Five Dials

Five Dials is a destination in the Southern Kingdom, near the banks of the Brown River [The Face in the Frost, 96-7]. It was also the name of an illusionary village created by Melichus to distract, ensnare, and unnerve his rival, Prospero [86].

The Village

During his journey through the Southern Kingdom, Prospero comes across Five Dials village, so named for a pentagonal clock tower in the center of town; it has five faces but one was missing: “four glowed like little moons, but the fifth was a black hole” [86-8]. After a brief run-in with an old man in an alley, Prospero chooses the Card Player Inn for his lodgings but quickly becomes unsettled that something about this place isn’t on the level. Sensing something wrong, Prospero seeks out the hostess only to find her, the inn, and the village itself is all someone’s nightmarish stunt at his expense.

The strange man Prospero encounters coming into Five Dials mutters two phrases that first appear to be nonsense: "Mern crost brig" and "Dirks in cairn." If anything, “Mern crost brig” sounds like “Merlin crossed bridge.” Prospero later must cross a bridge into the Northern Kingdom; if the man got his wizards confused perhaps this is nothing more than a suggestion – or plead – that the wizard continue northward. A “dirk” Scottish term for a short-bladed dagger and a “cairn” is Scottish/Irish word that identifies a pile of rocks, usually cylindrical in construction. Hence, the old man appears to refer to a rock pile with daggers inside. While not as easily decipherable as the first phrase, perhaps this refers to the innkeeper’s knife Prospero finds, the only tangible item remaining after Five Dials’ disappearance. The old man is last seen jabbering away as the town melts away [95].

Other than the old man in the alley, the hostess of the Card Player, described as a “slightly plump middle-aged woman,” is the only other person of interest Prospero has any major contact with during his stay in Five Dials. After she provides the weary wizard with a room for the night, she retreats to her quarters until Prospero comes to question her. Prospero finds her motionless, “her back to him and her arms at her sides....her head was bowed slightly and her eyes were open....And still the woman stood silent, staring with dead eyes at the floor. Prospero...walked to where the slumping figure stood. Grasping her shoulders, he shook her violently...He looked up at the woman again and stepped back with a gasp...The woman's eyes were gone. In her slowly rising head were two black holes.” Al Myers notes that this scene is reminiscent – “almost verbatim” – from the climactic moment of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The Inn

The Inn of Five Dials, a far more cheery place than Prospero’s previous encounter, is encountered a number of days later and is described as the “last friendly stop before reaching the Brown River and the treeless moors of the North Kingdom. A lonely inn in the South Kingdom wedged under a limestone bank. On the cliff over the inn stood a once magnificent four-sided clock tower that had since fallen into disrepair.” It is here Prospero reunites with Roger Bacon and they discover, through pooling their individual knowledge, the truth about the malevolent power building strength across their land.


John Bellairs made his first visit to England in the early 1960s and it's hard to discern at this point whether the overseas holiday sparked his anglophilia or if this "affliction" was already full-blown. British authors like Shakespeare and Dickens dotted his bookshelves and Bellairs, much like his fictional alter ego Professor Childermass, had more than a passing interest in British history, literature, and antiquity.

Bellairs literally immersed himself in British culture when he moved to England – specifically the Bristol area – for six months of 1967. During this visit there was time for sightseeing - key landmarks like Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge and Cabot Tower, the Roman ruins in nearby Bath, and other side trips to Glastonbury, Wells, and, indeed, London. But Bellairs had set aside time on this trip for writing, too. From this "unique atmosphere" came the story of Prospero – first drafts of what would go on to become The Face in the Frost.

Roughly 60 miles southwest of Bristol is the tiny village of Horton, which may not have been on his tour per se, but is home to its own Five Dials Inn, named for the convergence of five roads.

Five Dials Inn

A. J. (Jim) Renouf, one of the inn's patrons, wrote to contributor Patrick Cuff in July 2001 that the inn was "originally called the Horton Inn, and believed to be the haunt of highwaymen. The name was changed sometime about the First World War, although I've not been able to date the change positively." He also noted the inn is located within the parish of nearby Ilminster, 4 miles away and has an Ilminster telephone number.

Another area resident, Gordon Denman, also believes the Five Dials Inn received its name before the First World War. "It is mentioned in The Mynster of the Ile which was published in 1904: 'In 1830 ... this commissioner also planted the 'Five Dials', that is, he also marked out the roads which radiate in different directions from the top of Broadway Hill (now Horton). This spot, 243 feet above the sea, is on a level with the weathercock of St Mary's Church. The 'Five Dials Inn was soon reared; Mr Farthing the keeper therof....'"

The architectural design of various streets converging in one central area is not uncommon in Britain. The most famous of these is the similarly named area, Seven Dials, in London’s West End. Seven Dials was constructed in the 1690s to mark the location where seven (originally six) road intersected; a hexagonal pillar stood at the crosspiece with a sundial on each face and the seventh sundial the pillar itself. The area was designed with well-to-do citizens in mind but by the 19th Century it had become a notorious slum; Charles Dickens, one of Bellairs' favorite authors, described the area in Sketches by Boz that “a stranger who finds himself in The Dials for the first time will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time."

Nearly 90 years later, the setting was used in Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery. While the original pillar was removed, a replica has since been erected and most of the area has been redeveloped into thriving commercial area. Interestingly enough London appears to have had its own “Five Dials,” as documented by social worker and author Maud Alethea Stanley in her book, Work about the five dials (1878), and as seen in the name of a small literary magazine, Five Dials.

It could be argued then, that Bellairs combined the name of the Horton inn with the geographic landmark (the six-sided sundial) to create his Southern Kingdom spectral stopover.