Masks (2005)

     by M.L. Rhodes

I'm pretty sure that if I had a Worst Phantom Covers of All Time competition, this baby would be nominated again and again and again. What's more amazing? The lovingly pasted-on mask? The lackadaisical expression of the poorly-concealed 3D model? The chest hair? The nipples? I cannot pick a favorite element.

 

This book is steamy.  Very steamy. In fact, so steamy that the word "steamy" is used twice per page for almost the entire length of the book. I've seen it so many times it's lost all meaning for me and just looks like a random conglomeration of letters.

 

Rhodes informs us that this book is dedicated to "everyone who's ever dared to fantasize" about someone on stage or screen. Okay. I can dig it. Fantasy away!

 

First, though, I had to make a book sleeve out of brown paper bags like I was in high school again, because after the first day of trying to hide the cover of this book while at work I realized that I might never be viewed as a professional again. Thank god my older coworkers are near-sighted.

 

Chapter 1

 

Our story unfolds in the tiny rural town of Sommerville, Illinois, where Andee, our intrepid, totally-sassily-unusually-named protagonist, is a history professor at the fictitious Williams University. Sommerville is an amazing place, which despite being repeatedly described as "sleepy", "tiny" and "rural" nevertheless boasts not only its own university but also a playhouse which regularly puts on "Broadway-caliber" productions. I see we have already begun the fantasizing. It's okay for the setting to be ordinary, even in a fantasy-heavy erotica novel - you know that, right, authors of the world? It's okay for there to be ordinary things happening in your books when they are set in reality. Dare to be mediocre!

 

Well, I meant in setting and incidental characters and objects, not in writing ability. Rhodes' prose isn't terrible; it's pretty run-of-the-mill, snappy enough to keep things from getting boring but not good enough to sit up and take note of.

 

Andee has met Max, our male protagonist and hero of the book, by page 5. I see we will not be wasting any time here. She has gone, at the prodding of her best friend, to see Lloyd Webber's musical at the local playhouse, which is apparently very rich from all their Broadway-caliber performances so they can afford the unreasonable amount of money it would cost to put it on in the first place. Max is of course playing the Phantom, and from the minute he steps his gorgeous, chiseled body onstage and begins singing in a "sensual, gritty voice" (Butler, is that you?), she is aflame with desire for him. In between bouts of weeping over the tragic poignance of the musical's story, naturally. The extremely over-the-top, nigh-histrionic descriptions of the musical and the feelings it engenders in Andee remind me strongly of those in the second Meadows novel, though mercifully she will move on from it fairly quickly.

 

Andee, you see, was married until her husband cheated on her and ran away with another woman only to be killed shortly thereafter in a car accident. She spends much of the performance telling us in her inner monologue about how she can draw such moving parallels between herself and the Phantom and her cheatering ex-husband and Christine, because she was left behind in the dark while he fled to love another and woe her broken heart. It is not what you would call enthralling, and an example of Rhodes' occasional attempts, over the course of a novel that really is not all that Phantom-related, to tie her characters to those of Leroux's story. There is also much discussion of how the gossip in this tiny town of wonders is so fierce and judgmental against her that she feels like a pariah, an outcast, perhaps one who might even hide in a cellar to escape! 

 

Despite Andee's self-association with the Phantom, Rhodes spends a little bit of time also making sure to let us know that she's an innocent, nigh-naive Christine type of a character, too, stressing that she had no idea what was going on until her husband told her and that the entire town views her with pity as a sort of suffering saint (this turns out not to be true later, but who's keeping score?). This works out okay because Max is going to be related to the Phantom in a minute here, too; in fact, the message of this book seems to be something along the lines of "There's a little bit of the Phantom in all of us and he just needs to be loved!", which is hilariously actually not too far off of some of Leroux’s original points.

 

Andee spends some time making sure we know that seeing this show is the only time she's felt alive since her husband's defection and death; in fact, she spends so much time on it that it becomes trite and annoying really, really quickly, only getting worse with each repetition. I get it. Your life is empty and meaningless and the Phantom story is uplifting you so you can believe in the power of love again. You can stop any time.

 

So after the performance, Andee is so overcome with emotion that she does some kind of swoon in the seats and stays there after everyone else has left, miraculously remaining unmolested by any ushers or other people a Broadway-caliber theatre would presumably employ to stop people from squatting in it. Luckily, Max, the lead actor, is of course on hand to discover her there in the dark house and start asking her if she's okay. And then, lo! Despite the fact that they cannot see one another in the dark, there is a spark! A passionate connection! They both feel as if they've been waiting for the other all their lives even though they met literally two seconds ago! She watched him in the show and almost felt that he had been singing just to her - which was because he was, because he was watching her in the front row all night, meditating on how spell-bindingly blue her eyes are!

 

Point A: I have been under many stage lights. Trust me, he is lying. Audiences look like a sea of blackness from the stage; you can barely pick out individual shapes, and you sure as hell can't get a look at their eyes.

 

Point B: This man is probably a serial killer. Run.

 

But she does not run. Instead, on page 11, she reflects thusly: "Was it her imagination, or did a sensual aura of yearning radiate from him in pulsating waves?" Oh. So it's going to be like that, is it? He's got an orgasmic, phallic aura and they haven't even finished exchanging pleasantries and she still can't see his face? Fine.

And then, makeouts in the dark. Again: they met literally five minutes ago. It's okay, because their souls are colliding or something. She reflects on how safe and masculine he feels and how his mouth tastes like butterscotch candy. That's how the serial killers getcha, Andee. Don't you watch Law & Order in your empty, empty, oh god so empty life?

 

Andee can only speak in a "warbling" voice afterward. I think Rhodes was aiming for some variation on "trembling" and missed, but the consequences are pretty hilarious since I am now imagining her bursting into song.

 

Max, whose face she still cannot even see in the dark, offers to leave her a ticket at the box office so she can come back tomorrow night because he'd really, really like to see her. I will say it again: serial killer.

 

So now we hop over to Max's point of view, where we discover that he thinks there's something positively "magic" and indefinable about Andee and in which he uses many swear words in his internal monologue, which is how you know he's manly and virile. You also learn that, conveniently, his sister Jada just kicked the bucket due to cancer a month or two ago. How lovely. They can mourn together.

 

Max, of course, is not what he seems (because he plays the Phantom and is just like him! Ha ha!): in fact, he's not really Maxwell James, totally awesome actor at Broadway-caliber theatre, but instead is Max McKendrick, internationally renowned movie star of incredible hotness, talent, and wealthiness. He can't tell Andee (who he thinks looks just like Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn) about this, of course. What would she say?

 

This is what I'm talking about with daring to be mediocre. He couldn't be a handsome, talented actor from Illinois. No, he has to be Brad Pitt. Otherwise why are we bothering with this book, right?

 

Chapter 2

 

Andee starts the chapter off by having wet dreams about Max, which is how we, the readers, know he is her One True Love because naturally this incredibly innocent 35-year-old woman has never had such dreams before in her life. She also only ever slept with her now-deceased husband, she goes on to let us know, who was her first boyfriend and whom she married after a few months of dating, so it's possible that she didn't even have sex with him out of wedlock. This is an example of the incredibly prevalent romance and/or erotica trope of the Virginal Heroine, because women who have had sex with more than just their true love or some bad man who made them are Evil and nobody wants to read about that.

 

Andee is not evil, but she is somehow still backstage grinding all over Max's jock in the middle of the show. I want to know how he's planning to go back onstage with that lovingly-described, apparently enormous boner she's just given him in his tight Phantom pants. "Arranged his cape" to cover it my ass. Nevertheless he does go back out, and she's just as spellbound and weepy the second time through the performance, after which point Max emerges to take her back to his dressing room for a little one-on-one time. His dressing room which is actually not with the other dressing rooms but which is down at the end of the furthest hall, behind an unmarked door, where he kills the lights and locks her in with him as soon as they arrive, none of which she finds strange.

 

Point A: The inversion of whose dressing room they're going to is kind of cute, though whether it's suggesting that Andee is some kind of Raoul figure or that Max is actually an innocent Christine about to be seduced I have no idea. I doubt Rhodes does, either.

 

Point B: This man is definitely a serial killer. No, seriously, RUN.

 

But she is not running, and they are grinding some more instead. With descriptors like "turgid cock" and "needy cave" running rampant all over the place, I may need my Purplevision Glasses just to get through the rest of this party. Max, who reflects that she is beautiful both inside and out (you just met her yesterday! what do you know about her insides?), actually tells her, when she makes a half-assed protest, to just "let it happen". He also refuses to turn the lights on or take off the Phantom mask which he is still wearing.

 

No, he still has not killed her and made a suit out of her skin, but it must be happening any minute now, I would assume. Andee's "biggest worry" in this situation is about getting involved with a man too soon, so I have to assume that she needs someone to come rescue her and teach her basic self-preservation or she's never going to make it to the end of this book.

 

Chapter 3

 

Max embarks here upon the most dramatic whines that have ever been whined all about how the media constantly hounds him and ruins all that is good in his life. It gets really old really fast, which is extremely unfortunate since it is pretty much the linchpin of the entire plot and will never, ever stop being discussed.

 

Rhodes seems to really like the phrase "silken flesh", because everybody uses it, like, all the time.

 

Rhodes' strong suit is - unsurprisingly for an erotica writer - in her sex scenes, which are often pretty tingly and enjoyable despite the tendency toward ridiculous word usage. Unfortunately they are pretty much unsupported by the joke of a plot underlying them, so the book is making me as sad as any other porn that doesn't try very hard. People, you know you can write things that are both sexy and intelligent, right? Someone out there does that, I’m sure.

 

Max and Andee are, of course, bangerating in the unmarked, locked, dark "dressing room" far away from everyone else where no one can hear them. It is, of course, fantabulous. Max McKendrick, hunk actor extraordinaire, "can't remember the last time" he'd been with a woman; he stopped "playing Hollywood games" long ago, you see, which apparently includes dating or sleeping with people he might like or find attractive. Just like Andee has to be a Virginal Heroine, Max has to be the One-Woman Man, because otherwise we might be thinking that he was having a quick roll in the hay with a small-town woman only to leave for Hollywood and that would be awful. God, romance novel tropes make decoding the book so much easier, don't they?

 

In this chapter, we've got a "pleasure bud", "straining rod", "steaming passage" and "hot tunnel". The last one is my favorite.

 

Don't worry. They're having sex like four times this first night in the dressing room alone, so there will be plenty of opportunity for more bizarre metaphors that make you think of totally unsexy things like the Holland Tunnel in the middle of August.

 

Chapter 4

 

Sweet. By page 42, both protagonists have decided in their internal monologues to love one another forever. Book over? No, I forgot; There Must Be Conflict. Otherwise this would just be porn, and we don't want to abandon this scintillatingly-crafted plot we have going here.

 

It's probably obvious by now, but this is a very modern erotic novel when compared to the much tamer offerings of the eighties and nineties that I've looked at earlier in this project. There are many, many sex scenes which are all very explicit, and even the more adventurous of previous books have not entered some of the forbidden territory this one explores (minimal anal play, for example). Not that this is some kind of incredibly hardcore erotic novel; it's really not. I've seen much spicier. But it's definitely a new millennium romance, not a Mills & Boon.

 

You know what's one of the new millennium things I really appreciate about this book? Condoms. Not only do I do a cheer whenever someone is being responsible, but Rhodes manages to work them into the proceedings so that they're part of the sexy deliciousness rather than intruding on it, seamlessly integrating them into the narrative and avoiding potential awkwardness.

 

By this point, Max and Andee have had sex at least three times, yet she still has not seen his face in the dark. He refuses to allow it. She's still locked in a dark dressing room. Did I mention yet that Max is probably a serial killer? Or that even if he isn't Andee is making some deeply questionable decisions here?

 

Chapter 5

 

Once all the sexinating has died down at around four o'clock a.m., Andee tries to go home only to find that Max insists (face still shrouded in darkness and mystery) on following her home in his car to make sure she gets there safely. He's just found her, you see, and he would hate for anything to happen to her without him there. She obligingly drives straight to her house so that he now knows exactly where it is. She finds his headlights in her rearview mirror comforting.

 

Point A: I don't even have a point A for this one.

 

Point B: THIS MAN IS GOING TO KILL YOU AND POSSIBLY EAT YOU. WERE YOU BORN WITH NO SURVIVAL INSTINCTS WHATSOEVER?

 

Okay, so, I know this is an erotica, but as we head into morning-after phone sex, I have to ask: don't you want to throw a few pauses in there now and then? I mean, two solid chapters of sex in which no plot or character development occurs, followed by phone sex the next morning as if these people didn't just get half an hour and a cup of coffee of sleep? These people obviously have occupations and things to do, howsoevermuch Andee may whine about her empty life.

 

Incidentally, the professors at Andee's university have hilarious made-up names. Professors Parmenter and Balmendash, in particular, entertained me whenever they were mentioned, though they never actually make appearances.

 

A very preachy, unnecessarily long sermon from Andee's best friend Judy occurs here, focusing primarily on how love at first sight is totally a thing and one should always trust one's first romantic impulse. But, Judy, what if one's first romantic impulse is to jump into bed with A MAN WHO IS OBVIOUSLY GOING TO KILL YOU WITH A GARROTE WIRE? HUH?

 

Chapter 6

 

Max suggests that Andee spend the weekend at his house out in the country, which is completely secluded and known to no one, where he promises there will be candy and sex. No, no, there's no need for her to take her car; he'll give her a ride. This is a good idea, she reasons, because driving is hard and anyway this way she can molest him while he's driving. It's so intriguing and hot that he's a mystery man whose face she STILL HASN'T SEEN IN DIRECT LIGHT, SOMEHOW and no one in the entire town knows him!

 

Point A: REALLY? Are you, a thirty-something professor, seriously giving your flame CARHEAD? Do you know the statistics on how many of your students will probably die doing that? Fine, grope him a little on the way to get him worked up, but seriously?

 

Point B: Serial killer. SERIAL. KILLER. You are an episode of Law & Order: SVU waiting to happen, Andee.

 

On page 67, during the carhead odyssey: "She smiled, feeling amazingly safe and confident in his ability to keep it together." Oh. Well, if she feels safe and confident in his driving skills while she's sucking on his Ball Park Frank, then there must be nothing to worry about. This woman, I've decided, wants to die; she somehow didn't get the serial killer to off her yet despite all the warning signs and marching bands declaring his secret evil, so now she's trying to run them off the road.

 

She is thwarted when they arrive at the secluded farmhouse, but at least he's picking her up to carry her inside and bang on the kitchen table now. The less heavy machinery around these two, the better.

 

I know I praised Rhodes for her use of condoms earlier, but by the time this one comes out, it almost doesn't really matter anymore. Both of them have been indulging in so much unprotected oral sex (complete with loving descriptions of "lapping up every drop" or how "savory and delicious" it tastes) that if anybody's got anything, they've both got it by now. Oh, wait, my bad - I keep forgetting that avoiding pregnancy is the ONLY REASON ANYONE WOULD EVER WEAR A CONDOM. Not that I really expect either our Virginal Heroine or our One-Woman Man to have any embarrassing conditions (because that would make them Bad People because clearly the only people who get STDs are evil people who deserve them am I right), but this combined with the carhead saga is making me revoke all the Safe Sex Brownie Points I gave out earlier. One of the pitfalls of modern romance and/or erotica is that you have to deal with the realities of modern sex, and one of those realities is the prevalence and avoidance of STDs. Should have gone for the period sexathon, Rhodes; I would not have complained nearly as much. (Well, about this.)

 

Day three of relationship: the L-word has been trotted out. Everyone has more sex to celebrate.

 

Okay. They've been at his house for a day now. SOMEHOW SHE STILL HAS NOT SEEN HIS FACE. Both of them have confessed their love and she STILL doesn't know what he looks like. Interestingly, this is much less of a Phantom story than it is a Cupid & Psyche story, modeled after the Greco-Roman myth in which the god of love takes a human wife but stipulates that she may never see his face; while that myth has little to do with the Phantom story (aside from the "unmasking" moment they both share), it's always interesting to see a modern source unintentionally re-representing the classics. I realize that the delay in seeing his face is twofold - both to amp up the mystery of it all and to present a moral that looks don't matter - but since the reader already knows who he is from his own internal monologue and Andee already knows he's got no physical ugliness problems because she's touched his face plenty, even if she hasn't seen it, neither one is working for me. And I still want Andee put in foster care.

 

Apparently Rhodes agrees at least somewhat, because at this point Andee finally sees Max and realizes that she's dating Brad Pitt (or, considering Max's aversion to the press and insistence on keeping his family life private, maybe Matt Damon is a more appropriate parallel). Luckily, she gets over her shock at the speed of light and everything is fine once she starts dancing about, celebrating her incredible good fortune.

 

And she doesn't believe those mean, nasty old press reporters and journalists who say he horribly abused his last girlfriend and ran pictures of her bruised and damaged body. They're just being jerks. The Max she knows intimately well from the last three days would never do such a thing.

 

Seriously, I'm waiting hardcore for the unexpected Phantom-esque twist where, at the end, he is revealed to be a SERIAL KILLER.

 

Chapter 7

 

In fact, we are informed, "not a person in America" could ever have believed those widely-circulated media campaigns that said those mean things! It's a well-known fact that the media exists only to entertain itself and that nobody in the real world ever reads it, watches it, or forms opinions about it.

 

This is an especially gross plot point, because all too often, famous men do abuse their intimate partners and if that ever makes it to the media, which is rare, they are defended by hordes of people who don’t want to see their favorite celebrity’s reputation “tarnished” and end up attacking the very victim who already had to struggle to come forward. This book basically says that those women are all jealous liars and you should dismiss them while you continue to idolize your sexy man favorite, and that’s hideous, y’all.

 

Andee understands and sympathizes with Max's press-related pain, because, you see, she, too, has been burned by the Evil Media! When her husband died in a car wreck with the woman he had just dumped her for after cheating on her, there was a reporter who was convinced she had caused the wreck and who refused to stop saying so! This serves no purpose except to reinforce how world-endingly despicable the press and all members of it arel Dude, sue that guy for libel, Andee.

 

Unless she DID kill them. Maybe they're BOTH serial killers. Now THAT’s true love!

 

That theory, though delightful, still is not helping the pages upon pages of "singular, misunderstood superman needs perfect woman to mend his aching nonconformist soul" go any faster, though. Or the continual multiple orgasms that show up every time there is intercourse of any kind. 

 

Chapter 8

 

Naturally, Max is also a master masseur. I mean, we couldn't have a hot, sexy, incredibly wealthy and famous Hollywood actor who didn't also know how to massage his girlfriend-of-three-days' feet.

 

Huh. I've never seen anyone use the word "mons" in an erotica before.

 

Chapter 9

 

Rhodes, who has cleverly been waiting to spring her masterful metaphor on us for over a hundred pages, finally trots it out on page 104 with this gem, spoken by Max’s conveniently-present-for-exposition-but-not-when-he-wants-to-have-sex best friend:

 

"Max is so much like the Phantom it's not funny - one person on the outside that the public sees and another on the inside. The Hollywood persona is just a mask for the sensitive, passionate man who lives deep inside him."

 

That Rhodes really doesn't have much idea what the Phantom story (or even the Phantom character himself) is about is obvious, but then again it's nothing I haven't seen in many, many versions now, mostly starting with the spin-offs of Lloyd Webber's first stage musical in 1986. Metaphors about class lines, social oppression, madness and genius, redemption and growth, salvation through love, or isolation and social sickness? Nah. Fuck 'em. The Phantom was so tragically misunderstood because of his face! How could no one see the sensitive, passionate man within? That was the real crux of the story. Maybe it's not Andee. Maybe it's Rhodes who has a real blind spot for serial killers.

 

Max growls, when confronted with the sight of reporters waiting for him to exit the building and Andee asks why there are people there, "Not people. It's the fucking press!" The press are like the hordes of Mordor in this book - evil, mindless, numerous, and always spoken of in terms of desperation, fear, and impending battle. They're like invading parasitic aliens, all set to suck the life out of Max and Andee if he doesn't fight them off manfully. They're like an army of robotic kill-machines, futuristic guns set on DESTROY ALL LIFE. One expects Max and Andee to grab swords off the wall and start beheading them left and right, desperately fighting for their freedom Mel Gibson style. Thank god a sympathetic talk-show host at the end lets them earn their freedom by telling the press publicly to go away, because everyone knows that works really well when you're a celebrity.

 

Max yells at Andee to go away while he deals with the press, which is so emotionally devastating for her that she collapses into a pile of weeping, moaning jelly for the next week. How far we have fallen, Christine character! I have to assume that, were Max to start ranting and using her fingers to claw at his face, she would simply expire on the spot of nerves.

 

Chapter 10

 

On page 120, Andee's friend remarks, "You're completely tits-up in love with him." I can't decide if that's hilarious enough that I kind of love it or just awful. I need to take a poll.

 

And now, a mere week after meeting for the first time, Max and Andee are engaged and live happily ever after.

 

Until he inevitably killed her and buried her in the garden.

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