Journey of the Mask (2002)
by Nancy Hill Pettengill
This is what I would call a questionable book. I had questions, and also I question the wisdom of reading it.
The back cover copy of this book claims that Leroux is its main source material; the full-face mask on the front, which resembles the one worn briefly in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, seems to bear this out. It's a nice idea, and I'm glad Leroux is mentioned, but the text itself is going to make it pretty clear that a liberal amount of the material is actually based on Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical.
This is a sequel, so it's unsurprising that Erik is revealed to have faked his death and placed a false ad in the paper in order to fool his acquaintances. It's very easy to recap too much when going over setup events from a previous story, but Pettengill handles it nicely, giving us a look into the Phantom's thought processes that explains without overdoing it. His psychology seems fairly similar to the original's and his motivations for the original novel's events are laid out as she sees them with minimal repetition.
An ongoing issue of the novel is introduced here when we discover that Erik has a heart condition (though, despite his ostensibly highly-educated genius, he doesn't seem to recognize it). I was curious as to whether this might indicate a little influence from Kay's novel, which featured a similar ailment, but later glimpses into Pettengill's version of Erik's backstory seem to disprove that theory.
In spite of the business with the newspaper and the corpse, the Phantom is pretty obviously based on Lloyd Webber's musical version. Pettengill works hard to make sure that the reader knows that the only unattractive part of Erik's body is his face, whereas his body is strong, firm, and various other positive adjectives. This is combined with a lot (and I do mean a lot) of inner monologue in which Erik discusses what a massive boner he always has for Christine, and the obvious setup of Sexy Virile Phantom is not so much a clue about where this book is going as a shotgun blast to the face.
Despite this novel's role as a sequel, Pettengill inserts an original scene into Leroux's (or Lloyd Webber's, or most likely a melange of both) story itself, moving Raoul's first glimpse of Erik from the graveyard at Perros-Guirec to an earlier encounter at Christine's father's cottage (apparently located in Paris). The scene has equal parts interesting choices and questionable ones; Christine's flustered and nervous demeanor is very understandable, since Erik's presence in her father's cottage is a blatant confirmation of the fact that the Phantom is separate from her father and his stories about angels. However, Pettengill's Raoul has gotten extremely feisty since Leroux's novel, initiating and holding his own in direct conversational confrontation and even an exchange of threats with Christine's shadowy stalker.
I can't quite get behind the revelation that Erik is severely claustrophobic, though. I can see that Pettengill is trying to set him up as having lasting psychological scars from childhood imprisonment, which I am on board with, but there just isn't enough explanation offered to convince me that this severe claustrophobe could voluntarily live in a dark underground and routinely move through catwalks, small passageways, and various other secret passages. His condition will mysteriously disappear now and not reappear for about twenty chapters, so it’s one of those mysterious and rare Plot Device claustrophobias.
While I haven't encountered a version that told the story from the Phantom's first-person point of view since the end of Kay's 1990 novel, I felt that Pettengill did a pretty admirable job of giving him a believable persona and conversational voice. There is more recapping going on here, too, but again it has just enough new material in it to keep me interested, despite a heavy-handed representation of Raoul as obnoxiously hysterical.
The manager of the opera house is a gentleman named Vaurien; this change from the original novel is not explained. He appears in only a handful of peripheral scenes, so the only thing I can think is that the author didn't feel like managing two characters instead of one.
A particularly snort-worthy line comes in here when Erik explains that he did sleep in a coffin for many years, but after meeting Christine had "judged that behavior a little too morbid even for [him]". Too morbid for Pettengill, rather; she has systematically removed all the elements of Erik's character that specifically tied him to the idea of death (the coffin and Erik's corpse-like body are the most obvious examples of elements that have been removed or softened). A large amount of the original Phantom's power to terrify the denizens of the opera house (and, of course, the reader) hinged on the fact that he was basically death personified, adding the horror of mortality to the already potent fear of the unknown. But Pettengill wants him to be the hero of her novel (the sexy hero of her novel!), so these ideas have been pretty much wholly excised in order to make the character more attractive and less spooky.
In the same vein, Pettengill never completely describes Erik's facial disfigurement, which is clearly full-face, suggesting influence from Leroux's novel, but has no other details to give us an idea of what makes him look so unacceptable. The best clues we'll get over the course of the novel are that he successfully passes it off as the result of an accident, making it unlikely to be Erik's death's-head and more likely to look as though it could have been caused by an injury, and that he has abnormally large, grotesque lips, which suggests some influence from Michael Crawford's makeup job in Lloyd Webber's musical. The under-description of the deformity makes it difficult for the reader to form a clear picture of Erik's struggles, which again leaves the door open for us to imagine him as more attractive.
Pettengill begins her relentless campaign of sexual tension between Christine and Erik. It’s overt and, honestly, kind of boring. Christine, as a paragon of innocence, seems at turns too easily swayed and hopelessly clueless, while I felt that much of what could have been fantastic subtext was ruined by just a little bit too much internal monologuing about how horny everyone was.
References are being made to an "Opera Populaire", which dispels any lingering doubts that large chunks of this novel are clearly based on Lloyd Webber's musical; Leroux's novel was set in the real-life Opera Garnier in Paris, whereas the Opera Populaire is an analogue invented for Lloyd Webber's musical and does not actually exist.
Examples emerge here of the trend toward entitlement of the underdog that seems to be so prevalent as we continue forward in Phantom literature; specifically, Erik justifies his actions by claiming that he "needed [Christine] more" than Raoul did. This always grates on me because of its side effect of completely reducing Christine to the role of trophy up for grabs between the two men, but Erik goes ahead and just vocalizes that by completely dismissing Christine's feelings for Raoul with a flippant, "I think she did love him in some fashion..." Smooth, dude. Come on, you're coming from the standpoint of being a villain; you have to work to make me like you.
Pettengill's version of the Phantom is here revealed to be "almost fifty"; while this is on the bottom end of the probable age range for Leroux's Phantom (most likely mid-fifties), it's nice to see that the age divide and its implications will not be totally ignored in favor of youthful sexiness. The Phantom's father role and the general power of his presence are more believable with a slightly older character, and Pettengill capitalizes on that.
But the writing, already pretty bad, becomes outright difficult to live with in this chapter. The sentences have become choppy and ungraceful, often suffering from omitted comma disease, and the effect is a little bit like reading a novel-length telegram. Even worse, Erik's attempted seduction of Christine here is just as clumsy and cringeworthy; sure, he can be bad at seduction (cut the dude some slack, it’s his first time), but the narration shouldn't make me want to go take a nap while people are trying to get their groove on. The creepy internal monologue that makes Erik sound like a budding rapist did NOT help. If he were being set up to be a psychologically deviant character in that respect I'd be on board, but since he's being obviously set up as a hero rather than as a sympathetic villain, it just makes me not like him. Pettengill spends a lot of this novel trying to have her cake and eat it, too: she wants Erik to have a dark side for dramatic purposes and moral lessons, but also wants him to be the good guy, and she doesn't manage the balance to really pull it off.
Erik decides to get rid of Raoul completely in this chapter, because Christine is apparently so popular now that the opera doesn't need his patronage anymore. In fact, with Christine, the opera apparently doesn't need ANY patronage anymore. Snort. Riiiiight. Because box office proceeds TOTALLY cover all of the expenses of running a monolithic theatre, in this world or any other.
So Pettengill makes the classic move and places Raoul in the role of antagonist, freeing Erik to become more palatable as a hero. Unfortunately, this is accomplished pretty excruciatingly from a narrative point of view, with Raoul sabotaging performances in order to get the Phantom blamed for them and then shooting said Phantom when caught in the act. This kind of character reversal requires more setup than it was given here, and the result is that it was unbelievable and frankly kind of painful to read through. It was neat to see that this effectively changes Leroux's shooting scene from Raoul defending himself in his bedroom to Raoul attacking his rival in the middle of the opera, though. I waited for several chapters to see when Raoul would make up the story about the bedroom in order to explain the gunshot wound, but he never did and the whole scene was more disappointingly redundant.
Raoul is further demonized with a slew of unappealing adjectives such as "wicked" or "crazed". While, again, I think a case could be made for him to have a different personality, Pettengill doesn't make it; as a reader, I'd like to see him do something that shows me that he's crazed and wicked, or see some event that clues me in as to how he might have gotten to be that way. You can’t just forcefeed the reader adjectives with no support. It doesn’t work and it’s lazy.
Also, his name is Raoul de Chagny, not just Raoul Chagny. Was this a major problem in Phantom writing in the early 2000s? Because Meadows did that, too.
I have to call shenanigans on Erik's assertion that he has "specifically designed" his catgut lasso to leave no marks when strangling someone into unconsciousness. I'm pretty sure that isn't possible, due to the nature of strangling, what with all that blood constriction, and the nature of catgut, which is pretty unforgiving. That’s not how the human body works.
Some interesting hints at a backstory for Erik come in here; while his full origins are never explained, it becomes revealed over the course of the novel that his parents abused him because of his appearance and that he left home voluntarily to escape them, probably at a young age. The by-now-familiar trope of him traveling with a carnival or circus is also mentioned, mostly in order to let us know that he was frequently restrained or imprisoned (hence the weird, gone-for-twenty-chapters claustrophobia).
Erik's mask is mentioned in passing as being black and full-faced, both elements that point to influence from the original novel. I'm not sure why the mask on the front cover is white since he apparently never wears a white mask at all over the course of the novel, but some mysteries were never meant to be solved.
Erik has A Plan here, and that plan is to run away to New Orleans. Actually, I really like that choice of locale; culture- and language-wise, it's a great choice to transplant a Parisian, giving him a better chance to adapt to the Americas while still being a far cry from life in France. Sadly, we will not actually arrive there for some chapters yet.
Sigh. I'm sorry. I know I said that I wanted to see Raoul do things that demonstrated his evil rather than just being told about it, but when I said that, I meant that I wanted to see him do believable, natural-seeming things that demonstrated that he had serious personality defects. Instead, he hits the trifecta of tired cliches used to tell the reader that this guy is a Bad Bad Nobleman. Automatic dismissal of the hero as unworthy/subhuman? Check. Smug, obnoxious elitism? Check. Borderline rape of the heroine? Double-check. If he'd thrown in some animal abuse, we'd have the entire collection.
And while I'm on the subject of people doing and saying ridiculous things to try to shortcut to convincing the reader of something, we have yet another case of Erik not really being a bad enough guy to torture people. I mean, yeah, he built that torture chamber in Persia, and then he built another one next to his house, but he just did that to "keep himself occupied". He never intended to use it on anyone. This is the third time we've seen an author specifically go after the torture chamber as an element that they felt they had to soften in order to make the character of Erik "hero" material (the other two that come to mind are Siciliano's 1994 novel and D'Arcy's 1999 novel). Apparently, kidnapping, stalking, and even murder can be smoothed over, but torture is a major sticking point in morality, and we now have a trend of authors that feel that it is necessary to remove it entirely (implying that the character would not be redeemable to hero status if they did not) in order to cast the Phantom as a hero figure. (Y’all, is it possible that if your hero is a torturer, he might not be able to be shiny and un-grey? Maybe? Consider.)
And in keeping with Pettengill's determination to make Erik more sympathetic, his ranting, raving, death threats and physical violence during the climactic scenes of Leroux's novel are all but entirely glossed over; he barely even remembers them, and he (and the author) brush them off as events that he can't be held accountable for because he was in the throes of "near mental breakdown". Yeah, he was never a bad person doing bad things, so leave him alone! What redemption at the end of the novel? What are you talking about?
Not much else is really added to the story in this recap, which is now thankfully drawing to a close. Most of it is just reiteration from here on out. However, it is interesting to note that the daroga is mentioned as "the closest thing to a friend" that Erik has, very reminiscent of Kay's treatment of the character. Both works probably draw from the fact that the daroga is obviously somewhat sympathetic to Erik's plight in Leroux's novel; in fact, I suspect that the Persian becomes Erik's best friend by default because he's the only major character, aside from Christine, to show any sympathy for the Phantom over the course of the novel. Especially in cases where the writer is attempting to paint Erik as a more human, sympathetic figure in order to place him in a hero role, the idea of a friend figure, even one as briefly mentioned and thoroughly forgotten as the Persian is in this book, is an easy way to show some socialization and empathy in Erik's character. I would have preferred an actual relationship between the two that could have told us something about their characters beyond their capacity to like one another, but I don't get the things I want.
But now, the first of many plot shenanigans is about to unfold. You see, after sending Christine off with Raoul, Erik goes off to mope and fast, mope and fast in his underground cave, whining to himself about the unfairness of life. And after a few days of mope-fasting, Erik arrives at the conclusion that he's going to kidnap Christine after all, stages his death in order to lure her back to the opera, and knocks her ass out.
What? But... but... arrgh! The redemption! The beautiful, relevant, significant, point-of-Leroux's-entire-book redemption! Gone. Sigh. Somehow, Erik has managed to do a 180 from "repenting his sins and finally accepting good in himself and treating others with humanity" to "bitter pissing and moaning followed by lying and kidnapping". That mope-fasting is some dangerous shit.
Weirdly enough, and this is the first time any writer has mentioned the idea, Erik has to shave to avoid growing a beard. I have to say I've never envisioned a bearded Erik, probably because the original one had enough trouble with hair not growing on his head at all. It certainly brings home the idea of him as more human and virile, again.
Erik claims here to never have felt guilt before his re-kidnapping of Christine; while I initially rejected this as silliness, upon further thought it might be a valid way of approaching the character. His many remorseful scenes wherein he apologizes to Christine and begs her not to hate him could easily be motivated not by true remorse but rather by simple fear that he might lose her regard, and it's conceivable that his release of Christine into Raoul's arms was motivated by a desire to see her happy rather than by any admission of misbehavior on his part. Again, however, I would have liked to see some kind of action that supported this claim.
But then there was page 65, with some of the laziest shit I've ever seen a writer try to pull:
"I knew when Christine arrived back in town. I won't bother to explain how; suffice it to say that I always knew exactly what was going on when necessary."
I realize that the idea of near-omniscient knowledge (within the opera house, though... not necessarily within all of Paris) is an important element in the original character's mystique, but from his point of view, so baldly spelled out, that smacks of not caring enough to think through it. How hard would it have been to come up with an appropriately ingenious method by which Erik gets his news, or even with some kind of vagueness to semi-explain it? Readers don’t like to be told “I just did, stop bothering me” by characters, Pettengill.
So Christine is, once again, a kidnapping victim, this time snatched when she keeps her promise to come back to Erik's body when he dies. Sheesh, he uses a lot of chloroform on this poor girl. Not to mention laudanum. It's a wonder she survives long enough to get loaded onto the boat.
And off they go on a boat to New Orleans!
Pettengill's version of the character is presented as a basically good man who, as a result of a long pattern of abuse, had a moment of madness and did things that he then reversed when coming to his senses. It’s very much apologism, especially since the author contorts to use this as an excuse for why he did bad things (like killing and kidnapping people, which wasn’t his fault somehow) but also why he did good things she wants to walk back (like letting Christine go, which obviously he would only do if not in his right mind and now has to fix by re-kidnapping her).
Christine's character remains gratifyingly strong here as she calls Erik on all of his shit. Being tricked, manipulated, and kidnapped is not on her general to-do list, particularly when she'd trusted him to give up his stalking ways. Page 42 is a treat to read as she reams him out for it, and it reinforces her as a strong character. Erik's surprise at the situation - he didn't think she was "strong enough" to get so pissed - is also entertaining.
In possibly the most amazing revelation in this or any other book, we discover that Erik's been using morphine to treat his blueballs. Incredible.
Erik's internal monologues are frustrating throughout most of the ocean voyage. While it is in character for the original Erik to ignore Christine's wishes (there's still a marked feeling that she'll "come around" and that her wish to escape is temporary), it is not in character for him to do so after his redemption at the end of Leroux's novel. We are Missing the Point. Even more annoyingly, he has an epiphany onboard and realizes that, oh noes! If she just hates him, kidnapping her to be his love is pointless! Yeah, you THINK?
Again, this is territory already covered in Leroux's work, and Pettengill seems, bizarrely, to be including the Phantom's release of Christine in with his "moment of madness" that started the whole messy final scene. He also complains that Christine sounds like "a spoiled child" when she demands her freedom. Yeah, how dare she have feelings and wants!
Despite all this, I do like that Erik is finding out the hard way that this simply isn't going to work; while he wised up and realized that before the point of no return in the original book, it's fun to take a look at how his original plan wouldn't have succeeded if he hadn't given it up.
Once Christine finally gets Erik to let her into the salon (because she wants to socialize, dammit, and he's already told everyone on board that she's his mad wife, which cuts down on mingling opportunities), Erik confesses that he has never danced before and doesn't know how. That’s kind of hard to swallow, considering that Pettengill has him self-educating on every topic under the sun and he was in an opera house where dance was a major art form. While I appreciate that he apparently feels a bit "deathly" here (though I'm not sure how that goes with his "firm, warm" body from a few chapters ago), the entire scene, in which Erik and Christine dance about for hours in the night, existing in some kind of cocoon of blissful romance, is beyond silly. I wanted Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn to come in and do "I Could Have Danced All Night".
I'm very unimpressed by Erik's sudden realization that he "owes her honesty"... followed immediately by telling her all about Raoul's perfidy but failing, somehow, to mention that he almost strangled the guy to death on top of his torture chamber shenanigans. Selective honesty. He owes her selective honesty.
Erik is again given a new last name in this novel: Devereaux. While he makes a point of telling us in the beginning that it's an assumed name he uses for his surname when it's necessary for him to have one, he proceeds to refer to himself with it in internal monologues, and other events pretty firmly entrench it as his permanent last name within a few more chapters. It’s a common name in French Louisiana, so at least he’ll fit in!
On page 97, much to my confusion and disbelief, Erik has an epiphany and realizes that he loves Christine.
...what? You just now figured that out? True, the original Erik's relationship with Christine was more one of obsession than love, but it always seemed that he believed in his own emotions, even if the reader could tell that many of them were less than healthy. The simplicity of his sudden realization doesn't do him any favors when it comes to making him look like he has any idea what's going on.
Upon arrival in the United States, Christine's language barrier is mentioned (i.e., she only speaks French); however, there isn't a peep about Erik, who seems to speak English just fine. That's okay with me if there is justification, but there was never any explanation of where he learned English, or why, or how. Even better, Christine apparently magically learns English at some point in the ensuing chapters, but I have no idea when since I didn't have any warning before she was suddenly conversing with the locals.
Page 102, on which Erik realizes that love should include selflessness and he would let Christine go and put her on a boat back to France, is meant to be touching and showcase his emotional growth as a character. But we already DID that scene at the end of Leroux’s novel, so it falls flat and the reader just doesn’t believe him, because he didn’t mean it last time, so why should we assume he does this time?
I wouldn't think that I'd find Christine's torn feelings believable here what with all the kidnapping shenanigans and all, but I find that I do in spite of myself. While Erik's emotional epiphanies over the course of the sea voyage have been pretty silly, Christine's gradual acceptance of her situation and ability to make the best of it convince me that she really is somewhat torn between returning to her fiance and staying here in the new life she's building. Unlike most authors who try to use a romanticized “Stockholm Syndrome” as an excuse for their heroines' questionable choices, this (a month-long voyage with a person who intentionally treats her as well as possible despite her captivity) is a situation where it feels believable for the character to identify with her captor. Of course, Pettengill doesn’t actually try to use that justification, though, because if Christine were attached to the Phantom because of the captivity, it would mar the romance she wants to build, so somehow we’re still no better off.
However, while I believe in her torn feelings, I do not believe in her decision to stay in the Americas with Erik. Her explanation that she has now "seen Erik's sensitive side" sounds ridiculous, particularly when she doesn't elaborate, and her brush-off of Raoul, desperately searching for her in France even now, is too easy and pat. The original Christine had a very strong, Catholic moral center, and I somehow can't see her blowing her fiance off without a shred of explanation and deciding to live in sin with the terrorizer who has drugged and kidnapped her personally and definitely kills other people instead, even if he was nice to her and kept her from getting hurt during a storm at sea (which she would never have experienced if he hadn't, you know, kidnapped her. Again). I know Pettengill wants to establish that their connection is too strong to be broken, but she doesn't actually do it. She just waves her hands and says “see?” and assumes we will.
Christine tells Erik that things "weren't easy" for her and Raoul after the events of Leroux's novel, but refuses to explain why. That’s way more interesting than this romance, but we won’t get to hear about what she means for CHAPTERS.
It’s more than a little bit funny that Pettengill stresses that Raoul and Christine were never married or intimate so much. By which I mean sad, because the only reason the author is doing it is because if Christine weren’t an unmarried virgin, she wouldn’t be Pure and Good. Sigh. I'm still not sure, yet, if I'm dreading the inevitable Erik/Christine sex scenes... but with three hundred pages still to go, I am sure that I'm dreading the possibility of Raoul appearing as some kind of avenging villain. Luckily, this doesn't really happen until the very end of the book, and isn't as bad as it could have been.
Pettengill doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the characters now that they’ve gotten to New Orleans, seesawing between anxious breakdowns at the idea of going to a salon and manful badassery as Erik tells people off and defends Christine's honor. Christine is believably traumatized by Erik's ability to disarm and almost strangle a man to death in a few seconds flat, but somehow this does not impact her decision to live with him because she’s seen his “sensitive side”.
Interestingly enough, Pettengill provides us a believable explanation for Erik's childish scrawl from the notes in Leroux's novel; many authors have difficulty juxtaposing this quirk with a character that they envision as a sort of genius gentleman, and I've remarked in other works on how it seems to be glossed over or omitted as a result. This Erik, instead, is left-handed, and was apparently severely and repeatedly punished for this as a child because of the left hand's association with the devil (tough luck for a kid who already looks that bad). As a response to this punishment, he stubbornly refused to learn proper handwriting or to use his other hand, resulting in some very terrible handwriting. It's well explained without interrupting the narrative too much, and I really liked the thought put into it.
But it's now time for things that I don't like... at all. Out of the blue, Pettengill suddenly begins writing out the dialogue of all the African-American cast members in her book as a phonetic dialect. This is unfortunate; not because there wouldn't be a certain dialect in late nineteenth-century Louisiana, but because Pettengill fails to write out anyone else's dialogue, even when she makes a big deal in the narrative about their accents. Does Christine ever get written in dialect, despite her French accent? No. Does Villaincourt, Erik's lawyer, ever get written in dialect, despite the fact that he is described as having a thick, almost impenetrable Southern drawl? No. But when the black servants come in, suddenly it's all "Yassah, this way, suh, wait heah, suh," and hoo boy, that is an actual quote. Fucking yikes.
I have no problem with nineteenth-century characters being racist; in fact, I expect them to be. But the inclusion of an altered speech pattern ONLY for the lower-class black people of the novel makes Pettengill look racist rather than her characters, because she’s singling them out to be scripted that way when other characters are not, and because the almost cartoonish way she does it plays into centuries of really ugly racial stereotypes of African-American people. And she WON’T STOP, so the WHOLE BOOK is like that, with every new African-American character speaking in sub-vocalized sentence fragments while new white characters such as Erik's chess-playing friend are written out perfectly normally.
And while I'm whining about dialogue, Villaincourt, Erik's lawyer, has consistently over-the-top dialogue that detracts from the proceedings and distracts me by making him seem more like a caricature than an actual character (and since he's going to be somewhat important later in the book, that's not something that should be happening). I just want him to shut up, and the warm fuzzies I'm supposed to get from his acceptance of Erik do not materialize.
Erik, still owner of a raging hard-on for Christine, starts talking to her frankly about sex and sort of borderline groping her on a streetcorner, none of which is a good idea. Great, I was just wondering if this Phantom was going to be a molester like so many of the others, and here he is to confirm it.
I notice a bit of adjective shortage in this book. Everything Erik likes seems to be "silken"; Christine's skin, his new clothes, his new mask, Christine's lips…
If my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Erik's and Christine's relationship was already treading water, it sinks completely in this chapter. Erik has an enormous, barely-motivated hissy fit in which he breaks things, screams at Christine, and then grabs her by the throat, slams her into a wall, and half-throttles her. Her response to this? "He needs patience and understanding!"
No. He needs patience and understanding from a psychiatrist. I'm not impressed by Christine's empathy; this man is physically and psychologically abusing her and she doesn’t even seem to notice, I want to know where the strong, determined Christine of a few chapters ago went. Also, isn't this the same woman who had a hysterical fear-induced meltdown upon seeing Erik half-throttle a strange man just a few chapters ago? But it's all right if he does it to her? It’s literally just the author using her as a mouthpiece to excuse Erik’s abuse because he needs love and understanding. It’s abuse apologism and it’s blaming Christine for her own pain. Fuck this.
Aaaaand then she accepts his sobbingly apologetic proposal of marriage with his handprint still on her throat. NICE. Fuck this TWICE.
But who cares what I think? Erik and Christine are getting married! He's off to buy her an engagement right! Apparently, he "knows gemstones". Oh, Erik, is there anything you don't magically know?
As a chronological aside, Erik and Christine are getting married in 1882, which is not too far off the mark if this is all happening shortly after the original novel's approximate date of 1881. Erik reveals that he was born in 1834, which makes him forty-eight years old, which is a pretty decent age for the character.
Now, I know you two are engaged now (for some fucking reason) and that this is New Orleans, temple of sin, but seriously. Stop making out in public in the swankiest of swanky restaurants; that's still not appropriate. I have difficulty believing that Christine is okay with all the mad sexy groping that is going on in this scene. Yes, Erik is a sexual force, I get it, but this woman is a paragon of purity who is with a dude that she first saw as a father and then loved on an intellectual basis only and who, lest we forget, was just physically abusing her like three hours ago. I would be okay with this if he were employing some of that sexual, genitive aura that he uses to such great effect in Leroux's novel, but he isn't; he's just going at her like a horny (virginal, but horny) bear. If you want to convince me of the Phantom's sexy Lloyd-Webber-style romance, give me some "Music of the Night" style seduction. Don't drop him down to the level of horny frat boy with all this "I must have her! My boner is too great to be contained!" horseshit.
Erik tries to ask Christine why she didn't run from him in his murderous rage the other day, but she blithely asserts (through the crushed remains of her windpipe, I assume) that she knew that he would never hurt her. Even Erik is confused by this answer.
Erik descends into the depths of the overly-emo again when he starts whining internally and musing that an acceptable appearance is "the most basic human need". Yeah, I know you're angsty because you're ugly, but don't go dragging the rest of hapless humanity into this. I think you might find a lot of people out there who don’t put their physical appearance up there in Maslow’s Hierarchy, and the only reason your life is shitty because of your appearance is that society is shitty and ableist. (Which was LEROUX’S POINT.)
The schmaltz of Erik's running stream of consciousness during the wedding is enough to drown the unsuspecting reader. I struggled through it to note that Christine has dark hair, again indicative of heavy influence from the Lloyd Webber production (I don't see much in the way of influence from the 1925, 1962, or 1989 films here).
It's been mentioned several times in the book that Christine hasn't sung since the events of Leroux's novel, which understandably causes her former teacher and mentor some distress. However, no one ever explains why she isn't singing, and it's difficult to come up with any kind of plausible statement that her refusal to do so would be making. I can only assume that singing reminds her of the trauma of the events of Leroux's novel, though since she's now marrying the architect of said trauma I'm not sure how much that really applies. A passion for her art was a big part of the original Christine's character, and as a singer she has to know that her voice is atrophying the more she doesn't use it. What gives?
And now it's time for the wedding night. Higher power, take the wheel Erik asserts that he will "make this a night Christine would always remember". One hopes that he does better than his previous fumbly groping so she doesn't remember it with the usual virginal fear and pain. Upon taking off his shirt, there's a shocker - apparently he's all hot and stuff, and Christine is all turned on by his shirtlessness. SexPhantom rides again! Apparently she particularly likes the "tight muscles of [his] abdomen", leading me to wonder when in his busy schedule Erik has time to bust out some crunches. Maybe he hits the gym with Eric from Phantom of the Mall... that kid can sure pump some iron.
Okay, so they're married. So the story is over, right? What the hell are we supposed to do for 250 more pages?
Oh, god, my question is answered, and the answer is that we're going to have an impotence crisis. Erik can't get it up on his wedding night, despite having had a near-constant boner for like a year, which frankly is what you get for using morphine to shut down your libido on a daily basis. Clearly, the solution to this problem is for him to flee his marriage bed, leaving his wife confused and in tears, and get drunk at a local bar while referring to himself as a "jackass" and moaning that by now his little wifey should have been "good and properly laid". Fucking hell. At least he didn’t take it out on her this time.
Sigh. It's lovely for Erik, I'm sure, that Christine is the perfect mate because of her "total lack of concern" over his face. Unfortunately, it makes no sense to me as a reader because the original Christine certainly did have some concern over his face, even after she started pitying him instead of being terrified. It was kind of a big deal.
Oh, good, the impotence crisis is over now and they're humping like bunnies (strangely experienced-seeming bunnies, for a pair of nineteenth-century virgins). The prose of the sex scenes seriously needs help; I do not need to hear about how Erik is "literally" drowning in his desire. Gross. Not a mental image we were going for. Unfortunately, I really don't see a lot of believable growth in Christine that should be present to get her from "pure Nordic angel" to "New Orleans sex bomb" so quickly. I would love to see the idea fleshed out, because I think the consequences of Christine's choosing the sexual relationship should be explored, but all I get from Pettengill is a simple "and then she is". Sigh again.
Now, Erik gets mugged by some guys. Pettengill tries to tell us something about how his new soft life with Christine has dulled his once-hardened violent reflexes or something, but he still pretty much goes down like a sack of sad smushy potatoes. Potatoes with modern speech patterns such as "they worked me over good".
But the reason for this seemingly out of place interlude is that it's set up so that Erik can haplessly fall at the doorstep of, and be cared by, none other than... Marie Laveau! The voodoo queen of New Orleans! OF COURSE. In point of fact, Marie Laveau died in 1881, but her daughter, also named Marie, was also very active in the voodoo community and the two are often confused in historical accounts, so I have to assume that that's what's going on here (perhaps Pettengill is even intentionally playing this confusion up in order to preserve an aura of mystery). Why is it important that Erik meet up with Marie Laveau? Well, there's the fact that Pettengill wants to involve the occult trappings that Leroux slapped onto his character to increase his mystery (not an unworthy goal), and then there's also the fact that we still have 250 pages to go and we have to have something for these characters to do.
Another bucket of Please Pity Erik ice cream is brought out when he talks about how he has never celebrated Christmas before. Won’t you pity this poor domestic abuser, folks?
I'm confused as to why Christine apparently only attends mass "occasionally". Leroux and Lloyd Webber both present her as extremely devout; in fact, she pretty much has to be in order to have the level of faith required to believe that she's being contacted by an actual angel. I would say that her faith has possibly been shaken by the trauma of that deception, but there's no peep about Christine's spiritual growth anywhere in this novel, so I end up with no idea. I guess we don’t care about her feelings on that, either.
And while we're talking about God, extended internal musings are now going on in which Erik details how he "rethought" his atheism upon Christine entering his life. Leaving aside the fact that the original character definitely wasn't an atheist (not happy with a God he perceived as a distant, cruel mastermind, sure, but not an atheist), the whole thing is very lazy in terms of Erik's characterization; he's being Christianized as shorthand to show the reader that he's becoming a "good guy", while the flip side of that is that his previous atheism is obviously tied to being a not-so-good guy. Religious theory aside, it's frustrating as a reader not to see any actual growth in Erik; again, it's sort of just presented as an informational bulletin for us (Now Erik Is Christian, Yay) -and not worked into the story in a satisfying way. The Phantom story is loaded with religious symbolism and overtones that can and should be used very effectively, but while I appreciate the idea here that Christine (the original novel's Christ figure) started to effect his reformation simply by existing, I don't see any actual character development. It just happens, and things that just happen make for a boring book.
Now, I need to share with you a passage from pages 203 to 204, in which Christine presents Erik with the Christmas gift of securing permission for him to play the local church's pipe organ:
"Yes! Yes! It had been the music all along! It was glorious, wondrous music that kept me alive until the day I was delivered by God into Christine's waiting embrace!... Deeper and deeper I fell into music's welcoming and loving embrace until I knew nothing else. I was home again. Music had always been like a lover to me, caressing me as I loved it in turn. Now that relationship took on a whole new meaning as I combined my immense love for Christine with my lifelong love of music, melding them together into an ecstatic euphoria that went beyond words or thought. I don't know how long I played... suddenly I was crying, overcome with the joy of what I had just experienced. Christine's arms came around me from behind. I swung around and buried my face in her breast, crying like a baby."
Someone get me a boat made of crackers before I drown in all this cheese.
Erik decides he wants to be a chess master at some point here, and, frustrated by the fact that Christine's chess-playing skills aren't up to par enough to challenge him, makes friends with a local chess champion and begins playing regular games with him. It seems unnecessarily social for this character, but it is a plausible desire on his part and a good way to ease the Phantom into a little bit more social contact without going overboard.
Meanwhile, Christine finds Erik's lasso (hidden in a sock drawer behind the porn, or something) and, despite her previous horrified fear of the thing, demands that Erik use it, show her how it works, and let her handle it. She gets unaccountably turned on when he lassos a bedpost with it, and then there is sex. This version of Christine really likes violence... except when she doesn't, of course.
The major plot point of this chapter is that Erik has a serious heart attack. It's not a surprise since his heart condition was established earlier, and it's all handled fairly realistically, though Erik's ability to survive like twenty-five heart attacks in this novel, without the benefit of modern medicine, stretches credulity just a little bit.
When Mardi Gras rolls around, Pettengill's descriptive skills really shine. She obviously has a love for New Orleans and its historical culture and it's really noticeable in her carefully-painted pictures of events like the Comus Ball and Rex Parade. The descriptions of the festivities themselves are also well-researched and immersive, making this one of the most engaging chapters in the novel.
Christine finally discusses the dissolution of her relationship with Raoul (short answer: she just wasn't feeling it). It would have been even more interesting if she had addressed the topsy-turvy contradiction of which of the two men represents which love (i.e., Erik represents sexuality and stepping outside of her comfort zone, but also clinging to her childhood memories of her father, while Raoul represents a love born out of an innocent, undemanding time, but also a life that would involve making adult decisions and leaving the influence of her father forever). But, at this point, I'm happy to take what I can get in this book.
Speaking of, how the hell is this book still going on? We still have 200 pages to go and nothing is happening! 200 pages is a lot to fill when your central romance is already resolved and all you've got left is a possible relationship with a voodoo queen and some chest pains.
And speaking of voodoo, off Erik goes to begin a long-running campaign of making nightly visits to Laveau's voodoo rituals. I don’t know what Pettengill’s background is, but I’m pretty worried about her using a real diaspora religion as a prop after the ongoing fiasco that is the dialectal markers for speakers of African descent.
The voodoo rituals are obviously another source of interest for the author, since she describes them well and lavishes a lot of pages on making sure we see them as focal points in the chapters to come. However, while Erik's refusal to participate in the orgies that usually follow said rituals is meant to keep him sympathetic as a stand-up gentleman, the fact that he's going out, getting drunk, participating in these rituals, letting strange women grind on him even if he refuses to have sex, and then lying to his wife about it all (he tells her he "takes walks" at night) kind of counterbalances that attempt in a big way. Don't get me wrong; I'm very glad to see that Pettengill isn't trying to present life with Erik as being all bunnies and sunshine, but I do feel that the whole mess is a pretty contrived way to show that Erik's nature hasn't changed too much.
The long, hooded red robe that Erik takes to wearing when participating in the rituals is very evocative of the old Red Death idea from Leroux's novel, a conceit which made me smile and which probably delights the character. It also feels very “generic occult”, though, rather than connected to the rituals of the religion he’s attending.
Erik's argument that his ensuing descent into drunken sottery is unlike him because he "had never resorted to the bottle or anything else for that matter" confuses me, what with all that morphine use we were talking about in the first chapter.
More late-night voodoo rituals, more lying to Christine, more drunkenness, more "oh no, Erik is falling into his old ways!" Sadly, none of this is presented with enough variety or character depth to make me care about it, and at this point I'm just slogging desperately through the novel to get to the end.
It should be noted that this entire story has been told in first-person past tense, with Erik narrating the previous events of his life; however, he also digresses into asides now and then that are in present tense, leading me to believe that he's telling this story to someone. I spent a lot of time wondering who he was telling his life story to and why, since it obviously isn't Christine; I harbored some vain hope that we would be returning to Leroux's roots and that he would be relating his story to the daroga before he died or something, but this did not turn out to be the case.
As Erik gets more and more dastardly and more and more scuzzball-like in this chapter, Pettengill relies heavily on flashbacks to his mistreatment in childhood to ensure that her audience continues to view him sympathetically, particularly when he assaults some men and ends up in jail, where his claustrophobia miraculously returns so that he can have a large-scale episode. Sadly, while the things that happened to him in childhood sucked, they don’t excuse him randomly attacking people, and they don’t make the reader think he shouldn’t be in jail. Having a hard life does not excuse hurting other people.
Naturally, Erik's behavior finally catches up with him when some local thugs, having discovered his true identity as a fairly upstanding member of New Orleans society, threaten to expose his nightly activites to his wife and associates if he doesn't aid them in a crime spree. Naturally, this comes right when Erik was planning to quit voodoo forever, forever I tell you! Naturally, he can't have anyone telling his wife what he's been up to (and he can't tell her and ask for forgiveness, because that's just ridiculous, asking the loving Christ figure for forgiveness), so instead he embarks on the She Can Never Know journey that so often induces heroic figures to do bad things. Like pretty much every other time I've seen it in literature or the movies, it's tiresome and he sucks.
So Erik's new moral compass, Pettengill makes a point of telling us, can no longer include murder; he can't kill anyone, which means, of course, that he'll be doing whatever the lowlifes say because god forbid he injured or killed one of them. Instead, he will be participating in their crime ring (which does, in fact, involve killing people). Strangely, he will not be threatening and scaring the bejeezus out of the man until AFTER he's done his bidding, despite the fact that that's kind of the Phantom's M.O.
And apparently Erik's new morals are pretty loose anyway, because while he can't kill the man outright, he apparently can maneuver him into falling off the dock and then dispassionately watch as he drowns not a few feet away from him. Nice convenient interpretation of morals, there, dude. Oh, well. At least with that major antagonist out of the way and Erik's little plan to get himself out of the voodoo world a success, the book is over now, right?
What the hell, how can there still be nine chapters plus an epilogue to go?
Erik has mental problems. This is no surprise to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the story. While I like Erik's ability to regress into childhood when confronted with unacceptable stimuli - this device has been used effectively in a lot of previous versions, notably the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film - I am really not a fan of the split personality conceit that Pettengill has been trying to cultivate throughout the latter half of the novel. The idea she's trying to present is that Erik has a "darker half" that does bad things and tries to seize control of his destiny, but the execution is clumsy, vague, and difficult to follow, all of which makes it less than effective as an explanation of his behavior. It ends up just being a really annoying thing that happens sometimes, where Erik starts musing about "the evil voice" that is always trying to make him do things. It’s not a realistic portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder or any other mental illness real people suffer from; it just leans on lazy tropes to try to excuse him because somehow, even though it’s him, it’s not HIM him. Or something.
He explains all of this "the voice" business to Christine eventually, too. For a nineteenth-century lady who has been repeatedly abused and neglected over the last few months, she's very understanding of his multiple personality defense. It doesn't really matter, because, you see, it turns out she's pregnant! Babies solve everything! Any concern over genetics or the baby's future are quickly glossed over (unlike in the 1989 Vale Allen novel, which explored them in-depth) so everyone can move on to the land of sparkly sunlit happiness over the impending miracle of life.
Are we done now? NO? No. A house is on fire! And Erik must run into the flames to save the woman and child inside!
It's SuperErik! Here he comes to save the day! Leaps through burning wreckage! Saves hapless women! Snubs firefighters who don't do enough! Sets himself on fire! Is ludicrously over the top! We haven't seen any kind of impulse toward selflessness come out of Erik, period, unless it relates to Christine (you know, his pregnant wife who is on the doorstep screaming at him not to go inside), and it kind of seems like now would be the time he'd be MORE inclined not to go risking his safety or hers. I fail to see how the morals of a man who had no problem watching another man drown in front of him without lifting a finger to help also include a compulsion to override firefighters and leap into certain doom to save people he doesn't know. But, oh, hell, off he goes, and burns his fingers so badly that he may never play the piano again (no, I am not kidding)!
Also, just a little realism check, but if the room is so full of flames that it looks blue, I doubt very much that the girl in said room has much hope of even being conscious, much less screaming energetically for help and coming through the entire ordeal completely unscathed. Blue flame starts at around 2500 degrees Fahrenheit.
But wait - there's more! Erik realizes, after figuring out that a recurring dream he had apparently referenced the fire, that when Marie Laveau told him he was "special" she was referring to his heretofore unknown power as a precognitive! He has dreams - OF THE FUTURE! Considering that everything in the novel, including the voodoo ceremonies, has been pretty much stated to have perfectly mundane origins, the leap into science fiction did not go well for me.
So, would anyone like to guess what Psychic Erik's recurring dream about a little girl who looks like Christine reaching out for them but inevitably being lost in the distance means? Anybody? I know it's subtle. Maybe its companion dream in which Erik drowns in Christine's blood will help?
Christine finally sings again here. Leaving aside the fact that nobody, opera singer with celestial voice or not, sounds "just as heavenly" after not singing for years (those muscles atrophy, the cords stop working the same way, and, to put it nicely, you sound like shit until you get some serious practice back under your belt), I would really have liked Christine's return to singing to mean something. After all this time and my theorizing over why she was abstaining, the fact that she just up and does it one day in order to make Erik happy sort of removes the significance that the whole business could have had. The idea of singing as being a transcendent, spiritual (even frightening) experience for her, clearly outlined in Leroux's novel, no longer applies since she apparently has no motivation beyond her husband's desires - and, incidentally, her character, already very badly undercut by this point, does not benefit from yet another example of having no particular drives or wants of her own.
Because she wasn’t doing enough things that were weird and questionably tasteless yet, Pettengil now has Christine have a miscarriage. This is very tragic, and also TOTALLY unexpected thanks to the careful subtlety with which Pettengill crafted her foreshadowing. The dead child - who, of course, Erik names Angelina, because originality is for suckers - is used as a vehicle through which Erik can finally be redeemed... again. For the third time? The fourth? I'm losing track. At any rate, he pours his heart out to the dead girl and leaves the horrible detritus of his past broken in the snow next to her tomb, or something, which would all have been much more poignant and interesting if it weren't massively redundant by this point. When you have to redeem a character more than once or twice, I start to think he's not redeemable, you know?
Wait, we're not done yet? Sweet baby Mary. Christine's near-catatonic withdrawal at the death of her baby is tragic, and I am not immune to that, but my stamina is not endless. I am not involved enough with the character to overcome the meandering way that this book is apparently plotted. Erik is very sad that his wife is sad, everyone is very sad, yes yes.
No, seriously. I really want to care about the drama as Erik tries to reach his badly withdrawn Christine, but it's simply not well-written enough to evoke those emotions in me. I’m so bored. I’m SO BORED.
Christine, when she finally comes back around, begins referring to Erik as her "angel", in a non-ironic, completely serious "romantic" sort of a way. I think this is a bad choice; not only is it somewhat trite in Phantom literature, which tends to overuse the "angel" label well past the point where it is relevant to the characters, but Christine was devastated to discover Erik's mortality in the original novel. Why would she use the name that represented his great and painful manipulation of her (not to mention the fact that, as a Catholic, it's somewhat blasphemous)? Why would she call him the angel when they just named their stillborn daughter that? I think many an author falls into the trap of referencing the traditionally "good" connotations of the word while not thinking too much about how it's actually used in the characters' interactions.
This chapter has nothing of note in it. But the end is in sight!
Oh, my god, please, Erik. Stop having almost-fatal heart attacks and just keel over already, would you? Do us a favor? It's not that it's badly written, per se, but it just goes on and on and ON AND ON AND ON, and some of us have things to do. Also, as you are discovering at the moment, Erik, I don't think fifty-two still qualifies as "the prime of your life" in the nineteenth-century.
My question is answered when it is revealed that Erik has been writing this whole account as a sort of autobiography, since he knows that he's currently dying and doesn't have much time left to tell anyone anything. The rambling nature of the narrative is therefore perfectly in-character for the circumstances, but, unfortunately that still doesn't make it very good reading material.
Oh, thank god, we're finally here.
I am so bored by this point that I can't begin to take an interest in this epilogue, written by Christine as she mulls over having just read her husband's account. While I appreciate that Pettengill is trying to clarify some of Christine's motivations here, because they sorely need it, she does it in a massive stream of story reiteration rather than having included any clues in the narrative, and it's really, really hard to pay attention to. The entire exercise is five pages of largely pointless recap of the book we've just read, this time in the form of paragraphs that are over a page long.
And now, holy shit, look who's here - it's Raoul! I confess that I didn't see this coming and that I wouldn't have expected Pettengill to bring him in so late in the game. I was momentarily afraid that there was going to be some kind of "and then she went off with Raoul and had her cake and ate it too" business, but, luckily, that didn't happen. What did happen was that Raoul, in keeping with his characterization from the beginning of the book, ranted a bit about Christine's life choices (which, to be fair, I agree were mostly pretty ill-advised) before she informed him that she loved Erik and would hear no ill-word against him and then punted him back out, never to appear again. What really makes me sad about this is not that Raoul is being any more admirable than Erik here (he's not; they're kind of both douchebags in this version), but that, rather than exploring the poignant and conflicted balance between the characters that Leroux presented in his novel, Pettengill has simply taken a side, declared Erik the winner, and in no uncertain terms made it clear that she expects the reader to naturally agree with her. And many a reader will, I'm sure, which is perfectly fine; however, the simplification leaves me sad for what might have been, and I can't quite get behind just bringing Raoul's character in to abuse him for a point that she'd already made. It's more redundancy, a problem this book suffers from throughout.
In the end, oddly enough, I have to admit that Pettengill made me care about her fucked-up protagonists. I did want to know what their damage was, and I did want to know what happened to them at times. The problem was that they really weren't Christine and Erik; they were some other protagonists wearing their faces, and while that makes for all right pleasure reading, it does not make for a fabulous Phantom story interpretation. The book squeaked by with a passing grade because Pettengill has her moments, and does manage some real emotion in some of them, but the majority of it was something of a trial, and I don't think I'd ever pick it back up and go through it again just for those few glimmers of light.