by Nathan Berman
from Nocturne with Variations, 2005
This story is, pretty obviously to anyone who's seen both covers,s from the same press that published the incomparable When Angels Wept, stepping up their game to include Butler and Chaney on the cover this time. Hilariously, the inside of the cover claims that the image is copyright Gargoyle, Ltd.
Alchemy Ink Press and I have had our differences, usually involving me pointing and laughing, but this short story, the first in the collection, is xcellent. Of course, that may be attributed to the fact that it isn't an AI original - it was originally published in a different zine anthology, Twists of Fate from Fenris House - but hey, let's give them props for good taste anyway!
The first thing that grabbed my attention out of the gate was Erik's foot twitching in uncontrolled "St. Vitus' dance". Not only have we seen the dear old saint previously in this project (a somewhat ambiguous quote is attributed to him in the introduction to the 1989 Little/Englund film), but the line is both suggestive of a sort of divine madness (St. Vitus' Dance was also the name given to a sort of recurring mass hysteria in the Middle Ages involving large crowds of people spontaneously bursting into fevered dancing and shouting) and of a possible complication of his physical condition, given that St. Vitus' Dance is a side effect of several neurological and psychological conditions. Shortly thereafter, Erik mentions that he learned many of his disappearing tricks from a certain M. Houdin, amusing all the stage magic aficionados in the reading audience.
Alas, nothing in life is ever free, and in this case we're trading pretty excellent background work, concepts, and tone for just slightly underwhelming writing. It's not terrible, and in some places it even manages to be rather good, but a lot of it tries and fails for poetry, and often that failure is in tending a little bit too far into heightened dramatic language. There are also a not inconsiderable number of technical flaws, although most are small and don’t impede reading comprehension too much.
Erik, in the beginning of this story, is hiding from the mob charging about the opera house and cellars looking for him, which informs us that the story is based at least in part on the Lloyd Webber musical. The original novel, of course, featured no mob, and the 1925 Julian/Chaney film's mob definitely didn't end up having to search the opera house itself for him. He refers to Raoul as the Count here, which is a little bit disorienting for a second, but then again he has presumably just killed Philippe, so technically Raoul is probably about to be the count. In his internal musings, we also hear him refer to the now-fled Christine several times as his Angel of Music, an idea which is somewhat turned around from the original idea of her viewing him as an angel, but valid enough in context of her saving role at the end of the original novel.
Interestingly enough, Berman makes an entirely different choice from almost all I've seen to date in this project and shows us, through Erik's memories and thoughts, that his mother was a doting, loving figure in his life, quite in contrast to the usual idea of a frightened, selfish, or disgusted woman so popular in works that explore his backstory. She's presented as being the figure that took care of him through all of his formative years, a mother whom he adored and who he considered his first "Angel of Music", making the idea a conceit he has carried with him throughout his life (and, incidentally, possibly coinciding with the Kay novel or the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, both of which painted Christine as a dead ringer for Erik's deceased mother). It's an interesting inversion; whereas in most versions Erik is pursuing Christine to metaphorically gain a mother's love and acceptance by proxy, in Berman's story he is looking for her to provide the same happiness and care that he remembers from his boyhood.
Berman also introduces his core idea here, which is that Erik considers each and every soul to be a sort of musical theme, and that in his extreme, genius-level sensitivity to music he is capable of "hearing" these themes, causing him to gravitate toward those with the most beautiful "melodies". It's a pretty idea, but Berman over-milks it a bit and it ends up just the wrong side of melodrama, a pity since it could have been very powerful.
Here, in the middle of Erik's somewhat disjointed mental processes (which are pinging about between past and present a lot), is where Berman really starts to take us on the ride that will end with the unexpected twist in the tail of this story. Initially, it looks as if he's going to be one of the few authors with the courage to give Erik a valid previous love interest before Christine; he happens across a beautiful woman named Yvonne, and after hearing her singing to herself is enchanted and starts stalking her around the city. Considering that he's meant to be an adult and a genius to boot at this point, it's somewhat unbelievable that he doesn't realize she's a sex worker until he witnesses her trade money for a quick session in the alley behind the opera house, but his shock and grief that something he treasured so greatly is “tarnished” is ably portrayed anyway. Of course, he sucks for thinking that being a sex worker makes her somehow damaged or tarnished in the first place, but it’s a kind of sucking that many men in that time period would probably also indulge in.
In an odd episode of dissonance, he mentally separates the woman from her lovely voice and the musical theme her soul represents, and after stalking her back home kills her to prevent her from “tainting” them further (an idea that calls a reversed version of the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film strongly to mind, in which the Phantom character murdered his lover not to save her voice but to prevent it from corrupting her). Of course, the rather excellent themes at play are somewhat damaged by the over-dramatizing of the writing at points, especially when Erik howls, "Fuck no more!" before killing Yvonne. I don’t even know what to say to that. He might have been trying for gritty and shocking, but all he got was jarring and gross.
From the exhilaration Erik feels at having freed Yvonne's music (and blood, in the splatter of which he sees art and elevation) and the way that his artistic inspiration immediately flows forth, it's not difficult to see where Berman is going with this. Erik continues killing women whom he considers to be "fallen angels", sex workers whose inner music deserves to be freed and preserved instead of being destroyed by the “stain” of their profession. The physical act of killing them is wedded to the mental act of freeing their music, and Erik, clearly both unhinged and distressingly calm about it, is able to channel that "freed" music into his own compositions, enabling him to create the incomparable monstrosity that is Don Juan Triumphant. That’s certainly one way to make sure that his much-vaunted horrific masterpiece is indeed terrifying from concept to execution, and it certainly explains why he didn’t want to expose Christine to it.
It is not out of a love of slaughter that he becomes a serial murderer, but rather out of a love of beauty and artistic expression. The only one of his Angels of Music to live was Christine - the only one who was a “pure” enough soul (read: a virgin because this Erik has a severe problem with women having sexual agency) not to warrant being destroyed.
If this sounds familiar to fans of German literature, it's because it shares a great many similarities with the 1985 novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Perfume: the Story of a Murderer) by Patrick Süskind, an incredibly detailed and poetic look into the mental processes of a serial killer who kills not for love of murder but in order to preserve the intoxicating scents of beautiful girls and thus give them (and himself) a sort of immortality. The parallels are striking, and though Berman's Erik is clearly slightly different in motivation than Süskind's Grenouille, the novel had been available in many languages for years before this story was written and I would be comfortable laying a heavy bet on its influence here. In any case, the things that make Süskind's novel a masterpiece also lend a great deal of depth and relevance to Berman's story, in particular the exploration of a person committing horrific crimes for what are, to him, wholly sympathetic and even noble reasons.
Upon escaping both the mob and his morass of memories, Erik finally leaves Paris at the end of the story, bound for London, which he believes will "appreciate" his artistic genius more. Berman does a great job of not giving away his story's rattlesnake tail until the very last moment; the final page of the story is simply a reprinting of the famous Whitechapel handbill distributed in 1888 in an attempt by the police to capture a notorious serial killer. Erik has gone on to become the unidentified murderer of sex workers known as Jack the Ripper.
It's a compelling choice, one that fits with the time period and Berman's story and that allows the reader's mind to both recoil in shock and immediately begin to wonder what that portends. Jack the Ripper was never caught; did Erik die when the killings ended? Did he just get better at not letting anyone discover them? Or did he, perhaps, finally finish his grand masterpiece and have no further need of his “fallen angels” once he had done so? It's a brilliant idea, and my only quibble with it is that I both wanted it to be fleshed out a bit more before the big reveal and I wanted Berman's writing style not to dip into the ludicrous quite so much. There is a line between literate melodrama and dreadfully overdone swamp, and, sadly, Berman crossed it a few times too many.
Even the story's title is pretty fantastic; a fugue is a musical movement characterized by constant repetition of themes, nicely representative of Erik's continual string of victims and his own constant mental cycle, and fugue is also a term used to refer to a dissociative psychological condition involving taking leave of one's senses, again applicable and well-chosen for the story.