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Dear Erik (2005)

     by Sarah Russell

          from The Angel in Hell, 2005


I have looked into the abyss.

There's no real way to prepare for this, so I'm just going to put it out there: this story is actually a "letter" being written, ostensibly by the author, to Erik, the Phantom of the Opera. It is the most in-your-face, blatant self-insert fantasy I've ever seen someone dare to commit to published paper. Theoretically, I think the main character - who is never named and tells the story in first-person past tense, for Christ's sake, which is pretty reminiscent of the unnamed "protagonist" at the end of D'Arcy's book - is supposed to be a character of her own, but it’s very hard to tell. I'm going to try, as usual, not to quote your faces off with precious excerpts from this literary bonanza, but the condensed version of it is: “Ever since I was nine years old, boys didn’t love me back when I crushed on them, but then when I was thirteen I heard Lloyd Webber’s musical on CD and my life was FOREVER CHANGED.”

I know we've all felt the tragic sting of love lost before our ages are in double digits, so we can empathize with the unbearable torment of her situation. Such romantic woe is normally the stuff of adult or even teenager drama, but Russell's protagonist is clearly ahead of the curve. The gushing prose regarding how the Lloyd Webber musical completely changed her life forever and brought her soul to flower or whatever is pretty standard fare, again reminding me heavily of the constantly-crying unnamed woman from D'arcy's novel. I was, however, pretty entertained by her unselfconscious mention of going home and "making the CD for herself" - you little pirate, you!

I'm pretty sure I and all of you know that this is one of those pieces of fanfiction that is clearly written by a youngster and equally clearly written for the author herself. It’s a clear exercise in writing emotional responses to media to work through them, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that… except, as usual, that it was published and now I and anyone else who is unaware have to pay fifteen bucks to read it.

Our protagonist, of course, listens to NOTHING ELSE but the cast recording (which she frequently refers to as a "soundtrack”) for a solid year, during which time she starts being visited, naturellement, by the comforting spirit of Erik himsel. The fact that she uses his name and apparently knows him intimately despite having no contact with the story besides Lloyd Webber's musical is, again, hilarious, since he is unnamed in that version, although I’m guessing if pressed she would say he simply told him her name. Whenever she cries, she implores him to "come be her angel", and lo:

No sooner had those words left my lips was your spirit flying throughout my room. I felt a warmth around me like I had never felt before, and it was almost like a canopy of protection. As I stood, I felt your arms around me and heard you whisper, "No one can ever hurt you again, I am here forever."

I said it a lot and at length in the second Meadows review, but the world where UNEXPLAINED GHOSTLY PHENOMENA CLAIMING OWNERSHIP OF YOU is instantly fun and happy is a hilarious one to me. Have none of you ever seen horror films? Why is everyone's first reaction to hearing voices and feeling phantom sensations blissful acceptance, instead of, I don't know, PANIC AND HORROR or PSYCHIATRIC EVALUATION? D'Arcy, Meadows, Pillow and now this, and each time the ghostly red flags are truly terrifying. Sure, if you gave me some kind of framework for a sexy ghost-romance, but just "Then I felt a ghost and it was awesome"? Was it, though?

Oh, and she also finds a mysterious golden ring she's never seen before and starts wearing it in order to "symbolize that she is his forever". How lovely.

Two years later, however, when she has reached the worldly age of fifteen, tragedy strikes: she gets interested in boys. (Well, technically she's apparently been interested in boys since age nine, but apparently she's better at it now.) She acquires a boyfriend, starts dating him, and even stops wearing Erik's ring! In case anyone had doubts as to whether this was character growth or a plot device, the main character makes her blinding regret at her own philandering ways all too apparent. How dare she start dating real people!

She dates this guy for two years (have you noticed that time goes by at amazing speed in this story, while relatively little happens?), but then, just as she has turned seventeen, she hears about the new film being based on the Lloyd Webber musical (she is referring to the Schumacher/Butler movie, naturally). Unable to resist investigation, her world is predictably turned upside-down when she visits the film's website and sees a picture of "Erik" for the first time.

Immediately, she realizes the error of her ways, dumps her boyfriend of two years, decorates her room in Phantom Chic and blown-up posters of Gerard Butler's yearning face, and, as soon as the film soundtrack comes out starts playing it at high volume and singing along at the top of her lungs, begging the Phantom to come back to her. I can't decide if it's the begging a bizarre unreal "spirit" to "come back" and date her that's the saddest, or if it's the fact that she's decided to pay said spirit homage through the incredibly inferior 2004 film soundtrack version instead of the original she presumably still has, or if it's the deadly serious, epically tragic tone that Russell's prose takes on when describing these events. This girl is serious. She needs him or she might very well die of a broken heart..

Finally, the mysterious writer of this letter (who has NOTHING TO DO with Russell herself, obviously) simply CANNOT GO ON ANY LONGER without Erik's Phantomy love, so this happens:

One day I came home and crying because I finally realized you had left me. I lied on my bed in tears and just as I thought it was over, I heard you whisper my name... I ran to you from across my room with tears pouring out, and you embraced me just like you had always done, but now I could feel you and see you.

Is there any explanation for this sudden metaphysical happening? There is not. There is also no explanation for what exactly is going on, who this spirit is (is it actually the Phantom, and if so what is he doing lingering about as a psychic phenomenon over a century after his death? So many questions!), or why he chooses to drop to one knee and propose to our letter-writer on the spot so that she can join him forever. These things just happen. Don't try to understand them. You're just going to hurt yourself.

Of course, our protagonist has no qualms about accepting his proposal and going off with him (where? WHO KNOWS?), even though she knows this means she will be "a part of his world" now and unable to ever return to hers. I think what bothers me most about this whole ridiculous exercise is the determination Russell is showing in slotting this character into a support role in the classic entitlement fantasy. She's discarding everything in her life (her boyfriend, family, hobbies, and eventually even her life itself) in order to become a romantic prize for the Phantom and spends an ungodly amount of time dwelling on the fact that he "deserves" it or she can't believe she could have hurt him so badly by "dumping" him in the first place. I'm always depressed to see female characters demoted to the status of living trophies of adoration to make the Phantom's life better, but seeing it in a character that smacks so strongly of self-insert as well... it's creepy and disheartening.

Also, there's this line earlier, when the character is looking at the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film's website and weeping:

You were so beautiful too, how could anyone ignore you and cast you aside?

Wow. This is what you have wrought, 2004 film. The Phantom should be loved because he's beautiful (does this poor girl know that her bizarre phantom spirit-thing probably doesn't have the same bone structure as Gerard Butler?), because beauty is deserving of love, and anyone who denies that is an evil person. How COULD she ignore him and cast him aside in favor of her boyfriend? Apparently because she was misguided and failed to fully acknowledge his beauty. It's pretty depressingly telling that she only realizes she needs to dump her boyfriend and start begging her spirit-lover to come back after she sees his Butler-face and realizes how hot he is.

It is, of course, entirely possible that this is not meant to be a literal story; it could be a metaphor for something entirely different (believe you me, more than once it gets a little creepily plausible as a metaphor for someone contemplating suicide), but in all seriousness I can't believe that of it in light of the complete lack of complex writing ability demonstrated by Russell here and in her first two stories. And, to be fair, I don't think I would like it much more as a metaphor; it wouldn't be a very good one, unless I'm missing something extremely important about it.

The story concludes with the letter writer signing off thusly:

Dear Erik... ...please... ..never die... ...

Those malformed ellipses are reproduced accurately.

But at least things are over, right? Wait, there's bonus material! There's an About the Author paragraph at the end of the book, nestled in amidst a forest of blank pages as though trying to hide itself. It is fairly standard, painting Russell as a wunderkind (she's been writing since she was thirteen years old! Singing since she was five!) with emotional vision far beyond her years. Wonder at her age no more, gentle readers: she was sixteen when this went to press, which explains a lot but doesn't really excuse much. You might think we're getting out of here free, but there is one last dread knell to be rung:

Currently, she is in the process of writing her next book which will also be based on Phantom of the Opera.

And so the reign of terror continues. We can only hope that, as she grows up, her writing goes with her. Hang in there, Russell.

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