Mask in the Corridor (2006)
by T.A. Chappel
This book hits the triple crown: bad writing, bad story, and bad message. It's a triple-fudge layer cake of sadness.
And it's all Gerard Butler's fault. Why you gotta be up here with your Scottish manliness, ruining everything for everybody, Butler? In this case, Chappel has decided to write a book that is a fusion of her two favorite things: Gerard Butler as the Phantom of the Opera in Joel Schumacher’s 2004 film, and Gerard Butler as an archaeological student in the 2003 movie Timeline.
That’s right, everybody! It’s time for fusion fanfiction.
You can tell how arduous a journey this is going to be as soon as it starts because - and I say this only because it is true - Chappel is a terrible writer. On page 1 we're already looking at talking heads, graceless, choppy, tell-y prose and point of view hopping like there's no tomorrow. Possibly the worst thing about it is the complete lack of description of the story's setting or of what anyone is doing; at the beginning of this story, I know that the protagonists are named Jillian and Jason, but that is all I know because Chappel literally fails to tell me anything else. They have no personalities, are introduced through narrative that would be wooden in a travel guide, and I don't even know what they look like. Chappel will not get around to describing her main characters until a later chapter.
The book is set in the modern day, with Jillian and Jason, bosom buddies and fellow archaeologists, on vacation in Rouen, France. During their stay, an old opera house is being torn down to be refurbished and a large system of catacombs is discovered beneath it, prompting them to investigate. I mean, that’s the kind of thing I would definitely do on vacation, so I’m sold so far.
Anyway, when they go down there they find a single box with a porcelain mask in it. It's quite obviously the white Lloyd Webber half-mask, in case all the obvious Gerard Butler love hadn't yet informed us that there would be almost no smattering of Leroux influence anywhere in this book. The mask itself is padded to make up for a face that is missing the right cheekbone and part of the forehead, a more hardcore disfigurement than the Schumacher/Butler film's. Jillian plans to use the mask to make a cast of what the face under it must have looked like, which probably won’t work very well and should be being done by a specialist anyway, but it’s the sort of morbid arts and crafts project that I'm always interested to see.
But I'm distracted by how confused I am over what's going on. Why is this mask in Rouen? I would have assumed that the story had just been transplanted out of Paris for some reason, but a few lines later Jillian mentions that she has heard of identical secret passages and whatnot underneath Paris, which seems to suggest that ye olde Phantom was in previous occupancy there as well. Why'd he move to Rouen? Does he have a tunnel system running all the way from Paris to Rouen [about 85 miles/135 kilometers] for him to have run through? And who put his mask in a wooden box and conveniently left it under the opera house stage for nosy people to find?
Jillian aims to find out, because she is a "forensic artist" despite Chappel's stunningly obvious lack of research when it comes to forensics. This is in addition to being a speaker of several languages and a professional archaeologist. I want to know where she keeps all these ridiculously complicated degrees, and why she isn't, like, fifty.
Jillian's limpingly-described exploits are the stuff of poorly envisioned television forensics shows. She finds intact skin tissue on the mask that is only visible through a magnifying glass, and then proceeds to order Jason to "send it to the forensics lab", which is pretty hilarious because Jillian, you are British people on vacation in France, what forensics lab? Apparently there is one, anyway, because Jason sends things off to it. Science.
Jillian also wants to get the mask carbon-dated, which is hilarious. Not that you can't carbon-date anything you want - you can - but it's generally a technique you would use on things that are at least several hundred if not several thousand years old because it’s based on things like the gigantic half-lives of radioactive materials. Carbon-dating something that's barely two hundred years old is a little like going fishing in a barrel with a bazooka; it's not only overkill, it's probably not going to be very accurate.
Except that apparently it is, because it conclusively proves that the mask is from the 1880s. Because standard deviation is for bad archaeologists. This is science!
Oh, and they get to do all this because they have "a friend there in Rouen who worked at the forensic laboratory" and "a friend in Lyon who worked at the university where they did radiocarbon dating". Oh, well, of course. The forensic laboratory and the university where they do radiocarbon dating. The realism and carefully constructed world of this novel may be too much for me to handle, y’all.
Things get weird here; apparently the opera house was built in 1885 on top of the ruins of a previous one that burned down in 1881 (aha! The probable date of the original novel and the ridiculous ending of the 2004 film!). This all seems to be pointing to the idea that the events of the Phantom story apparently occurred in Rouen instead of Paris (but then why does she know about the same setup in Paris?!), which is really going to drive you up the wall when, like me, you realize halfway through the book that this either didn't happen or that no one is going to talk about it ever.
Then a guy named Michel Dubois shows up. He is "an expert in historical renovations", which is literally his entire description, so I hope nobody wanted to know anything about what time period or kind of renovation he specializes in, let alone what he looks like, sounds like, or where he came from. Things have become so interminable by page three (page motherfucking THREE) that I need to just quote it for you:
"Michel Dubois, an expert in historical renovations, contacted his long-time friend Jillian Anderson, who was vacationing in France. Michel and Jillian had gone to London University together. She was also his best friend's widow. Jillian was delighted when she heard of the discovery and told Michel she would be there as soon as she could, along with her friend Jason Williams, who was traveling with her. The two of them were staying in Paris. Jillian had met Jason three years earlier, in the Philippines at an archaeological site in Manila. Since then, they had formed an inseparable bond."
This is stultifying. Why have dialogue when you can just tell the reader what was said? Why describe anyone's thoughts, feelings, appearance, or behavior when you can just give us a narrative stream of deadly boring facts? Why bother showing two people forming an inseparable bond when you can just declare they have one? Oh, what's that? You want to at least know the name of the protagonist's dead husband? TOO BAD. SUCK IT UP.
It's not like I was expecting Jillian to be the kind of main character I love to root for, but she kicked off her career by wondering, "Why would there be a trapdoor on a main stage of the opera house?" Is she for real? Gee, I don't know, Jillian, maybe because that's COMPLETELY FUCKING NORMAL? Get out of my book.
Jillian apparently attended "London University", by which I must assume she actually means the University of London. So, naturally, she calls the "headmaster of the archaeological department", which again I must assume is actually code for the UCL Institute of Archaeology, for help with her trapdoor and mask problem. I was disappointed when, instead of laughing in her ridiculous face, he then cheerfully contacted "the minister in charge of the Historical Society in Rouen" to get her permission to go spelunk around and probably ruin things for serious historians. I'm pretty sure it's a sham permission anyway, because I don't know what the Historical Society of Rouen is (unless she's talking about the Société Historique de Normandie, in which case I hope they also laugh in her face).
Oh, look, she just got her carbon dating results back while still waiting on a reply. How fantastically speedy! I seriously need to know how a book with no action or dialogue in it can possibly go on for 280 pages.
It's the end of the chapter and I still have no idea what anyone looks like. They could be invisible gas-form aliens for all I know.
This entire book is written in the "here's what happened" style of a fourth-grade book report.
A little historical digging (just the metaphorical kind) reveals that one Erik was a silent business partner to the owner of the opera house when it was rebuilt. This reminds me distinctly and somewhat hilariously of the Cartier novel, which is the only previous time I've seen Erik actually take on a role as a contributing owner of the place.
To further our confusion, there are apparently also accounts of haunting music being played in the ruins of the house after it burned in 1881, which would have been the time of Leroux's novel's events. Join me in my epic despair at the post-novel realization that at no time, ever, will anyone reference the events of Leroux's story. It's like it didn't even fucking happen, despite these random clues. No Christine, no Raoul, clearly no redemption. If she wanted to just go with an alternate universe where that didn't happen and Jillian and Jason are taking on those roles (which they are, believe me), why keep hinting that it did (but in Rouen instead of Paris even though they referenced Paris earlier) and then pretend it's not there? What is the plan here?
Honestly, I think the problem here is that Chappel may not realize that Rouen and Paris are different places. It reads like she’s under the impression that Rouen is some kind of surburb of Paris you can get to in a half-hour carriage ride… which we can probably blame on the 2004 film again, which had Christine travel to her father’s grave from the opera house in only a few minutes rather than bothering with a change of city.
Then Jillian and Jason go off to have dinner at the Rouen Restaurant. Must be the only one in town.
Jillian feels the need, through painfully boring internal dialogue, to waste a few paragraphs establishing for us that Jason, her best friend and intellectual archaeology buddy (they're on the same "archaeological team", whatever that means), is good-natured, sweet, and a super hunk, but she has never had even a smidgen of romantic interest in him even though he does everything she asks him to and apparently accompanies her everywhere. At the time that she is doing so the reader obviously thinks, "Oh, poor Raoul-figure. Another author making you inexplicably ignorable in favor of the Phantom." Stay tuned, however, because that shit will get downright incomprehensible in ensuing chapters.
And then we launch into the story proper and Jillian starts hearing ghostly whispering of her name. I honestly thought at first that this was clearly a haunting, which is always exciting because a fully supernatural Phantom is seldom-plumbed territory but also simultaneously always worrying because of the spectre of the second Meadows novel. That’s because I’m foolish. I had forgotten about the Timeline bump on the back cover copy.
Right. Fine. She's being haunted by a time traveler. Now we can spend twenty-odd chapters watching the characters try to figure this out with all the speed of marching sea cucumbers.
Because she makes the kinds of bad decisions that cannot be mitigated no matter how much science she apparently knows, Jillian, upon visiting the local cathedral and hearing more whispers of her name, decides that clearly the thing to do is go into the basement and through several locked doors that are off-limits to visitors. The fact that she is probably going to be rewarded for this kind of monumentally inappropriate behavior is grating, especially since you have to sit through a paragraph in which she demonstrates that she is the kind of person who congratulates herself out loud on carrying a flashlight and says, in a dark basement which someone has apparently gone to great lengths to lure her into, "But what is there to fear except fear itself?" It’s an extra kick in the teeth that it’s much too early in the book for anything to happen to her.
Oh, look. There's a dude in a mask calling her to come with him into the bowels of the church's catacombs. That's not creepy at all.
Hilariously, when she returns to the surface after not freaking out nearly enough about this situation, the cathedral's caretakers scold her because that door has been locked for eighty years! ...which is why they literally keep the key to it hanging right next to it, unguarded? Apparently bad decision-making is contagious.
Now, of course, it's time to hear from the pointless best friend, because every Christine based on Lloyd Webber's work must have a Meg and Jillian is no different. Her name is Breanna, and yes, Jillian, she does need a reason to call you other than friendly interest in your day, because you are in France and she is in Scotland and this book was written when cell phone companies still collected firstborn in exchange for international minutes. Breanna is the first person in the novel to actually get any physical description, since it's important to establish that she's strawberry blonde to avoid losing out on any of the finely-crafted dynamics of this Christine-Meg relationship. Their conversation is pointless. These pages are wasted.
Thank god, we finally find out about Jillian's dead husband - well, anyway, we find out that his name was Timothy and he died of leukemia about four years ago, a mere six months into their marriage. This is the only information we will ever hear about him and the only scene in which Jillian will remember his existence. He will now conveniently fade away and commence his main job, which is providing pathos to help us sympathize with poor Jillian without actually being in any way important to anything.
The book lurches on into Stalker Theatre now and will not leave until the last page. I can't decide if the graceless, hilarious prose describing the placing of a white rose in her room is the most ridiculous thing about the evening, or the fact that Jillian is apparently not at all concerned that SOMEONE WAS JUST IN HER ROOM WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE WHILE SHE WAS IN THE SHOWER HOLY SHIT.
I felt bad through a lot of this book, because it's obvious that Chappel really is excited and enthusiastic about history. She brings up a lot of interesting landmarks, legends and places and clearly wants to talk about them. She just has no skill at all in sharing that enthusiasm with the reader, which left me feeling sad and wistful whenever she made an attempt and ended up sounding like a copied and pasted local color brochure.
Oh, by the way, guys, the hotel Jillian and Jason are staying in also has "underground passageways". Turns out almost every building in Rouen has them! Not that there aren't some out there - France loves some clandestine tunnels, though Lyon would have been a more appropriate setting for putting them beneath residential buildings and hotels - but the convenience is pretty stunning, isn't it?
But now, we have to pause for confusion and angst, because Jason has taken Jillian to a romantic restaurant for dinner! She has NO IDEA what this could mean, but it worries her.
And now, finally, at the end of the second chapter, we get an idea of what Jillian looks like, mostly because we have to look at her through Jason's eyes to confirm his unrequited love. She's tall, slender but with "perfect curves", has "chestnut" hair and "almond-shaped" hazel eyes. Ah. So she's a woman built entirely of cliches, then.
Jillian now starts having dreams about the masked man coming to hang out with her in bed and get his sexy groove on with some heavy petting. Her descriptions of him - because lord, this is one place Chappel will break her no-description rule - are literature comedy at its best. He has an intelligent face - a romantic face! A handsome face, with beautiful green eyes! We meet again, Butler. It was not unexpected, but it is funny nevertheless, especially in conjunction with her earlier talk about a face missing bones.
I gave up on Jillian forever after she wakes up from her dream because of an alarm she knows she didn't set, discovers another flower on her bedside table that she definitely didn't put there, oh, and also her nightgown is pulled down to expose her breasts. Of course, she decides that it must all have been a dream, even though gosh, it felt so real. ISN'T THE-RAPE-OF-LUCRETIA-STYLE MOLESTATION DREAMY, Y’ALL? Fucking Christ, if I have to read any many more books romanticizing how great being molested in your sleep without your consent is, I'm going to personally go to every one of these authors’ houses and give them a protracted PowerPoint presentation on why Rape and Molestation Are Bad, Y’all.
Christ. Imagine. You fall asleep in your hotel room in a foreign country where you know no one except your academic partner, you dream someone is having sex with you, and then you wake up to find things moved around and your clothes pulled off. HOW IS THIS NOT A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO.
Luckily, now we can move on to her canoodling with Jason only a few seconds later when he knocks on her door to ask her to go to breakfast and is so overcome by her hotness in her little nightie that he kisses her. Jillian, who notes that every inch of her "tingles" when he does so, immediately goes back to wondering what this all could mean and reiterating that there are no romantic feelings between them. I can only assume that there is so much archaeological and forensic knowledge stuffed into her brain that things like basic common sense and interpersonal skills were forced out of her ears.
For those who have read the original Phantom story, the owners of the inn at which Jason and Jillian are staying are the Bouquets, a name that immediately sets off warning bells and cries for everyone to flee. Monique Bouquet and her husband are around only when it's necessary for someone to enable the main characters with free gifts and reassurances of how wonderful they are, but their son, Francois Bouquet, will be around quite a lot (and, surprisingly, he's one of the blundering people in this book who doesn't end up strangled to death. How odd).
Are you guys ready for Curveball Number One? Local investigation reveals that the white roses that keep turning up in Jillian's room are from "the de Chegney's estate". Aha! Plot! Could this be a descendent of Raoul and Christine? Or, as is more likely in most bad books, a descendent of a secret Phantom love baby? These hypotheses are not correct because I was once again making the mistake of being reasonable, so instead we watch Jillian find out that the last living descendant of the de Chegney family's business partner is named Philippe - which seems like QUITE A COINCIDENCE but actually turns out to probably not have anything to do with Leroux's Philippe de Chagny at all. Unfortunately. (Incidentally, if you're wondering what the change in spelling to de Chegney is about, don't bother. It's just Chappel's way of telling us she's being original and daring.)
"Jillian got into her car and sat there until Jason drove away. That is twice he has kissed me this morning. What is he up to? Why all of a sudden does he want to be so passionate with me? she was thinking to herself. She was confused."
THAT'S BECAUSE THE AUTHOR NEEDS YOU TO BE CLUELESS FOR NO REASON AT ALL TO PROLONG THE PLOT, JILLIAN. SORRY ABOUT YOUR LIFE.
When Jillian goes out to visit the de Chegney estate and get to the bottom of all this, she meets Philippe, who is apparently a dead ringer for the Phantom she's been seeing in her dreams and hearing whisper to her in corridors. Because she is determined never to make a good call at any point in this book, she does not immediately go tell the police that she's pretty sure this dude has been sneaking into her hotel room and molesting her and instead asks him for a seminar on his family history. Which he gives because despite Chappel's determined efforts to make him a mysterious red herring that throws the reader off the scent, Philippe is pretty obviously a nice guy with no connection to any crimes or supernatural shenanigans.
But when he does explain the de Chegneys' past, the hilarity unfolds. You see, his grandfather, the opera manager, once told him a story about his business partner... the mysterious Erik de Chegney. Count Erik de Chegney.
Yes, Erik is a de Chegney now, a fact that becomes more hilarious as we go throughout the entire passage describing how he is totally a count and from a family of wealthy aristocrats.Our destitute, outcast and lowest-of-the-low Phantom clearly he needed to be landed nobility, so Chappel has gone ahead and fixed that for us. Philippe goes on to explain that when Erik's grandmother and caretaker died, Erik was forced out of the house by an evil cousin because of his face, but after joining the circus for a while received all his due riches and titles after the cousin died for plot-convenient reasons a few years later. Convenient!
The worst part is that I don't hate this idea at its core, not entirely. Erik and Raoul being literal brothers could be an amazing plot twist, whether one was the shunned Bertha-in-the-attic sibling that is trying to be as beloved as his brother for once or whether Erik was abandoned, adopted out, or sent away at birth and they meet later as adults, possibly without knowing they're related until it's too late. Those could be fucking awesome plots. I'd read them. But, as usual, this is not that, and the revelation that Erik is the de Chegney lets us know that Raoul actually did not exist in the story's original century, because, again, Leroux's story somehow didn't happen. Or something. Except that it did. Maybe.
But WAIT. There WAS a Raoul de Chegney. He's... Erik's grandpa or something? It doesn't really matter, he's completely irrelevant except as a genealogical mention. I weep.
In an attempt to get the flagging story on its feet again, Chappel sends us back to the ruins of the opera house, where Jillian, Jason and company have finally gotten a professor (who happens to have raised Jillian, so he conveniently loves her as a daughter and will sign anything she needs him to!) to come okay them to go wander around in the unsafe areas beneath it without so much as a hardhat between them. After spending entirely too much time stressing how much they wish they had blueprints but are totally going down there without them anyway, they start trekking and the reader is treated to a direct transplant of the area from the 2004 film, including the circular stair set and Jillian's near-fall into the same pool of water that Patrick Wilson's Raoul almost drowned in. Jillian shudders at the discovery of a room full of clown masks and wonders what kind of performance those could possibly be from. Gee, I don't know, Jillian, maybe one of the DOZENS AND DOZENS OF OPERAS with clowns, jesters, or masquerades in them?
On the way down, the professor helpfully fills them in on the fact that two archaeologists were found hanged in this very cellar a few years ago, in what the apparently incompetent police force of Rouen ended up declaring "a fatal accident". Also, why is this place lousy with archaeologists? Do you guys understand that 1885 was not in fact very long ago, as archaeologists measure time? Is the opera house on top of an ancient Celtic burial site or something?
Hilariously, once they have reached the bottom and confronted the underground river that is contractually required to exist in all Phantom of the Opera stories, they discover that "the entire facade of the Paris opera house" is down here. It has apparently been reproduced so the Phantom can live inside the opera house while living under the opera house which is not actually the same opera house in the first place. No one ever explains why or even seems to see the need for an explanation, including Chappel.
Within, it's again noticeably just a retread from the 2004 film's set for the Phantom's lair, with a few hilarious Chappel touches like some "unfinished music notes" on a table. What, by themselves? Are they just a bunch of stems lying around, or what?
JILLIAN. You find some hundred-plus-year-old paper that has inexplicably survived intact down here despite being in close proximity to things like mold and water, so you grab it and shove it in your backpack to look at later? WHAT KIND OF ARCHAEOLOGIST ARE YOU?
Weirdly enough, there's a bust of Erik down here, facial deformity and all, which is strange considering that most versions of the Phantom are not in a big hurry to immortalize their life-destroying faces so other people can enjoy them later. I want to know who on earth he let sculpt that, but no one will tell me. Instead, Jillian and Jason note that he is indeed missing the facial bits they thought he probably was and have a little fun choosing medical explanations for the condition, including microtia and Treacher-Collins syndrome. It’s nice to see someone in a modern-day version of the story actually think about what kind of illness or disability might be involved for once instead of defaulting to "hideous monstrosity".
After spending a lot of deeply uninteresting and embarrassing time wandering around the area "sensing his loneliness", Jillian finally leaves when the rest of the party wants to get back to the surface world. Oh, and she sees some kind of blue glow coming from a mirror, but she doesn't bother to stop and check that out because, as previously established, she is the worst archaeologist in the world.
As they're leaving, one of the students accidentally sets off a trap that nearly kills him with a noose that drops out of the ceiling. Hilariously, Jillian decides to perform a short demonstration of her incredible planning skills by sticking her hand into it, which immediately results in her being hoisted off the ground and screaming in shock like the ninny she is until the menfolk can arrive to save her.
Most of this scene is meant to be exciting in a pulp-fiction way, but its constant overflow of cliches is unstoppable. One of the students accidentally falls into the wall when he steps on a secret button, and while everyone searches in milling wildebeest confusion, Jillian pulls an Inigo Montoya at the Pit of Despair and collapses in delicate feminine distress against the wall, of course coincidentally pressing the button that opens it up. It is not a surprise to anyone that the student is dead, since the two of them turned up out of the random blue and might as well both be wearing bright red shirts and security officer insignia.
And yes, everyone, the police are going to think you're lunatics when you go back to the surface and try to explain that one of your students fell into a wall and turned up accidentally hanged to death on the other side.
In the course of contacting said police, we discover that it's not just a few locales but that in fact all of Rouen that is connected to the Great Below of the Phantom. Which would actually be a very cool, very chilling thought in the hands of a more skilled writer. Alas.
When Jillian gets back to her hotel room, there's yet another flower in the locked bedroom, this time with an accompanying love note explaining that the student's death was an accident and he's quite sorry about it. POLICE, JILLIAN. POLICE.
But no, no police. Instead she goes wandering in the basement because this is a brilliant idea in a city of interconnected underground tunnels where people sometimes die via accidental strangling. After the brief inclusion of a black cat that is seen only this once in this scene to let us know that the Phantom has the required amount of animal empathy to be a Good Guy, the Phantom shows up and attempts to lure Jillian into the tunnels with beckoning and sexiness. It's also worth noticing that he's wearing a "beige" mask that so perfectly blends into his face that it's like he doesn’t even have a life-affecting condition! You could talk about how this is a repeat of what Vehlow did in her 2003 novel, but really it’s just an excuse for Chappel to write about how hot Gerard Butler is without having to describe anything she wouldn’t personally want to bone.
Then Jason arrives to save Jillian from her own ridiculousness and he and Erik have what may be the most hysterically passionless, bland, and poorly-written single-paragraph fight anyone has ever had in a piece of literature. I’m reproducing it for you so you can understand.
"Jason ran quickly towards Jillian and pushed her away from the masked man. The masked man snarled and lunged himself angrily at the surprised Jason. They rolled in the corridor and fought. Jillian stared petrified and helpless at the scene in front of her. The masked man was on top of Jason with his hands around his neck. Jason was struggling to get free as he stared at the man whose look of hatred showed on his face. Jason found enough strength to push the masked man off him. He rolled off Jason and onto the ground. While Jason was trying to get up, the masked man tore at his coat and reached inside. He pulled out a noose and threw it vigorously at Jason, but he missed. Jillian screamed. The masked man ran off into the dark corridor and vanished."
What am I even supposed to do with that, as a reviewer? Am I supposed to first flail and cry and try to figure out how on earth this fight only took a paragraph and yet still felt interminable, thanks to the total lack of description to tell me what anything looked, sounded, smelled, or felt like? Am I supposed to start instead with getting mad about Jillian turning into a useless coatrack? Do I start with mentioning that this reminds me strongly of that one time in the Russell short stories when Raoul punched Christine in the stomach and threw her into a lake? Do I freak out about the endless word repetition first, or do I just give up and go get drunk because I've realized that there are hundreds of pages of this left to go?
Are you ready for Curve Ball Two? Jason has actually turned up to save Jillian by abandoning his garden date with Francois, the Bouquets' son, and Francois is inexplicably hostile and jealous when he deals with Jillian, and Jason and Francois seem to disappear and hang out a lot, and...
Well, how about that, y’all, it looks like Jason is bisexual!
That is neat. Or at least, it could have been neat. We have textual evidence that Jason is bisexual: he’s obviously into Jillian, thinking she’s luscious and making out with her while she’s in her nightie, but he’s also dating Francois, the innkeepers’ son, seriously enough that the guy is starting to get jealous. This is both the first time not only that we’ve had a non-straight character in an adaptation but a non-straight ANYONE from the main cast in an adaptation (since, in spite of his namesake, Jason is clearly a stand-in for the Raoul of the original novel). I don’t love that it plays into the offensive trope that bisexual people are unfaithful by having Jason waffle between Jillian and Francois, upsetting everyone, but fuck, I’m still pretty stoked about the representation.
Or I was, until I realized that the author doesn’t agree. Chappel makes it very clear that Jason is not bisexual (or pansexual, polysexual, or multisexual in any way). No, Jason is gay, according to Chappel. He’s not into women at all. It’s just that Jillian is so beautiful and desirable that Jason wants her even though he is gay and not interested in women, and that is not me reading it into the text. Chappel will confirm it later.
This is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because we’re simultaneously playing the “pick a side, bis!” trope AND the “gay people can be ‘turned’ straight by someone who’s hot enough” trope, both of which are shitty misconceptions that cause real harm to LGBTQ people. It’s a tragedy because this could have been a story where a man discovers there’s more to his sexuality than he thought, something that happens to a huge swath of multi-sexual people who live in societies that expect them to swing only one way, but instead it’s directly telling them that they’re deluded about their orientations, something they don’t need any more of. It’s a tragedy because, handled well, this could have been interesting and touching and Jason and Jillian could have grown and strengthened their relationship and their characters through it, but they won’t. And it’s a tragedy because we’re doing it all for the author’s shitty reason of wanting Jason to be no threat to Jillian’s romance with the Phantom but still pay homage to how hot she is. Jason’s orientation is just there to show us how hot the female lead is. That’s how the only queer character in all of Phantom lit up to this point is treated.
Ugh. After that and the sexual assault played as romance, I need a break.
Speaking of things designed to test my patience, Jillian decides at this point to be convinced that this is a ghost that's stalking her, which causes Jason to stare at her "as if she flew off a cuckoo's nest". He points out that he just exchanged extremely corporeal fisticuffs with the guy, but she waves away this knowledge as silly and besides the point, claiming that no one in their right mind would ever go down into the dark maze of tunnels unless they were a ghost. When Jason points out that she does that all the time, for a living, she tells him he's being unreasonable.
So now, of course, it's off to the Chateau de Chegney to investigate, leaving behind a confused Jason and an even more confused reader.
Now Jason and Francois have disappeared together, much to Jillian's annoyance, since how dare he have a love life when she wants him around to moon over her and allow her to virtuously reject him?! Sadly, the reader is hopelessly confused about it because Jillian's constant wondering about where they are, combined with everyone saying things like, "My god, Francois' car has been gone all night!" or "It's not like Jason not to check in!" makes it sound an awful lot like Erik has kidnapped or murdered them both. This does not turn out to be the case, so the ability of poor writing to torpedo a scene's intent is once again regrettably showcased.
Jillian spends too much of this chapter whining about what a jerk Jason is for thinking she's wrong or confused when she claims she's being stalked and romanced by a ghost. She neglects, of course, to consider the obvious possibility that Jason thinks she's wrong and confused because, Jillian, YOU ARE.
The Chateau de Chegney, in case anyone was wondering, is as excitingly fancy as any diamond-encrusted nonsense from before the French working class demonstrated what happens when you put your entire budget into gold plating your food. Chappel wants to make sure you know this just in case there were any lingering worries that Erik might not be the richest most fanciest aristocrat ever to sniff delicately into a hankie. Erik turns up here again through yet another mirror with a blue light behind it and Jillian spectacularly fails to alert anyone or even figure out so much as his name or intentions (because somehow she DOESN'T KNOW WHAT THOSE COULD BE yet).
Oh, and also Jillian keeps having recurring visions of herself doing or saying things around the Chateau that she has never done or said, in a sort of ongoing state of déjà vu. This makes it look an awful lot like we're going to be doing the same kind of inane Christine-reincarnation plot that the second Meadows novel so gleefully pursued, but not only is that not happening, it's not happening for completely terrible plot reasons. (Also, remember that Christine never happened. Except she did. MAYBE.)
According to Jillian's lackadaisical research, Raoul de Chegney, Erik's grandfather, was only 35 years old when he died. Don't get your hopes up that anyone will explain why or what happened to him, or anything else that might make him relevant to the plot. He's gone now. He will not be coming back.
I have to give Chappel props here for the idea that Erik uses nooses to murder because his mother hanged herself after he was born; it's a resonant psychological idea, that echo of what he might think of as his first "murder", and I would have loved to see anything done with it. Chappel does not do anything with it, but it's a good idea, so at least we have that to cling to as it lurches gracelessly across the page and then vanishes forever into the aether.
Apparently Erik also died at age 35, which would make him ludicrously young during the events of Leroux's novel, even if we assume that he died immediately thereafter. Which is of course not something we should decide, because Leroux's story is for lesser writers. Or something.
Because she has not done enough bizarre things yet (not by a long shot, my friends), Jillian decides now that she needs to reenact the graveyard scene from Lloyd Webber's musical and go visit Erik's tomb alone without telling anyone. The tomb opening of its own accord is textbook 1980's (though I assume it is drawn from Lloyd Webber's version and not the 1989 Little/Englund film), and Jillian, who sees a "perfectly preserved" body within in a transparent coffin (...Snow White?) and hears a voice calling to her to enter the tomb, proceeds to do nothing useful and just sort of hang out there until Jason, once again, runs in to save her from her own assery. Seriously, Jason. This chick is not worth it. I do not know why you keep bothering. If a later plot twist revealed that she was his sister or something, this book would actually start making sense.
If I have to read "Jillian didn't know that..." or "Unknown to Jillian..." as a pitiful segue into things happening in the scene that she can't see without bothering to make a perspective shift or in any way preserve story flow one more time, I'm going to develop spinal trauma.
NO. Professor, when you call someone and you announce that you have discovered the deadly secret of Rouen, you do not follow that up with, "And I'll be there on Monday so I'll explain then." WHAT? That's not okay. These people are in Rouen right now, in danger of possibly fatal stranglings! You can't just not tell them what's going on over the phone because you want to see the look on their faces when you do it in person! You are everything that is wrong with academia, Professor Apparently Doesn't Care About Jillian That Much After All.
Jason and Francois are now spending all their time together, and Jillian, now blithely going on a date with Philippe, the guy who looks just like her stalker, even reflects that it's okay for her to do so without consulting Jason because it's not like Jason asks her permission to hang out with Francois. But... but... but then everyone is still like "what are those two doing together!", Jillian included, because what on earth could two dudes who regularly go on obvious dates be doing? This book is a spectacular job of a very poorly done No Homo in service of plot twist from an author who absolutely can’t pull it off.
The worst part about all this is that I really wish this were good. Phantom stories seldom touch on any orientation besides very vanilla heterosexuality, and when they do it's almost always in a negative light (like the attempted molestation of a young boy by an older man in the Kay novel, for instance). The idea of the Raoul figure being queer could be done so well and provide such an interesting facet to a story! Especially in a period version (but even in a modern one), the idea of him struggling with his perception of himself, the social mores around him, and the religious and personal ramifications of the situation could be amazing.
But no. Instead, Jason is not only confusingly possibly gay/bi/pan because the author forgot to tell us about it, but he's that way only because she needed an excuse to remove him from the equation as a real contender for Jillian's romantic interest, and also lol what are multisexual orientations those aren’t a real thing.
Y'all, this book is the worst.
But wait! Now Jillian is all mystified by all the time Jason and Francois spend together again? Didn’t she JUST FIGURE THAT OUT?
Jillian has no time for this mystery, though, because she has to go to a ridiculously swanky dinner with Philippe instead. Good thing she just happened to have an epically fancy evening gown stashed in her vacation luggage! This is a woman who is always prepared for surprise drinks and dinner at a chateau.
Now Jason is exacerbating my headache by thinking how bodacious Jillian is in her fancy dress and being all pissy because he doesn't like the idea of her being with another man tonight. YOU WERE JUST ON A DATE FIVE MINUTES AGO, JASON.
Apparently, in Chappel's France, you toast by saying "Salute!", because English translations of Spanish toasts are where it's at.
After she comes home from her date (on which Philippe is of course a perfect gentleman and also gaggingly rich, so she is totally willing to overlook that whole perfect-resemblance-to-stalker thing), there's yet another new flower in her room and she notes that different lights are on than the ones she had left when she went out. After "sauntering" over to smell the flower in a leisurely, unconcerned manner and checking out the mirror (for what? ghost fingerprints?), she shrugs and goes to bed. JILLIAN. She’s giving me secondhand anxiety.
...oh, god. No. Instead, she wakes up because a man has sat on her bed and put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming, and her first reaction is, obviously, to put her hands in his shirt and caress his nipples. JILLIAN, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. I knocked my drink over, I was so upset by the unrealistic response to the utter terror of waking up with a stranger's hand over your fucking mouth. THIS BOOK IS CAUSING ME REAL-WORLD PROPERTY DAMAGE.
The extra level of tragic hilarity that is Chappel's careful description of what can only be the ridiculous open poet's blouse of the 2004 film only adds to the trauma. And now, my friends, hearken back to the excerpts I quoted for you before; remember that amazing fight between Jason and Erik? Now realize that I am now reading erotica in that style. It is killing me. In fact, while I don't normally quote things that are technically porn, I'm going to quote it, because I feel it is my duty to make sure all of you have the opportunity to read complete failure at sexy writing at least once in your lives. Turn away now, if you are offended by sexy writing or don't want to be part of this whole shameful affair.
"Jillian removed her nightgown and lay down. He gazed at her body and marveled at the beauty of it. He had never seen a woman's naked form. Erik sat down on the bed, placed his hands on the flat of her belly, and gently slid them upwards toward her breasts. He cupped them and gently rubbed her nipples just as she did to him. Erik was amazed how her nipples responded to his touch and a faint smile formed on his face. Jillian's body quivered under his caresses. It had been a long time. Impatiently, Jillian put her hands once more around his neck and almost roughly brought him crashing against her. He lay on top of her and Jillian could feel his hardness. He was ready and she guided him this time to her slippery opening.
Erik collapsed, breathing heavily on top of Jillian after his blissful release."
Y'all... that is the entire sex scene. I did not cut a single word. That's all there is. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I feel like I need to say something more about its leaden, brain-meltingly simplistic prose or its hilarious insert-into-slot-A mechanical efficiency, or wonder how the hell a writer comes to the conclusion that she should combine the phrase "slippery opening" with random short-lived fade to black, but all I can feel is a sense of semi-horrified wonder. I have just read the worst sex scene of my life.
Also, geez, Erik, then you just throw on your clothes and are like, "oh, man, I gotta go" and run out? You're awful. As far as I can tell from her impression of a two-by-four, you didn't even begin to make this that much fun for Jillian, and are you seriously trying to tell a lady that you're out of time to hang out with her when you're here because you're A TIME TRAVELER?
Jillian insists on repeatedly referring to this as their "night of passion". She must have been reading an entirely different book than I was.
At any rate, somehow she is still convinced that he is a ghost, because, come on, he was wearing nineteenth-century clothes - that proves it! She is unperturbed by the "wetness from Erik's release" that she's blissfully lying in. Eww. Are you saying you think you're covered in ghost sperms, Jillian? I don't even know what to do with you anymore.
By the way, Jillian discovers that Erik has left his grandmother's super-awesome expensive bejewelled necklace for her, which I knew was going to happen because earlier Chappel spent entirely too much time describing it in an oil painting of said grandmother that Jillian saw at the Chateau. It's very obvious when an item is going to be a plot point when it's the only thing described in a chapter that swims in generalities and grey, hazy images. Jillian is, of course, thrilled, because this clearly illustrates Erik's abiding True Love for her, while out in the real world I am once again noting that dudes in these stories seriously need to stop leaving the equivalent of cash on the dresser, because when you are from the nineteenth century that sends a very specific message and it is not "you are a woman I respect and consider marriageable". Just because the heroines are always clueless enough to not realize this doesn't mean that the readers are.
Oh, good, here comes Jason to also get in on the jewelry-equals-love game by stuttering his way through giving Jillian a thoroughly expensive ring for her birthday while he marvels at her beauty. I hope he and Francois have had an honest conversation about exclusivity and polyamory.
Francois' feelings come to light in this chapter, in which he is clearly jealous of Jason's attachment to Jillian and is said to be afraid of Jillian taking Jason away from him. Their relationship seems more and more clear, which should make me happier but really isn't doing its job. Jason flippantly explains that he told Francois that Jillian will always come first, which leads me to wonder:
Francois. Honey. Why are you even dating Jason? I get that he's very hot and apparently treats his friends well, but this is getting ridiculous. Jillian's not his kid or his sister. He is making kissy-face with her while telling you that you will always be less important than she is. You need to find someone who is not a jackass, particularly a jackass who the author is putting through some kind of miserable orientation wringer. Save yourself.
Because her genius knows no bounds, Jillian decides that she will now make Francois her confidant against Jason and confides in him about her ghostly nocturnal sexytimes. At least he is reasonably freaked out and checks to make sure she wasn't hurt, but he is not freaked out enough to tell her she needs to take precautions or to, you know, EVEN MENTION THE POLICE. He will, however, take her ghost-sperm-covered sheet for DNA testing. At the… secret innkeepers’ lab?
Jason goes off to Lyon to visit some unnamed friend who probably hails from the venerable Plot d'Vice family and proceeds to spend his long-distance phone calls screaming at poor Francois for not watching Jillian to make sure she doesn't run off and disappear. It is seriously a dick move, not only because of the romantic situation but because if Jason were actually so "sincerely worried about Jillian's well-being", he probably wouldn't be in fucking Lyon, now, would he?
Oh, hey, DNA testing worked, so it must not be a ghost after all! IT'S PROBABLY TIME TRAVEL.
Jillian, who keeps visiting the Chateau de Chegney like some kind of wealth-attracted moth, keeps trying to solve the "mystery" of why the second floor of the place is roped off and all the doors locked. Apparently she has never been to any kind of historic site or museum before, because if she had she would realize that roped-off areas do not mean mystery; they mean cleaning, restoration, safety concerns, or other mundane things that the public are not at a museum to deal with. But no. No, she's convinced there's some kind of dark secret locked in the second-floor bedrooms. Why else would the stairs be roped off?
Oh, and she notices the necklace she's wearing in the painting of Erik's grandmother. A shocker! Well, that proves it's time travel! In Jillian's world, there are no such things as either antiques or the booming jewelry reproduction market.
When she sneaks into the roped-off upstairs section, as we all knew she would because her motivations are more predictable than burnt toast, she discovers to her shock that Erik is up here as well. I can't decide if the worst part of this scene is the fact that she understands his antiquated nineteenth-century French perfectly without a hitch despite not being a native speaker even of modern French, the fact that we're now embarking on yet another sex scene, this one just as horrifyingly bad as the first, or the fact that said sex scene is happening on top of centuries-old antique furniture because, as I may have mentioned, Jillian is the worst archaeologist in the entire world. The entire world.
After departing and leaving her half-dressed in the wreckage of an off-limits section of a historical site, Erik goes off thinking morosely to himself that he wants Jillian to marry him but he can't ask her. She might bolt, and he "loves her too much" to lose her.
No, you don’t. You don't love her. You don't know a single goddamn fact about her other than that she is obviously not a champion when it comes to making safe decisions, which is what's enabling you to stalk her so effortlessly. You don't know anything about what she likes, what she does with her time, where she comes from, what her personality is like - YOU ARE A CREEPY STALKER WHO SOMETIMES SHOWS UP TO SEXUALLY ASSAULT HER IN THE NIGHT AND POSSIBLY DESTROY PRICELESS OLD CREDENZAS AND BEDSPREADS. YOU HAVE NEVER EVEN HAD A CONVERSATION. And Chappel is not helping us out here - this is not a case of a person who is not able to understand love or who suffers from developmental disorders that make interpersonal relationships hard or anything. This is just a straight-up Stalker Stranger = True Love equation. STOP IT.
Oh, well, but he "sensed" her compassion. So there you go.
Now, I have not seen Timeline, the Gerard Butler movie responsible for all this time-traveling nonsense. All I know about it is that it's based on a Michael Crichton novel and that it was pretty thoroughly panned when it came out for being, in the words of reviewers, "the most ridiculous movie plot ever" and "horrendously awful". My cursory search turned up the revelation that it sends people back in time via a fax machine, and then I stopped looking because I couldn't bear the idea of having to wonder when the time-fax was going to show up in Chappel's book (good news: it doesn't, so we have that, at least). I can't really weigh in on how much that film overlaps with this book's content or whether or not any of these horrible choices are the result of it, but I'm seriously considering a bonus viewing later, if only so I can blame more people for having a part in this debacle.
And speaking of blame... enjoy with me the revelation that Erik's lasso is, in fact, actually magical. I'm serious. It is self-tightening and attacks anyone who puts a body part inside it. This is explained by a group of Romani people (because when there's pseudo-magical bullshit happening in a Phantom story that nobody wants to explain, it was always the Romani), who taught Erik how to make nooses that are "dipped in mysterious concoctions" to achieve this effect. This is seriously all the explanation Chappel is going to bother giving us, so check off “rampant and completely unnecessary racism” from your Bad Adaptation Bingo Card.
I mentioned Timeline above because we have now finally encountered the actual time travel device, and it is... a mirror. A giant fucking underground mirror that is a portal between times. While this could be delightfully Carroll-esque if written by someone else, it just leaves us with the mother of all plot holes as I try to figure out what the hell this even is. Did Erik build it, because he's a genius like that? No, apparently not. Apparently, it predates him. Apparently, it's been in the basement for several generations before him as well. Apparently, previous de Chegneys have also used it to time travel, and none of them have any idea where it came from, either. APPARENTLY, THE PLANET IS FULL OF SELF-PROPAGATING UNDERGROUND TIME MIRRORS. Y'ALL HEARD IT HERE FIRST.
Erik's master plan is revealed here and it is of course to take Jillian to 1885 so she can marry him and be the Countess de Chegney. I'm getting visions of happy aristocratic bliss right now, aren't you? But, of course, he needs a minute to angst in the spotlight because he can never allow Jillian to see his face, which is kind of impractical in the context of marriage. Why do so many later authors try to combine the idea of the Phantom hiding his face with the idea of him getting married to a real live woman? Those things do not go together. I think we have all read enough fairy tales to know that.
Leroux's Erik certainly didn't try to do anything so ridiculous - he never broached marriage while he was still masquerading as an angel and he definitely didn't bother hiding his face from her all that much once she'd unmasked him and he was threatening to murder everyone unless she agreed to some shotgun nuptials. He didn’t even bother hiding his face from people he wasn’t going to marry, showing up bare-faced to intentionally terrify people at both the managers’ dinner and the masquerade ball. If you're going to play up a guy as never being willing to show his face to a woman he's marrying, you're going to have to do some psychological work to explain why he even thinks that's feasible, much less why she'd be okay with the situation.
Back in 1885, Erik has a stableboy named Gaston - so apparently, if you were wondering where Leroux got his version of the story, it was from revenge fiction he wrote about his shitty boss. At least, I assume so. Chappel doesn't bother to pursue anything about him (other than that he was an orphan that big-hearted Erik rescued and feeds, of course, because orphans are the other great character humanizer along with animals), not even to bother actually hinting at this being the original novel’s author. So watch that brief mention float on down the river and away and shed a tear for what might have been.
What the fuck, Erik? Not only is he now planning to propose immediately (to a woman he has NEVER HAD A COMPLETE CONVERSATION WITH) despite just whining a few pages ago about how he can't do that, but he's also already had matching wedding bands made for himself and Jillian, with the wedding date he’s decided on inscribed on them. Even a lady you haven't been time-stalking and then running away from for a grand total of two days would have grounds to be pissy at you for your blatant failure to actually consider whether or not she wanted to say yes, not to mention someone you DON'T EVEN KNOW. YOU ARE OUT OF LINE. CHAPPEL, STOP REWARDING HIM FOR BEING OUT OF LINE.
In yet another ill-advised spelunk into dangerous areas everyone tells her to stay out of, Jillian pauses for an entire paragraph to talk to us about her lantern straps and how they stop her from dropping it. Thrilling.
Now we have to endure more “action” and “suspense.” Jillian falls through the floor of the de Chegney chapel and ends up suspended above the GIGANTIC UNDERGROUND RIVER that is apparently under it in an Indiana-Jones-style scene that would have been a lot more palatable if Jillian were in any way able to capably take care of herself like Indiana Jones instead of hanging from a rope screaming like a wet cat until Jason once again has to come try and save her. The scene goes off the charts when it comes to ridiculousness, with Jason reassuring Jillian that she should let go and fall into the river below so she can let "the rapids" carry her out, and also that he has a map that lets him know the underground layout so this is perfectly safe. Unless this is a map that is helpfully marked to let him know that there are no undertows or rocks in this underground river, it sounds more like he's trying to kill her than help. Then again, he goes ahead and jumps in with her, so maybe he just knows the author has their backs.
And, of course, after they magically float to safety without so much as a bruise, the entire police force of Rouen, plus the Chief of Police, is waiting on the shore to personally hand them out of the river. Things must be very slow in the Rouen police offices. Possibly because no one in this city has any clue how to report anything to them.
Okay, we're back to Sexual Tension Theatre, where Francois is being jealous again (in fact, he says so outright) and he considers outing Jillian's tryst with Erik to either Jason or the police in revenge. PLEASE DO SERIOUSLY THIS WOMAN NEEDS HELP.
I don't think Jillian knows what the word "belittle" means, if she thinks that Jason yelling at her for breaking her promise to stop investigating dangerous places and then almost getting killed as a result is being belittled. As is customary in bad Phantom literature, any orders from the Raoul character are immediately decried as draconian browbeating, while commands from Erik are considered sexy and acceptable without question.
Jason is feeling bad about yelling at his friend (oh, Jason, honey, it's okay; yelling is the only way to get around the protective I-can't-hear-you coating on Jillian's brain), so he gets enormously drunk and shows up at her room to start making out with her and freaking her out. And also freaking ME out - JASON. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. Upon realizing he's gone over the line, he instead begs to be allowed to sleep chastely in her bed with her and hold her, probably because he's drunk, confused, and worried about her having almost died. Jillian allows this because she is all about bad decisions and then spends most of the night wondering what him kissing her so passionately could mean so I can make sure not to have any rest from being so tired of this that I hope the entire hotel gets hit by a train.
You know, if Jason had come out as gay and Jillian knew this, her being repeatedly confused by his advances would make a lot more sense. Unfortunately, Chappel has failed to ever mention Jason’s sexuality in any way; literally the only reason we know he isn’t straight is because he’s dating a dude, and even THAT is handled in a coy “oh whatever are they doing over there just bros being bros amirite” way that makes me want to yell.
I'm so tired of everything. In the morning, Erik immediately shows up and tries to strangle Jason, and of course Jillian decides that it's imperative that she first establish for him that she didn't sleep with Jason, not any of these other pesky concerns like Jason speedily dying nearby or the fact that Erik is fucking attacking people. She finally gets him to leave and Jason turns out not to be asphyxiated, so her boneheaded choices are rewarded once again.
In the course of all this, however, she did let slip that she had already slept with Erik, which means that she and Jason now have a towering fight about the situation as soon as he has time to process it and flip the fuck out over her sleeping with a murderous stalker who has almost killed him multiple times (he’s so dramatic). By far my favorite moment is when in an attempt to justify her actions Jillian says that she just "wanted to give him a chance to feel like a man" and that "he had never been with a woman," and Jason's like, dude, neither have I, YOU ARE TALKING TO A GAY MAN. It was a fleeting moment of triumph and Jillian barely even noticed it, ignoring it like she does everything else Jason says, but I comforted myself with visions of what real, reasonable people would look like in that situation, because that was a finishing move that led to conversational K.O. if I've ever seen one.
It's also worth noticing that the words "gay" and "homosexual" make only one appearance in the novel each, and this is one of them. Any other time anyone brings the subject up, they just talk about Jason's "orientation" in coughs and asides like he's some kind of vaguely shameful compass that only points at attractive men.
Of course Jillian just ends up kicking Jason out, because he's making sense and sense apparently burns her or something. He goes to find Francois for comfort in a scene that almost manages to be touching despite its poor writing, making me wish this story were actually about them instead of being the romantic tale of a nitwit and her violent molesting stalker.
Back with Jillian, after she establishes that she just can't stay mad at Erik because of his poor piteous face (sorry, Jason, apparently ALMOST MURDERING HER BEST FRIEND IN FRONT OF HER is not high on her list of defining traits for this guy), we have to sit through yet more revoltingly boring sexytimes and "oh, man, I have an early meeting" jetting from Erik. All of this motivates Jillian to suddenly realize that she must be hopelessly in love with him, which is of course the natural response that occurs in all women who have just slept with a murderer they don't know who keeps leaving them unsatisfied after sex.
Y'all. Y'ALL. In some heavy-handed backstory from the professor, musing on how much he loves Jillian and how tragic her life was as a child, Jillian's original, pre-marriage last name is revealed to have been Croft. OH. I SEE. If you haven't been envisioning her as Angelina Jolie the entire time, you've apparently been doing it wrong. This book is a potpurri of bad movies.
In his musings, the professor relates that he met Jillian at age six at the British museum when he asked in a kindly, rhetorical old-man manner, "Don't you wish you could read those?" of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs she was looking at and she immediately translated all of them for him. It's blindingly obvious that Chappel knows absolutely nothing about Egyptian hieroglyphs or she'd know that not only is is almost impossible for a six-year-old of any kind to interpret them, but they're not like English letters; they're more like word pictograms and representations. It is not possible to read them out loud like that. Even Egyptologists who have studied them for decades don't know for certain what vowels go where or whether or not certain images might refer to a few different concepts and are still arguing about the interpretation of some symbols. In short, Jillian is bullshit, as usual. The Mummy lied to you, Chappel.
But that will not stop Chappel from subjecting us to a long litany of Jillian’s amazing genius and prodigious talents, which so impress the professor that he is willing to take off from his work at the university to educate and raise her for free. He must be pretty disappointed with the buffoon she has turned out to be in adulthood.
Finally, FINALLY, we have actual confirmation: the professor here mentions that he knows Jason's "gender preference", but also that Jason loves Jillian very deeply. It's nice to have confirmation. Too bad it doesn't involve actually using any actual terminology that would make it clear, and that we didn't get it until PAGE ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FUCKING NINE.
It’s disheartening that we also don’t get any real exploration of what that means for Jason. Okay, so if he’s attracted to men but loves Jillian deeply, is it platonic love? Familial? Is he gay but biromantic, and he can fall in love with people of various genders and Jillian is one of them? Or is the professor’s weaselly wording accidentally accurate and Jason is bisexual but usually prefers men, and Jillian is the unusual but not unheard of woman he’s attracted to?
No one knows or cares. Jason is gay, Jillian is so hot she turns him straight only for her, and if you were hoping for a deft or nuanced discussion of LGBTQ politics, you’re not fucking getting it here.
The horrible half-assed time-travel plot is just making me want to go watch something better, like the bad but good 2001 time travel romance Kate & Leopold, which now that I mention it probably also influenced this mess.
You know, if it weren't for the fact that her name is no longer Croft, I would have literally forgotten that Jillian was ever married by now. Apparently it was not particularly important, since she hasn't thought of her husband since the very first chapter and no one in the world remembers his existence. Poor Timothy, sacrificed on the altar of pathos. If only you had gotten to affect her life in... let's say in any way at all.
In another plot twist that seems intended to confuse more than enlighten, it turns out that the de Chegneys are actually the Chenneys, an English family that emigrated a few generations ago and changed their name to avoid being connected to their original home. Which leaves us staring an enormous gaping plot hole in the face, because how the fuck are they counts who own a chateau now? Does Chappel have any idea whatosever how the aristocracy worked in post-revolution France?
After he makes another strident speech about how no one must ever let Jillian out of their sight or the consequences could be most dire, Jason leaves with everybody else to go check out Erik's tomb en masse. They literally say, "I am sure she will be fine," as they go. Is everyone here continually being affected by a mind-altering memory-eraser? Is that the secret of Rouen?
And by the end of the chapter Jason once more feels the need to tell Jillian "how he felt about her" as urgently as possible, but by this point in the novel I'm just being made angry and tired and despairing all at the same time.
All is not well for the characters, either, because when Jillian espies Jason, Francois, and the professor driving off somewhere without her, she tails them to their destination and then "storms" after them demanding an explanation, because apparently she has never heard of adults hanging out with each other without inviting her. Then she goes on to have the gall to start complaining about all the police around when they're investigating the tomb (FINALLY, SOMEONE CALLED THE POLICE. DON'T LISTEN TO HER, WHOEVER YOU WERE, YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT) and complaining about the protective headgear they're wearing, because it makes it look like they're all expecting to get garroted at any moment. Fact: they ARE because that's what keeps HAPPENING. I wish this character were self-aware enough to realize what a huge ass she keeps making of herself.
At any rate, when the police open up the tomb to inspect it, they indeed find Erik's body, which is, as Jillian previously saw, perfectly preserved. This is attributed to his "airtight" nineteenth-century coffin plus a lot of marble around him that must be keeping the body cold. Obviously, that’s not going to work; sure, maybe you could get away with him having dried out/mummified rather than rotting, but that’s not what’s being described. What this really is is Chappel not wanting sweet, studly Erik to look all creepy and decayed and dead-like. That would be gross. Not her Phantom. Who would ever want that in the character?
Jillian flails around a bunch trying to convince everyone that the body is not the same guy who keeps molesting her because he doesn't look the same, but once it's pointed out to her that that's just age, she has many tearful breakdowns instead. Which makes no sense because TIME TRAVEL. JILLIAN. PAY ATTENTION.
Oh. No. I didn't mean you should tell the police that it's time travel. I thought you would want to maintain some credibility with them. Oh, well.
When pressed to talk about his feelings here, Jason admits that, "I also love Francois, but not as strongly as Jillian." While Francois is standing, like, right there. Leaving aside the fact that he probably doesn't love Francois because he only met him like a week or two ago (remember, this book is all about instant true love that requires no getting-to-know-you period)... fuck you, dude. You, and your author, and this whole stupid plot device. Francois, go get a better boyfriend.
Jillian's no prize, either, because she chooses this moment to publicly scream at Jason for telling the police that he spent the night in her room. Yes. He is such an overwhelming cad. Why are men who are willing to lie on police reports so hard to find these days?
Now that the police are finally involved, they move Jillian to a new hotel so she won't be in the same room that keeps constantly getting broken into, which is what I have been saying all along. The new hotel room has "Scandinavian furnishings". I'm tempted to envision Norse wall-benches and three-legged stools, but I'm pretty sure that Chappel actually means the furniture is from IKEA. Oh, and the room also has a freestanding mirror, because nobody thought that might be a bad idea under the circumstances.
Jillian here notes that she "longs" for Jason, but "in a far different way" from how she presumably also longs for Erik. That doesn’t make any sense. She's been spending the entire novel saying that she does not long for Jason, nor has she ever done so. You’re the worst, Jillian. You show all the ambiguity and subtleness of conflict of the Penguin.
And in case I did not hate her decisions enough YET, Jillian now decides to attempt to seduce Jason, almost succeeding before he leaves in confusion. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, YOU ASSBURGER? IS IT JUST YOUR MISSION TO KILL ME WITH MY OWN BLOOD PRESSURE? LEAVE YOUR GAY FRIEND YOU KEEP SAYING YOU DON’T EVEN LIKE ALONE.
Now we have to sit through an excruciating conversation in which Jason talks about how Jillian has made his "gender preference" change and how he was a little "confused" but it's fine now. This is a shitty, shitty trope that we’ve seen far too often in fiction of every kind, and it’s a shitty, shitty message to everyone in the world that gay people are in fact wrong and you should tell them condescendingly that they just haven’t met the right <insert gender> here yet to realize they were actually straight all along. It could have been a touching tale of a man discovering he was attracted to more than one gender and dealing with the ensuing confusion and excitement… but instead, Chappel just straight up reaches out of this book and slaps every queer person in the world across the face.
So what do we have left that can make this book even more bananas? Oh, I know - NOW CHRISTINE CAN SHOW UP.
Except not really. She's just some random friend of Francois' who turns up here for no good reason, a blonde ballet dancer and the daughter of the mayor. Her job is to sing "Material Girl" at karaoke while everyone laughs at her because man, that's so Christine. As far as I can tell, she's just here so Chappel can hate on the original Christine without actually having to put her in the book anywhere.
Jillian's statement, "As an archaeologist, I treat all skeletons with respect," might be interesting in other hands. As it is, though, it just seems like a weird necrophilia moment, considering her relationship with the most animated skeleton of all, the Phantom.
The role reversal of Jason as the singer who loves karaoke is a nice tidbit (though of course we still have to be assured that Jillian is totally an awesome singer but is just too demurely shy to do it in front of other people), but it's mostly lost in the swamp of poor plotting as Francois sneaks off to make a deal with Erik to kidnap Jillian, thus getting rid of his competition for sexy singin' Jason. It's helpful of Chappel to occasionally tell me that Francois is jealous in the narrative, because other than his weird choices I seriously have no clue whatsoever as to his emotional state thanks to the terrible, terrible storytelling.
Jillian of course loves being kidnapped, even with the help of a Francois who keeps indulging in wicked smirking for no reason, so she pets on Erik's face now that she's seen it and of course there's nothing wrong with it and she has no qualms about it and tearful sex and treacly true love and blah blah blah blah. When he then demands that she move to the 1800s with him, however, she makes her only explicable move of the entire novel and says no, mostly because of all the reasons ever. So of course he yells, and of course he threatens to kill people, and of course he menacingly leaves his engagement ring for her and departs for 1885 in a huff.
And that was all the willpower Jillian had, apparently, because now she removes the birthday present ring Jason gave her and starts wearing Erik's engagement ring instead.
"Jason shrugged his shoulders in alarm." This must be the most bored kind of alarm ever.
Are you ready for yet another highly romantic curveball? It turns out that Erik's shenanigans are not unique to him; apparently the men of the Chenney family have been kidnapping women from the future to marry them for the last 150 years. Because nothing is as sweet and romantic, not to mention smart, simple, and obviously normal, as habitually kidnapping women from the future instead of dating any in your own time. What the hell is wrong with these people? Dude, this is fucking terrifying. They're rapists from the past. What do you even do about that?
While everyone freaks out over this legitimately horrible realization, I get to freak out over yet more confusing interpersonal bullshit. Apparently Francois and Jason were already an item before Jason even got to France, which makes no sense but nobody cares about that enough to explain. The first mention of this is an offhand aside from the narrator, who clearly assumes that we knew this was a long-term relationship, because heaven forbid we discover it through action or even dialogue. We discover this because the narration is also explaining that he intentionally got his mother to put Jillian in the Room Where Women Disappear from Time Travel Kidnapping in an attempt to get rid of her so he could have Jason all to himself. Holy shit, it's like Chappel couldn't remember her own plot either and just started making things up.
Also, now is when we get to listen to Jason's gay-no-more speech, in which he says a lot of phrases like, "Sure, I preferred the company of men before, but..." and frequently says that he was only ever friends with Francois anyway. But... but the dates! And the significantly disappearing all night together! And the tender embraces! I hate this book so much.
Jillian decides to give up what pathetic remnants of a spine she has here and begin moaning about how she can't believe she was so selfish and she should have gone with Erik to the past to "give him happiness", because fuck her own needs and wants, like living with people she knows in places with central heat and plumbing.
Jason points out that this is an asinine point of view to take. Jillian responds with the classic "You had your chance!" defense, with a nice serving on the side of "You can't say anything bad about the Phantom whatsoever because of his tragic deformity!" Because somehow, a lot of badly-written sequels and derivative novels about the Phantom seem to have the idea that being unfortunate makes you somehow blameless for every bad thing you do, because you started with the short end of the stick. Having a facial condition means Erik is immune from selfishness, apparently.
After hearing Jason's "I'm not gay anymore, folks!" speech coupled with all the declarations of how they were never romantically involved in the first place, Francois gets understandably drunk. Jillian chases him down to... I actually have no idea why she does this particular incomprehensible thing in her long line of them, but he takes a swing at her and then she has to once again flail around and beg Erik not to kill him in her whiny, yet clearly beautiful voice.
I'm so very tired. And bored. And disgusted.
Oh, and by the way, in this chapter Francois also begins realizing how unignorably hot and gorgeous Jillian is. Watch out, boys - she's some kind of hetero torpedo. Jillian is the Straight Agenda.
And now, surprise! Jillian suddenly gains a sick aunt in London who begins dying of cancer so she can conveniently depart to go deal with that situation! The only purpose of this incredibly obvious contrivance is to get Jillian out of France so she can miss the deadline to go back to 1885 with Erik. It's graceless, but I don't care anymore because it means we're getting close to the end of this trashheap of shattered cinematic dreams.
There was no Chapter 26. I am dead serious. I seriously thought this book had made me my brain skip or something, but it's actually not there.
We jump right into Aunt Helen's funeral, so I guess she died (perhaps the missing Chapter 26 would have enlightened us as to all the emotional events pertaining to her passing). The funeral happens to be on June 30th, which is oh-so-coincidentally the day Erik had inscribed on their rings as their wedding date. Bizarrely, Philippe turns up here as a sort of weird consolation prize, mostly so she can think hilarious things like "oh, he has Erik's face!" without irony, but he doesn't get to stay because Jason runs him off.
And then the two of them go globetrotting again like NOTHING EVER HAPPENED. No ridiculous French bullshit, no dramatic sexual orientation changes, no students getting killed for their curiosity. Yay! Happy fun times!
You get twenty points if you even remember who Breanna is, because by this point I sure didn't. The blonde best friend is only important because Jillian decides at this point to go spend the winter with her in Scotland while Jason is doing research in the Galapagos or something (look, it's not important, okay? Jason is basically over for the book). I did enjoy that all of Breanna's animals are mythologically named, including Zeus the horse and Thor and Odi (but not Odin) the dogs. Zeus is a giant black stallion, of course, pursuant to contractual laws applied to all Phantom spin-offs.
Jillian is so sad and lonely. She misses Erik. Shed a tear for her, everyone.
Does... does Jillian ever, you know, work? First she was on vacation, then she went home to see her aunt, and now she's apparently just spending months in Scotland on a whim, mooching off her friend. Is she the Wandering Archaeologist, doomed by a curse to never write any papers or pursue any digs? This might explain why she's so terrible at her supposed profession.
And now, your final "plot twist" for the book: Jillian is totes pregnant, you guys, which she only notices when she gets doctor confirmation at five months because she is far too unaware to notice any physiological effects in her own body. Oh, good - the Phantom's spawn rises again, just as it has in too many self-published sequels to count.
NO. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD TIME TRAVEL. "Erik has a right to know" - lady, Erik is dead! He has been for a century! You seriously want to gamble on the assumption that this unexamined time travel is fetus-safe? Not to mention that you're going to be giving birth in the nineteenth century - do you have any idea how bad medical care is there? And what about the kid? Don’t you want them to get all the advantages of a normal life in the present, where they can get things like vaccinations and schooling that doesn't involve earnest discussion of the continent of Mu?!
Breanna, bless her heart, points a lot of this out when Jillian waltzes in to share her criminally poorly thought-out plan and ask for help pulling it off. Jillian easily shuts her down by irrefutably stating that, well, she has 125 years of knowledge to draw from that others in the time period won't, so she'll be fine. JILLIAN, YOU DON'T HAVE RELIABLE KNOWLEDGE OF ANYTHING THAT HAPPENED MORE THAN TEN MINUTES AGO. And the idea of having all of human advancement for the past 125 years in your head? OH, REALLY? CAN YOU GO INVENT FUCKING PENICILLIN?
And, of course, she swears Breanna to secrecy so that Jason can never find out, because she doesn't want him to know what happened to her even though that is a monumentally shitty thing to do to your best friend and she was just being all happy about his presence a few pages ago. Sorry, Jason. Have fun spending the rest of your life wondering whether something unspeakable happened to your friend who you are kind of in love with, or if she just straight up cut you out of her life.
Clearly, the thing to do to accomplish this is to go back to France and find Francois. This plan has no flaws. And Francois is inexplicably happy to see her, so... god DAMN it, Chappel, I am so tired of you rewarding this character's incredibly thoughtless choices.
Apparently Francois wants to be rid of her as much as I do, because he agrees to help. "They returned to the Old Inn after purchasing an inflatable boat and a nineteenth-century gown." WHERE, AT YE OLDE COSTUMING AND SPORTING GOODES? JUST GO ALREADY.
Y'all. I seriously, seriously do not understand everyone moping and bleating about the fact that she missed the June 30th date for the wedding with Erik. Not only was it a random date he set without consulting her, but: TIME TRAVEL.
Oh, it turns out the dress was from "the costume store". Well, I'm sure it lacks no authenticity whatsoever, and that the lack of proper undergarments or accessories will only look charming and not at all like she’s an escapee from the Asylum for Improper Girls.
But no, there is nary a sidelong glance at her attire nor the slightest trip over the archaic French. Off she goes to neverending bliss and they are reunited to live forever. Hurrah.
So apparently the blue light that always appears when time travel is occurring is actually a high-voltage electrical event that hurts travelers quite a lot (which explains Erik always being kind of reluctant to do it, earlier). However, since everyone knows that unborn children are actually cooking inside magical thunderstones immune to electricity, this is fine for everybody.
Oh, and y’all, the BIGGEST SURPRISE - it turns out that Philippe was related to Erik all along! You don't say! "No one knows" why his family never told him, but Jillian helpfully leaves directions to a will she has Erik write so that he can inherit the chateau after she leaves.
And one final rewind - remember Jillian's recurring déjà vu? That wasn't reincarnation, guys - it was because she was remembering things she did in the past because she lived in 1885! Except that that makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER, because that hadn't HAPPENED YET. Even if it's technically in the common past it was still in her future, and if she'd been locked into the modern-day time's point of view, she'd be DEAD AND NOT NOTICING ANYTHING.
Then they leave, live their lives, and it's the end of the book. And I can only finally rally at the final line: "Jillian was dead."