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Masquerade (1994)

     by Amanda Ashley

          from After Twilight


Ah, paranormal romance. In the 1990s, it became such a massive phenomenon that it almost inevitably began to accidentally parody itself. Vampires that are also sex gods! Werewolves who can enlarge their penises, no supplements required! Ghost BDSM! Tentacley things! Brooding, angsty love beneath the full moon, mystery wafting on the breeze! This was a genre that was fairly new in the nineties but also mind-bogglingly popular, and somehow it has never lost that luster. It’s added more ridiculous things in the ensuing decades, including trysts with Bigfoot and people who can and will have sex with oozing demonspawn, but it’s still the same old mish-mash of everyone’s favorite parts of Gothic romances, made explicit and recounted in lurid detail.

In other words, it’s the perfect genre for a Phantom-inspired romance. The Phantom story has everything a paranormal romance book wants to have: competing suitors, creepy Gothic settings, high society with a dangerous underbelly, ambiguously real magic, ambiguously alive ghosts and angels, tragic disability, an emphasis on purity versus a fall from grace… it’s tailor-made for this. Unfortunately, this story looks upon all of this bounty and then fails stunningly to utilize it.

Our short story opens with a deeply unimpressive and unimaginitive piece of poetry, which manages to be both distinctly un-lyrical and profoundly uninteresting in the space of only four short stanzas. In fact, let me just share it with you in all its spellbinding glory:

See me
the man I was
before the darkness
fell upon my soul

Know me
the monster
who hides his ugliness
in the shadows
of the night

Release me
from my lonely prison
let your light drive the bitterness
from my tortured heart

Love me
free me
from this endless

Charming, I'm sure. I don't know which I enjoyed more: the random line breaks that were intended stylistically but actually added absolutely nothing to the flow or impact of the piece, or the presence of Evanescence-lyrics-esque phrases such as "let your light drive the bitterness from my tortured heart". The vocabulary is obviously borrowed from the libretto for Lloyd Webber’s musical, but thankfully we don’t have to read it for very long.

Chapter 1:

We have met the protagonist and he is a vampire. A vampire who is three hundred years old, yet massively enamored of Lloyd Webber's stage musical version of the Phantom story and who mopes around the theater watching it constantly and sympathizing with the titular character. To be clear, this is not the reason that he is the worst. A three-century old vampire getting the vapors over popular musicals is exactly the kind of Gothic camp that this kind of story should be shooting for.

His character is entertainingly (and by "entertainingly" I mean "excruciatingly") contradictory. Ashley makes a huge point of letting us know early on that he uses blood banks to slake his thirst nowadays so that he no longer has to be evil and eat people and stuff, yet not four paragraphs later he has slunk off to ambush, eat, and murder a panhandler, evincing absolutely no shred of remorse. The moral here, I suppose, is that homeless people are not actually humans, so no one is required to feel bad about their deaths and our dashing protagonist here is allowed to carry on as the hero in spite of having murdered someone a second ago.

Ashley spends a lot of time doing this sort of thing in an attempt to make sure we know how seductively dangerous this dude is, mostly because he is a massive whiner and pain in the ass during the majority of the rest of the story. Unfortunately, all it does is tell us that not only is this character a giant asshole when he’s not being hilarious, but that his author apparently thinks it’s not a black mark on his character to eat people as long as they’re, you know, dirty.

You could get away with this sort of thing if you either set this character as an anti-hero, explicitly acknowledging that the things he does are bad, or if you set him as a character who is about to start reforming. Saying that he is reformed and then immediately showing us that this is enormously not the case just tells us that he’s lying to himself about his violence and hunger, which is not going to be as attractive in a romantic lead positioned as the perfect and unblemished ideal as it would be in someone with whom it was clear that getting involved was a Bad Idea.

Chapter 2:

This is set in Los Angeles, so there is some time devoted to repeated loving on Davis Gaines, who was the resident Phantom actor there from 1991 to 1996. Gaines is, of course, immensely talented, but he is also totally peripheral and part of a desperate campaign on Ashley's part to link her vampire and his angst issues to the Phantom story in case the reader doesn’t understand that it’s a metaphor, you see?

This fell to the wayside for me when our vampire was finally named, and his name is Jason Blackthorne. This is fantastic. Is it funnier because it’s vaguely plausible (Jason is a classical name based on the ancient Greek hero, and Blackthorne could be an English landed surname) but still hilariously jarring? Or because it’s such a snapshot of 1990s vampire pop culture, which also gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Interview with the Vampire, and the first Blade movie?

Actually, for me it’s because I once knew a guy in a Vampire: the Masquerade (the most 1990s roleplaying game on the planet) chronicle who named his vampire Jason Blackthorne. It’s vaguely possible he might have read this story, but not on the probable half of the possibility scale. When your vampire protagonist’s name is such a stereotypical vampire name that it parodies itself, perhaps it’s time to rethink the plan. I know he’s supposed to have a sexy, mysterious vibe, but all I can think of is someone dramatically crying, “Behold, it is Jason!” to a horror-movie stinger.

(Again, this would be hilarious in another genre. If we were making fun of gothic literature or vampire stories or even paranormal romance? Magical. The true tragedy of this story is that it plays everything straight instead of embracing its badness, which could have given us something in the vein [ha] of What We Do in the Shadows.)

At any rate, Jason meets Leanne and falls instantly and madly in love with her, motivated in part (we must assume) by the fact that she's a dead ringer for his deceased wife of three hundred years ago. Aside from the obvious callout to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the title character was fixated on Mina Harker’s resemblance to his dead wife, this could have raised all kinds of interesting psychological concepts. How does Jason deal with, in effect, seeing a deceased loved one all the time? How does the trauma of losing her manifest now that he is constantly reminded of her? If his feelings have faded over time, do they still affect his emotions when it comes to Leanne? Does he have to struggle with separating his affection for his wife from his new affection for Leanne? Does he even care about Leanne, or is he just transferring his affection to her out of an inability not to respond to her familiar face?

But we don’t get to talk about any of that. Instead, he's just like, "Oh, hey, she looks like my dead wife, that makes my soul cry for her and enhances my boner." Well, good for you, bro, but it's probably not very rewarding being the object of your affections. Every woman loves hearing “you remind me of someone I actually cared about, therefore you have ancillary value” when embarking on a romance.

Also, the "it must be fated love because you look like my dead wife" convention is an obnoxious one that I wish writers would stop using. If any of the questions above are handled, or if the plot actually examines a spiritual angle like reincarnation, that’s one thing, but all too often neither avenue is bothered with and the whole plot is just shorthand for The Author Is Too Lazy To Think Of a Reason Why These People Like One Another. Besides, am I alone in thinking that it's kind of creepy? Look, if your wife dies, I’m sorry for you, but that does not mean that women are obligated to start playing What’s In My Pants with you just because they happen to look like her.  

By page five, Leanne has offered this gem of personal philosophy when Jason and his looming vampire angst, two individuals she has never met before, invite her out to dinner:

"She knew she should say no. There were a lot of crazy people running around these days--obsessive fans, serial killers--and yet there was something in Jason Blackthorne's eyes that made her trust him implicitly."

Implicitly? Really? This would have been excusable if Jason had done some kind of vampire hypnosis or something on her, but no... he's just standing there, looking dead and soulful. So off they go to have dinner even though Leanne shortly discovers that he’s been stalking her at all her performances (Leanne is in the chorus of Lloyd Webber's musical, in a further attempt to drag this wreck closer to the original source material).

Their dinner date, despite insistence that Jason is tortured by angst and Leanne is swept away by romantic bliss, could be used as a sedative in a medical context. The prose borrows shamelessly from Lloyd Webber's libretto, but unfortunately doesn't even make sense when it does; what, exactly, does it MEAN when you say that Jason's gaze was "soft as candlelight"? Does Leanne have a problem with other peoples' gazes physically weighing on her? Were we expecting his gaze to be abrasive?

The small-talk between the characters is miserable - stilted, uncomfortable, and mostly composed of a Q&A with the Vampire session that did nothing notable except inform us that Jason owns a horse, which is VERY SPECIAL and Leanne is INSTANTLY ENCHANTED, because women LOVE HORSES. Jason's speech patterns veer wildly from normal to anachronistic ("Have you a boyfriend? You have now."), which is not a huge thing when the dude is three hundred years old, but you'd think he'd be picking up modern vernacular as he goes. After all, it's not like he's speaking eighteenth-century English anymore, so it just seems like another half-assed attempt on Ashley’s part to remind us of how old and therefore romantic he is. By the end of the chapter, I think Leanne really, really needs to flee from this stalker guy who takes her out to dinner and then talks morbidly about suicide all night, but I can't bring myself to care because I'm so bored.

Leanne will not improve at any point in the story, despite my fondest hopes, so don't waste your time waiting. She thinks with awed sincerity at the end of this chapter, "She had been born for this man." Well. How nice for him.

Chapter 3:

In this chapter, Jason "warms" the blood in his wineglass with his gaze. Now we’re cooking with Gothic nonsense again! When did vampires get Superman's heat-vision? I suppose that comes in very handy when you need to... well, actually, Ashley makes a point of telling us that temperature no longer affects Jason. Oh, well. Even more magical, he can apparently teleport! If Jason is THIS magical, why is he eating people on the street instead of just teleporting his ass to the blood bank whenever he gets hungry? This is actually making him more indefensible, somehow.

It's all about the eternal angst here. Apparently, all Jason does with his eternal life is spend it sitting in pretentious armchairs, sipping blood and weeping tears of emo over the woe that is his ostracization from the rest of humankind, even though most of said ostracization is clearly self-inflicted. His internal monologue is incredibly boring except for where it's unintentionally hilarious. For example, he refuses to use electric lights in his house (he feels they're too "harsh") and instead relies on gobs and gobs of candles to light his eternal sorrow, which, I would think, has to be messy, expensive, and kind of a fire hazard (which you'd think would be of some concern to a vampire). Yes, he hates modern things, and he won't use electric lights, but he WILL drive a car. With glee. In fact, he "[enjoys] being in command of a powerful machine". That’s definitely not a metaphor for anything, though.

Also, Jason is “mesmerized” by Lloyd Webber's musical. It says so right in the prose, so many times that I've lost the affection that I once had for that word. He is also endlessly “fascinated” by it. Again, this would be hilarious and appropriate in any story not trying to be deadly serious about it, because vampires as over-the-top dramatic nonsense creatures are an established part of the genre and a popular way to subvert it, but the author refuses to go down that road. Ashley even tries very hard to make sure we know how cultured and discerning his taste is, going through a litany of the artifacts and pieces of art he's amassed in his house.

As a side note, what the fuck is a dude who is three hundred years old doing with "one of Shakespeare's original plays, signed by the Bard himself"? Shakespeare was born in the sixteenth century; Jason was born in the eighteenth century. Don't ask where, because Ashley apparently doesn't think it matters much. It feels a lot like the author either forgot what age she settled on for her vampire, or just assumed that everything old and fancy is available to vampires, regardless of who they are or when they actually started being the ancient undead.

Luckily, we're not supposed to care about this too much and instead focus on how much Leanne wants to climb all over Jason's vampiric wang.

Chapter 4:

I forgot to mention it earlier, but Jason's deceased wife, who died a little under three hundred years ago, was named Jolene. Apparently he also has time-travel on his list of mad vampire talents so he can fetch a bride from the twentieth century, since the name was not invented prior to the 1950s or so. Readers can enjoy the immediate conjuring-up of Dolly Parton’s classic song the instant they see the name, but unfortunately this Jolene is a doormat. Her response to learning that her husband went out, got drunk, cheated on her, and then became the bloodsucking undead when it turned out that his fling was a vampire who murdered him in the middle of sexual intercourse, is to just start making his dinner rare and apparently not care much about the fact that she’s going to grow old and die while he doesn’t, if he doesn’t eat her first, which he will assuredly do to SOMEONE. Pour that piping-hot dinner down his pants, Jolene.

As a side note, this is especially annoying because it’s bringing in one of the more aggravating tropes of the romance genre: that the leads can never have truly loved anyone else like they love their current love interest. We have to establish that Jason cheated on Jolene so that we can imply that he would never do that to Leanne and therefore loves her more. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the story is trying to lean on the fact that part of what attracts Jason to Leanne in the first place is her resemblance to Jolene, so placing the two in artificial competition centuries apart doesn’t even make sense.

It would be nice to think that maybe some of Jason’s motivations come from the idea of wanting to do better this time; perhaps he regrets the way he treated Jolene, which led to his current predicament and his separation from her, and wants to make amends by doing a better job this time around if he truly believes that Leanne is Jolene reincarnated. But that would imply that the reader should maybe think something negative about Jason, so instead he doesn’t do that and the story refuses to commit one way or the other on the reincarnation front in a bland attempt to avoid the entire issue.

One of the few things I did like about this story is that it touched on the religious idea of being cursed by God himself, which was present in Leroux's original novel. Jason, who has an astounding ability to mope about everything, takes some time to mope about the fact that he was a devout Catholic in his youth and therefore believes himself to be damned now that he's undead, and he can't commit suicide because he knows he'll be immediately consigned to the flames of hell if he does. It's a nice parallel to the original novel's ideas and Erik's antagonistic relationship with God, but I suspect that Ashley probably thought that she was adding an original twist since this is a vampire protagonist.

Then blah blah blah blah, oh no, Jason keeps wanting to drink Leanne's blood and is afraid he'll end up hurting her. Just like every vampire protagonist in a paranormal romance ever. 1994 is not long enough ago that Ashley can claim in any way to be even close to pioneering this idea, and she doesn't do anything even remotely new or interesting with it.

But, oh, god, the unintentional comedy that is page twenty-one. You see, Jason, in addition to being a hunk of burning undead love with a horse and a house full of pretty stuff, is also a sensitive artiste and paints (in fact, Leanne has seen his paintings in museums, so he is apparently AWESOME)! And he has some of his paintings hanging in his house, just, you know, because. And the description of the painting (TOTALLY COULD BE OF HIMSELF, Y’ALL - IT'S SUBTLE) that Leanne is looking at on this particular occasion... well, it almost defies belief.

"Leanne studied the largest of the paintings. It depicted a tall man with hair as black as midnight standing alone on a cliff overlooking a turbulent sea. A long black cape billowed out behind him, buffeted by the wind. Dark gray clouds hovered above storm-tossed waves. Just looking at the painting filled her with a feeling of loneliness, of emptiness."

It's like those exercises that college writing introductions assign to students, where they tell them to write the most cliched prose possible so they’ll know what to avoid in their actual writing. It oozes Byronic weepery so palpably that I am shocked that the pages of the story weren't actually soaked. This scene is only made better by the fact that Jason apparently has Anne Rice's vampire books in his library. Gee, I wonder where Ashley's inspiration for the non-Erik-related bits of Jason comes from?

Oh, by the way, we also get to meet Jason's horse in this chapter. He is a stallion (of COURSE he is, because if he were gelded that might reflect poorly on Jason's penis, even though stallions make terrible riding horses) named Lucifer, because LOOK HOW DARK AND DANGEROUS AND BROODING JASON IS. HIS HORSE IS OF THE DEVIL. Naturally, said horse will eat anyone who comes near it except for Leanne, to whom it takes an instant liking and trots about the nighttime fields whinnying in bliss.

When they stop to neck in the woods, a random rottweiler attacks them and tries to eat Leanne! Where did this mystery Dog of Evil come from? Why is it determined to eat people? Stop asking these silly questions and let Jason manfully save Leanne with his Magical Vampire Powers, and then realize that oops, he used powers in front of her and his secret is out! Luckily, Leanne is so unconcerned with everything that might inconvenience the plot that making out with her for a little while conveniently causes her to entirely forget that anything ever happened.

It is ironically entertaining that Jason makes such a big deal out of how morbid the traditional vampire sleeping in a coffin thing is and how he would never be so gauche. Again, it doesn't really look like Ashley ever encountered the original source material. Sorry, Erik. You’re too c
liché for paranormal romance.

Chapter 5:

We’re only halfway through and there is yet to be anything really approaching a plot.

I'd like to know why Leanne is terrified of having sex with Jason. She doesn't know he's a vampire (somehow), and while I understand virgin jitters, I don't understand the constant making out until their brains explode from fiery passion and she must have him, she must! But then she is AFRAID, apparently of nothing because Ashley will not explain it. It would be neat if she were experiencing some sort of reptile-brain warning - maybe Jason sets off an instinctive panic when he’s got her too vulnerable, since he is essentially a predator. Or maybe the author just wanted to pad this baby out.

This is the first time Jason dumps Leanne for her own good, but it won't be the last. He dumps her! Then they are making out! But then he dumps her! So they ignore one another and mope! But then they're making out! But then he dumps her and goes to commit suicide! I couldn't take the constant pendulum swings in this relationship. If Jason REALLY wanted to save Leanne from being stuck with his evil yet tormented yet soulful self, he'd go away and STOP COMING BACK, and if Leanne REALLY thought their love could overcome the odds, she'd stop saying OH NO HE DOESN'T REALLY LOVE ME and fleeing (possibly boating down the river of Jason's emo tears). In case there were any readers remaining who didn't think that Jason was bordering on a clear parody of himself, he spends the first period after dumping Leanne sitting sadly in his house, listening to the soundtrack of the Lloyd Webber musical over and over again in the dark, all night, every night. Shall I fetch you the black eyeliner, sir, and an attractively weathered journal with lines for the woeful beat poetry of your tortured soul?

When he finally gets tired of weeping the music of his dark, lustful manliness into his fireplace alone, Jason goes back to stalking Leanne by going to the theater to watch the Lloyd Webber musical over and over again. Much attention is devoted to how much her beautiful voice (which he can pick out of the chorus with his magical vampire hearing despite the implausibility of this) drives him to madness and tears, and to how the torture in her soul (which he has caused by leaving her, obviously) is clearly audible to him.

The only interesting point here is that Jason says in his internal monologue that "just once he would like to see Christine turn her back on the handsome Vicomte de Chagny and and give the Phantom of the Opera the love he yearned for, the love only she could give." I've seen this idea crop up time and time again: the Phantom should get Christine's love because, dammit, he's earned it with his misery and devotion and she owes it to him because otherwise it's just not fair. The idea is always garbage, even when it's done better than it is here, where all it’s accomplishing is managing to make Jason somehow even whinier. It's a remarkably solipsistic view of the characters' relationships; the Phantom should get his happiness, but apparently no one cares if Christine gets to make the choice that will make her happiest, or if Raoul ends up having to be the one who cries emo tears in the corner.

Chapter 6:

Oh, by the way, Leanne is a virgin. Feel free to be shocked, yet mildly titillated.

This chapter is just one long endless "I must let her go! But I don't want to! But I must!" And it's repetitive, and boring, and painful, and god, just DO IT ALREADY.

Chapter 7:

Now, finally, there’s just a lot of sex, all of which is incredible despite Leanne's virgin status and the fact that she's sleeping with a dead guy, which you’d think might set off some alarm bells. (Maybe he’s using his heat-vision on himself strategically somehow.) The concerns of yesterday are apparently irrelevant for Jason now because he's getting laid, so never mind all that "leaving her innocence intact lest I sully it with my evil vampire ways" crap. Even sadder, the actual sex scene is ho-hum and bland, a real problem when it’s probably meant to be one of the high notes of the entire story.

Chapter 8:

Jason's constant fight with his bloodlust (he has a powerful urge to eat Leanne whenever she's being all defenseless in his general area) is believable; the back-and-forth is written well, and I think a good balance of sympathy and fear is achieved for the character. It's a damn shame he didn't spend more time battling his vampiric nature instead of weeping and throwing emotional yet manly tantrums. Leanne’s revelation in this chapter that Jason is a vampire was way too easily approached and accepted for the characters, which isn’t surprising but is still annoying.

Leanne mentions Lori Herter in passing here, which is incredible. Lori Herter, of course, is the author of the stunningly awful tour-de-force "The Phantom of Chicago", without which no aficionado of the Phantom story's education is complete. Herter also writes a series of vampire romance novels, though I can't assess their quality since I haven't read them. (But after the sample of her writing I have read, I don't think I'll be giving them a shot.)

Chapter 9:

I am actually pretty invested in Jason's and Leanne's relationship by this point. God knows why I want it to work, but I do. I want these losers to make it. Probably mostly because I dread the thought of how much MORE painfully emo they could get, but seriously, I wanted them to hurry up and stop wasting my time with dithering and finish their goddamn love story. I don't know how this happened, but I suspect it's the reason that Ashley (also known as Madeline Baker) has such a devoted following in the romance field.

Chapter 10:

All that goodwill dissipates abruptly in this chapter, however, when by tasting one of her tears Jason is CURED OF VAMPIRISM BY THE POWER OF LEANNE’S LOVE.

Yes, by simply licking a tear from Leanne’s cheek, Jason becomes human again (at the same age and in the same condition he is now, though, none of that “aging” or “having been dead” need apply), and they can live happily ever after together in the glorious sunshine! This is where I really wish there’d been anything about Jason wanting to reform and try a do-over for the way he treated Jolene, because at least that would have made this thematically resonant, but unfortunately, no. (Also, he never does anything so he would hardly have earned it anyway.)

It’s also no fun to watch the Phantom character’s problems be miraculously solved by just divesting him of his condition. That has a host of horrible implications: that he really was unlovable but now that he’s attractive and normal again, he can be forgiven; that the Christine character only didn’t want to love him because he was ugly, not because she has her own emotions and values and doesn’t like being stalked; and that people with disabilities in general are problems to be solved/cured, not capable of being protagonists in their own rights. It’s not as painful as it would have been if it had been a straight retelling of the Phantom story instead of one just using it as a framework, but with Ashley beating the idea of Jason as the Phantom into our heads with a bat, it’s not ignorable, either.

Chapter 11:

Why is there even a chapter 11? Well, because Jason has to come back from the dead with a suitable amount of drama. I'm a little concerned for Jason now. What will he find to weep the pure syrup of melancholy over now? I'm sure he'll think of something. He is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to sustaining angst.

All I could think throughout this entire period of falling action is that Jason is about to sustain an almighty wicked sunburn after not going outside for three hundred years. It's okay; I'm sure Leanne can probably heal that with the power of her pure innocent sparkly diamond-like tears, too.

And then everyone accepts this miracle at face value and they live happily ever after, and no one is even remotely concerned that he might turn back at some point and barbecue himself or anything else that might cast a pall over the sunshine-filled meadows in store. And everything's fine and dandy with God, now, too, because Jason is no longer damned, and apparently murder no longer counts as a mortal sin so he's off the hook!

This version has no Raoul figure at all, which is pretty rare. Most versions do include him, even if they make him a villain as in the Vale Allen novel or a totally peripheral character as in the Stuart book. The options, when I consider the reasons for Raoul's omission, are none of them particularly attractive; it seems like Ashley chose one of the following:

A) There is no Raoul because that would be unfair competition for poor, angsty, depressed yet sexy Jason.
B) There is no Raoul because Leanne isn't the kind of girl who shares her affection with more than one man... unlike that jerk Christine.
C) There is no Raoul because I combined Raoul and the Phantom, see, so that they're like this awesome package of safety and danger, because I don’t understand why they were separate in the original book and also want an excuse for the dangerous stalker to still be “good”.

In the end, there are practically no surviving themes from Leroux's work in here, and there's not even any particularly good homage to Lloyd Webber's musical being paid. The story is just being used in order to effect a tired retread of a zillion horrible vampire romance stereotypes, and I want the hour of my life that I spent reading it back.

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