Into the Light (2006)

     by Debra P. Whitehead

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Into the Light: a journey unparalleled through boredom, mediocrity, and the bitter winds of disappointment.

 

From the back cover copy, this book looks like an exciting, enigmatic riddle just waiting to be untangled:

"She left him a broken man teetering on the brink of madness. He fully expected to remain in that condition for the rest of his life. But one night, in a dark and filthy alley, fate sent him another reason to hope. In the midst of his deepest despair, he found a purpose far greater than himself and in the process discovered the true meaning of happiness. And now, with his heart again dreaming, he had a plan-a plan that would give him a life beyond his wildest fantasies. But there were three things standing in his way: the police who hunted him, the Russians he would steal from, and the man he had sworn to kill."

 

Okay, so, all the new hope stuff is kind of schmaltzy, but the rest of it is intriguing, isn't it? Police pursuit, strange happenings in alleys, Russians? Sign me right the hell up for that!

 

Chapter 1

 

This novel's grade is not at the very bottom of the scale in part because, for the majority of the time, it’s functionally readable. There are grammar bobbles, punctuation failures, and random comma issues all over the place, but for the most part it's fairly clean. This is important in a book that is eighty-two chapters long. If y’all need provisions, you'd probably better go get them now.

 

Right off the bat, there's the Opera Populaire, letting us know that this is definitely at least in part based on the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film. A lot of its imagery, including a very attractive Erik whose disfigurement affects only half of his face and is never described, is definitely drawn from that movie, but Whitehead also makes a point of talking about things like the ninth sub-basement below the opera house, indicating that she's going for a mish-mashing of sources or has at least read up on Leroux's version a little bit. Considering how much time the author spends making sure we know she's read books or at least Wikipedia articles on the history involved, you'd think she'd actually use the Garnier instead of letting the Populaire squat, confusingly fictional, in the middle of vaguely-accurate historical Paris, but I'm not in charge of this book's setting.

 

This entire first chapter is basically an enormous pity-party being thrown by Erik on his own behalf, the basic purpose of which is to let us know that A) he isn't dying as the end of Leroux's novel says he should be, and B) his life is very hard and he is going to whine at us about it for untold pages. The "alas, poor me!" angle is vastly incompatible with his selfless sacrifice and redemption at the end of Leroux's tale, but again, nobody asked me.

 

Whitehead does briefly explain that Erik's current preoccupation with thievery is a sort of social revenge; while he could pay for things, he prefers to steal them as a small way of getting back at a society that has shunned him and possibly would have refused to let him buy things anyway. It's a little coarse for his usual modus operandi, but the idea's got its heart in the right place.

 

Chapter 2

 

Sadly, the estrangement from society idea starts to fall off a cliff here and will spend the rest of the book plummeting inexorably toward its doom. The biggest issue is that Whitehead is extremely inconsistent about the idea; half the time Erik is whining or angrily proclaiming his total estrangement from all of humanity, and the other half of the time he's identifying with the peasants of Paris as fellow "lowlifes". One of the most poignant aspects of Leroux's Erik's estrangement is the fact that he's below even this bottom echelon of human society; even the peasants and beggars are, by virtue of being allowed to be part of humanity proper, set above him. The social commentary is meant to highlight the fact that not only is the upper class shitful in their treatment of the lower, but that the lower class is just as brutal when confronted with a person below their level. It’s a social ill that humanity as a whole treats its disenfranchised members poorly, from the top on down, and this classism is destructive and dangerous. Having Erik become "part of" that lower class allows him to identify with other people, which is useful when you want to have him interact meaningfully with other characters but also completely destroys the idea of him as the ultimate outcast from his society.

 

Even more annoying is the fact that this invalidates the idea of social revenge I was just praising in the last chapter. If Erik is viewing himself as part of or similar to the lower class, he's not exactly striking back against the evil oppressors if he's stealing from their carts and shops. That's just being a dick to fellow peasantry. Even more annoying, Erik oscillates in and out of marked contempt for the same lower class he sometimes identifies with and sometimes whines because he isn't a part of; in those moments, he's every bit as morally bankrupt as the aristocracy he insists on hating for their eschewment of the lower class of humanity. 

 

I suppose it's possible that Whitehead could actually be some kind of madcap genius who is using Erik as a metaphor to illustrate the hypocrisy inherent in Western society’s treatment of others and expectations, but considering the rest of the book, I think it's just that she can't make a coherent choice about class lines and has settled for making Erik as much of an asshole to all classes as possible. An equal opportunity asshole, if you will.

 

We also learn in this chapter that Erik is a mere thirty-six years of age, at least a decade and a half younger than Leroux paints him, which brings with it the usual problems of truncating the time available in his backstory for him to accomplish things and seriously damaging the fatherly vibe that was so important in the original novel. In this book's case, the backstory from Leroux's novel has been completely excised in favor of the 2004 film's anyway, however (thanks, Forsyth, I'm never going to stop tripping over examples of your implausible fucking story about Madame Giry bringing up the wee Erik, am I?), so it's not as if he needed a lot of extra years to be doing cool things like going to Persia and building architectural wonders, but that's sad in and of itself. Also, I'm not going to presume to know what's going on in an author's mind, but I am going to point out that, coincidentally, Gerard Butler was exactly thirty-six when this book was published. JUST SAYING.

 

At any rate, we can abandon that in favor of the more pressing problems plaguing Erik's characterization. Like many authors, Whitehead struggles with trying to show Erik as simultaneously sympathetic and pitiable but also terrifying and ruthless, and, also like many authors, she fails pretty hard. It's not that you can't do both at once - Kay's 1990 novel comes to mind as an example of someone making a decent go of it - but in this case Whitehead falls back heavily on making excuses for the more reprehensible things Erik has done, which only makes her look like a waffler and him look like a rationalizer.

Chapter 3

 

We're finally out of Recap Land! Now we can get to the good stuff, right?

 

So Erik kicks this chapter off by having a wet dream about Christine, in which he has sex with her in a scene that sounds suspiciously like it takes place right after the 2004 film's incident with the creepy veiled mannequin. The meticulous description of it (incidentally, this would also be during the time in the film wherein Christine's stockings mysteriously vanish and fans immediately go bananas trying to figure out if this means they did the dirty) combined with Erik's nostalgic remarks concerning it ("It was too much to have and lose") seem to be implying that the two of them did indeed perform a sideways tango during the previous story. While this would make no sense at all as presented in a Leroux-style framework, since this book is obviously almost entirely based on Schumacher's film, it's not as much of a stretch as it might be. I was concerned that this was going to lead to the dreaded Christine Has the Phantom's Secret Baby plot, but luckily the scene's only purpose is to drive home Erik's angst.

 

After all this nostalgic background, it's hard to really do anything other than look at Erik skeptically when he says things about how he didn't "recognize" how good he had it at the opera. Really? What is all this bullshit he's constantly eulogizing, then? More importantly, can we get him to stop?

 

In order to keep up the high standard of hypocrisy he's just set for us, Erik emerges from his wet dream and immediately goes outside and starts leveling scorn at grubby peasant lovers for having sex in an alley. After his long monologues on unfair disenfranchisement, the elitism is especially unbecoming on him. He then turns around and, after being pissed off at the peasantry for their "depravity," gets pissed off at some passing nobility in a carriage for being "uncaring". In order to keep him as obnoxious as possible, he doesn't even have any basis for this assumption; he sees the carriage going somewhere, assumes that the people in it don't care about anything but themselves and their money despite not even being able to see them, and then goes off on a mental tirade about how terrible they are. There's bonus irony when he complains about how only snidely superior nobility would risk the safety of everyone on the streets by riding around in a fine coach at such high speeds, when he himself did the same thing when taking Christine out on several occasions in Leroux's novel.

 

Also, Erik's an atheist again. Sigh. I'd get my horn-rimmed glasses and go back to my chalkboard with the diagram about how being mad at God does not equal atheism, but I'm just so tired. Religion will be playing basically no role in this novel anyway, so we might as well start aggressively not caring now.

 

Chapter 4

 

In case we were not yet SURE that Erik was a monumental hypocrite, he narrates a story from his adolescence in which he trapped a priest in a church and then burned it to the ground, killing the man, followed shortly by expressing a great deal of moral outrage regarding the despicable cruelty of the world and disregard of humanity for their fellows. Again, it's not impossible for these things to coexist - Erik could have grown up since his teenage days, and in fact could be much more mellow following the events of Leroux's story - but Whitehead isn't showing us any change or growth that might explain the vast moral disconnect. Cruelty offends him on a societal level, but he doesn’t seem to understand that individual cruelty is wrong. Unless it targets him personally, of course.

 

The plot has actually begun now, finally; Erik discovers a skinny, starved, and nearly beaten-to-death boy in an alley and scares off the man that appeared to be about to finish killing him. Due to his newly developed but bizarrely contorted sense of moral obligation, he decides that the only thing to do is take the kid home and nurse him back to health while further railing against the cruelty of humankind, those horrific snakes.

 

Oh, by the way, apparently Erik has vowed at some point never to kill again. I don't know when this happened, because the first we hear of it is him deciding to break said vow in order to find and kill the fleeing man at a later date. Somehow I'm still not feeling like there's a consistent moral compass here.

 

Chapter 5

 

Oops, it turns out that the beaten child isn't a boy after all - it's a skinny girl of indeterminate age (initially Erik seems to think she's somewhere around five or six, but later they start saying she's eight or so; your guess is as good as mine). Naturally, this just makes Erik even angrier, because I guess it’s somehow worse to beat a child of one gender than another?

 

Now I need to stop, though, because bullshit. Bullshit you've “never inflicted pain on a female before”, Erik. BULL. SHIT. Remember dropping a chandelier on the new boxkeeper and killing her? How about knocking Christine down and using her hands to claw at your face? I'm actually pretty infuriated by this blatant attempt to make Erik more of a nice guy than he is; sex really has little to do with how much or little Leroux's Erik has historically been willing to wreck peoples' days. Even Butler's Phantom knocked Christine to the floor when she unmasked him and then physically dragged her while kidnapping her. Are you seriously trying to pull some kind of Phantom chivalry out of your ass now, Whitehead? Please don't. Please put it back.

 

Apparently, the very idea of hurting a woman "threatened to make him violently ill". I love it when authors overuse that phrase. Now I'm envisioning Erik falling to the floor and indulging in a few undignified dry-heaves while he contemplates the image.

 

Chapter 6

 

Attention, authors! When you are talking about someone’s physical sex characteristics, you are usually (but not always) talking about their sex. When you are talking about social or cultural roles as well as identification issues, you are usually talking about genders. One is a physical state, the other a mental or social. They’re both imposed social constructs that people use to try to categorize themselves and others and thus very fluid and not concrete or easy to figure out from a casual look. I mostly bring this up because Erik trying to figure out this kid’s “gender” while she’s not even conscious is pretty much doomed to failure.

 

The discovery of dried blood on the inside of the girl's thighs prompts even higher levels of rage out of Erik, though frankly I had already kind of assumed as much considering the circumstances. I have many questions about the situation:

 

A) Couldn't the girl just be on her period? Are you a doctor, Erik? I don't see any evidence of you checking things out. I realize that would be intrusive and icky and also stop Whitehead from just throwing in some easy "look who the bad guy is" shorthand, but I'm not impressed by your detective work.

 

B) So this guy beat her almost to death, raped her, and then was kind enough to put her pants back on before fleeing so there could be a big reveal later?

 

C) I’m so glad that in order to set up a worse villain and make our hero look good, we went with “underaged girl is beaten and raped”. When in doubt, abuse some girl. That’s the path to literary success.

 

Erik explains here that he "judged her to be six to eight years of age. Not from her appearance." ...so from what, Erik? Your carbon-dating Phantom-sense?

 

Now, in one of the most annoying continuous conceits of the novel, Erik writes to Madame Giry and starts making her go to the store for him all the time because he can't be seen out in public. Oh, it's a risk, he admits - she might turn him in! - but better than going out and being recognized.

 

Bro. You are in post-war Paris. If the mask is going to get you recognized, stop wearing the mask and just tell people you were injured during the siege. This is the 2004 movie deformity, so it's not even close to the same degree of separation from everyone else as Leroux's death's-head; you could tell everyone it was a burn injury or wear a hood or something. I promise, the people who work at the local fruit stand are not going to recognize you. They do not go to operas. I've seen nothing indicating that this Erik has any of the psychological meltdown issues other Phantoms have sometimes had with mask removal. THERE IS NO INSURMOUNTABLE PROBLEM HERE.

 

But we've got to get the Girys back in here, so off she goes rounding up supplies for him, while meanwhile he goes out and about at night in his mask anyway, thus invalidating his own argument.

 

Chapter 9

 

After two chapters in which basically nothing happens, Erik goes back to giving me an ulcer with his incompetent and inconsistent morals, in this case refusing to steal stew for dinner from an inn because he doesn't want the serving maid to be punished when it goes missing. Where that consideration was last time he was thieving his supper I have no idea, but I'm getting tired of him at an alarming rate. (I mean, I’m glad the maid isn’t getting punished. I’m just not glad the last one he didn’t even acknowledge as existing probably was and this douchebag seems unaware of that fact.)

 

The young girl, having made a miraculous recovery under Erik's tender care, wakes up at this point and immediately becomes the only living being to ever have beaten the Phantom in a staring contest. He thinks it's cute and precocious. I think it doesn't bode well for the relationship dynamic to come.

 

It is established via clumsy dialogue that the girl is not in the least bit frightened to wake up with broken bones and horrible pain in an unknown sewer dwelling with a masked man she's never seen before; no, she's only curious (and cute. and precocious. and adorable). To make sure there's no chance of her having reasonable psychological reactions that might interfere with the bonding process, she's also amnesiac and has no idea what happened to her, so she can get right on deciding that she wants to stay and live with Erik forever and ever. His world is ROCKED, y'all. He has never known such bliss and acceptance! We're all going to need regular insulin shots to make it through the rest of this mess.

 

Hilariously, Erik enters a towering rage when the girl dares give him commands, but then immediately gets over it because they are like kindred souls! This is basically the template for all their future interactions.

 

Chapter 10

 

Oh, look, there's Raoul! He's not part of this book's plot in any way, but Whitehead doesn't let that get in the way of her desire to bring him in just to demonize him a little bit by revealing that he's "putting a price" on Erik's head because he's a bad bad man. Is that... can he do that? Raoul isn't on the police force. And even if he's offering a private reward for Erik's capture, can you blame him after all the kidnapping and threatening and shooting and strangling? I feel like he has some legitimate reasons to be insecure about that dude being out there somewhere.

 

Oh, and in case it wasn't obvious, Raoul and Christine appear to have stayed in Paris and gotten married instead of eloping to the north. There seem to have been no class friction problems with this, but that might just be because we don't see much of them; Christine does not appear in this novel at all except in flashbacks and wet dreams for sexinating purposes.

 

Time to play the name game! Andre and Firmin - hey, there, Lloyd Webber influence (probably piped like most of the rest through the Schumacher/Butler film)! Oh, and Madame Giry's first name is Antoinette - looks like Forsyth gets to play some more, too.

 

Madame Giry, getting into the spirit of things, makes no more behavioral sense than anyone else. She turns up with all the things Erik asked her to get and explains that she won't abandon him "at this stage of their relationship." What... does that mean? More importantly, why not, after he killed a bunch of people, burned down her place of employment, and then turned up months later making demands? Even if this is Lloyd Webber’s Giry, she voluntarily gave his hiding place up to Raoul and the mob in the end; is she seriously doing an about-face now? I hope you're wearing a wire and that Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth are in a van around the corner, Giry.

 

Somehow, despite being a super genius, Erik still doesn't realize that this girl in his sewer cave has amnesia long after it has become blindingly obvious to me as the reader. Also, it "never occurred to him" that she would need to relieve herself? Is he a robot? More pressingly, she was unconscious for three days - she almost certainly already did, and you'd think having to deal with that would have made him realize she was going to need to find somewhere to do her business.

 

This kid talks much, much too fancily for a street urchin. Especially a six- to eight-year-old one.

 

Chapter 11

The constant tantrums from Erik about how much the kid annoys him are in turn annoying for the reader. I know she's irritating. She's a six-year-old! If you don't want her here, maybe you could try, I don't know, finding her parents! Also annoying is the continual revolving door of Erik suddenly realizing that her feisty and annoying self is really just revealing her excellent strength of spirit and he loves it.

 

Smiles tug at Erik's mouth constantly. The phrase is so overused that I am concerned that he's going to lose a lip.

 

Chapter 12

 

This chapter exists for the sole purpose of making sure we all still hate Raoul. Apparently he is personally traipsing all over Paris' underbelly, in the middle of the night, alone, checking sewer entrances to see if the Phantom is there, usually while giggling maniacally to himself about how he wants Erik dead for good. Not only is this characterization super fucking weird, but apparently Raoul is the world's most active bad decision-maker. I wonder how many times he's gotten mugged.

 

In a better book, you might read this and suspect that Raoul is pretty severely traumatized from nearly being killed while trying to rescue his fiancée from a man who murdered several other people and tried to force her to marry him. If Leroux’s novel is in play, he was nearly tortured to death, and even if it isn’t, he definitely survived a harrowing ordeal. Obsessively looking for danger out of a need to protect himself and his wife from the man who nearly killed them wouldn’t be an unreasonable psychological response from someone who primarily found out about that guy after realizing he was starring in a horror movie in which the killer was in the walls.

 

But Whitehead is having none of that, so instead, Raoul is the kind of villain who rubs his hands together with glee and giggles aloud to his minions about conquering the My Little Ponies.

 

Chapter 13

 

See, I'd be fine with all this moral jackassery and waffling and inconsistent standards adherence if this were a different novel. I'd be down with it if Erik were mentally ill and we discussed how that affects him, or we were in a different society, or even still doing Leroux's Erik who considered himself exempt from humanity's rules. But the problem here is that Erik is very obviously meant to be a reliable narrator, not an unreliable one; his choices are meant to be seen as correct, his feelings as validated and his behavior as acceptable. Since most of his shenanigans are none of the above, I just end up hating him for exactly the same reasons I'm supposed to like him as a protagonist, and that makes this enormous monster of a novel incredibly choresome.

 

To reinforce it, Erik sits around and thinks nasty thoughts about Raoul, mostly name-calling in the vein of "popinjay", "puppy", "arrogant" and "pampered". Considering that this Erik is not that much older than Raoul (especially if she's using movie ages; Patrick Wilson is only three or four years younger than Gerard Butler) and has such a supreme level of arrogance that I can't measure it in the written word, at least half of that is just bullshit, and I'm tired of listening to Erik whine about rich people and how they have more stuff than he does. Cry me a river, filthy-rich extortionist of the opera house. (You can see authors like Whitehead grasping that classism is A Problem in the story, but then… then they write this instead of engaging with it.)

 

While searching, Raoul talks to himself, both to ensure that we, the audience, think he's dangerous and to make sure he never succeeds in finding hiding people, I guess. Not only is he nastily possessive ("She belongs to me now!") in a way that Leroux's Raoul seldom approached and Lloyd Webber's Raoul resembled even less, but he also occasionally lets out "a girlish giggle". Wow. Equation of femininity with ineffectuality and mental illness along with implied scorn for those suffering from trauma on top of the normal baseless Raoul hatred. Excuse me while I go cue my Disabled Feminist Raoul Rage supercombo move.

 

Erik waits silently until Raoul leaves (he even walks arrogantly, folks! The narration told us!), having failed to find him, and disaster is averted for the moment. He even acknowledges in his internal monologue that he would probably do the same as Raoul is doing in an attempt to protect his family, but that doesn't "ease the power of his contempt". In fact, he decides that the best response here is a terrorist campaign in which he plans to start sending threatening notes to Raoul's home, stalking him and making him think he might attack at any moment. Thanks for making sure I still view you as the bigger asshole, Erik.

 

Chapter 14

 

Erik has now decided that he wants to keep the little girl forever and has no further problems with annoyance. Also, she's his new muse and music has once again awakened in his soul! Yay.

 

Aww, gee, Erik, I don't know why she's touching your stuff while you're out. Possibly because she's a six-year-old you left in your room for hours alone with no instructions or entertainment? I know you're not exactly well-versed in children and their behavior, but I feel like even you could have predicted that one.

 

What she's touching that is such a big deal is the monkey music box, again reminding us that we're in Lloyd Webber's universe in the specific iteration that is the Schumacher/Butler film. Erik actually takes a moment to remind us about the box waking Christine after the first night he brought her to his home as well as playing after she left, both obviously scenes straight from the film. Of course, Erik immediately yells at a six-year-old who doesn’t know any better, she immediately panics and drops the box which immediately breaks, and then Erik immediately breaks down in agony, seriously. And then there are hugs and everyone feels better. It's like watching the same Lifetime movie over and over in each chapter. The symbolism of the girl breaking the music box, which represents Christine and his past, is a little overt, but it's still… an effort, I guess.

 

Erik takes this opportunity afterward to meditate on how incredibly alike he and this little girl are and how he has smiled more in the last two days with her than in his entire previous life and the author would like you to feel touched. Then they curl up and go to sleep together and he vows to be the perfect father forever. My teeth are decaying just from being near this book when it is open.

 

At its base, there’s a nice idea here. Having Erik discover love that isn’t always romantic or sexual in nature is a path less well-trod in Phantom literature; so many adaptations and sequels are concerned with getting him a proper mate that they don’t consider that there are other kinds of love that can be equally transformative. Discovering familial or paternal love for someone else could be just as meaningful an experience for Erik as a romance, especially given his backstory as someone who was rejected by his own mother, and it could be a powerful way to let him engage with love without excusing his toxic attempts at romance.

 

But it doesn’t work here for a few reasons. One of them is because this is a sequel, so Erik presumably already felt the transformative power of love when he let Christine go; now we are apparently redeeming him all over again for some reason. Another is that neither he nor this child are getting any real characterization or depth, and the substituted series of Hallmark Moments just come off as saccharine and insincere rather than meaningful.

 

Chapter 15

 

Now, in a move that trumps all of the book's previous problems, Whitehead decides to entirely excise Erik's redemption and most of the point of Leroux's novel in favor of more pointless angst by having Erik explain that he didn't let Christine go for her own good or because she wanted him to, but rather because he had decided that he didn't deserve her. Self-loathing is not the same as recognizing and embracing selflessness and this is not having the effect of making me feel sorry for Erik and want him to be loved. It's making me want to kick him in the nuts. Of all the ways to prevent Erik from achieving his redemption at the end of his story, this has to be one of the most irritating. One assumes that if he did think he was worthy of her, it would have been completely fine for him to keep Christine locked up in his home forever after murdering her fiancé to free her up.

 

In case I didn't yet think he was a selfish ass (I do, though), Erik chooses this moment to make a unilateral decision, with no situational knowledge whatsoever, that the girl's family has "forfeited their rights to her" by failing to protect her. Oh, good, that's going to get me in his corner. It's not as if she might have been kidnapped, or they might have been injured trying to help her, or they might be out right now desperately combing the streets for her with no chance whatsoever of finding your underground dungeon, or there might have been any other kind of extenuating circumstances. No. Fuck 'em. She belongs to him now. YOU'RE SO CHARMING, ERIK.

 

He’s gone ahead and just given her a name now: Celeste, intended, no doubt, to hammer home how delightfully heavenly she is. When do we get to the part where he discovers she has superlative musical talents? I feel like that must be coming any time now.

 

Chapter 16

 

Upon having the situation explained to her, Madame Giry (a mother herself and also someone who once adopted an orphan in trouble) has a sensible reaction and wants to look for the girl's family. Erik responds by hissing and spitting and reiterating all his selfish asshole desires until she backs down.

 

Possibly realizing that Giry's ardent loyalty makes no contextual sense, Whitehead tries to throw us a bone here by alluding to the fact that Erik apparently once saved Meg from a rapist. Since we don't see the scene and that still doesn't convince me that she wants to help this jerk of a kidnapper/murderer/arsonist, it doesn't really work as intended.

 

Chapter 17

 

The cheese has become so deep by page 81 (YES. WE ARE ONLY AT PAGE 81. WHERE ARE THE RUSSIANS? I WAS PROMISED RUSSIANS) that it now requires thigh-high galoshes to navigate. Witness an example:

 

"'But you can sleep in your bed now. I'm better. I can sleep on the floor.' Her offer touched me in ways I could not fully explain.

'No, I want you to use the bed. You need to rest well in order to heal quickly. I can make another.'

'Erik?'

'Yes.'

'Do you have a family?'

'No,' I said, then hesitantly added, "well - I have you.' She smiled at my words. The act transformed her face.

'Then, it's okay? I can stay with you?' I could see the hope mirrored in her sparkling eyes.

'Of course you can. You will be my family, and I will be yours.' Her tiny arms flew around my neck in a spontaneous embrace. Laughter filled the chamber. Mine and hers mingled in the air, in perfect harmony. To my ears, the sound was that of a real family, enjoying each other's company. In my heart, I felt I had come home, at last."

 

This passage is a lovely example of all the things that are making me want to tear my hair out instead of finishing this book. The wooden, uninteresting dialogue, the treacly, maudlin emotional descriptions, the useless under-description that actually doesn’t tell the reader anything about what’s happening, the just-this-side of failed writing skill... there are eighty-two chapters of this and this is exactly what "character development" looks like in all of them. It's like being in Sartre's waiting room with these people.

 

Even when Celeste herself asks about her family, Erik outright refuses to entertain the idea that someone might be looking for her; why, anyone who would let her be beaten in an alley is clearly not a fit parent, right? Most likely they dumped her out the side of their carriage on the way to tea and cookies or something, the louses. While I get that, from a psychological angle, Erik needs to believe this to cling to his "fellow outcast" idea, it's still literally him deciding that if he can’t have his biological family, she can’t either. He is doing this to a lost six-year-old.

 

Oh, yes, please reiterate phrases like "they have relinquished all claims to her" a few more times, asshole. Just to spike my blood pressure. Are you aware that she is a human being and part of some family you have never met and know nothing about, not a puppy someone abandoned in your yard?

 

In case I wasn't yet disgusted enough, Whitehead also demonstrates an appalling lack of knowledge about how amnesia generally works, which is a problem when one of the main characters is amnesiac. For fuck's sake, she can remember whether or not she knows how to read - she didn't forget if she knows how to speak French or talk or that she needs a private place to relieve herself, did she? She was JUST NOW peering over his shoulder while he was making lists! It's not as if you could even claim she hasn't seen letters lately!

 

She can, of course, read, because she is the most accomplished alley sparrow in the world.

 

Chapter 18

 

Erik gets mightily misty-eyed here when Celeste makes him dinner (she can cook, too? This is the most epic six-to-eight-year-old foundling ever). I am unconvinced by his histrionic cries that no one had ever prepared food for him before. What? Never? What about the people who I have to assume fed you at some point in your childhood since you're obviously not dead? What about Madame Giry, after she rescued you? Did they just tip live crickets into your cage or something?

 

Much like smiles tugging at mouths, tears sting eyes extremely frequently in this book, pretty much whenever anything even remotely positive happens to Erik. For a more entertaining visual, imagine them as angry, translucent hornets.

 

In order to kick off his campaign to be the best parent ever, Erik has a heartwarming conversation with Celeste in which he explains how he kills and injures people. Celeste continues to irritate me by declaring that obviously they must all be bad people, so that's okay. Oh, good, and here I was worried there would be some moral issues in this book that weren't being conveniently handwaved away!

 

(This is not Celeste’s fault, obviously. She’s six, or some other nearby age, and probably strongly trauma-bonded to this guy as her rescuer. It makes sense that she would believe him when he says he only kills people it’s okay to kill, not only because she wants to think well of him but because she can’t afford to think of the one rock in her life as dangerous to her. Erik still sucks.)

 

Chapter 19

 

The nonsense amps up a notch here when some poor schmuck on the street makes the mistake of asking Erik for the time and the Phantom flips out, throws him up against a wall, and screams threats into his face until he flees in fear. Not that it would matter much, but the guy wasn’t up to no good or anything; he was waiting for a lady friend who will now presumably have to find her way home alone in the dark with no idea what happened. I appreciate that Erik's paranoia about being followed and caught sometimes makes him wildly overreact but revealing himself so forcefully to some guy who wasn't even being threatening seems counterproductive to the safety Whitehead swears is his first concern. In order to keep up the level of assholishness that we have become accustomed to out of him, Erik then indulges in a hearty chuckle over the hilarity of the stupid plebe terrified by his supernatural and superlative might. Oh ho ho ho ho! I really wish you'd put some pants on over that elitist ass you've got there, Erik.

 

Naturally, the sound of Erik’s haunting music later causes Celeste to suddenly remember all the details of her trauma, though still not anything before or after since Whitehead is not demonstrating an amazing grasp of the general behavior of amnesia victims. This mostly happens in order to provide Erik with the opportunity for angry plot advancement, culminating in a dismally boring paragraph about how he plans to capture and torture the shit out of the guy who abused her. Luckily, after having a good cry about it Celeste is never bothered by lingering mental or social issues from her horrific rape/near-death beating again! Yay for convenient non-realism! This would have been a good opportunity for Erik to have to actually grow some compassion to deal with her problems, but since she doesn't have any it's a non-issue.

 

And where are the Russians? I ONLY CAME TO THIS PARTY FOR THE RUSSIANS.

 

Chapter 20

 

After living with her for weeks and observing her continual bathing, ability to speak perfectly, and the fact that she can read at age eight, Erik is starting to think Celeste might be of noble birth. My god, the gendarmerie had better snatch him up before Scotland Yard poaches him for England.

 

Celeste's memories are slowly trickling back in, including a vague idea that her parents may have died in a fire so she might be an orphan. The vast majority of the chapter is devoted to Erik's desperate desire for her not to recover any more memories in case some of them contain family members she wants to go back to. I am bowled over by how deeply he must have her best interests at heart.

 

Chapter 21

 

In a random surprise flashback, Celeste finally remembers that she is a bastard; her real father is her abuser, who kidnapped her after showing up one day, killing both her parents, and setting their house on fire. One assumes he planned to pimp her out, judging from his generally Not a Nice Person vibe. One also assumes he must have a spell of invisibility to keep things like murdering the gentry and setting them ablaze from being noticed by, say, law enforcement.

 

Hilariously, when he's talking to uncouth people on the street, they call Erik "governor". Not only is spelling it out instead of using the more usual "guv'nor" or "guvnor" pretty ticklish on its own, but these are French people and that particular idiom is as British as they come.

 

Chapter 22

 

Now that he has heard her sob story Erik loves Celeste totally and completely! It is new and pure and strong and not at all difficult and also much stronger than anything he ever felt for that trashy jerkface Christine!

 

While I get that keeping a violin in tune when you live in a sewer is probably challenging, I don't get why Erik's making such a big deal out of it, as if it just happened. He's always lived in a dank underground cave, if we believe the 2004 film (and it seems ridiculous not to at this point). It's not like it would have been easier to tune under the opera house than here.

 

Apparently, Celeste's eyes "close in absolute rapture" with every normal note Erik happens to play while tuning. You'd better not actually play any actual music, Erik. She might have a seizure. It is nice to see Whitehead make Erik a violinist, though; that becomes rarer and rarer as time goes by, especially in works based on the 2004 film rather than Leroux's novel or its more closely-related progeny.

 

Continuing to demonstrate that he doesn't know a music note from a boot, Erik then plays a "Chopin string concerto", which is an amazing feat considering that Chopin wrote only two concerti in his entire life and both were for piano. Historical research: you must do it when using historical references, even in the field of music you think your readers won't look up.

 

As I am sure will surprise no one, Celeste is an epic, undiscovered musical genius of untrammeled talent and ability, because when it comes to Phantom children, not only must they be magically musically delicious (even if they aren't actually genetically related to him in any way), they are not allowed to have other interests that they might prefer. Imagine the horror if a Phantom-baby turned out to have a passion for carpentry or lawyering or something. For those of you still resisting how hilariously silly this is, Erik drives it home by telling us that he "had never before known the kind of peace that exploded from within [his] soul at the thought of sharing the mysteries of music with her." I can't even retype it with a straight face. EXPLODING PEACE!

 

Chapter 23

 

Jesus on a fucking trampoline, Whitehead. Do we really need meticulous description of every bit of the minutiae of house-cleaning and dinner-eating that these two do together? Entire chapters of pointless description could have been excised from this book and made it both more tight and entertaining and also less infernally long. Once chores pall, we then get to sit through an extended basic violin lesson, in which we endure SIX PAGES of basic music theory interspersed with Erik's constant exclamations of "my god, she's a prodigy!" even though she's not doing anything more special than learning to differentiate one clef from another.

 

In fact, a lot of shit Erik is impressed by is completely random and unimpressive. Oh, she didn't ask about why the treble clef starts at C instead of A? SHE MUST BE A GENIUS. Students who don't ask you questions are not necessarily genius students; sometimes they're lost, confused, timid, or not listening students. Failing to ask questions in a learning setting is not admirable; it's worrisome. And having no prior knowledge of music is not what's keeping her from making assumptions; most people ask those questions based on prior knowledge of the alphabet. Of course, Celeste could never be afflicted by even the slightest difficulty in grasping something because she is a Pure and Perfect Angel of Musicality, so the only possible explanation is that she's a genius.

 

Erik's rapturous monologues about how he "had never known anyone who seemed to love music" as much as himself are also tiresome and annoying. This man lived in an opera house for years. NO ONE? EVERY PERSON IN THAT BUILDING WAS THERE OUT OF CRASS COMMERCIALISM? What about Christine? Entitled self-importance much?

 

Erik "expected [his] lips to be sore from all the smiles she had drawn from [him] lately". Are we being serious or am I caught in some kind of cruel prose joke?

 

Chapter 24

 

On page 131, Erik manages to make observing some happy patrons at a bar into an Olympic Elitism Decathlon:

 

"It was crowded, the patrons spilling onto the street in their merriment. I couldn't suppress a smirk at their ability to drink away their lives in reckless abandon with no thought to their future or livelihood. Leisure was their only occupation, and they did that quite well."

 

Yeah. I'm sure none of those people you have never met have any ability to run their own lives or any ambitions, dreams, or skills beyond getting shitfaced. We should probably all scorn them.

 

Somehow, out of all the people in Paris, Celeste's abusive father happens to be the one who wanders past Erik at this very moment. How convenient!

 

Chapter 25

 

Now, Erik is not one hundred percent sure it was Celeste's dad since it's dark and they just walked past one another and he only saw him that one time in an alley while he was running away, but his doubts all disappear after he sees the man cuff a street urchin. I am not condoning violence here, but that is kind of something that is not uncommon in this place and time period, Erik. But, alas, he knows sourceless and pointless Villain Violence when he sees it, and we readers can only shuffle along behind him, dull-eyed with the loss of all our hopes for this piece of literature. Of course, the guy escapes because it's not even close to the end of the book yet (sob), which prompts Erik to begin literally punching the walls of an alley in rage.

 

The man, by the way, threatens to "fray" a young boy alive when he catches him; I'm not sure what fraying is when applies to children instead of ropes or tempers, but one must assume that it is unpleasant. I was momentarily worried that he was going to turn out to be Chinese and the victim of horribly racist accent stereotyping, but it turns out that he is just a dirty French person and that the mystery of the fraying may never be solved.

 

Erik takes a moment to have a tantrum in which he rages about how this man "lives only to inflict pain on those weaker than himself." The irony of his response after just looking down on the people who live only to have a good time appears to be lost on him. Of course, he is entirely right about our friend the villain, because as a flatly evil and pointlessly malicious character with no background or justification whatsoever, of course he's an evil flatworm without redeeming qualities. Making him complex or layered would kill the magic.

 

At this point, the Russians finally make their entrance! Erik breaks into a group of Russian immigrants' basement during an attempt to tunnel into Madame Giry's basement so he can have clandestine meetings with her (sadly, this sounds much funnier distilled into one sentence than it actually is). Luckily, because he is a ninja of the highest order, nobody notices except the family's youngest son, who panics and believes the sounds must be supernatural in nature. I note that Erik doesn't care in the slightest about the frightened boy's mother dragging him off none too gently; apparently moral outrage over the abuse of children extends only until it is inconvenient for him to be discovered by said sproutlings.

 

Chapter 26

 

Erik's commitment to incredibly bad decisions is astounding. In this chapter, he insists once again that he needs proxies even to speak to Madame Giry for fear of being found by the police still looking for him, but he thinks nothing of returning to the opera house and roaming around it at will. Of course it's derelict because he burned it down (remember, we're working from Schumacher's film), but I still feel like the scene of the crime is a poor choice when trying to avoid law enforcement.

 

After two pages of terminally boring description of the opera house and another of Erik reminiscing about his childhood there, he goes off to check the "secret pantry", which is apparently just below the regular pantry and filled with all the goodies you could ever want. While this is a valid historical convention - people often hid their most expensive or precious foods away where sticky-fingered kitchen workers couldn't find them - the fact that he is able to draw a seemingly endless supply of delights from it is not. Mere paragraphs ago he was describing how looters have stripped the place of most of its valuable items; are you telling me nobody looked in the secret pantry, where the most rare and expensive shit was being kept? Erik himself said it was the building's staff's hiding place, not a private one he built himself, so the people who worked in the kitchen would have easily been able to come liberate all the goodies long before now. And if they didn't, it's probably because they might be, you know, ashen or smoke-damaged from the ENORMOUS FIRE.

 

But apparently none of that applies, so off Erik goes with his chocolates and canned milk.

 

Chapter 27

 

On page 147:

"Having Celeste in my life was something I had never dreamed of, and even if I had dared to dream of having a daughter, I could not have dreamt her. She was a child, yet she was curiously mature. Innocent, yet wise. Brave and independent, yet in need of so much. The turn my world had taken had placed those needs firmly in the forefront of my mind. I found that it was not only necessary that I provide for her, but I wanted to do so. Wanted it in the core of my soul. Wanted it as I had never wanted anything in my life."

 

Gag me, please. It's not that I don't appreciate Erik finding something positive to do instead of being a creeper who delights in looking down his nose at every possible class of humanity, but this is about the umpteenth time he's paused the narrative to wax rhapsodic about Celeste's numerous and uniformly perfect qualities, and I'm so tired of him I can barely focus on the page anymore. The only thing saving the whole mess from being so boring that I pass out and roll down the stairs is the fact that the infallible, inscrutable, divine Celeste is giving me an ulcer with her obnoxiously syrupy perfection.

 

The rest of this chapter is just a massive angstfest of whining over the mask from both Erik, who refuses to remove it, and Celeste, who demands he do so. When she finally browbeats him into it with her eight-year-old diplomacy skills, the scene of course culminates in her miraculous ability to not give even the tiniest of shits about his deformity. Seriously, on an impressionable eight-year-old, something that was so hideous that it terrified grown adults is making no impression whatsoever? I know this is the seriously anemic deformity from the Schumacher/Butler movie, but still!

 

Chapter 28

 

I'm with you, Erik. Celeste being the only living human who doesn't care about your face is also beyond my comprehension. There isn't even a flicker of her having to adjust, work through it, or regain her equilibrium. Nope, nothing but smooth sailing here, folks.

 

I would probably have preferred we continue to dwell on that, though, in favor of the pages and pages of basic piano theory we are now embarking upon. Whitehead! I'm dying. Please, no more ham-handed discussion of clef shapes and black keys vs. white keys!

 

Celeste wants to know if Madame Giry is Erik's "lady friend". My, how utterly period and French the vernacular in this triumph is.

 

Chapter 29

 

Do you know, gentle readers, how many chapters are still left in this book? I will tell you: 54. That is the number of despair right there.

 

Are you guys still wondering what happened with the Russians? ME, TOO. Are they merely a clever ruse to get poor saps like me to read this book? WHO KNOWS? Whitehead does, and she is here to answer our questions by having Erik, still snooping periodically about in their basement, discover that it is filled with crates of gold bouillon, gunpowder, weapons, and "documents". Erik cannot read anything written on them enough to figure out what's going on here, which does not reflect well on all his talk of being super intelligent and well-read and worldly is not very impressive when he doesn't even recognize Cyrillic when he sees it.

Chapter 30

 

After careful consideration, Erik realizes that the gold bars probably belong to someone dangerous and to be feared... and then goes right on ahead and still decides to put his tunnel through this person's basement full of valuables. I have no idea what happened to his insistence on safety first, but apparently it is a very selective philosophy that does not include impeding any things he actually wants to do.

 

After questioning Madame Giry, he learns that the family above are the Maklakovs. At first, I thought Whitehead must definitely be talking about Vasily Maklakov, a notable Russian revolutionary and Freemason. He was a student visiting Paris at around this time, so it's not too far-fetched. This might have just gotten interesting. Alas, it seems more likely after closer inspection that they are probably related to Vasily's brother Nikolai, a monarchist who served as Interior Minister to the imperial government, so no Freemasonry, but it’s still going to a cool historical place. Let’s see some more of that!

 

But no, we’re stuck with the basement-dwelling family unit instead. Erik muses, as Celeste commences hugging him for what feels like the millionth time, that physical touch is an "affirmation of [his] membership in the human race". Yes! It is! That's why you DON'T GET ANY. Every time this book turns around, it leaves one of Leroux's themes dying a gruesome death in a corner.

 

Chapter 31

 

Oh, look. An orphaned, conveniently-placed kitten has appeared next to the grate leading to Erik's home! He immediately knows, "without the thought even forming" (what?), that he will adopt it. Authors: stop using cute baby animals in order to try to sidestep having to actually sympathize and round out your characters' softer sides. Not only does it not work, it's insulting to the reader, and, in this case, only adding to the overwhelmingly treacly boredom.

 

Oh, look. Apparently Celeste is the kind of precious pudding pop who has serious conversations with animals to show you what a precocious and imaginative mind she has. I’m sure that won’t get old.

 

Oh, look. They name the cat G**sy. It was very important that we get a racial slur in here as a callback to the original novel.

 

Chapter 32

 

...they're now working on the "base clef". I need someone to hold me.

 

Celeste's magical musical talent tour continues apace. Apparently studying musical theory makes you immediately able to find all the fingering for each perfect note on the violin the first time you touch it, through the power of enchanted sympathetic connection! No wonder music students the world over have to struggle, what with their bastard teachers making them learn both things at once.

 

Celeste is so amazing and prodigious and wondrous that she can recreate any music she's ever heard! Tonight! The first time she's ever played! Flawlessly and with more beauty than Erik himself!

 

I want to go home now.

 

Chapter 33

 

You know, for once in these stories, I'd like to see Erik turn up with a kid who wasn't the second coming of Mozart. Sometimes children just don't do the same things as their parents. I think it would be refreshing.

 

Despite the consistent correct use of acute accents elsewhere in the text, Whitehead consistently and unmistakeably confuses the word "protegé" for "prodigy", leading to Erik frequently exulting in what a "musical protegé" Celeste is. "One piece is not sufficient to label her a protege." I mean, I guess that’s probably true, but… 

 

In case you were not yet impressed enough, Celeste also composes the most perfect and beauteous music in the entire world, entirely on instinct with no training or idea what she's doing. Will her wonders never cease? How can we mere mortals ever hope to measure up to such monumental perfection, all achieved by the age of eight? I think I might still have been eating crayons at eight.

 

For a change of pace, we will now embark upon a metaphor involving the cat with the slur for a name (why is this a thing I have to write about in multiple places? Was Lovecraft not enough?) being able to become a mighty feline hunter without having to kill that is so heavy-handed that it makes the reader fee the need for psychological protection. Erik is enchanted by it and actually thinks the line, "Such truth."

 

And in our next installment on Convenient Coincidences Theatre, it is revealed that Erik once saved the life of the Chief Inspector of the Parisian police! The guy owes him a favor and is totally not going to be mean about that whole murder and arson thing! “Erik is actually basically the same character as Batman” is a very weird trend I’ve been noticing in a lot of modern adaptations.

 

Chapter 34

 

Erik, seeking new ways to be an asshole to the class he ostensibly identifies with in favor of the aristocracy, takes a new direction and starts talking about how he has no desire for "the type of companionship bought on the streets". Yes, yet another book is turning to whorephobia in the hopes of making Erik look important and fancy and refined, not like those sex workers. Sex work wasn’t uncommon in Paris at the time and while it certainly wasn’t considered prestigious, it wasn’t something only done by evil disgusting people in dank alleys, which is how it’s presented here. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with anything except for the fact that Whitehead finds the idea of her perfect special protagonist ever sleeping with a sex worker icky, which is a shame, not only because of how gross it is to treat sex workers this way in the narrative but also because sex work as a temporary solution to the Phantom's isolation is an idea that can be done beautifully (and has been, in the 1989 Little/Englund film, in fact).

 

Oh, dear. The high-ranking police official Erik has in his pocket appears to be named Inspector Henri Gaston. I can't decide if I'm tickled that Whitehead included the old man in a novel so far removed from his story or concerned that he's been dragged into this whole messy business.

 

Chapter 35

 

We're FINALLY finding out more about the local Russians! Apparently they're expatriates hiding out in Paris while plotting to "retake the Kremlin". I have several questions about this, the most pressing being: retake it from whom? Alexander III is still in power at this point. The Kremlin will remain an imperial palace until the revolution in 1917. That would seem to suggest that these are revolutionaries and make it more likely that this is Vasily Maklakov’s house instead of his monarchist brother’s… but they can’t retake the Kremlin when they’ve never had it yet. What am I looking at? Is this a secret society cell of Ruriks?

 

I'm pretty sure that Whitehead does not actually have much idea what is going on politically with the Russians, since they exist to buttress Erik's story and do not appear to actually have anything to do with history themselves. So if, like me, you only got on this train for the Russians... I'm sorry. Things are not looking good.

 

But back to the plot. Of course, the Chief Inspector of the Parisian police will do everything in his power to aid Erik and prevent any of his own police force from successfully investigating him. I mean, why wouldn't he, right? I see no problems whatsoever with this plot device.

 

At this point, Erik realizes that the gold bars in the basement are stamped with the seal of the Tsar, which means that they are in all likelihood stolen from the Russian government (so these are revolutionaries?!). Despite this and all the other warning signs he keeps meditating on, he still can't leave the situation alone, because that would be the prudent thing to do and this Erik has demonstrated that if there is any quality he does not possess, it's prudence.

 

Chapter 36

 

Erik and Madame Giry constantly use one anothers’ names, which would be fine since they grew up together somewhat, except that they’ve been using each others’ surnames most of the first half of the book in a formal way and the shift is never explained. Sigh.

 

"What [Celeste] is, however, without question, is a protegé, a musical genius." God, that never gets less funny.

 

Upon learning that Raoul and Christine are now married, Erik expresses some surprise that Raoul actually went through with it, which is reasonable given the wide social divide between the lovers' classes. It's even more surprising that the two of them are still in Paris where someone tried to kill and kidnap them and everyone is probably treating them with a pretty hefty amount of social stigma, but nobody likes Leroux's ending, apparently. Elegant codas that make sense with the story are for losers.

 

No one missed Erik crying about how Christine doesn’t love him, but here’s some more anyway.

 

Chapter 37

 

And now, ladies and gentlemen, Erik unveils his master plan: to steal all the Russian gold and use it to buy a country house to live in with Celeste and the Girys. We're meant to feel that this is very noble and chivalrous, mostly through irritating narrator assertions that the Russians are clearly bad people - sometimes people die on their street, and Giry suspects it's them doing it even though she has no proof whatsoever! Yeah, Paris in the nineteenth century could never be xenophobic enough to just blame the immigrants regardless of whether or not they did anything wrong. He should probably steal their gold. Only bad people would have moral qualms about giving it to such a wonderful and deserving person as Erik.

 

My new plan for the rest of the book is to wait breathlessly for the moment that this goes horribly wrong and the Russians do something creatively awful to Erik for his attempted theft, possibly involving a guided cradle.

 

Chapter 38

 

Since being an outcast from humanity is hard to maintain, Whitehead gives up here and has Erik permanently hire a carriage-driver to follow him around and help him with all his illicit errands. His need to have a convenient getaway carriage apparently completely overcomes his need not to get caught by the police or to interact with the rest of society. I think the most disillusioning thing about Whitehead's Erik is that he's not an outcast from society; he never has been except by choice and has no difficulty interacting with others when he chooses, not to mention fully judging every person he comes across in extremely harsh and bounded-by-society terms. He's not an outcast; he's just a misanthrope, and Whitehead's attempts to make him lovable and better than the rest of the human race just highlight what an awful shit he is.

 

In the rest of this chapter, Erik brings Celeste some new clothes, she tries them on and is obnoxiously precious and adorable, he is proud and full of joy, and we all wish we were reading a cereal box instead.

Chapter 39

 

Erik is now so committed to his larcenous plan that he has decided to either succeed or die! There is no middle ground! If he tries and fails, he will just kill himself out of shame rather than be a failure! Oh, the drama!

 

Whitehead takes a couple of paragraphs here to tease us about Erik's real name, which he briefly considers using, decides against, and never actually reveals to the reader. I thought maybe it would come up later in the plot, but since it didn't it's just the author being coy. Unfortunately, this book is not nearly enjoyable enough to pull that off.

 

In order to reinvent themselves as legit wealthy people, Erik concocts a plan to pass himself off as a wealthy man from Canada, moving to France after making a fortune in the gold rushes on the other side of the Atlantic (a little early for that in Canada, but I'm willing to fudge it if you are). Of course, much of this presupposes that no one in France will notice that he is speaking French instead of Quebecois, but who cares about details? Erik eventually decides that his alter ego will be a rail baron, though unfortunately he chooses to do so in the middle of an enormous information-dump history lesson on Canada's nineteenth-century doings, all ostensibly drawn by Erik from a convenient newspaper article.

 

After officially deciding his new surname will be Jammeson (a new one in the annals of Phantom fiction!), Erik has an uncomfortable talk with Celeste about her past, in which he learns that she was abducted from her real parents and that her abusive biological father apparently has a stable of street urchin children that he makes steal for him like some sort of sinister Fagin (well, more sinister, anyway). Yes, you may remember that we already learned about her being abducted from her real parents, but apparently Erik has a short-term memory problem.

 

Chapter 40

 

Y’all, we made it… about halfway to the end. Whitehead celebrates by, completely randomly and out of the blue, informing us that Erik is friends with some guy named Dobbins who can conveniently create all the paperwork necessary for him to become a real member of society. Our bro here is the most well-connected outcast from humanity I have ever heard of.

 

Now that Erik knows that Celeste’s evil father is in charge of many of Paris' street urchins, he... still uses street urchins to run all his errands, because fuck logic. When it occurs to him to ask Phillip, the ringleader of the small band of boys he usually uses to run his errands, he learns that the boy is coincidentally also an abused child of the same man who ran away to live on the street on his own and therefore Celeste’s brother. I smell a double adoption coming on, guys.

 

Also, Whitehead never addresses Erik’s murder of Philippe in the previous book, if she happens to even have considered it part of her canon as opposed to deleting it in favor of Lloyd Webber’s. Which makes her move to give his name to one of Erik’s new adopted children while demonizing Raoul even more brassy.

Chapter 41

 

According to Phillip, the villainous man moved into his house when he was a child and beat his mother to death before Phillip ran away. Apparently the guy went through a phase wherein he went to the houses of all the women he had ever slept with and demanded to stay with them due to being the father of their children. One assumes that he now lives on the street with all of said children because he has run out of women to beat to death. Have I mentioned how multi-layered and interesting this villain is?

 

Hilariously, when Erik allows Phillip to see his mask, the poor street sparrow instantly recognizes him as the Phantom of the Opera, despite the fact that he has almost certainly never even been inside the opera house, let alone being up on the scandals of the operatic world. Erik is inexplicably famous to all Parisians in this book.

 

Now Phillip is going to go live with Erik, too, and meet his little sister and everything's going to be awesome! At this point, I actually like Phillip much better as a character than Erik at this point. With his uncompromising desire to kill his father and his self-loathing over his past cowardice and failure to save his mother (spiced with pity because he was in no shape and much too young to do anything about it), he's already a much more interesting and layered person than our hero has turned out to be.

 

Chapter 42

 

"'I know and I'm not forgetting the things you told me you've done or the things I've heard of you doing. I'm not sure which if any are true and I don't care. Some say the nobleman only made up the tale to hide the fact that he could not keep the singer in his own bed.'

[Erik] had to chuckle at that. Perhaps there was some justice in life after all."

 

Right, because after kidnapping the woman and nearly killing her lover because you are a self-centered asshole, it's only just that people should make fun of them afterward and imply that you were the one who was right all along. You can go straight to hell, Erik. I am so done with this version of you.

 

What you folks may not realize is that some of these chapters are only two or three pages long, but they still seem to go on forever because nothing whatsoever is happening in them.

 

Chapter 43

 

Erik, when asking Madame Giry if she and Meg want to move to the seaside with him and his foundling children, persists in saying she would be the mistress of the house and then blushing like a moron and hastening to assure her that it would be "in name only". I almost let it pass the first time, but after it happened again I threw my hands up in the air. Dude! That's not what "mistress of the house" means! It doesn't have anything to do with banging you! It just means she's the head of staff! For god's sake, you live in the nineteenth century! You know this!

 

Of course, the Girys go along with this bizarre scheme to leave Paris and live in the middle of nowhere with him, despite having their own residence, jobs, friends, and a healthy awareness of exactly how dangerous he is after he previously murdered their coworkers and burned down their place of employment. Why? Who knows? That is just the power of unexplained loyalty, y’all.

 

Chapter 44

 

Oh, look, an empty chapter full of pointless sentimental pap.

 

Chapter 45

 

Upon meeting Celeste for the first time, Phillip is so terrified that he "looks ready to pass out". Whitehead seems to think this is self-evident and requires no explanation, even though I have no idea what this scene is trying to do. Celeste eight, pretty, and apparently nice. He's used to living on the mean streets and dealing with hard-faced urchins, but he’s too scared of her to function. Goddamn Celeste and her magical powers.

 

Chapter 46

 

Erik plans to use the opera house's blacksmith shop to melt and recast the gold and get rid of that pesky Tsar stamp. For some reason it never occurs to him that the shop might be as destroyed as everything else he burned down, but since he lives in a world of magical positive coincidences, he is correct. More hilarious is his plan to use the plaster prop molds to make new objects... because pouring molten gold into plaster molds cannot possibly go wrong.

 

Whitehead takes an interesting approach in that her Erik is not actually particularly musically talented; he has worked on it and has a high degree of expertise, but he lacks true innate talent. While this doesn't quite jibe with his earlier superlative artistry, it is a valid interpretive avenue; I'm reminded of the 1989 Thomas/Gillis film, which took a similar tack. Of course, in this case it seems more like it's meant to make sure that nobody is competing with Celeste when it comes to music, but it's not the worst choice that could have been made.

 

Chapter 47

 

Are you tired yet, as readers? If you depart this review now, I will totally forgive you. I understand how much stamina it takes to read something this fucking long, especially when it has no redeeming value. Go with God.

 

In this chapter, Erik soliloquizes on how he has never felt sun on his skin IN HIS ENTIRE LIFE. The bullshit is so deep that, as a short person, I fear becoming lost in it.

 

While coming home from some illicit phase of his plan or other, a drunk stumbles out of a bar and into Erik, who feels compelled to rescue him instead of letting him fall to the street. I have no idea why he feels this way, nor do I have any idea why Whitehead seems to think I should totally admire him for doing so after he dumps him in a nearby alley (thus increasing his chances of being assaulted and/or robbed) and leaves while "sneering at his filthy bulk". Again, I assumed that this guy must figure later in the plot in order to justify this chapter's existence, but once again I was assuming too much; we will never hear of this again.

 

Apparently the message is “you should be kind and compassionate to strangers but like, you don’t have to think of them as people deserving dignity or anything”.

 

Chapter 48

 

Oh, look, nothing's happening.

 

Chapter 49

 

We are treated to yet another soliloquy about how Christine's betrayal ruined everything and he never thought he would love again until Celeste arrived like the magical fairydust angel she is. Snore.

 

Oh, look, Phillip is also totally cool with Erik's deformity without batting an eyelash. I don't even care anymore. I'm so fatigued that I can do nothing but conjure up mild nausea at Erik the Nanny.

 

Chapter 50

 

When writing letters from his Canadian self, Erik signs them "I remain, your servant, Erik Jammeson." I suppose I should not be surprised by now that we're sacrificing making sense in order to slavishly follow up on the Lloyd Webber/Schumacher dynamo.

 

Chapter 51

 

NOTHING IS HAPPENING.

Chapter 52

 

Naturally, Phillip instantly falls in love with Meg upon meeting her, because you can't have two children of different genders that don't fall in love. Who would want to read about that?

 

Chapter 53

 

This chapter is entirely made up of Erik's talking head telling us in minute detail how he plans to steal the Russian gold and use it to buy "furnishings and supplies". It is boredom unsurpassed.

 

Chapter 54

 

Oh, for fuck's sake, how long do I have to hear about this "subplot" involving Erik's socks going missing all the time? He's somehow decided that one of the kids must be hiding them, but it's never occurred to him that it might be the cat? ERIK. YOU HAVE A CAT. YOU ARE THE LEAST COMPETENT GENIUS EVER TO LIVE.

 

More incredibly boring preparation occurs here, along with the Chief Inspector continuing to completely fail in his duties.

 

Chapter 55

 

In this delightful chapter, Madame Giry apologizes to Erik and explains that she is ashamed because Meg is afraid of him and doesn't think moving in with him is a good idea (no worries, friends: she's going to do it anyway, she’s just complaining about it). Where is Meg? Can she have some face time? I feel like she might be the only person in this book that I'm going to like, due to the fact that she sounds marginally reasonable compared to everyone else.

 

Chapter 56

 

I'm so tired.

 

Chapter 57

 

Oh, good, we're taking Erik's carriage-driver Joseph to the seaside house with us, too, to become part of the loyal staff! God, Erik is so very meticulous about security and safety, isn't he?

 

I honestly don’t know if Whitehead is trying to do something with all these new cipher characters named after people Erik killed now loving him. I… I honestly can’t guess.

 

Chapter 58

 

Now Erik has decided to take the kids to a fair in broad daylight, despite the fact that he is heavily wanted by the authorities, they're both on the run from their abusive father and they're all supposed to be pretending to not arrive in Paris for another week. Phillip, still more reasonable and likeable than Erik, is the only person who sees anything wrong with this idea.

 

Chapter 59

 

Now we can sit around with Erik and watch him watch them go to a fair! "When [Phillip] handed the toy to her, her peals of laughter had spread across the grass and crashed directly into my heart." Call some paramedics, that sounds serious.

 

HOW CAN THERE BE THIS MANY CHAPTERS IN WHICH NOTHING WHATSOEVER HAPPENS? THEY GOT DINNER AND DROVE HOME. THAT WAS IT. WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS BOOK?

 

Chapter 60

 

Oh, y’all, the cat was the sock thief all along! Hilarious, yet heartwarming! Ho ho ho ho.

 

Chapter 61

 

Nothing is happening.

 

Chapter 62

 

STILL nothing is happening.

 

Chapter 63

 

ERIK SAYS IN EVERY CHAPTER THAT HE IS IMMINENTLY GOING TO GO STEAL THE RUSSIAN GOLD RIGHT NOW, BUT HE JUST CONTINUES DOING NOTHING. PLEASE. I DON'T CARE ABOUT MORALS ANYMORE. STEAL THEIR GOLD SO I CAN STOP READING.

 

Chapter 64

 

This chapter is dedicated to the important task of establishing that the cat, which has always been cool toward Erik, now likes him. I'M SO GLAD WE GOT THAT COMMUNICATED.

 

Chapter 65

 

Finally, FINALLY, Erik sneaks into the Russians' basement again and steals their gold. He even manages to do that boringly; he heard a sound once and froze, but it turned out to be nothing.

 

Chapter 66

 

In this chapter, Erik is very sore from moving all that heavy gold around, so he goes home and goes to bed.

 

This is the most awesome book ever.

 

Chapter 67

 

I can't even try to come up with full paragraphs for all the pointless chapters anymore. Please forgive me for one-line summaries. They are necessary at this point.

 

In this chapter, Phillip thinks Erik is overworking himself and is very concerned.

 

Chapter 68

 

Apparently the super-villain of the piece finally gets a name: Marcus Hawke, a violently British name for somebody so French. Erik's plan also involves murdering him, so he gets him to follow him into an alley by pretending to be selling a little girl. The majority of the chapter is devoted to annoyingly histrionic descriptions of how very disgusted Erik is by standing next to him, so much so that he can barely make his act convincing.

 

Chapter 69

 

At the least, I can say that the murder scene (FINALLY) is more lively and interesting. Whitehead sounds more engaged than she has in the past smear of millions of chapters, and the brief action is vibrantly described. Then, of course, things stop making sense; apparently the grubby peasant Hawke had a gun on him in defiance of monetary and social constraints of the time, so he shoots Erik as he dies and presumably takes the Phantom down with him.

 

Chapter 70

 

Alas, no such luck. Instead, everyone can enjoy a cliched chapter of Erik drifting in and out of consciousness while mysterious voices tend to his wounds. When he wakes up, Meg is there along with everyone else and has magically decided to be won over, because him turning up shot and collapsed on a corpse is apparently very confidence-inspiring.

 

Chapter 71

 

Convalescence happens at the speed of snail.

 

Chapter 72

 

Oh, look, Erik totally got away scot-free with his massive gold theft and everyone loves him forever. The Russians blamed Hawke's corpse, which they found near the scene (how? he had no gold on him and NO ONE EVEN KNOWS WHO KILLED HIM) and nothing bad could ever possibly happen again.

 

I suppose you can at least say for this book that it has a unique plot. No other author has previously found this exact way to sap all readers’ wills to live.

 

Chapter 73

 

Nothing is happening.

 

Chapter 74

 

WHY ISN'T IT OVER IF NOTHING IS HAPPENING?

 

Chapter 75

 

IT'S NOT EVEN FALLING ACTION, IT'S JUST A VAST, UNCARING LACK OF EVERYTHING.

 

Whitehead is not going to explain why Meg is suddenly cool with everything, so give up all hopes of this now. Oh, and also everyone, including the carriage-driver, the Girys, some doctors and the Chief Inspector, has seen Erik's face by now and no one cares in the slightest. Well, thank heavens, that’s so wonderful to know.

 

Chapter 76

 

They have bought a magically beautiful house on the sea that is conveniently cheap since the owner has recently died the most convenient and altruistic of deaths! Yay!

 

Chapter 77

 

AREN'T WE DONE YET?

 

Chapter 78

 

THE BOREDOM SAGA CONTINUES.

 

CHAPTER 79

 

If computers could transmit hopeless, pathetic, pale sobbing, you'd be hearing it right now.

 

Chapter 80

 

Phillip and the carriage-driver accomplish the entire move offscreen, just to make sure we don't accidentally see any interesting action on our way to the end of this book. It's important that we stick with the much more riveting scene of bedridden Erik.

 

Chapter 81

 

Everybody packs and gets on wagons to go to the new house.

 

Chapter 82

 

You thought this book was going to end with a whimper? So did I, but Whitehead has one last curve ball to throw at us, as though taunting us for persevering this far. Upon arriving and looking out at the lovely sunset, Madame Giry and Erik decide, out of nowhere, that they're getting married! She's always loved him, you see, which explains the ridiculous, nonsensical, and criminal lengths she's been going to for him! Luckily, he immediately loves her back despite never even thinking of the idea before! There are no weird overtones of incest or inappropriate relationships or ages despite the 2004 film's backstory being involved in which she is basically his surrogate mother/sister! TRUE LOVE!

 

AND IT’S FINALLY OVER.

 

This is actually the first time I've seen that officially happen, so kudos to Whitehead for setting a trend, I guess. I still have so many questions, though. What about Raoul? Apparently that had nothing to do with the plot. And what about the Russians? I'm so sorry, Team Bolshevik. I had such high hopes for you.

 

Now, if you'll excuse me, my loved ones don’t remember what I look like and I've just realized that I haven't eaten in three weeks. The long trek through the desert is over. I salute all of you for making it with me.

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers

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