Don Juan Triumphant (2005)
by Sarah Russell
from The Angel in Hell, 2005
I am praying like I've never prayed before that the other two stories in this delightful compendium are much shorter than this one. I don't think I have even a shred of hope left that they might be better. I don't remember what hope looks like anymore.
It's worth a second to point out that this was almost certainly written by a teenager, based on the style and content, but there's no real way to tell. It's bad in a mostly harmless way, where it has no substance except for wish fulfillment and self insertion; in other words, there's nothing really wrong with it except for the fact that it expects other people to spend money for the privilege of reading it. It's also HILARIOUS, though, so we're going to dig through it anyway.
If the extreme editing mistakes weren't already prevalent on the cover, maybe I could have pretended that we were going somewhere tolerable. Maybe, if the preface hadn't done nothing but limpingly recap the 2004 Lloyd-Webber-based Schumacher/Butler film while telling the reader all about how much Erik just needed to be loved while ignoring the existence of all other characters, I could have pretended this was going to have literary merit. Possibly, just possibly, if the book had had formatting consistency or even page numbers, I could have fooled myself into thinking there was some professionalism.
But it had none of those things, and also had this back cover:
So now that we're all prepared, let's dive in, shall we?
The dedication of the collection starts with God and ends with Erik, and has that same deliciously bizarre flavor of other dedications have had in the past (looking at you, D'Arcy and Meadows). Okay. My loins are girded.
My greatest challenge in reviewing this story is in not simply reprinting the entire thing for you, the reader, to thoroughly enjoy. It is so hilariously bad that it almost defies my powers of description; I want to just show you, because otherwise I feel like you might not quite realize exactly what this is like. It’s definitely impossible to really examine this story without sharing quotes, so I hope you’re ready for some truly fantastical prose.
I'd like to say now, before I begin, for the entire review: [SIC].
The very first paragraph of the story reads thusly:
Our story takes place where it did so long before. The poor, gentle creature who desperately yearned for the love of another. One he could never have, or so he thought. After endless attempts to win her love, it was never gained, but rather, it pushed them farther away from each other. She left, with another man, to live her life, and he, returned to the cold, darkness of his world forever. But not entirely forever...
Do you see? Do you SEE? Now imagine reading thirteen chapters of that and be welcomed to my world.
The formatting of this story, off the bat, is dismal. It has no tab stops, no page numbers, no real rhyme or reason that might explain where one paragraph ends and another begins, and, possibly most bewildering of all, it is entirely conducted in italics. I have no idea why. It is a new form of prose abuse, just when I thought I'd seen every way authors try to format their work when there are no editors around to tell them no.
I already told myself I wouldn't quote the entire story, but it’s a struggle not to share this. It is like comedy and tragedy rolled into one. It is like the meeting of incredible badness with ultimate hilarity. It is indescribably bad - bad like Bernadette's novel was bad, except without the glimmers of originality. Regurgitated bad. If I saw even one new idea in this story, I must have forgotten about it in the onslaught of ridiculous, overdramatic cliché.
So Erik is sitting around in his basement, pondering why authors who base their work solely on the Lloyd Webber film or musical always seem to use his name even though he doesn't have one in those versions, and after spending some quality time moping about how Christine left him, he decides that he will drown his sorrows in some organ music. But when he plays the first note, lo! It is the most beautiful note in creation! He has never heard such an incredibly beautiful note before, but now that he has, it inspires him as it has never inspired him before, because lo, this one note, which is only a note by itself, is so lovely that it will surely force Christine to love him. Therefore, he composes Don Juan Triumphant around this note.
...one note? I mean... one? Which one is it? I mean, there are only twelve options, since I highly doubt Erik has invested in a quarter-tone keyboard. Seriously, I feel like I've heard all the notes, even the quarter-tones, and none of them ever rang with the celestial chorus by themselves. I'm confused.
Speaking of confusing, the plot has sort of arrived, apparently having been mugged on the way here. This is sort of a sequel and sort of not; Christine has already rejected the Phantom and left with Raoul, yet he is only now beginning to write Don Juan Triumphant (I thought at first that this might point to influence from the novel, which at least didn't use the opera as a major event, but no, that was a ridiculous idea).
Much ado is made over how this opera will be so beautiful that it will totally charm Christine's panties off and she'll come back. I'm not sure how Don Juan Triumphant went from being the dark mirror, reflecting the twisted, tortured sense of self that the Phantom can only express through terrifying music, to being Erik's gettin'-some music, but I'm not sure it's what I would call a good change.
This story also has a terrible problem with detouring to tell the reader things that are completely and utterly unimportant and boring. The plot? Well, it's a little fuzzy, and sometimes the reader might not be quite sure how the characters got from point A to point B, but goddamn if we can't tell you exactly what everyone is wearing and what they had for dinner.
Erik finally completes his masterwork:
Music he had sang with her, made into a play. And so was the birth of Don Juan Triumphant!
Raoul and Christine, who have mysteriously stayed in Paris and sat around being engaged for a couple of years without getting married in order to make this plot work, have domestic problems. I know Russell is not intending to be funny, but she's just so unintentionally hilarious that I couldn't help the constant snorting and giggling and sometimes reading passages out loud to unsuspecting passersby.
Raoul told [Christine] that once they were married she wouldn't be able to sing anymore because he wanted to move away to Spain. She agreed, but cried over it to herself. Spain?
I echo you, sniffly Christine! Spain? Why? Who knows? Raoul is certainly never going to tell us, and he spends a lot of time not moving away to Spain later in the story, so I feel like Russell may have forgotten about it completely. And, I mean, obviously she couldn't sing anymore, because everybody knows that there is no opera in Spain.
The major problem here is that Raoul is being a big mean jerk, trying to get Christine to set a date for their wedding after being in limbo for two years; he finally gives her an ultimatum and basically says, "Look, I would like to marry you, but if you're not going to let me make this official we should probably see other people." Just look at feisty Christine tell him off:
Christine sat back. How dare he blackmail me. Either go by his way or never marry him.
"Well, I must say Raoul, that I am going to pick my way. Goodbye forever Raoul!"
And with that, she slammed her glass on the table and stormed out.
"Christine, you are making a big mistake!"
"The only mistake I made was picking you over Erik!"
And with that, she ran away from his house, got into a carriage and went to her apartment.
RAOUL OVER. I can't decide if this approach is more or less aggravating than the ones I usually see. On the one hand, making Raoul randomly turn into a drunk or a wife-abuser or a philanderer is done to death and seldom any fun to read, but on the other hand... I mean, at least those authors were trying to come up with a reason for her to leave him. Russell just... well, it just happens. Okay? Okay.
Erik drops off his manuscript anonymously at the managers' office, blithely assuming that they will immediately read and mount a production. Meanwhile, Raoul plots revenge while "his eyes tightened up in anger, making it almost impossible to see him." He's so angry he's INVISIBLE. Across town, Christine cries until her dress is too wet to wear anymore (seriously) and then cries some more upon putting on a dress that Erik gave her back in the day. She spends a lot of time wallowing in "a pile of tears".
Of course, the managers - who are Andre and Firmin, in case there was any question left as to the source material for this story - immediately do read the opera and do think it's incredibly genius and they should throw away whatever else they have planned this season and put it on instead, even though they have no idea who wrote it and have probably already spent or committed a lot of their budget. So apparently Erik was right to assume that would happen. They persist in calling it a "play", which I guess I should just give up and accept.
Meanwhile, Raoul has cunningly deduced that Christine must be planning to go back to the Phantom:
"Raoul had devised a plan finally to kill Erik. With the help of his friends, he would kidnap Christine, which would lure him to them, and then when he appeared, stab him to death as she watches. Oh, the plan was so evil, but it was the only way to rid Erik forever."
Yes, Raoul has already managed to become an evil stabbing mugger in the night, all by chapter three! This bears a striking resemblance to his behavior in the Vehlow novel, which also featured him showing up with his "gang" of friends and beating the tar out of Erik while Christine sobbed fetchingly nearby, and to the second Meadows book with all its past-life visions of Raoul chasing the two of them down and creatively killing one or both of them. I think my favorite part is how he knows kidnapping Christine will get the Phantom to him immediately, even though he’s literally been dating her for years and the dude has never shown up yet.
Erik directs Don Juan Triumphant as a disembodied note-giving voice from Box 5; the managers, apparently having gotten over that silly "let's call the police" idea, are only too happy to allow him to do so while Christine continues to hide in her apartment and fantasize about Erik and Raoul gets pneumonia and almost dies. This is A Sign that he is opposing the will of fate and he should stop being a jerk, but of course he won't.
A) Erik has a new last name! This time around, it's "Bordeaux", a nicely generic French-sounding name that (probably unintentionally) suggests that Erik might be a nobleman from Normandy. How do I know this? Because
B) "By now, everyone in the opera house knew of Erik and his brilliance. No one was afraid of him anymore, quite the contrary, they thought of him as a role model and a genius."
TRULY A ROLE MODEL UNTO US ALL.
At any rate, once the show opening looms close, Erik sends Christine an anonymous ticket to see it sitting in Box 5. She sees nothing odd about this and goes shopping to celebrate. There is no peep out of Raoul, which I think is meant to simulate suspense as to whether or not he will take the hint from God and stop harassing Christine.
I can't BREATHE from the laughing in this chapter. Erik "sprayed his cologne in a few places" in Box 5 in order to get it ready for Christine? Is that funnier if it's actual cologne or if it's a euphemism? I can't choose!
Christine, who apparently inherited a vast fortune at some point when we weren't looking because that's all I can think of to explain any of this, turns up in a dress "embroidered with crushed diamonds". Wow, both plausible and possible, right? She also owns her own carriage! Clearly, Raoul just wants her for her money.
Erik's loving "spraying" of the box pays off, because upon arriving Christine thinks, "Erik... it smelled like Erik. Her Erik. Oh, that smell would drive her senses wild!" Is this the same smell she frequently describes as being "deathly" in Leroux's novel, sometimes with accompanying faint?
At any rate, Erik was so right, because when Christine hears THAT ONE NOTE at the beginning of the opera, she is spellbound. He still won’t tell us which note it is.
Erik turns up in the box, of course, and of course she is delighted to see him, and of course they instantly renew their undying love, and of course they bang. Well, sort of; the author is apparently afraid of banging (which is ironic in a book with this cover), because while she includes them three or four times she mostly fades to black, makes an awkward segue or just does the authorial equivalent of looking nervous and averting her eyes. In this case, "She pulled him closer to her as the last thing she felt was his tongue touch hers lightly," but he leaves soon thereafter, so it appears it is just heavy petting instead of a full-on mambo. Which is for the best; if the last thing you're feeling in an encounter is your man's tongue lightly touching yours, he's doing it wrong.
Oh, and he also proposes, which she happily accepts, and now they're getting married the next day. The "minister" will be there at eleven. Huzzah!
Confirmed: they did not bang. I know this because, after the wedding, Erik carries Christine away to Their bedroom (capitalization hers) where he will "once and for all make her his" because we all know that penises are the ultimate in person ownership technology while the author commences clearing her throat and trying not to look anywhere near their fictional boudoir.
Erik is renovating his lovely downstairs abode and putting in "skylights" so Christine doesn't have to live in the dark. I want to know if these skylights go through all four levels of basement as well as all of the theater building itself, and if so how he keeps people from, you know, knowing where he is. Then again, everyone knows of Erik and his brilliance now, so maybe it's no longer an issue.
Raoul, who has noticed that Christine hasn't come home for two weeks and is concerned that she might have been kidnapped or hurt herself, looks all over Paris for her before trying to check out Erik's lair in case she went down there for some reason. She is there and fine, and Raoul is summarily booted out for being an interfering meanie-face.
Erik plans a surprise for Christine and we spend a tedious amount of time in “anticipation”. In fact, Christine thinks the surprise might be a pony, and she's super excited. That is a real thing that is in this story.
Naturally, the surprise is the remodeled underground lair, which now features not only skylights but a veritable wonderland of delights including picnicking areas and pretty furniture. Erik has also bricked up the passage to the mirror to keep Raoul from crashing the party again, even though, if this is based on the Lloyd Webber musical or the movie based on it, Raoul should still know at least one other way in.
Oh, and he also gives her a puppy. This is the most powerful wish fulfillment in the land.
The only even vaguely interesting thing going on here is a brief mention of Erik's coffin, which he's gotten rid of in favor of a big plushy bed to share with Christine (does this mean their wedding night was in the coffin? Kinky for an author who doesn’t like writing sex!). Hey, it's a glimmer of Leroux! Poor thing. It doesn't belong here.
Christine is pregnant now!
But Raoul is still evil and plotting bad things!
Somehow, and nobody has any idea how, Raoul gets back into the sub-basement (I TOLD YOU) and he and Erik both draw guns, making me excited for an OK Corral-style shootout. Incidentally, this is the third time we've seen the Phantom with a gun now, following the Manoukian/Kindzierski comic and the Riley short story. Of course, guns are mostly for waving around and looking dramatic, so nobody will actually shoot them, but it's important to note that they're there.
Not only does Raoul not believe that Christine is married to Erik, instead declaring that she must have been forced into it (a reasonable assumption, considering past events), he also chooses this moment to become totally, bewilderingly evil when informed that Christine is also pregnant. Like, he's just... can I just quote some more, please?
"Just more of a reason for me to kill her!'"he screamed as he began hitting her stomach violently.
Erik screamed and began running over to them.
Raoul punched her one last time as she passed out and he threw her into the lake.
I legit hate that I’m laughing at this so hard because it’s describing something horrifying but with such absolute lack of skill that I can’t handle it. Especially when it continues:
As [Erik] drew his gun one more time, Raoul punched him in the eye and watched him fall into the water. As Erik tried to get back up, Raoul jumped on him and held his head under the water.
"You will never win Erik!"
Underneath the water, Erik and Raoul began to struggle. Erik grabbed Raoul's neck as he turned them both and breathed air again. Holding Raoul down, the struggled loosened as Raoul died in his hands. As he got to his feet, he suddenly remembered Christine and dove back into the water to look for her.
YOU CAN'T NOT LAUGH. Oh my GOD even reading it a second time doesn't lessen the horrible comedy. RAOUL OVER, PART TWO. And the last line! Oh, shit, yeah, there’s an unconscious woman in the lake!
Christine, despite having been beaten and then dropped unconscious in a lake, presumably breathing water for a minute or two, is perfectly fine. Not so the fetus, as we are informed that "the baby died" with no further detail. This is a checklist of every single fiction cliché under the sun.
It's worth noting that this is reminiscent of the Pettengill novel, in which Christine also miscarried the Phantom's spawn, though in that version there was no random Raoul-punching and also I could still breathe.
Since everyone in the world knows all about Erik now and loves him for being a brilliant genius role model, half of Paris turns out to process through Erik's lair (question: if Erik is a brilliant genius role model, WHY DO THEY STILL LIVE IN A DANK UNDERGROUND CELLAR?) and offer their condolences to the grieving couple. As in Pettengill's novel, Christine becomes depressed and Erik must coax her back to life, but the author is way worse at trying to show compelling character development than her predecessor so it mostly comes off as inconsistent and boring. And apparently it bored the author, too, because it only lasts about three-quarters of a chapter.
The puppy Erik gave Christine, by the way, is named Sasha. This was the name of Erik’s childhood dog in Kay’s 1990 novel, but there doesn’t seem to be any other influence from that book here; my guess would be that this detail was absorbed by the author through the osmosis of fandom, which for many years was prone to using Kay’s names for various figures in the Phantom’s past regardless of what version they were talking about.
I'm very confused every time they insist on referring to Erik's abode as being located in "the caves". You know it's not actually... a cave, right? He has a house and stuff. In a basement. It's not really the same.
Erik goes out and buys Christine an emerald bracelet and a pony ride. Depression magically lifted!
I know there are more egregious things to laugh about in this story, but I lost it again when the horse pulling their carriage "looked like a quarter horse to Erik's judgment"? You mean that breed of horse that's still being developed in the United States at this time and probably doesn't exist on this side of the Atlantic?
The most random conversation ever happens here. I won't quote it because I have to save my allotted number of quotes for later, but it basically sounds like this:
Christine: Hey, whatever happened to Raoul?
Erik: Oh, I killed him.
Christine: That's cool, he was a jerk. Where'd you bury him?
Erik: Uh... I sort of left him in the lake by our house.
Christine: Super gross, we're moving now.
Sigh. At least they're finally going to move out of "the caves". Besides, having your previous fiance's murdered corpse in the garden is a pretty compelling reason to want to move.
Oh, and guess what? New pregnancy! Yay whee!
How can this story possibly not be over yet? What overused stock tropes are even left?
Christine is already showing at two months! This woman must be built like a toothpick.
Erik is so much of a genius that he can just mash his keyboard and make it awesome. "Just hitting keys randomly sounded beautiful if he did it." Wherefore art thou, tonality?
Naturally, when discussing names, Christine suggests that they could name a girl Harmony or Melody, because it would express the love they share for music. Well done, Russell; and here I was thinking you wouldn't manage to find something that was totally French, nineteenth-century, and non-clichéd. You sure showed me. They do not discuss what to name it if it's a boy, because let's face it, there is not a lot of mystery shrouding the future here. (I'd go with Syncopation for a boy. Or Contrapuntal Fugue Bordeaux.)
Christine decides in this chapter that she wants Erik to give her piano lessons, and, sadly, he does. Russell insists on walking us through them, even though they are mind-numbingly boring, and the basic musical theory is frankly insulting. Come on, Erik! Christine is a professional singer! She knows how many notes are in a scale!
It turns out that Christine, after only one lesson, is even better than Erik at the piano, which she makes sing with incredible beauty. PLOT TWIST. Erik is so excited that everything fades awkwardly to black again.
Erik has been house-hunting because of his bride's issues with sleeping near Raoul's decomposing corpse, and in this chapter he finally finds the perfect place. Oh, thank god. I was on the edge of my seat. He and Christine embark on a hilarious journey through the countryside to go see it, during which Christine has to "stop at the doctor's office" and admires the "wonderful 19th century French architecture". Is this story set in a time OTHER than nineteenth-century France, and I've just somehow been missing it all this time? WHAT IS GOING ON?
The new house, though... the prose that surrounds them visiting the new house is another one of those description-defying moments. Observe:
"As the carriage stopped, Erik helped Christine out with utter caution and led her up the steps to an enormous mahogany colored house with cream colored details.
He opened the door and watched her face light up in amazement as she saw the marble floors, the chandeliers, and the musical heritage incorporated into the building."
Incorporated into the building! Apparently in the form of sheet music-paved floors (NO, I'M STILL SERIOUS) and hilarious red paint. Oh, and also the fact that "below the house laid a river with a white gondola just waiting to be rode." Did he really make his own underground river? WHY, THOUGH.
But it GETS BETTER (how? I don't know!). When asked how he found the place, Erik explains:
"I was told a man who was a musical genius lived in that house until the day he died. In his will, he wanted everything to be untouched, for the next genius to come and be blessed."
"That is so scary, Erik, it's like it was destined to happen."
I'm pretty much just a shell of a person now, baying a wild hyena cackle to the stars. This story is AMAZING. I'm amazed. Aren't you amazed? Who was this mysterious musical genius, and can I read a story about him instead?
Of course, it is revealed here that Christine will be having twins. I wonder if they’ll be girls.
After a lot of mind-numbing description of vague celebrations and interior decorating, Christine finally gets around to giving birth. Naturally, they are apparently born perfectly clean and beautiful, and there are no complications whatsoever at a twin-birth in the nineteenth-century.
They are girls. Guess the names. Go on, guess.
And THANK GOD, it's over. In kind of the same uninspiring, slowly-crawling manner that your bus trip home from work is over.
It was like a perfect storm of badness. The only thing that could have made it worse was... no, nothing is coming to mind right now. Possibly vampires. But only possibly.