In Service (2005)
from Phantom Phantasies, 2007
I think at this point I'm just going to assume that the title page of this particular collection, which claims these are four stories based on Gaston Leroux's novel, is there for purposes of not being sued by everyone involved in the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, because it's three out of four as far as being pretty identifiably based on that movie.
The most major thing to notice about this little piece is that it's very well-written. The prose is concise, intelligent, well-paced, and even challenging without being overdone. It is in many ways very similar to Leroux's style, though without some of the period affectations. Not only is the writing style nice, but the author has obviously done some research, or at least knows a thing or two about the time period; acknowledgement of class lines, in particular, is always refreshing to see after so many authors have so persistently bungled it.
As I said above, the story is pretty obviously film-based, featuring a localized facial condition and a Phantom who is not so creepy that he can't live in a hotel among a bunch of other people. While lesser deformities often make for lesser justification of Erik's tendency to hide from the world, the author handles the idea with surprising sensitivity; it is acknowledged that facial injuries and disfigurements are not unknown for a variety of reasons - recent European wars and the ravages of syphilis are two compelling examples - and that a guy can really get away with hiding his face without too much direct confrontation out of others, if he so chooses. While this doesn't explain Erik's yen for self-ostracization, it does suggest that that particular choice may be more of an overreaction, or may stem from an accompanying mental issue with social exposure (understandable and supported by the original text).
The plot, however, leaves something to be desired - most specifically, I'm desiring, well, a plot. The entire gist of the story is that Erik, now staying anonymously in a hotel, notices a young wood-seller girl who doesn't seem to be concerned about his mask, and after following her home to her posh lodgings one night confronts her and learns that she's a higher-class lady but works there in order to people-watch. He gets her a letter of recommendation so she won't get fired.
And that's it. Short stories, as I have said in many other places, are very difficult to write - packing in a plot (or at least a point) into a scant handful of pages is hard to do while maintaining flow and an interesting setting. Sadly, the author doesn't really do it here; while I appreciate the juxtaposition of social roles inherent in Erik trying to drag himself upward to join society while the girl is intentionally descending below it, there's nothing being said about it. Neither of them learns anything, nor does the reader; there are no parallels, no metaphors, no conflicts or resolutions, no illustrations. There's no actual point to the story. It's a two-page non sequitur with no particular value aside from the pretty writing style. This is in some ways almost more depressing than a story that's badly written all around (not, I hasten to point out, that I want to read any more of those).
There are a few other little bobbles, as well, that clue us in to the fact that the author doesn't have quite as solid a grasp on the characters as on the writing style; Erik, for example, is "plotting revenge" in the hotel, which doesn't much sound like the action of a redeemed man who plans to die happily soon, and his behavior in regards to the maid, including following her home in the dead of night and then setting up a date at a cafe to discuss things, is without motivation. While I don't expect him to necessarily be sorry he killed Philippe - in fact, I'd be surprised if he were, honestly - it is nevertheless still somewhat grating to watch him being all smug and proud of himself for it when he has the "Count" give the girl a letter of recommendation.
In the end, it's not a bad little piece, but sadly it's also not a good one.