by Sarah Russell
from The Angel in Hell, 2005
Truly, there is a force out there in the unknowable blackness of the universe that occasionally looks down upon me and sees that I still have optimism about the things I review, and in its hateful malice toward all creation makes me read things like this just to punish me.
I’m going to try not to quote your faces off, but it's going to be hard. Let's kick it off with the first sentence of the story so you can see what we're working with:
The despicable cold air flew through the city violently as it rushed through the trees with eerie noises that only a ghost could make.
Sigh. You know, clauses aren't like Pokémon. You don't need to collect them all in the same sentence. That first sentence is deceptively correct-looking, but unfortunately it's singular; the entire story is as horribly edited as Russell’s other offerings.
We start out in Paris in 1917, some 36 years after the probable date of the original story. This is worth noticing because the Phantom is still going to be a major character, and the time jump makes him (probably in his 40s or 50s at minimum in the original story) somewhere in the 75-90 age range. Of course, since this is based on the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, which had the character more in his 30s and the original story bewilderingly set in 1871, that drops it down to him only being in the 60-70 age range. Let's go with that one, since, sadly, it is our BEST-CASE SCENARIO.
We open up with Adeline de Chagny, a fetching young thing of sixteen years, making her debut at the miraculously-not-burnt-down-like-in-the-film-the-story-is-based-on opera house, shepherded by Raoul, her proud papa. (Christine apparently died at some point. No one is going to explain how, so don't waste your wondering.) Naturally, she is a transcendentally perfect teen singer, coming as she does from Christine's golden genes. This is clearly a sequel to the original story, not to Russell's previous one, for which we can all but give heartfelt thanks.
Adeline, of course, is spunky and independent, and she doesn't really want to be a singer but is being sort of forced into it by Raoul, who has some kind of jerk idea about her using her natural talents and letting her mother's legacy live on through her. Just as in Russell's previous story, Raoul's treatment is bizarre; he starts the tale out as a perfectly nice figure (a loving, doting, supportive father) and ends up... well, let's just wait, I don't want to spoil it for you.
Over with the Phantom, things are terrible on the very first page, as Erik pauses in his swanning about the rafters (can he get his wheelchair up there? Because it's the early twentieth century and he's goddamned old for someone with a medical condition who lives in a basement) to watch Adeline perform and start talking to himself:
"Adeline... you resemble your mother in every way possible. How I have longed for her to come back to me, but perhaps this is my chance to capture the mind and spirit of a woman who is exactly like her."
Oh my god. Oh, no. I mean, this could go many compelling directions in the hands of a writer who isn't this one, but as it is... yeah, we might as well belt in now. We're entering the Tunnel of Geriatric Phantoms Creepily Pursuing the Offspring of Their Former Fixation Who is Six Times Younger Than They Are, and nobody is allowed out until the end.
It's not that the idea of a cross-generational romance is bad in and of itself, but the idea of trying to romance someone because you once wanted to romance her mom and haven't gotten over the obsession is not romantic. It is incredibly creepy. Especially if you are so old that you could be her grandfather (or great-grandfather, even!).
Incidentally, the idea of the Phantom fixing on Christine's daughter and pursuing her with manic fervor is extremely reminiscent of the first Argento film, the one with all the eyeball distress, and I'm pretty sure Russell really didn't intend for her readers to go there. I think it's safe to say that it's an accidental parallel; somehow, I doubt there is much Italian horror in Russell's shallow wading pool of influences.
In case no one was yet squicked out by the very PREMISE of this story, Erik hypnotizes Adeline while she's singing and causes her to have a horrific fantasy about him flying down out of the rafters and date-raping her on the stage. It's supposed to be spine-tingling and suggestive, and the reader is supposed to wonder if it's really happening or just a vision. The reader is probably not supposed to be screaming, appalled, into a pillow, but unfortunately I can’t think of anything else to do.
Immediately following the performance, Adeline starts perusing the floor for some reason:
As she looked at the stage floor, she saw a bouquet of roses with her name on it. She looked at the roses, and all were beautiful except one. One was wilted and darkened as night. As she smelled them, she noticed the wilted one smelled the best out of all.
Ah, the subtle, finely-crafted symbolism of a hammer to the face.
Adeline's best friend, Jasmine, is introduced, apparently for the sole purpose of making the audience wonder if this is going to be a Disney crossover, since after an initial scene in which she agrees with Adeline a lot and tells her she's awesome, she will never be seen again. Thanks for that.
Naturally, of course, Erik starts tutoring Adeline in her dressing room as a disembodied voice, just like he used to do with dear old Ma. Dear old Ma was apparently an airhead, since she told her child the exact same stories about the Angel of Music that got her into trouble and never hinted at anything bad having happened, and Raoul is not much better since he apparently has no issue with Adeline living (what is with people living in their dressing rooms in these stories?!) in Christine's old dressing room, which he is aware has a secret door behind its mirror that leads to the lair of a dude who tried to kill everyone back in the day. In their defense, they probably didn’t want to traumatize their child, Christine likely wanted to pass only the good parts of the Phantom's influence on, and Erik should be dead or at least so old he’s not good at this anymore, but they aren’t aware that they’re trapped in a Russell short story. Adeline is not helping, since she does not appear to think it necessary to tell her doting father about her angelic mystery tutor (because I can't imagine he wouldn’t do something about that).
After being his One True Pupil for a while, Adeline proves her superiority over her mother by not being too freaked out when it turns out that the Phantom is real, solid, and would like to stick his face in her cleavage. It's hard to explain how hilariously graceless the "and then they fell in love" segue is, but I'll reproduce it for you here, with the note that this is the first time any romance (that she is aware of, anyway) between the two of them is ever mentioned:
After all this time, Adeline had began to fall in love with her mysterious teacher, and he her. At first, he loved her for who she reminded him of, her mother Christine. But now he realized that she was a completely different person, and a beautiful one at that, who was madly in love with him. He would be a fool to let her slip away the same way he gave his Christine away to that horrendous Raoul.
Yeah, he is SO TOTALLY OVER Christine, obviously (the possessive pronoun for Christine and hatred of Raoul is a dead giveaway as to the indifference of his feelings). I totally buy that. His interest in Adeline has NOTHING TO DO WITH THAT, okay? I mean, sure, Adeline is a completely blank cipher of a character whose sole function is to be exactly like Christine except for the rejecting him part, and he totally started pursuing her because he was like, "Score, Christine II, young and unprotected!", but that's not why he loves her. SHE IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PERSON. Which we will see no hint of in the text. IT’S TRUE THOUGH.
For her part, Adeline is positively enchanted to discover that the old dude in the mask has a one-way mirror which he's been using to stare at her in secrecy for months. It shows how much true love he has for her, you see.
There's trouble in paradise, however: mean ol' Raoul is on hand to ruin everything. What a jerk, trying to protect his only daughter from the same creepy stalking murderer that kidnapped his wife and almost killed him years ago! He HATES LOVE, that's his problem. Luckily, Adeline escapes him and flees to Erik's lair with him, while, once again, I sit around wondering why Raoul doesn't just follow them because, I think most of us remember, he has BEEN THERE BEFORE.
The unintentional comedy in this scene is unparalleled. I'd like to provide my own paraphrased dramatic re-enactment of the next scene:
ADELINE: Oh, no! My cruel, loveless daddy might kill you to keep us apart!
ERIK: It's cool, sexy lady, I know from experience that I can take Raoul so you have nothing to worry about.
ADELINE: Wait, what? How do you guys know each other?
ERIK: Oh, well, before you were born I was trying to do your mom. You know she was exactly like you in every possible way.
ERIK: It's okay, though, I love you for yourself! Wait, where are you going?
It’s priceless. Erik can't understand why Adeline freaks out and is very hurt that she doesn't believe his protestations of how much he loves her for herself (which, strangely, seem always to be accompanied by reiterations of how EXACTLY LIKE CHRISTINE she is). Adeline can't believe she trusted him and is deeply betrayed by this one and only problem in their relationship even though she has so many other reasons to not trust him (like the age difference and the stalking and the fact that I feel like someone would have mentioned the whole Opera Ghost thing to her by now). Even more hilarious, Erik decides that he just needs to haul the kicking, screaming Adeline back to their bedroom until she calms down, so he commences doing that. At least he's acting slightly more in character than is usual for Russell.
Finally having remembered how to get into the sub-basements, Raoul shows up with a gun and, understandably when he sees Erik dragging his shrieking daughter away, starts shooting at the Phantom. I'd like to say this points to influence from Leroux's novel, which featured Raoul defending himself with a pistol when Erik tried to come in his window and murder him in the night, but then again Russell used a lot of gunplay in her last story, too. It seems more likely, what with Raoul stalking about like a bargain cartoon villain who hates happiness, that this is based on Meadows' novels and their trigger-happy hero-villain.
Raoul manages to shoot Erik and presumably kill him, causing him to let go of Adeline and fall into the lake (goddamn, Russell really loves people falling into that lake, doesn't she?). Adeline, who ten seconds ago was trying to flee for her life, responds by screaming and swooning dramatically so that Raoul has to go rescue her from the lake before proceeding.
Three days later, a doctor is informing us that Adeline is in a "self-induced coma", due to the mourning and the strength of her love for poor murdered Erik, of course. I don't believe this doctor has any kind of a medical license. Did y’all actually go find a doctor, or did you just grab the first person you found in the alley out back? Nevertheless, everyone is tragically certain that Adeline, who cries and sings while in her self-induced coma, can never be forced to emerge again unless she wants to. Tragedy. The author glares accusingly at Raoul through some totally unbiased prose about his evil, hasty actions.
But just when you were hoping the story could end "tragically" so we could all go home, it is revealed - shockingly - that Erik is still alive! It was just a flesh wound! Oh, the dramatic potential of it all! Luckily, it is really easy for him to go get Adeline again, because five days later it turns out that they are STILL KEEPING HER COMATOSE BODY IN THE DRESSING ROOM WITH THE SECRET PASSAGE THEY KNOW ABOUT IN IT. What is WRONG with you, Raoul? I mean, I'm sure he thinks Erik is dead, but even so, you didn't want to, you know, take her HOME? What the fuck is going on.
Naturally, the healing power of Erik's massively creepy, sneaky love heals Adeline, because the coma was all about her regret over how she could have rejected his obviously pure and not-at-all-fixated-on-her-mother love. All her doubts are magically washed away, which is convenient because Erik is now going to carry her down to hide in his domain (AGAIN - have you two not yet figured out that that place is no longer secure?) for sexytimes.
Or, at least, they try to have sexytimes, but then:
Just as he started to lean her back, they suddenly heard a gunshot.
Yes, Raoul is, again, riding to the rescue, because seriously, Erik, I do not know how you keep thinking he's going to somehow magically be okay with this and not try to kill you NEXT TIME you do it. Raoul also apparently believes in random warning shots, since he is nowhere near them yet and apparently just fired one off to illustrate his emotional state and let them know it was time for The Chase Scene.
The landscape down here is nuts. There's the lake... and some rocks near it... and then "they climbed until they reached an open valley at the top of them all"... and then they "saw an overhang in the cliffs". Where in the name of Zeus' bushy beard are we now? Did Erik tunnel all the way to the Pyrenees? What the hell is going on?
Disastrously, Adeline fails her Dexterity check and falls off the cliffs and into the lake (which is apparently massive - also, AGAIN with the lake). Luckily, they escape anyway, because this time when Raoul tries to shoot Erik his gun backfires and kills him.
So. Um. Yay?
Now that the evil threat of her father trying to save her from the creepy pedophiliac murderer has been removed, Adeline is free to sobbingly reaffirm her love for Erik, and then this final paragraph happens:
Adeline stepped from her stagecoach out to the graveyard. She walked the many steps it was to the grave site and stopped. Her grandfather's mausoleum, her mother's grave, and now her father's. Father was good at fencing, but not good at his aim. And since the gun blew up in his hand, she pitied him. "Oh, dear father, why did you have to fight him once more?"
Yes, I'm sure it was Raoul's tragic flaw that compelled him to once again attack the Phantom, not his paternal concern or conviction or any of that horseshit. Everyone knows Raoul doesn't actually have human emotions. He is, as we saw earlier, "horrendous". Also, the use of a "stagecoach" in early twentieth-century France affords me immense amusement.
Then Adeline sings some lines scalped from Lloyd Webber's "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again", it's revealed that she and Erik are just coming from getting married at the church (somehow, despite his status as an incredibly recognizable and loathsome wanted murderer), and they are going back to the opera house to "start a new life together forevermore" because even though they’re now all legitimate apparently they prefer living in the vast subterranean lake.
Who dragged Raoul's body up for burial, by the way? Erik? Adeline? Did they report it to the police? "Yeah, in the fourth sub-basement, across the lake, up over the rocks to the open valley with the cliff. He's there, officer. Blew himself up."