Christine (2006)

     by Althea Liu

I was intrigued by the Persian design on the front and by the fact that the back cover mentions that the author is a specialist in medieval literature. You can easily intrigue me with either of those things, let alone both. And for once, it wasn’t a false flag: this is a pretty darn good book!

 

The book is dedicated to a Kathleen Jones, although I don’t know if it’s the same one that is the author of several other Phantom-related books and short stories.

 

Prologue

 

The carpet design on the cover should have given it away, but it’s still great to see the Persian of Leroux’s novel, referred to as “the darogha” (a slightly more esoteric but equally appropriate spelling as Leroux's daroga), turn up at the very beginning, all tired old man knees and dire warnings.

 

Time period is odd in this novel. The prologue is set in 1889, but actually takes place after the bulk of the action, which occurs in 1876 or so when Christine is at the age of 25. I have to assume that the time deviation has to do with wanting to maintain accuracy to the historical settings in Persia. And hey, at least it's taking place post-Commune. That's doing better than pretty much every other book in this weight class.

 

Christine is here going by the name of Madame Joyeux, a career performer at the opera house who is still highly sought-after and celebrated despite getting on toward 50 years old. The contrast between her somewhat indulgent pity of the young men courting her and their innocent devotion not only underscores the fact that she doesn't have much of that innocence left herself, but also foreshadows one of the major themes of the rest of the novel.

 

The most important thing to know going into this book is that Liu loves gore and is going to shove it all up in your face. Things are going to get nasty. She is kind enough to let us know this up front by ending the prologue with the discovery of a half-liquified, gouged-out eye in the passageway behind Christine's mirror, so those with squeamish stomachs will not waste more than two pages finding out about the hardcoreness that is this novel.

 

The incident with the eye is a mystery that will not be explained until the end of the book... when it isn't really explained at all, but we'll get to it then.

 

Chapter 1

 

Christine is French now; her last name is Rayier instead of Daae and all traces of her Swedish origin have vanished. That's not the only change, either - this novel is very free and loose with Leroux's text, making it more properly a slightly alternate-universe retelling of the story. This is explained near the very end of the novel when references to the darogha speaking to Gaston Leroux suggest that he might have given the writer a somewhat sanitized and simplified version of events. Raoul de Chagny becomes Charles de Charnage, and Erik, previously hinted at being Germanic or otherwise foreign, is later revealed to be a native Frenchman as well.

 

This book's most serious problem is the fact that it has major issues with grammar and sentence construction. It's not all the time; sometimes the prose is gorgeous, but at other times it appears confused about comma usage and sentence fragments and even omits words entirely, making things difficult to understand. The back cover informs us that the author is from China, so it’s possible that this is more an issue of English as a second language rather than lack of editing.

 

Liu pulls a switch in time on us; the novel opens where Leroux’s ended, just after the disaster at the opera house, but will progress on into events with the darogha in Persia, moving them to follow the events of the novel instead of precede it. This allows Christine to participate in events in the Persian setting rather than making them solely part of Erik’s and the darogha’s backstory.

 

You can tell that Liu is a historian because she referrs to Charles as a vidame rather than a vicomte, an older, more quintessentially French position that is basically the ecclesiastical equivalent to the English viscount. The vidame was an office that acted as the nobility for the Church, representing bishops in earthly courts, managing and spending the Church's wealth, and providing military backup if they needed it; this makes Charles a direct representative not just of the aristocracy but of all things holy and godly, which definitely ties into the way Christine relates to him.

 

The Christine we see at the opening of this novel is in unfortunate circumstances. Having fled with Charles after the terrible events of Leroux's novel, she has since left him without warning, caving under pressure from his extremely disapproving family, and is trying to scratch out a living on the streets. She doesn't want to be a sex worker and is having trouble finding anything else to do to make sure she can survive; she also doesn't want to sing, an issue which she describes as feeling that the gift of song is "no longer hers". The idea that singing is now an exhausting and frightening ordeal thanks to Erik's interference, essentially "planting" a foreign voice in her body, is one carried over well from Leroux's novel.

 

A brief, barely-noticed character named Sophie surfaces here, a friend from the opera who has little purpose except to help exposition occur. She’s annoying, especially since she pushes a lot of buttons reminiscent of the Meg Giry best-friend idea presented in the Lloyd Webber musical and its offshoots, but she vanishes pretty quickly. The early parts of the novel are the roughest; Liu doesn't really hit her stride until the characters are out of France.

 

In conversation with Sophie, Christine reveals that she left Charles because his family has threatened to disown him if he goes through with the marriage and she can't bear the idea of dragging him down to her level. Not only is this an echo of Erik letting Christine go to avoid quite literally "dragging her down" in marriage to him, but Christine's fears that Charles could not handle the hardship of being penniless with her are telling; not only does she believe him to be a good but ultimately weak person who needs support, it also reveals that she can't consider herself equal to him, believing that the indignities she's dealt with in life might break him. Much like Erik, who feared that his hideousness and troglodytic life would destroy her delicate humanity, Christine fears that her rough peasant life would destroy Charles if she forced him into it.

 

It turns out that Philippe is still alive (under the name of Antoine), contrary to most post-opera-house stories that include him. We know this because he has apparently hired street thugs to track down Christine while she's bar-hopping and murder her for daring to attempt to sully the family name. We will never actually see Antoine, but the killers reproach her for daring to aspire to be a vidamesse before trying to knife her, and she makes a logical conclusion that the culprit is a disgruntled member of Charles' family. The older brother, presented in Leroux's novel as the worldly older brother Philippe indulgently trying to care for his somewhat silly younger sibling Raoul, is a good choice; not only does it again underline the difference in their social strata, but the gulf in understanding between Christine, Charles, and Antoine (who most likely believes he'd be saving his brother from a lifetime of misery) is clear and poignant.

 

Of course, the actual mugging itself is a little bizarre, coming out of nowhere and plagued by cliches, but its major purpose is to introduce Erik; after Christine (and the reader!) is astonished by how the attacker's blade manages to strike her just perfectly so that it gets caught in her corset instead of killing her, how a man's tie catches around his neck just perfectly so that she can pull on it to incapacitate him, and how another man is suddenly set ablaze by accidentally standing too near a petroleum leak, she finally realizes that this is too much luck for one person and calls out to Erik to show himself. The scene is very well-described, the things Erik does in Christine's defense almost magical-seeming; even when Christine discovers the tiny strings used to perform these feats, the sense of wonder is not entirely dispelled.

 

Wonder and dread, because Christine is fucking terrified to realize that Erik is following her around. She is fully aware that he is both unstable and dangerous.

 

Chapter 2

 

Erik briefly spends time in a hotel room with Christine, where she continues being terrified by his immediate willingness to do literally anything she tells him to. The slight time jump is corrected when she discovers that Antoine has been mysteriously drowned later that night, and she immediately blames herself for the murder, knowing that Erik must have done it in vengeance for the attempt on her life. Interestingly, it is not actually ever stated that Antoine was behind the attack, though both Christine and Erik assume he was; it could have been anyone in the de Charnage family, which would make Antoine more of a revenge killing than a safety-related one.

 

And now it’s time for Christine to start making badass choices, and these will characterize her for most of the novel. She demands that Erik run away to Persia with her (the farthest place she can think of, as a sheltered girl in a heavily Orientalist society). This is not because she wants to run away and live with him (in fact, she's still terrified by the prospect), but because she understands that Erik is never going to stop being a murderer; he's not killing people because of her, he's just killing because that's what he does and she happens to be the focus right now. If she stays in Paris, she reasons, he'll slowly drop the de Charnage family one by one, probably eventually including Charles, so the only way to safeguard them is to get him away from them - and the only way to do that is to go with him, since she knows very well that he won't leave her alone of his own volition. She's taking charge of the situation in the only way she knows how, and will continue to do so throughout the novel. Her sacrifice is underscored by her unhappy misery over leaving Charles behind in order to save him and her morose musings that life is not worth living without him. It's an extension of her sacrifice at the end of Leroux's novel; she's realized that no matter what Erik says (or even means, as it's implied that he wasn't lying, just not consistent), he isn't going to let her go, and she can't keep putting her loved ones in danger when she believes there's no way to escape him.

 

Christine's internal monologue in regards to Erik is mostly characterized here by fear and loathing; she refers to him as a murderer, a liar, and a beast, and to herself as a puppet or a slave bent to his will by his lies and hypnotism. This will slowly evolve as events unfold, but it never truly disappears; even at her most hypnotically fascinated with him, Christine never forgets how dangerous and horrifying Erik can truly be.

 

Chapter 3

 

In an amusing aside, Christine meets a young couple aboard their ship with their toddler son Gaston. He's a bit young to be Leroux, who would have been around 10 years old in 1876, but combined with Christine's mention of him as a young writer in the epilogue later, it seems clear that he's intended to be one and the same figure. Christine finds him adorable.

 

Liu hits the nail on the head when she has Christine muse that her relationship with Erik is too deep, profound, and frightening for a marriage; it's a very strong bond and love is certainly mixed up in it somewhere, but there's none of the joy and consideration necessary for a normal romantic relationship. She contrasts him again to Charles, whose reciprocal love and lack of obsession makes him a great candidate for marriage. The problem with Erik is not that she couldn't love him but that it could not be anything approaching a healthy love, nor could she ever truly stop being afraid of him.

 

Once they land and commence hanging out in foreign places where Christine has no idea what customs and taboos she should not be flouting, she begs Erik not to kill anymore and is flatly turned down. Not only does he refuse to comply, he informs her that she doesn't know what she's asking; his drive to lash violently out at the world is too strong for him ever to excise from his personality. Liu makes a point of telling the reader point-blank that the Phantom isn’t misunderstood, nor are his killing accidents or mistakes. He’s a murderer, just as he appeared in the original novel, and you’re going to have to take him for what he is.

 

Christine's encounter with a band of performing Romani folks in the streets is an excellent scene; it's described very well, the performers sport real-life conditions that are no less shocking for actually existing (porphyria, diphallia, dwarfism and so forth, which helps humanize them as people with real conditions to manage as opposed to them just being "deformed" or nebulously unfortunate in some way), and Liu's careful inclusion of Christine's horrified shock makes the entire scene very vivid. Christine doesn't think much of Erik's refusal to discuss it later - not knowing anything about his past, she assumes that maybe seeing other people with visible physical conditions upsets him (though it should be noted that she has never seen his face in this version, and only assumes it's deformed because of the ever-present mask) and concludes that he must be afraid of the Romani themselves. Persecution of the Romani in France had been going on for centuries at this time, often with accompanying racist myths about them as witches, demons, or criminals, so her assumption that he might be afraid of them is time-period appropriate.

 

The irony is palpable, especially when, after Christine runs into them again, Erik shows up and violently maims about half of them. As is par for the course in this novel, there's no stinting when it comes to violent behavior; from Erik "smearing" one man's fingers into the ground with his heel to throwing a man with dwarfism into a fire to watch him burn, it's brutal and horrific. When Christine expresses horror at these actions, he shrugs her off by saying that "they're only animals", a psychological echo of his own self-loathing and treatment in the past.

 

Although Liu is obviously making it clear that Erik’s dismissal of the Romani as “only animals” is wrong and amoral, this isn’t an unproblematic depiction of these people. The usual stereotypes of them as carnival folks with strange physical features and witchy superstitions are used unironically for flavor, and they function as plot devices for the white French people who are invading their space rather than being allowed to be characters themselves. It’s a relief that they aren’t either evil abusers or magical fairy folk in this book, but that’s setting the bar so low you could probably get a dachshund over it. They're still horrifically oppressed and murdered by a white protagonist who will never be punished for it; the fact that Erik murders a lot of people doesn't really mitigate this, since the context of the way society hurts the Romani as a whole makes this just more of the same and the novel never addresses it. And they are still portrayed as people who literally kidnap white children, so while Liu is much less overtly racist than a lot of other authors, this is still a disappointing representation of an ethnic group that is still struggling with worldwide abuse and discrimination today.

 

This Christine's biggest fatal flaw is curiosity, so she sneaks back out to find and talk to an old woman from the carnival and ask what the word martje, which the Romani people started saying at Erik's appearance, means. She had assumed it probably meant "murderer", but the old woman explains that it is actually the name of a spirit of death from Romani folklore and that that’s what they call Erik when he’s around. The spelling choice here is weird, because "Martje" as a name is a Dutch/Frisian form of Martha, but Liu most likely meant some form of the Kalderash Romani folklore figure Martiya, which is referred to as a "spirit of night" in some dictionaries but which Ronald Lee, a Romani historian from the 1960s and 1970s, translates in his autobiography as the "angel of death". (If Christine were still Swedish, her internal spelling of the word would make more sense!)

 

The old woman is extremely forthcoming, telling her an elaborate story of how Erik was kidnapped for the carnival as a young child and later stayed with it willingly, terrorizing them even long after they wanted him to leave. Her stories of his murder sprees, including the killing of entire families and the literal tearing apart of bodies, are chilling and have taken on the qualities of folklore themselves, but at the core of them is recognizable Erik's terrible hypnotic power, which the old woman claims he used to cause people to kill themselves and loved ones.

 

It's curious that Christine, who has been so frightened and horrified by Erik lately and who just last night saw him maim and possibly murder several people, immediately rejects the story and refuses to believe it because it's too horrible. Unfortunately, that's the problem with hypnosis - you can't recognize its effects on yourself, and there is a definite undercurrent throughout this novel of Christine slowly but surely being dragged back into Erik's mental web. She immediately runs home and begs him to sing for her, an act which represents both childish regression (wanting to forcibly return him to being her childhood angel instead of her adult terror) and intentional suppression of the truth (as she quite consciously knows that if he sings for her, she'll forget all about those silly accusations that old woman made).

 

Christine's continual oscillation between love and childlike adoration of her angel and abject fear of the monster she lives with is disorienting for the reader, but in a good way. It's an excellent device to show Christine's conflicting emotions and the amount of control that Erik still exerts over her (and always will, we are given to feel, thanks to having cultivated her for so much of her childhood).

 

It's also here, on the streets of a foreign country, that Christine first meets the darogha, who arrives looking for Erik. Erik apparently already knows him, suggesting that perhaps he does have some backstory in Persia prior to this point, or else that his reputation is just that impressive. The darogha, whose name will eventually be given as Asim, spends about half the novel trying to convince Erik to go to the palace of the shah with him; apparently he's been dispatched to collect the curiosity, but Erik is disinclined to be stared at by a bunch of royals.

 

Chapter 4

 

Liu doesn't waste much time on the unmasking; Christine pulls it off here, though in a less violent scene than Leroux's. Erik’s face is described with a selection of common real-world physical ailments - a cleft palate, a half nose, a huge canker, etc. - and though it isn't the true death's-head of Leroux's novel, it works for a more historically and medically accurate book. It is a little strange that Liu doesn’t lean on this moment the way most versions of the story do - in a book that depends so heavily on visceral horror, it feels like a pulled punch. But then again, perhaps Liu is as tired of the trope of disability as frightening and evil in horror as I am, and it’s not like she doesn’t have plenty of ways to frighten and horrify the reader without resorting to saying “look how scary this guy looks because of his congenital condition.”

 

The unmasking itself strongly reminded me of the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film. Erik becomes nearly incoherently disconnected when his mask is removed, a very obvious and immediate devolution from human communication to something angrily less. Christine's attempts to convince him that it doesn't matter are laughably ineffective, and his snarled parting line, "There is always a price for looking," calls back the story Christine just heard and the violent carnage she just witnessed.

 

Christine gave me a bit of whiplash again with her violent swing from weeping over the loss of Charles a few pages ago to unquestioning love, acceptance, and devotion to Erik when he starts getting upset. An interesting theory that I've been kicking around is that she doesn't see Erik's actual appearance; through some kind of trickery on his part, whether hypnotism or something more concrete, Erik might actually be showing her a sanitized version of the truth, perhaps because he knew she had gone to speak to the old woman and learned about his facial problems. It could even be a symptom of Christine's own inability to quite handle the reality that is Erik. Liu does not follow up on any of these possibilities, but the fact that the book is inspiring me to think of them and to believe the author might be Up To Something is a good sign.

 

Nowhere is Christine's probably-mentally-influenced inability to do anything but cower or worship around Erik more strongly illustrated than when he leaves after the unmasking incident and Christine instantly realizes how much she wants to go home to Charles and that it was a terrible mistake to leave him. When she dreams on page 37 that "Charles' strong fearless presence would anchor her to a shore where God's sunlight still existed. It was a world without monsters, without reason to be afraid," her longing to return to that idyllic, unquestioning love is heartbreaking.

 

So, because this is a Christine who does what the fuck she wants to when the fuck she wants to, she goes home. She leaves a farewell letter in which she tells Erik she loves him and that he is beautiful (and both seem sincere and unironic), and sails off to Paris, hoping that having finally seen his face and discussed it with him, he will finally cease pursuing her.

 

Chapter 5

 

It should not be surprising to anyone that the old woman who revealed Erik's story to Christine turns up brutally murdered and hanged in an alleyway shortly thereafter. At least poor Christine is spared having to see that one.

 

The narrative now shifts over to a new character, one of the most interesting in the book: Senmura, the daughter of the darogha, who is traveling with him on his quest to capture Erik for the shah. Senmura has a particularly significant name; it comes from the Persian Senmurv or Simurgh, an enormous divine bird that figures prominently in Persian mythology. A benevolent, mothering creature that is a symbol of purity, it’s present in various legends, usually guarding something from the unrighteous or saving those in need, particularly children. Senmura herself is very much a traditional Persian woman of the time period, with a capacity for compassion that blossoms over the course of the novel.

 

The commentary on the historical differences between women of different cultures and their roles and relationships with men is meaty whenever Senmura is onscreen. She describes herself as being a good woman for patiently enduring marriage to a man she didn't choose and obeying her father in all things, but the undertone of her conflicted feelings is very similar to Christine's. Senmura may do what she's told, but she doesn't do it happily; she does it to save those important to her, and in that the two characters are very similar. Their differences, contrasting with their fundamental similarities, are also played up, particularly in Senmura's half-disapproving, half-envious thoughts about Christine's lack of veil and beautiful hands (which Senmura herself, who only allows the world to see her hands, would far prefer to having a pretty face that no one sees).

 

We haven't quite gotten to court and won't for a while, but the darogha and his daughter are quite familiar with Persian politics and their offhand remarks and the realities of the world they live in are as casually alien to Christine as Erik's bizarre and unmotivated crimes. Liu’s placement of the characters in Persian society of the time allows her to get out from under the Orientalist awe and superstition of Leroux’s novel and actually portray Persian culture and the way the story might be influenced by it, which is much more satisfying.

 

The darogha himself is a dangerous character; he makes it clear that there is no loyalty or duty higher than those he owes his king, and as such is prone to using others as pawns in his attempts to get Erik to comply.

 

Chapter 6

Now that Christine is gone, Erik agrees for the time being to travel with the darogha, but he does so with the understanding that they are not on friendly terms. Unfortunately, Christine being gone also means that the former Phantom isn't even trying to keep his promise not to kill anyone anymore and the darogha's servants begin meeting horrific demises, such as when Erik somehow forces or convinces a man to swallow his scimitar; the unlucky guard is somehow still alive, unable to move lest his slightest bodily twitch impale something important, and when the darogha attempts to help him by pulling the sword out, it turns out that his intestines were wrapped around it, torn out of his mouth in a long string. It's one of the most horrific death scenes I've seen described in fiction, even more so because Erik's involvement is strictly offscreen; everyone, including the reader, knows he did it, but no one knows how he could have pulled it off and he never admits to or explains it. The impossible, almost magical nature of Erik's horrifying pranks crosses the border from weird science into magic realism more than once in a style extremely reminiscent of the ambiguous original Erik. Leroux would have applauded, assuming he was not too sick to his stomach.

 

Poor Senmura provides us with a completely terrified, pure perspective on all this. She does not have a past with or even any knowledge of Erik, nor is she under the influence of his hypnotism, so she sees him without many of the blocks and confusions that make Christine an unreliable narrator.

 

At the end of this chapter, the darogha, unable to get Erik to either agree to his terms or stop killing his men, presents his daughter with facial prosthetics designed to make her look exactly like Christine so she can distract him from his murderous rampages. It is a moment in which no amount of despairing moaning from the reader can make you forget that this poor woman is going to die horribly at some point.

 

Chapter 7

 

Senmura's first few forays into impersonating Christine (something she is not excited about due to its very high percentage chance of getting her killed, but her father is adamant) actually go fairly well. She takes care to always just pass innocently by wherever Erik is at a distance, making him think that he's glimpsing Christine various places even though she isn't there. Just seeing her effects a noticeable change in Erik, who becomes disoriented and unsteady; it's hard to tell if he thinks he's hallucinating, or if he possibly has had hallucinations before and is trying to cope, like a schizophrenic who knows clinically that the voices he hears aren't real but can't quite bring himself to believe it.

 

The insight into Senmura's world is lovely and enthralling. I could read an entire novel about her happily. Her tragic flashback to the death of her brother Zayd is hauntingly sad, illustrating her helplessness; even though she married a warlord she didn't love to save Zayd from military defeat, he ended up being beheaded later after displeasing the shah, and she didn't even get to the courtyard in time to say goodbye. Senmura has almost no tools at her disposal to affect her world. She cannot wield political power, has no money or social influence, and after becoming a widow can't even try to be the convincing power behind someone who does. She is helpless, a fact that she knows on a subconscious level but tries to ignore consciously, and the coming horror is all the harder to stomach because of it.

 

In a terribly chilling meeting at the end of the chapter, Erik gravely greets Senmura and sends her home, and she realizes that she was still wearing Christine's perfume.

 

Chapter 8

 

We are way not done being gruesome even though there was a beheading just a few minutes ago, so now there's a young boy who has had his eyes and teeth torn out, discovered by Senmura just in time to save his life. While the darogha reasonably assumes that Erik is once again being a horrible ghoul, Senmura is strangely convinced that he didn't do it; part of this lies in Erik showing a rare moment of kindness when he gives the boy a music box he made, allowing him to take joy in one of the few senses remaining to him, but most of it appears sourceless. It's possible that she is reacting to the surprise of him not immediately murdering her for impersonating his missing love (who, by the way, almost everyone assumes is his wife because why else would they be running around Persia together), but most of it is a gut feeling. She believes that she "saw his heart", and tells her father that he is "a good man" without even a trace of irony. 

 

Recall that this is a guy who was pulling out peoples' intestines through their mouths recently, but Senmura seems to have completely and bewilderingly stricken that from the record. It seems obvious that Erik's subtle, manipulative, half-magic influence is at work again, Senmura echoing Christine in seesawing between terror and compassion for him. It's even more jarring in Senmura's case because we, as the readers, have watched it happen from the beginning and it crept up on us as much as it did on her.

 

At this point, the men begin having nightmares about an enormous, hideous and skull-like monster in a carnival cage; again, Erik's powers of suggestion seem almost supernatural, as Christine was having the same dreams earlier in the book. They seemed explainable then as reactions to the carnival and Erik's brutal behavior, but the repetition suddenly makes it clear that it's at least Erik's presence, if not his actual actions, that cause them. The description of the thing is so viscerally horrifying, and so spot-on for the death imagery of Leroux's novel, that I think it’s important to quote it. It incorporates both Erik's status as the literal living dead and the idea that anyone who has contact with him must join him in that death:

 

"[Christine] let out a small cry as something caught her by the arm. As she spun around, her hand was pressed against his withered third arm that was more bone than flesh. It was soft, too soft to be able to support sustain life. The dead arm would fall apart under her fingers if she simply dug in her nails and clawed it to pieces. But she couldn't move. She was frozen with fear.

Then it spoke to her. Its mouth didn't move. How could it move? There were no muscles to move the jaws. But she heard it speak inside her head.

 

'Laugh, laugh now, little girl.'

 

He was standing directly in front of her, a thing that was completely skinless, eyeless, with a sunken nose and a giant's skull. Christine stood absolutely still in silent horror, certain this creature was dead, had been dead for decades.

 

Christine screamed and jerked her hand back but she couldn't. The skin of her hands began to peel away and her fingers became bone. Christine watched in horror as the veins and arteries of her tongue opened, the flesh melting off, falling to the ground in wet chunks."

 

It's not hard to understand why, in light of all that, Senmura thinks one of the men might actually be responsible for the boy's maiming, seeking the body parts as substitutes for a folk remedy he keeps wanting to perform to free him from the evil influence that all of them are beginning to assume is coming from some kind of evil spirit or jinn. Senmura herself thinks of it as the gwat (a kind of wind demon that in Persian folklore causes illness) that lives inside of Erik, her view of it mutating over time from a fear of him as a monstrous person to a compassion for someone who is possessed by such a terrible thing.

 

While they stay in the village and Senmura tries to nurse the boy back to some semblance of health (and, incidentally, it is revealed that she has a son, far away attending school in Azerbaijan, so her maternal instincts make a lot of sense here), another rash of brutal murders happens when a nearby family is killed and their faces skinned as well as a woman's scalp taken. It's hard to ignore the fact that the skinned face is a strong indicator that Erik is involved (not to mention a callback to the 1989 Little/Englund film with its face-skinning Phantom), but Senmura continues to anyway, pointing out that these could also be reagants for the soldier, now AWOL, to be collecting for his "cure".

 

Having crossed the line into a very similar worshipful benevolence toward Erik to the one Christine once displayed, Senmura chooses now to come to him voluntarily and confess her charade as Christine, apologizing for having tormented him so. Reader screaming has no effect on this terrible decision. The scene is incredibly emotionally laden, from Erik's silent responses to Senmura's desperation and the nail-biting suspense of the reader wondering what's going to happen to the poor woman. Liu, in a masterstroke, completely avoids the subject of Senmura's inevitable demise; instead, Erik demands that she don her Christine disguise again for him.

 

This could go a lot of directions. It's an incredible opportunity to show Erik's true, normally inexpressible feelings and thoughts toward Christine, as she will be present to trigger them but there's no danger of upsetting, damaging, or even letting her know about them if he lets them out for once. It could have spiked into violence, sex, condemnation, or any of a million other things, but Liu's choice for Erik's final respones to Christine is a bittersweetly poignant one: he tells her that he's glad she left because he knows she'll be happier, apologizes that he cannot keep his promise to her not to kill anymore, and says his goodbyes. For giving him this kind of closure and the chance to say goodbye, he lets Senmura live.

 

It's best illustrated in a particularly beautiful line from page 77: 

 

"He touched her skin as though it was the most sacred of all objects; the way a poor man touches something he can never afford even if he labored for a lifetime." 

 

Christine has always been the most sacred and untouchable of desires for Erik, and without fear of her response, he can finally show that to her. It's telling that Erik can show Christine anger, brutality, and horror, but he dares not show her love for fear of her revulsion. (It's also telling that he relates to her not as another person like himself, which he can't imagine, but as some untouchable Other.)

 

And, in a sudden, horrific jerk away from all that heartfelt beauty, Erik hands Senmura a bag, says it's a gift for her, and leaves. The scene is written so powerfully that we have almost forgotten about earlier incidents, just like Senmura, so our shock is almost as great as hers when she opens it to find a long-haired scalp, a pair of eyeballs, and an assortment of child-sized teeth.

 

Chapter 9

 

Senmura spends more and more time sunk in memories of her tragic past after this incident, now reliving the most hideous: the memory of her husband Sayl's death. He was grievously injured in battle, his brains leaking out of his head, and she spent hours sitting with him watching him die, contemplating the fact that she felt that she must love him inadequately because she could not bring herself to kill him and put him out of his misery. It's no surprise that she spends so much time reliving the crushing violence that has played out during her lifetime; she's being confronted with it all the time in the form of Erik, whose barbaric actions mirror those of the world around him. The execution of her brother Zayd and the death of her husband Sayl are merely the closest examples of humanity's horrors she had known before meeting him; Erik himself is a distillation of the cruelest violence of mankind in one ruthless body.

 

Senmura sneaks into Erik's room to hide her locket in one of the books in his trunk; her reasons for doing so are unclear, though it's possible it's either a desire to send a little of herself with him or a hope that he will show some kindness to someone when he sees it. When he catches her, he accidentally (or so he says, at any rate) tears off her veil, forcing her to break her vow to never let another man see her face after her husband. It's a moment of turnabout in which he realizes that he's the aggressive unmasker now, and he even apologizes (most likely because of the parallel to his own situation), although he doesn’t seem to realize that this, too, is a kind of violence he has inflicted on her.

 

Horrifyingly, when he unmasks for her in mocking "fairness", she sees not his face but Sayl’s, the hideous countenance of her doomed husband who refused to die. She could be hallucinating from fear or Erik could be hypnotizing her, but I prefer to think that Erik's face is so horrific and evocative of death that she immediately connects it to the most horrible death she's ever seen. Either way, I stick to my earlier theory about Christine not seeing the real Erik, either; in fact, all things considered, I wonder if anybody in this entire novel manages to actually see Erik's real face. Even the reader might never really see beneath that mask.

 

Poor Senmura is very far gone after this, descending into hallucinations and paranoia. Her dreams of abandoning her son in order to escape the lurching forms of her dead husband and brother are extremely vivid, as is her visceral fear and hatred of her dream-self for leaving her son behind to join the ranks of the dead. She awakes raving that her son must be dead, that her abandoning him in the dream must have been an omen of his death, and as a reader I was pretty convinced with her even though Erik is right here and cannot possibly be in Azerbaijan murdering a little boy right now.

 

We knew it was coming, but it's still gut-wrenching when Senmura, seeking to escape the visions and hallucinations of Erik's voice in her head, impales her own eyes with her knitting needles, literally attempting to punch through to her brain and kill him, too. She does not quite succeed and lingers on, slowly dying a horrific death, for several days, a parallel to her husband's death that Erik may have intended in his very precise methods of driving her to this action. 

 

It’s interesting to wonder whether Erik intentionally drove Senmura to kill herself or whether this is just the end result of her being exposed to his horrors for too long. If it’s the first, he might have intentionally wanted to keep his hands “clean” of doing the deed himself, either because he had a somewhat friendly relationship with her or because of the lingering shadow of Christine over her that made him incapable of trying to directly harm her.

 

There is a very definite ocular fetish in this book, from the eye at the beginning to the eyeballs of the little boy to Senmura's destruction of her own eyes. This is probably intentional on Erik's part; after all, when your physicality is so hideous that those who see you are automatically terrified, removing their ability to see anything is a sort of awful but twistedly fitting revenge. I'm reminded strongly of the 1987 Argento/Barberini film, which also utilized the ideas and symbolism of sight and eyes heavily throughout, but Liu’s book is deeply more horrific and tragic than that movie, which is saying something.

 

Chapter 10

 

Back in Paris, Christine has been welcomed lovingly home by Charles and obviously loves both him and the idyllic, safe world he inhabits. This does not stop her from being terribly haunted by the past, of course, but that's what happens when you spend that much time with a terrifying murderer. The jump from the dust and horror of the events in Persia to the calm, high-class tea-and-crackers world of Paris is an excellent contrast between the two men and what they represent.

 

Christine's problems with the de Charnages continue; Charles' aunt, in particular, outright accuses her of only wanting Charles for his fortune before mocking her opera girl origins by claiming he could barely afford to be her amants en second (literally "second lover", meaning the guy who can't pay enough to be the regular lover) anyway. Many Christines would take this lying down and probably despair over the hopelessness of the situation, but not Liu's; instead, she bold-faced lies and claims to be a rich heiress, a Thackeray-worthy move that immediately works out well for her because, after all, the French nobility is notoriously willing to see past commonality when dollar signs (franc signs?) are involved.

Chapter 11

 

In another odd role jump, now it's Christine demanding money from the opera house manager instead of Erik, turning up to ask for her back wages so she can support her story of being wealthy. She does so only out of a desire to help Charles and make sure she isn't making his life hard because of his aunt; she doesn't consciously recognize the parallel in behavior, but the situation makes her pressingly uncomfortable anyway.

 

There's been very little identifiable Lloyd Webber influence in this novel up until this point, but it rolls in in spades with the revelation that Christine was a ballet rat, hearkening back to Lloyd Webber's choice to make Christine a dancer rather than a singer in order to provide ballet-dancing Sarah Brightman with some stage time. Liu makes it her own, however; Christine is actually not a very good ballet dancer, just mediocre enough to squeak by, frustrating her instructors and audience alike. It's poignant when, in a flashback in which she is in tears over a performance that went poorly, she wails to her "angel" that she wants to share the emotion she feels in music but that her poor, graceless dancing is not good enough to do so.

 

And speaking of the Angel, Christine's meeting with Erik in childhood is sweet and believable. Not only is she well-drawn enough as a character to make her innocent acceptance of the idea ring true, but Liu does a masterful job of also painting Erik's confusion and hesitance as well, dropping clues for the reader that Christine herself is unable to catch.

 

Poor Christine is not a singer in this version, which makes her sudden transformation into prima donna even more terrifying for her; setting her as a dancer who suddenly develops an inexplicable and superlative talent makes the event even more frightening and traumatic and really underscores the idea of Erik forcing the voice into her rather than helping her nurture something she already possessed. His method of doing so, which basically involves him telling her to do it until she does, is very reminiscent of the hypnotism-produced singing in du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby, which also featured a girl who couldn't sing at all on her own and was mentally dominated to become incredible.

 

I find it interesting that Erik leaves a yellow rose for Christine after her debut instead of the traditional red one; yellow roses traditionally symbolize friendship or joy rather than the romantic connotations of red roses, which is appropriate for this Erik, who doesn't even pretend to himself that he could ever successfully have a romantic relationship with anyone. Even more interesting, yellow roses also carried connotations of jealousy in Victorian England, just across the water from the characters; Erik may be subtly informing her of his claim on her without saying a word.

 

Of course, this is entirely lost on Christine. Ironically, she believes in her innocence that her angel will also love and protect Charles, just as he does her. And why wouldn't she? It's what an angel should do. She's completely baffled by Erik's strongly opposed reaction to her plans to marry and leave and hits the crux of the matter beautifully by saying in bewilderment, "You're an angel. He is a man. The type of love I want from [him] is the type only a man can give a woman." Christine certainly loves her angel, but it's the kind of love reserved for, well, an angel: a few parts worship, a few parts distant adoration, a few parts secure knowledge that she is being cared for. It's not a romantic love and the relationship between the two of them is all the more shattering because of it.

 

Contrary to the Lloyd Webber version of Christine's dreamy descent into the cellars, Erik just straight-up kidnaps Christine, kicking and screaming the whole way. Her devastation at the revelation of his humanity is immediate and painful, her fury and hurt palpable, and the scene is all the more powerful because of the contrast between her spirited fight against her kidnapper followed by her helpless despair once she realizes who he is and what that means.

 

Earlier, a very young Christine asked her angel if he would stay with her always, a request that he granted; seeking reciprocation, Erik now asks her the same question, but it's notable that he does it on his own terms by instead asking, "Can I keep you always?" The unmistakable shift in who's in control of the equation is underscored by that slight change in phrasing; Erik's in charge here (it's the only thing he knows how to be) and is not really understanding or counting Christine's feelings in this equation.

 

I also love this scene because of how determined a little scrapper Christine is. She is perfectly willing to physically fight Erik in order to escape, refuses to be bullied or intimidated, and at one point knees him in the groin. It is both comedic entertainment and another example of her having lost none of the spirit of the original heroine from Leroux's novel.

 

Liu chooses to invent her own torture chamber for Charles to be trapped in, but it's ingenious: a crystal cage filled with spearlike hanging shards of more crystal, all of them attuned to the slightest vibration so that any movement or noise causes random ones to crash to the ground, all of them with the potential to impale and kill him. It's not Leroux's torture chamber, but I like to think the old man would be proud of its creativity nonetheless. The fact that it relies on sound to cause harm is also nicely resonant for the Phantom.

 

All this memory of times gone by makes Christine realize, as her charade becomes harder to keep up, that her love for Charles may be undeniably real but that it can also only exist in a perfect world. Having met Erik and seen the horror and atrocities he is capable of, she knows this isn't that world, and as a result, she makes the decision to leave Charles again and return to Persia, to the "real world" as she now thinks of it. I respected this decision but was kind of annoyed by the constant yo-yoing back and forth from Paris to Persia. I think the novel needed more time spent in Paris to really draw this contrast properly and prevent the reader from feeling like this was a character waffling instead of going through a difficult journey.

 

Chapter 12

 

Back in Persia, you may join me in being horrified to discover that Senmura still isn't dead, slowly dying of brain damage and fever from her pierced brain lining while her father has to sit around and watch. Her mumblings are, of course, reminiscent again of those her dead husband made while his brain was leaking out his ears. This novel is a barrel of fun, y’all.

 

Oddly enough, Asim turns to Erik as his friend and confidant during this difficult time. This looks incomprehensible to us because there is no fucking way he doesn't know that it's actually Erik's fault, but he seems to have either forgotten or overlooked this fact; just like the two women, Asim is helpless to avoid the bizarre supernatural allure that Erik seems capable of flipping on and off like a lightswitch. Liu does an amazing job of blurring the lines between concrete and supernatural where the Phantom is concerned, so perfectly that the reader stops trying to figure out how these horrible things are happening and just believes that things this terrible can, indeed, be part of real life.

 

I suspected it, but here we have confirmed influence from Kay's 1990 novel: Erik's backstory is at least partially based on it, featuring him as the son of a mason and wife from Rouen, though in this case his father does not die before his birth. His mother's name is given as Maurelle, and, thanks to Asim's discovery through extensive research of the memoirs of a priest from the village, a very detailed account is given of the events surrounding Erik's birth and childhood, beginning with the fact that the priest and Maurelle were in love and that he castrated himself to prevent himself from giving in to temptation and abandoning his priestly duties. Maurelle is understandably upset by this and marries Juste, the mason, instead.

 

Erik's real name is also Juste (irony! or perhaps not, as he certainly thinks of himself as perpetrating a sort of twisted justice on everyone else), and things are already a terrible half-occluded mess concerning where he came from, as befits anything based on Leroux's novel. His mother tells the priest at confession of being raped by the demon Asmodeus in an open grave, which he discounts as her either being mad or trying to torment him; the idea of Erik's father as some kind of supernatural horror is something explored previously in the Lofficier short story and again gives the infant Phantom a sheen of supernatural horror above his mundane problems. There’s no way to tell what happened to Maurelle, or whether she really was just torturing a past lover she felt abandoned her, or whether she was mentally ill and perhaps whatever condition she suffered from affects Erik, too. The area is open to interpretation from the reader.

 

The priest's description of little Juste's deformity is directly out of Leroux, with a deathly pallor, no nose at all and a definite sense of the horror of seeing something dead reanimated. I'm back waving the flag of my hypnotism-mask theory furiously, because his description is much worse than Christine's, and presumably a baby about to be baptised would not have been old enough to be mind-whammying his priest yet.

 

Maurelle, it turns out, is just as calculating and clever as her offspring; they're traits he inherited from her, not out-of-the-blue developments. The priest firmly believes that she poisoned her husband (non-fatally, but certainly uncomfortably) when he had an affair, and she teaches Erik to count every second of every day, granting him not only perfect time sense but an obsessive, continuous need to please her. (This also definitely contributes to the idea that she might be mentally ill, as obsessive counting of things like seconds or heartbeats is a symptom of various conditions.) The priest is further convinced, when the rival woman turns up mysteriously dead in her room in town and the elder Juste is framed for the crime, that Maurelle could easily have done that, too.

 

One of this novel’s downsides is that it leans heavily on the idea of the mentally ill as murderously dangerous, which is a myth that horror often leans on as a genre with the result that real-life mentally ill people, who are overwhelmingly more likely to be victims rather than abusers, suffer from the stigma. It helps that Liu never directly pathologizes either Maurelle or Erik, leaving it ambiguous whether they are mentally ill or just monstrous, but there are enough suggestions that some illness is affecting them, most likely congenitally passed down from mother to son, to make most readers peg them as Those Dangerous Crazies. Of course, mentally ill people can be dangerous and violent, just like anyone else, but in the greater environment of real-world stigma and horror tropes, implying that the horrific villains’ behavior can be blamed on mental illness feeds into very unfortunate stereotypes.

 

The priest has a very interesting conversation with little Juste, in front of the gallows in town while they wait to see if his father will be convicted of murdering the woman (which, apparently, only the family and the priest know isn’t true). In trying to console him, the priest kindly tells him that he knows his father didn't do it, to which a deadpan Juste only replies, "Didn't he?" The strong implication that it was incredibly foolish of his father to anger Maurelle and that his actions caused this are a very recognizable and calculated choice to blame the victim and pave the way for Erik's later shenanigans with Christine, blaming her and Charles for inciting him with their actions. When the priest, perpetually creeped out by the kid but still trying for the sake of his vocation, points out that ignorance is not a crime, Juste is entirely serious when he says that it should be.

 

It's an interesting departure from most Phantom novels to set Maurelle as genuinely loving her hideous son, but she does, in a complex relationship that I would be happy to read an entire novel about. Even more intriguing is the fact that she and Juste mirror one another; she, too, hides a hideous secret (her forbidden love for the priest), stays constantly locked in her home, and has a superior intellect that no one else understands. It's not hard to see that Juste is unconsciously mirroring his mother, who is the center of his small universe.

 

Much to the priest's horror, it turns out that Maurelle did not kill the woman in the village - Juste did, with an airborne perfume poison. Even more chilling is the fact that he did it without apparent remorse - his only apology is "I'm sorry, it was just so easy to kill her" - and that his reasons were normal childish impulses, the desire to make his mother happy and force his father to notice him. Murder, from a very early age, is the only way Juste knows how to affect the world around him; it's the only thing that unequivocally gets everyone's attention and puts him in a position of power. The priest throws him out for the final time, shouting that he deserves his face to mirror the evil in his soul, which many years later Christine will echo in the Lloyd Webber lyrics “this haunted face holds no horror for me now / it’s in your soul that the true distortion lies”. There's no escaping some sympathy for him, however; the priest's words affect him as few others would, as he was one of the few mentors the child had growing up, and he’s devastated by the rejection.

 

Maurelle is found strangled to death shortly thereafter, a crime blamed again on her husband, and Juste disappears. There's no direct suggestion anywhere that Juste actually killed his mother, but that first confession to the priest - "I didn't mean to kill her, Father. It was an accident. It was just so easy" - might actually have been referring to her instead of the ill-fated mistress in town, meaning that Maurelle was the true murderer there and that Juste had already killed his mother before coming to see the priest one final time. The ambiguity is a really excellent tie-in to the semi-supernatural and ambiguous crimes of the adult Erik, which are not a question so much of who did it as they are of how and when he will do it again.

 

Armed with all this information, the darogha does some more field research through proxies and discovers that there was a local “madman” being kept in the same village near the time of Erik's birth, a man who was born with a developmental disease and slowly became more violent over the years; the other villagers, both vindictive and trying to prevent him from seeing things that would set him off, cut out his tongue and sewed his eyes shut (there are those eyes again). It seems likely, in light of the report that says he occasionally escaped and wandered graveyards, that Maurelle was unlucky enough to be caught by him and mistook the hideous apparition that assaulted her for a demon. Erik is therefore a composite creature, half the fiendish cunning and charm of Maurelle, half the uncontrollable and unknown condition of his anonymous father, and the reader can shudder along with Asim as he realizes that Erik's probably only going to deteriorate further over time.

 

Chapter 13

 

Asim's subsequent "defeat" of Erik and ability to force him to accompany him to the palace in Tehran seems too easy. He's not wrong when he tells Erik that he has no power anymore now that Asim knows his origins, and points out that "without your pretension to the supernatural, you are not so powerful"; it's true, but at the same time Liu's done such an amazing job of putting the fear of Erik into us as readers that we can't quite believe that the darogha has won. We're still waiting for him to end up in some kind of horribly inventive torture death, returning to that by-now-familiar state of constant, miserable anticipation of the horrors in store.

 

Liu’s historian roots show again once they arrive at the royal palace and Asim begins to deal with the shah, Nasir - Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, to be exact, possibly the most famous king of the Qajar dynasty and quite definitely the power in Persia at the time that the story is set. Asim's frustration with Nasir's indulgences, naivete, and predictable responses are a mirror of Persia's; Naser was known as the shah who most embraced Western values, and while he is credited with introducing many foreign arts, sciences, and cultural programs to Persia during his rule, he also tended toward self-indulgence and bankruptcy, things that did not endear him to his subjects for much of his reign.

 

Once he has been delivered to the shah and becomes his court architect (entirely by accident, which causes everyone some anxiety since Erik is actually not an architect and will have to learn the trade from scratch before the king notices and gets cranky about it), Erik and Asim strike up an uneasy truce. They seem resigned to one another, as if it is their fate to be together. Erik even says he won't stay in the palace if it makes him Asim's enemy, and Asim pledges not to bring up Erik's past unless forced. The uneasy friendship is similar to that seen in hints in Leroux's novel, though again the reader must occasionally deal with the idea that this is a dude who brutally forced the other dude's daughter to kill herself and yet they are somehow now best buds.

 

Chapter 14

 

Erik takes to architecture quickly; finding order out of the chaos of building is a way he can prove that the world is better with him in it. It's another expression of his art justifying his existence, though this time in much more solid and perhaps permanent form than music. He hates, however, all the praise the workers and courtiers heap on him for his excellent work, because he knows that they wouldn't say such things if they actually ever saw his face.

 

In an excellently creepy moment, Erik has a brief conversation with one of the servant girls from the harem and ruminates on how he wishes he could cut out her eyes and put his fingers in the sockets. The sexual parallel is obvious (and disturbing, holy shit), but more awful is his internal admission that this is the only way he is ever allowed to touch a woman, in torture and death.

 

The shah actually requests that he build a new harem for him shortly thereafter, and though he plays it off well, Erik has a terrible internal breakdown at the mere thought; to be so intimately involved in something that is solely feminine and filled with women is completely terrifying to him, a world in which he is absolutely and under no circumstances allowed. Given that Maurelle didn’t reject him at all, I have to wonder what missing part of his history has given him the idea that women, specifically, are forbidden to him in all ways; most versions of the story blame his problems with women on an abusive or absent mother, but Maurelle was neither.

 

The brief glimpse into Erik's point of view in this chapter also gets us some good social stratification notice, particularly in Erik's jealousy of the palace eunuchs; from his point of view, they are unfortunate and “unmanned”, but he can't even aspire to their lowest social level despite his other talents.

 

It shouldn't be a surprise that Erik outright volunteers to become the shah's personal assassin; his itching need to kill someone has gone unsatisfied for too long, and, as illustrated in the incident with the harem girl above, it's the only human contact he gets. Liu is very good at simultaneously making the readers pity Erik and making us want him to be cleansed with fire. This is a Phantom who is undeniably a monster but who still has glimmers of sympathetic and relatable moments, which makes him in many ways much more resonant and emotional than a Phantom who is only playing at being dangerous.

 

According to Erik, he never actually saw his own face until he was about twenty years old; there were no mirrors in his house, he went constantly masked, and the carnival wasn't exactly rife with opportunities to find a looking glass. His recollection includes a heart-tugging moment wherein, upon seeing himself reflected in the underground lake, he immediately stops blaming the rest of humanity for treating him poorly, because they're right. That is a monster, and his own loathing for it is no less than theirs. Only Christine, his one link to humanity, has ever been a strong enough urge for him to overcome his self-loathing and attempt to take something for himself.

 

This leaves us with even more questions than we had, even if we set aside the stretch of belief needed to believe that this kid never saw his own reflection in any surface, including water and shiny stuff, for twenty straight years. What did he think made people hate him when he was a child, then? What did Maurelle tell him was the source of everyone’s antipathy? Did he understand what people called him, and did he have a preconceived idea of what he must look like that was shattered when he finally saw the truth? We won’t find out, but all of these ideas are compelling.

 

Chapter 15

 

As the guard of the shah's harem, the darogha is granted the pejorative nickname Argus of the East. I have to assume Erik gave him this nickname, since calling him “of the East” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from the Persian perspective.

 

Erik begins at this point quietly committing suicide via eating disorder; having lost his supernatural allure to Asim and irrevocably lost all contact with Christine, he simply doesn't see any point in living any longer. He begins just not eating, his apparently originally "robust" frame dwindling down to the familiar skeletal thinness. The darogha is fully aware of what he's doing and why, but is frustrated in all attempts to convince him to stop. Their relationship is becoming more and more that of a father and son, bringing to mind the 1991 Yeston/Kopit musical or its 1990 miniseries version, with Asim almost unconsciously using Erik to replace the children he has lost. There might be something to be said for the theory that, representationally, Erik is always a child anyway, having no ability to mature or "grow up", and that Asim is responding to that automatically.

 

Of course, Christine is not so irrevocable after all, because she's actually in Tehran right now, sneaking her way in via a combination of charm and impressive lying skills (which she also views as something "given" to her, in much the same vein as her voice). Erik, already almost at death's door, simply faints when he sees her, which is ironic and tragic but not particularly surprising. Upon waking, his psychological breakdown is heart-rending, full of screaming at the darogha to stop tormenting him and begging Senmura, whom he has forgotten in his delirium that he killed, to stop wearing the disguise.

 

Christine's internal musings at the end of this chapter might be its most interesting feature; she basically admits to herself that she has chosen to return to Erik out of a sort of fatalistic self-dislike. Charles was too good for her and she would only have sullied his world, but in Erik's world, she can play the saint to a monster, a role she infinitely prefers. It's a moment of great clarity not only for Christine's character, which has been slowly becoming more jaded and sorrowful over the course of the novel, but for the dynamics of both relationships.

 

Chapter 16

 

While Erik, once he recovers, is willing to kiss Christine now and then, there's no sexual contact whatsoever despite the continuing Persian assumption that she is his wife. In fact, her attempts to get him to touch her result in attacks of violent self-loathing; despite her ostensible acceptance of him, Erik cannot surmount his mental block against touching a woman, any woman, let alone Christine, whom he views as the holiest of holies. He can't dirty her with his own uncleanliness and still retains more than a little fear that if she touches him she might simply die (after all, all other ladies he touches have, mostly because he tends to kill them), leaving them in an odd relationship limbo that they will inhabit for pretty much the rest of the book.

 

It’s hard to tell what Christine herself thinks of all this. She certainly makes overtures, but she also seems accepting of the reactions and to eventually stop pressing the issue. There’s another interesting inversion here, too; it’s usually Raoul who represents a comforting “sexless” relationship, very much in line with Gothic heroes who save their ladies from sensual danger and marry them properly, and the Phantom who is often read as representing repressed desire and darker urges. Here, Erik is absolutely and resolutely unsexual, refusing that role even when it’s offered to him, and it’s Charles with whom Christine might have had a marriage that involved sex and reproduction.

 

Chapter 17

 

Erik, unable to completely avoid being embroiled in Persian politics, has a run-in with Indian bandits in this chapter who secretly work for one of the princesses in the harem. They illustrate the punjab lasso of Phantom fame (because they actually are Punjabi!) and nearly kill him in their attempt to force him to join their cause. Erik retaliates with horrific brutality, surprising no one, and kills a man with a sitar string by first popping his eye (there it is again!), flaying skin from his face, and finally strangling him to death.

 

A very interesting facet of this book is illuminated when one of the sultanas says to Erik that "You are not a great musician, you are a great magician." Erik's musical prowess is actually downplayed in this version; he is able to pick up piano-playing with facile ease in childhood and Christine does ask him to sing for her (though he never does so that we see), but in general it's not a skill that is any more pronounced than the others he possesses. He's a genius in several areas and music happens to be one of them, but his greatest feats in it, including the creation of Christine's voice, are based on manipulation and hypnotic suggestion, not on technique. He really is far more of a magician figure than a musician, something that I don't think I've ever seen in a Phantom before.

 

Erik himself emphasizes this when, drugged by a sultana attempting to kill him, he wants to return to the city from their vacation posthaste. His powers are over humanity, not the world itself, which appears clearly to him only through the lens of his own intellect:

 

"Only to him would the mass of interlocking ornamental shapes seem clearer than crystal in his drunken state. He had always been a monster of civilization, flourishing in the order and beauty of mathematical structures... Before his blurred eyes, without the clutter of the details, the pastoral scenes were the most beautiful unhampered logarithmic, hyperbolic, Archimedean spirals. The hazy intoxicated state had cut away his learned self and left behind only the primitive. It was the monstrous instinct that delighted in perfect order and buried truths."

 

It's hard to tell from reading this review instead of the book, but pretty much any time you hear something from Erik's point of view, you just realize again that there is something seriously wrong with him. He actually applauds the sultana's nearly-successful gambit to kill him, recognizing in her a mental equal that he has never seen in a woman other than his own mother:

 

"It was a perverse irony that the woman who gave birth to him should reflect so much on the woman who would kill him. In a different way, as fiends were always able to find alternate ways of looking at things, it was a sad, beautiful, mathematic symmetry."

 

This man is a mess, y’all.

 

The sultana does not actually kill Erik, since proving that she could have is good enough for her. In another moment of enlightening feminist discussion of the culture, however, her conversation reveals that the crux of her jealousy of Christine is that she, as a woman of the harem, has no choice whatsoever in her romantic life, while Christine, who can choose whomever she wishes, wastes her choices on the horror that is Erik. The entire chapter's lovely poetry comes to a close when Christine is offended by this assessment and Erik suggests a metaphor of her as a bird that chooses to be still but knows it can fly at any time, and she admits, only to herself, that such a bird is only beautiful in flight.

 

Chapter 18

 

To Erik's credit, he has been seriously trying to avoid killing people due to Christine's presence, even though going cold turkey is seriously against his very nature and he's not having a good time with it. She's not helping, either, when she does things like stopping the caravan to dote on a diseased beggar child; Erik reveals his own self-loathing again when he demands that she stop touching the boy and calls him a "thing", clearly transferring his horror at his own childhood self onto the helpless child.

 

It is once again Asim that has to explain to Christine what's going on here, which he does with an impressive clarity of vision: her “innocence” and “goodness” are qualities that have been intentionally cultivated and protected by Erik to make her all the things that he can't be. She has been "built" by the Phantom, as surely as he builds beautiful buildings or crafts beautiful songs, to prove that he can bring beauty into the world and somehow try to balance the scales against his ugliness. Christine initially rejects the idea that Erik crafted her from childhood specifically to save him from himself, but she (and the reader) eventually can't ignore how much twisted Erik-sense that makes.

 

Tasked by the shah with building an enormous palace for him, Erik has reproduced in its ballroom the familiar torture chamber of Leroux's novel, a huge mirrored room with a crystal tree at its center. Christine doesn’t really realize that it's a horrible trap, which is one of the few instances where she doesn’t catch on to what Erik is up to, even though immediately after showing it to her he gives her a ring that he has designed to fit into the lock on any trap he builds so that she can never be caught in one. Just like the original Erik in Leroux's novel, this one gives Christine a ring and informs her that she is safe as long as she wears it; the only difference here is between the ephemeral threat of his reprisal and the very real imminent death many of his traps would cause.

 

Erik murders the sultana that he had been feuding with by luring her out of the harem in such a way that she is caught by the shah, her father, who beheads her for her defection and flagrant breaking of the rules. Interestingly, when Christine confronts him in horror (yet again, you'd think she would be used to this by now) at what he has done, he tries to explain that he was trying to do good, saying, "She was an outlaw. I delivered her to the judgment of the law. Isn't this what goodness is?" Lacking a moral compass of his own, he is incapable of understanding the difference between laws and mores, and as a result once again falls from grace.

 

Asim, who has seen the sultana grow from a little girl, also breaks with him, furious and grieving. It's interesting that this is where he freaks out, not over the death of his own daughter - possibly because he knew Senmura's death was coming when he involved her in his plans and blamed himself rather than Erik, or possibly because it didn't occur to Erik that this was going to upset him and he therefore didn't do anything to affect Asim's state of mind.

 

Chapter 19

 

Erik, who still only knows how to solve problems with murder, attempts to fake his own death by killing a guy, bashing his face in and then dressing him in his own clothes. Most of the palace believes the ruse, but Christine does not, mostly because the dead man has too much hair. Again, this is a Christine who takes matters into her own hands; after telling Erik off for daring to try to make her think he had died, she decides she will speak to the shah herself and try to get Erik released from his work, even using his secret tunnels to sneak into the shah's very chambers to leave a letter for him. This seems like fun Aladdin-style hijinks until you remember that the shah is the kind of guy who will seriously chop his own daughter’s head off in a rage when she turns up where she's not supposed to be.

 

In doing all this, Christine has finally accepted her role as the Phantom's savior. When she admits that this was what he had "created her to do", she not only accepts her own personality as largely a product of his manufacturing, but also agrees to his subconscious directives to let her save him. It's a moment of utter defeat but also of liberating triumph; she has accepted what he made of her and is now ready to make something of herself.

 

Chapter 20

 

Because we have all read Leroux's novel, we already knew the tree-ballroom was a trap. When the shah holds his first party there, it of course locks itself and starts burning everyone inside to death with intense heat from the light refracted by the crystal chandelier and ever-present mirrors. Christine, who is more in the know than everyone else, is also in a position to appreciate Erik's horrific attempts at "justice" again; the place is positioned perfectly so that the rays of burning light strike the terrified people below on their heads and faces, inflicting the same disfigurement on them that he was born with. Luckily, she is able to dive in and use her ring to turn the thing off before everyone barbecues to death, but the reminder of Erik's often senseless cruelty and drive to kill other humans is a necessary one, both for Christine, who always seems to forget it when she's in his magnetic presence, and for the reader, who has been sympathizing with his plight in the latest chapters.

 

Christine, who has been having clandestine meetings with Erik in the skeletons of the unfinished parts of the palace, manages to get him to explain some of his origins to her. Contrary to what the old Romani woman told her, he claims that he willingly ran away with the carnival and only retreated to the cages when it became too tiring for him to pretend to be a human anymore. The reader is left wondering if this is the truth, or if he’s rewriting the past to suit him, pridefully presenting himself to her as never having been vulnerable, or even not wanting to face such vulnerability himself.

 

Christine may love Erik, but she's not proud of the fact, again playing up her own mirrored self-loathing for intentionally involving herself with such an unrepentant and evil creature. "It was a selfish ruthless kind of love," she says, "a profound instinctual vanity not even the worst of prima donnas would succumb to." Again, the idea of her own pride and vanity comes into play; loving Erik has a lot to do with the fact that it allows her to always have the high ground in the relationship, no matter what she might do, and there's definitely a recognition of the idea that some of the allure of the relationship comes from being the only one willing to enter into it.

 

Chapter 21

 

When the shah refuses to see her through normal channels, Christine completes her transformation into Phantom Part II and becomes a positive ghost of the palace, using her ring and hidden passageways to sneak into his chambers to sing for him, tell him stories, and pass on advice on ruling the kingdom, actually helping the beleaguered populace. Her voice has all the hypnotic, entrancing power of Erik's, and it isn't long before the shah is in love with her and wants to make her his queen, something that becomes increasingly difficult for her to avoid. I love how active Christine is in this novel and how willing she is to take a stand for her beliefs and act to see them realized.

 

The shah, irritated that a woman keeps using the word “no” to his face, puts the darogha in charge of tracking her down, a feat since the heavy veils have prevented anyone from seeing what she looks like yet. Unfortunately for him, he's put in a difficult position once he realizes who she must be after chasing her into a hidden tunnel. He barely escapes with his life (his guards don't) from a trap that my notes have only "oh god centipede trap horrifying oh god" to say about.

 

He attempts to go to Erik instead, to try to get him to end the charade from his end by playing on his jealousy, and his incendiary remarks about Erik's wife "spending every night between the shah's thighs" certainly would piss most people off. Erik, however, does not take the bait, and illuminatingly replies, "I love Christine. If her love for me is only a lie, then I only hope to prolong that lie as long as she is willing to humor me." Not only is Erik not going to make a move when it comes to Christine banging other dudes, he's not actually all that upset about it; he's not going to have that kind of relationship with her, after all, so as long as she remains with him and loves him, she can do whatever she wants as far as he's concerned. He’s not trying to limit what Christine does as long as one of the things she does is love him; that’s all he feels he could ever ask for.

 

Incidentally, Christine is not actually sleeping with the shah despite the entire palace assuming she is, which is one of the things that is pissing him off so much.

 

Chapter 22

 

When a trap nearly catches Christine and the shah manages to perpetrate some violence on her, Erik rescues her and the shouting match that occurs behind the palace walls is pretty entertaining, including Christine's realization that "A secret passageway was a very bad place to hold a marital argument." Hee. Poignantly, Erik really does believe that Christine is in love with the shah and sleeping with him, and makes it a point to tell her that he doesn't care, she doesn't have to hide it anymore and she can do anything that makes her happy as long as he's allowed to stay with her. Not only is this an emotional scene here, it sheds light on the long-ago events at the Paris opera house; it wasn't her relationship with Charles that set him off, but rather the threat that, by marrying him, she would leave the opera house and be out of his reach forever.

 

(It’s tempting to ask if everything might have been all right if only Christine, Erik, and Charles had talked about the issue and decided that Erik could still be part of Christine’s life. Unfortunately, the fact that he’s a horrific unstoppable torture and murder machine would make that unfeasible with literally anyone; how long until he did something horrible to a member of Christine’s family? How long until he did something that she couldn’t hide from or forgive him for? It was doomed from the start.)

 

Unfortunately, it is the eleventh hour for this plot and, in the confusion of a riot in Tehran, the shah's attempts to find Christine, and Erik's sanctum being invaded by refugees, he is nearly killed by guards who wound him and then recoil in disgust at his unmasked face. Christine makes a choice here to shoot them to save him, which by her own admission "destroys" her; her innocence is permanently and irreparably lost when she kills one of the men, and, before Asim arrives to rescue them, she looks down the barrels of guns leveled at her and thinks, "Why do you hesitate?... I am a monster too. I kill." Her association with Erik has finally corrupted one of her last moral centers, and as a result the feeling that she had always been on a sort of level with him is confirmed.

 

Chapter 23

 

It is now necessary for Christine and Erik to flee Tehran before the shah finds them, and the darogha is spotlighted in this chapter, struggling with his friendship and fondness for them and his unswerving duty to his monarch. The mere fact that there is a struggle going on illustrates the depth of his relationship with Erik, as no such struggle existed when he was, for example, sending Senmura to her almost certain doom in the name of his duty. He has never questioned his royal loyalty until now. In doing so he admits that he is viewing Erik almost as a son, and that he had always longed for a child as curious and intelligent as himself and was disappointed in both Zayd and Senmura. Erik is the son he had wished he had, and again the contrast between the evil he knows him to be capable of and the emotion he provokes is vivid and puzzling.

 

He makes the final decision to help them when, encountering Christine, he sees that she's wearing Senmura's amulet, which she found still hidden away in Erik's chest. It's a moment in which he accepts that Christine and Erik are his surrogate children now, replacing the ones he has lost, and thinks of them as his evil offspring even as he saves them. In a curious way, it's also the final moment of Senmura's triumph; she could never influence her father's mind in any way when she was alive, but her one simple act long ago now finally pushes him into defying the law that he never defied for her when she was alive.

 

His final sendoff to Erik, by way of an explanation, is a simple phrase: "For every fatherless son, there exists a sonless father," which encapsulates all of the complicated knot of his emotions in one simple, poetic moment. It’s only too tragic that he never gave such devotion to his real children, who lived and died wishing for it.

 

Chapter 24

 

Finally, near the end, we have a bittersweet choice: Erik leaves Christine, for good this time. It's something that was being carefully set up ever since her return to Persia, but it comes to a head here when she insists once again that he should touch her and passionately declares that love always shares the bad with the good and that he should have shared his darkness with her from the beginning. Viewing herself as tarnished by what she has done, she thinks that surely now they’re the same and whatever he might have thought set her above him has been proven false.

 

What Christine does not understand is that this is the exact opposite of what Erik wants. He never wanted to taint her with his ugliness and evil, and having done so only says that he would never have asked for love had he know that was what it was. He needs her to be his perfect, untouchable ideal; now that she has fallen from that very high pillar because of his own actions, it's not a moment of celebration but a horrible realization that he has, finally, destroyed her as he was always afraid he would. Christine doesn't understand until too late, and he sends her back to Paris alone, mourning that he has poisoned her beyond repair.

 

Christine should not really be surprised to discover that Charles has married someone else in her absence; she's disgruntled that he isn't there waiting for her at the docks as he said he would be, but considering her adamant declarations that she wasn't coming back, not especially surprised. It's a blow to her ego, but she accepts it quickly enough; if she wasn't good enough for Charles before her fall from grace in Persia, she definitely isn't now.

 

Few versions of the Phantom story choose for Christine to accept neither suitor for her affections, leaving her to choose a third path. Like most of Liu's work, it may not be a popular choice, but it's poignant and suits her story perfectly.

 

Epilogue

 

It is now 1889 again and Asim, old, creaky and using a cane, finally locates Christine at the opera house as Madame Joyeaux and briefly tells her about giving the story to Leroux before asking about Erik's health. She explains sadly that, while she knows he lives in the opera house still because he is still sending notes and watching her performances, she has not seen or directly spoken to him in all the years she has spent there since. His gentle suggestion that she find somewhere else to go is rebuffed; she refuses to leave and intends to spend the rest of her life here, the only place she can keep trying to save him. "It is what he created me for," she tells Asim sadly, reminding him of his own words decades ago. She's done doing anything but pursuing that one single-minded goal, one at which she can never succeed. She never truly escaped Erik, much as many people can never truly escape trauma and mental harm done to them in childhood.

 

It's a quiet, haunting ending for everyone involved. The only question left is to whom the eyeball in the prologue belonged, but given who Erik is, it could honestly be anyone’s. It doesn’t matter. He continues to be a monster and always will, and Christine continues to try to save him, always failing, never able to pull herself free.

 

It’s a sad book but a very good one.

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers

  • Tumblr Social Icon