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Mind Over Matter: The Phantom of the Roxy (1987)

     by Cheryl Zach

Much in the same vein as the 1986 Christian book, this is a children's book about a pair of child detectives. The twists are that the kids are possessed of special mental abilities (one is a genius and the other is psychic) and that I don't like it as much as I liked the Christian book. (I'm not actually crabby about it, but it just doesn't do anything interesting at all, really, even for an attempt aimed at kids.)


The story is set in Los Angeles, and accordingly there is a movie being filmed at the old Roxy theater, rather than the more traditional stage performances that Phantom stories usually favor. The film is entitled The Haunted Theater, however, and is obviously based on the Phantom story (most likely on the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, when one takes into account all the film nostalgia and the later appearance of the Phantom), down to the point of having a character called the Phantom in it, abducting people left and right; in fact, it's also mentioned that it's a remake, which strongly points to it being based on the Universal films. Sadly, we don't get to see too much of the plot of the movie itself since we're mainly concerned with the kids acting in it and watching it, but it's a nice filip of information for those familiar with the story.


The writing style, alas, is also on the lower end of scale, somewhere between Meh and Come On, You Can Do Better Than That. Odd choices, such as hyphenating the phrase "big enough", litter the text, and the writing itself is overly simplified and heavy on telling versus showing, even for a book intended for kids. Zach tends to alternate between language so simple that it's unflattering for even its target demographic and word choices that betray an older language style and vernacular that aren't quite suitable (referring to the production as a "picture", for example, instead of a film or a movie). It's not awful, and it doesn't really have any mistakes. It's just deeply unspectacular and boring.


The relationship between the two young detectives, Jamie and Quinn, is a little bit confusing; they both live with Jamie's mother but aren't related, and the few mentions we have of Quinn's father seem to indicate both that he is deceased and that he also has no real relation to Jamie's family. I have to assume this is explained in more detail in whatever Mind Over Matter #1 was, and that Zach assumes we have read the previous installment in her series. The characters themselves are your general kid detectives; smart, right, and constantly ignored by those dumb ol' adults and police and other jerkfaces. Zach doesn't seem to have much of a descriptive vocabulary, considering that she has described Jamie as having a "genius IQ" three times, verbatim, by page nine; Quinn's psychic powers are similarly frequently mentioned but never elaborated upon, except for the mention that his father was a powerful psychic as well.


Unfortunately (for me, anyway), while Quinn's psychic tingles are visited several times, Jamie really doesn't show much of an indication of being a genius to me; she doesn't come up with better ideas, figure things out faster, or even come off as overly academic, which is a common throwaway indicator for lazy authors. In fact, the only thing we ever get out of her that seems out of place for a twelve-year-old are occasional large words (Quinn frequently asks her to "speak English"), which are sadly not actually that large. "Nefarious"? Please. I know twelve-year-olds who would look witheringly at you if you called that a big word. Now, if she'd said something like "agathokakological", then I would have sat up and paid attention. It's a worthy idea to try to include being intelligent on the same plateau of coolness as being psychic, but without any development, Jamie just ends up looking like Quinn's annoying girl sidekick, rather than an equal partner in the team.


The plot is a little more closely related to the Phantom story than it was in either the Christian or Stine childrens' books, starting with a shadowy masked figure being seen about the building and the stage collapsing beneath the young star, Ryan, as he films a scene. The revelation that the film company plans to blow the building up for the finale of their movie brings to mind the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film with its film-history-defending Phantom, though this version is backed up by several protests staged by a local childrens' acting group that wants to buy and restore the theater instead. The interior of the theater itself is interesting in that it is Roman-themed; Jamie refers to it as "the Coliseum" at one point, and the aged wallpaper in its auditorium is decorated with a mural depicting scenes from ancient Rome. I would have been interested and wanted to draw parallels, but it was moved on past and never visited again, lost in the depths of Chapter Three.


A few more elements of the original story survive, including a few threatening notes left mysteriously about, most of which allege that terrible disaster will befall Ryan if he completes the film at the Roxy, which he is determined to do. The teen actor appears to be mashed into several roles over the extremely short span of the book, standing in for Carlotta as he is threatened, Christine when he disappears, and playing the Raoul character in the actual film itself. Interestingly, the Christine character in the film - mentioned only once - is named Madeleine, which of course was the name assigned to Erik's mother in the 1990 Kay novel. It doesn't seem like that novel has anything to do with this interpretation, but it's a noticeable coincidence nonetheless.


An interesting outgrowth of the presence of a psychic character is the decision to attempt to contact the Phantom via séance; I've never seen that approach taken in any previous versions, possibly because it was considered too far-fetched or simply a waste of time since many versions make no bones about the Phantom being obviously a flesh-and-blood man. I was momentarily intrigued, but since Psychic Boy didn't feel anything, it seemed obvious that nothing much was going to happen, which is, in fact, what occurred.


I resurfaced from my haze of boredom momentarily when Ryan was sent to the hospital after biting into a poisoned apple; the obvious parallel to Disney's version of the Snow White fairy tale might have encouraged me to draw some conclusions about the various popular myths surrounding virtuous maidens and their place in cultural subconscious, but then I accidentally read another page and went back to waiting for the book to end.


When Quinn finally locates the ghost, somewhere around Chapter Ten, things finally start to come together into their final unoriginal but at least solid plot shape. There is, indeed, a Phantom, who is actually an incorporeal ghost in a mask; he explains that he was an actor in the old theater for forty years, and that his final role was as the Phantom in the first version of the film the company is currently trying to remake. This most obviously points to the 1991 Weiss book, oddly enough, which I wouldn't have pegged as being much of an influence on anything (but then again, if you want to write for children, why not revisit the Muppets?); that version also featured a Phantom who was actually a ghost, but also harmless and benevolent, interested only in haunting the theatre where he had performed in life. When it becomes obvious that the gentle-natured ghost has nothing to do with the shenanigans afoot (he's rather enjoying watching his legacy remade, in fact), it also becomes obvious that we have a case of a double Phantom - one real and one impersonating the other in order to get away with misbehavior, similar in setup to the 1995 Pratchett novel.


By this point I already know who the culprit is, but the mystery is reasonably well-crafted enough that many kids might not, which is what counts. It is not a massive shock to me when it turns out that Ryan himself is behind the threats and accidents, in an attempt to score some free publicity for the film in order to make sure his fading career as a child actor blossoms into a real one. The best moment of the book is when, after a fire Ryan has set gets out of control and becomes actually dangerous, the ghost helps them escape and whispers happily after them, "I always wanted to play the hero," hearkening back to his wistful explanation in an earlier chapter that he was simply too short to play heroes, so he did what he was good at and played the villains (especially cute because similar quotes are attributed to both Lon Chaney, the original film Phantom, and Boris Karloff, the famous horror actor who took on the Phantom character in the 1944 sequel).


And it's the end, the culprit regrets his impulsive behavior, the theater is saved (yay!), and I am freed from my 120 pages of bondage. Nothing fancy. Nothing great. Nothing even particularly good. But I didn't want it dissolved in acid, and sometimes that's all you can ask of me.

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