rather blatant bit of clickbait appearing in children’s lit blogs everywhere!) seems to feel is a marker of adult fiction. This is particularly funny, considering Zafon’s most prominent adult works, which is The Shadow of the Wind, has one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in recent years, to great success. But I would argue that not all unsatisfactory endings are good ones, or even literary ones.
The question is if Zafon’s unsatisfactory ending works, not only with the message, but with the age group that he writes for. Problematic endings, with problematic deaths, can serve the purpose of making a novel linger, and can make the message harder to determine, but at the same time, once the reader has considered that ending, it can make the solution to the ending more satisfying. In that, Zafon succeeds: despite the terrifying ending, and the truly bone-chilling implications of Zafon’s story, the ideas of self-sacrifice and the way that these actions coincide to create what is fundamentally a story about the loss of innocence, particularly within the larger scope of a story that is set against the backdrop of war, makes the problematic ending shattering and incredibly well-done. And at the end of the day, the idea of problematic endings being a hallmark of good fiction transcends age and transcends genre.