Night Magic (1989)
by Charlotte Vale Allen
I have such mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Vale Allen does do a credible job of making me interested to see what happens and of reproducing some heartfelt emotion now and then. On the other hand, the plot is a trainwreck and I wanted to throttle half the characters at least half the time and even if I didn't, the romance is straight-up statutory so there's no getting around that.
Vale Allen starts us off with two literature quotes, one from Leroux's novel and one from the Villaneuve version of Beauty & the Beast (incidentally, while this was indeed the first officially published version of the story, the people who say that Mme. Villaneuve wrote the story herself are incorrect; the folktale has roots dating back way earlier than the eighteenth century). Both quotes have to do with the Beast or the Phantom begging simply to be loved, and asserting that they can and will become docile and good once this has been achieved. This is a clue as to the already pretty obvious direction in which Vale Allen is planning to take in the novel.
Interestingly, this is the second version I've seen to give Erik a new last name; here he is "Erik D'Anton". Leroux's original version of the character had no last name at all, of course, and the 1989 Little/Englund film (which came out at roughly the same time as this novel did) gave him the last name "Destler". As when I looked at that film, I wonder where the need to give the character a surname comes from; most obviously, since Vale Allen is setting her novel in modern times, the character has to have one in order to make sense in a modern context with all the implied bureaucracy of modern society lurking at the edge of the reader's mind. Additionally, there may be a feeling that the character isn't "real" enough with only a first name; Vale Allen is seeking to move the enigmatic Phantom from the realm of semi-mythical creature to that of a more relatable, human character.
Our Christine figure is named Marisa, and she is... fifteen years old. Okay, sure. That was okay with me for five seconds until we met Erik and discovered that he was thirty-one. Never fucking mind, I'm calling the police on this book and everyone in it.
In the original novel, Christine was somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty or twenty-one years old, while Erik was most likely in his fifties or even early sixties. This worked without too much of an icky vibe because of two factors: for one thing, twenty and fifteen are not the same, and both parties were at least adults, even if they were at wildly different levels of experience, and for another, it was not a straight up romance and it was fairly clear that the relationship was an unhealthy one. However, Vale Allen is setting this part of the novel in 1968, when it was definitely extraordinarily illegal for a thirty-one-year-old to have a romantic relationship with a fifteen-year-old and even if it weren't illegal, absolutely immoral. We call that statutory rape nowadays, and they called it that in Connecticut in 1968, too. I'm not saying that I hate all wide age-divide romances - in fact, I really enjoy them when handled sensitively - but there are basically no circumstances that are going to make a romance between a fifteen-year-old and a thirty-one-year-old anything other than predatory and gross, and Vale Allen's approach ("Well, they really, REALLY like each other!") was not even in the ballpark. Reading this book is a struggle, because it's a romance novel and most of Vale Allen's attention is focused on building this relationship and emotional bond and MARISA IS FIFTEEN, LEAVE HER ALONE.
SO ANYWAY. Marisa is the daughter of Cameron, who has a reclusive architect friend named Erik (Tip 1: If your first thought on meeting the object of your affection is, "Gee, my best friend didn't say his daughter was so pretty," she might be too young for you, asshole), and the two meet when Erik does some major remodeling on Cameron's house. Erik wears a cape and broad-brimmed hat at all times, apparently, which is pretty hilarious out of context but is ostensibly in order to hide his physical disfigurement from the world. He also never goes out in the daylight and only works at night unless he uses a proxy, which is unwieldy but not impossible in an architectural context, I suppose. Marisa finds all of this desperately intriguing and romantic, even though he's uglier than sin.
Most (read: so far, all) romance versions of this story minimize or completely do away with the Phantom's deformity, because it's hard to make a reader connect with sexual desire for somebody that's physically hideous (I mean, unless you're that Leroux guy, apparently, and who knows what sorcery he was up to), but Vale Allen does actually put some work into showing Erik's problems. Erik's face is described as appearing to have been "sewn from many tattered patches of flesh", and Vale Allen gives us a great twist on the mask, which turns out to be a small affair that just covers his nose and cheeks in order to simulate that he does, in fact, have a nose (which he does not). It's not Leroux's skeleton-man, of course - his body is frequently described as muscular and powerful and sexy in spite of the state of his skin - but it's an appropriately hardcore disfigurement, so I'm not inclined to throw her in the same basket as all the other watered-down romance-version disfigurements (Ashe, Herter, Stuart... I'm looking right at you). A few details are pretty unrealistic - for example, if he was burned and maimed so badly that he has no eyebrows left, how is it that he still has "luxuriant" lashes? - but overall, I appreciated the serious effort to keep the element of physical challenge in the character, and to work with the kinds of accommodations his disability might entail.
By the way, Marisa has a best friend named Meggie, who is an obvious signpost on the road to confirming that Lloyd Webber has plenty of influence on this version, even if Vale Allen is clearly drawing from the original source material as well. Meggie is completely superfluous aside from providing this clue, since she appears in only one early-on flashback scene and contributes little to either the plot or Marisa's character, which is a common problem for Meg; authors seem to feel the need to include her because she's in the musical, but then not want to actually let her do anything. Poor Meg. The cape and hat are another clue about inspiration, since they resemble the Phantom's stage costume from the Lloyd Webber musical.
It's only chapter one, and Erik has already fallen head over heels for Marisa. This is the worst for a few reasons, which are as follows:
1) They have met only once, for about three to four hours tops. That is not enough time for true love. I don't care what you think, romance industry.
2) She's fifteen and his best friend's daughter. That's gross and you're gross, Erik.
3) She acts fifteen, right up to staring at him and asking where his disfigurement comes from. This is not usually conducive to love at first sight, and in fact he reacts violently any time anyone else does this in the entire novel. What's different about Marisa? Well, the things that are different about every teenager - she's young, inexperienced, and completely incapable of recognizing a power dynamic stacked against her.
4) She's FIFTEEN. (Tip 2: If you are thinking of her as "the child" even in your internal monologue, she MIGHT BE TOO YOUNG FOR YOU.)
Unfortunately, while I know that Vale Allen's intent with all this was to establish that Erik and Marisa (who has also conceived an unholy and totally inexplicable fascination with the contractor her dad hired but is a little more pardonable because hey, she's fifteen, fifteen-year-olds are hormonal and make bad decisions which is one of several reasons they are NOT PROSPECTIVE PARTNERS FOR ADULTS) have an instant connection and are destined to be together through true love, what it really makes it seem like to me is that Erik has a boner for his friend's daughter because she looks good. This is not a good way to set up a romance even if both people are adults. ALSO, THEY AREN'T.
Marisa is very impulse-motivated and self-centered. This is pretty much par for the course for a fifteen-year-old girl, so you know, I don't care, she's got to figure out who she even is as a person. I still don't see a good reason for an adult male to be seriously romantically interested in her, however; sexually, sure, creepy though that might be, but there doesn't seem to be any foundation for the deep soul-clicking that Vale Allen's trying to pull off. Can you explain what about Marisa Erik finds so compelling? I sure can't, and I had to read this whole garbage pile. The only things he really praises are generic traits like how sweet she is, how innocent, how vivacious - in other words, she's young. That's not liking her personality, that's liking the fact that she's too young to really have one yet and I want to punch this dude out.
Interestingly, this version of Erik has a dedicated assistant named Raskin. Raskin is a Vietnam veteran who apparently has at least some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is thus suited to life with Erik since he doesn't get along with the rest of the world very well, either. His inclusion seems to be a direct throwback to the henchman sidekicks of the earlier movies (Ivan in the 1962 Fisher/Lom production and Lajos in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film), which featured side characters to aid the Phantom in pulling off his more elaborate plans and in taking the blame away from him when especially dirty work needed to be done. Raskin is set up to be Erik's opposite; that is, he is physically whole and very attractive, suffering from so much mental disturbance from his trauma that he often can't function, whereas Erik is supposed to be mentally beautiful and intelligent and emotional but physically flawed by his injuries.
While it's obvious that Vale Allen is setting up an opposite number to complement Erik, the reasoning behind it is flawed; Leroux's Erik was just as damaged and emotionally/socially stunted on the inside as he was disfigured on the outside (since society's reaction to the one naturally caused the other through abuse and ostracization). This version of Erik is, like so many others, really a nice guy (or so she'd like us to believe while Marisa is standing right there being FIFTEEN) underneath, goddammit, because we shouldn't judge him by his face because that would make us mean people. Replacing Original Erik's very real struggles with New Erik's self-pitying angst, just makes him come off as whiny, especially in a modern version of the story where he demonstrably does have prestigious contact with the rest of the world when he wants it. It's now a story about looking beneath appearances, instead of a story about social responsibility and the damage an irresponsible society can do to its members.
The dynamic Vale Allen sets up here for the relationship between Marisa and Erik is an attempt at pedophilia apologia and it's so obvious that the only reason I didn't recycle this book immediately is so I could report on it for you, dear readers. You see, Erik, as a function of having been injured and disfigured and consequently mostly shunned or abused since the tender age of seven, is a virgin. And therefore, since he's never had any opportunity to have a real romantic relationship with anyone, nor even as much as held hands with a girl in his life, Vale Allen would like us to consider that he has an emotional age equivalent to Marisa's, since he's also just trying out relationships for the first time, so therefore we shouldn't be acting like he's a predatory adult hitting on a child. It's not a thirty-one-year-old taking advantage of a fifteen-year-old, it's two fifteen-year-olds learning about love together, one of whom just happens to be trapped in a thirty-one-year-old body.
So yeah, that happens, and unfortunately it's just going to keep on happening until the book is over.
In case anyone out there needs it spelled out, the fact that Erik has never managed to get it on with anyone doesn't change the fact that he is a grown-ass man who is vastly more mature than Marisa and much better equipped to understand things like consequences and social morals and who has vastly more power in a world where he has a career, prestige, and financial resources while she is a child. That's another reason that statutory rape laws exist, and I don't care if you're a child in the ways of love. Go learn from an adult goddamn woman. Targeting a child just says that you want to be with someone who has no adult perspective and no ability to compete with or resist you in any arena and that's not romantic, it's spine-crawling.
At no point should the line from "My friend's underage daughter is pretty" have been crossed to "My friend's daughter is pretty and it's okay to therefore enter into a romantic relationship with her". And that's the premise of the book so HERE WE GO.
On the positive side, Marisa displays a very accurate portrayal of a first teenage crush, though she's a bit of a late bloomer at sixteen (just had a birthday, which... makes nothing better at all!). On the negative side of the positive side, why on earth does she have a powerful crush on that one older, really creepy dude who is friends with her dad and who came over once to look at the house and refused to talk to her? Seriously. Lots of kids get crushes on adults but like, has this child never met any other adults? Explain what's going on here.
After some clumsy exposition regarding Marisa's father that felt more like a bulleted list than actual dialogue, he finally sat down with his daughter and had a little talk with her about how most of her fascination with the disfigured architect was probably due to a combination of curiosity and raging teenage hormones. It's nice to see him take a moment to do this, because after he just sat there and observed as she asked insatiably about Erik, bothered him incessantly when he was at their house, and then demanded to be allowed to invite him over for a dinner she cooked herself, I was starting to seriously question Cameron's dad-cred. Unfortunately, immediately after having said talk, he went right back to letting her do whatever she wanted and not seeming to care about the unhealthy obsession she was developing for his much-too-old-for-her friend, which left me frustrated all over again. You'd think a father whose wife had died and left him with only his daughter would be a little more protective, and the fact that he isn't just sets off enabling alarm bells.
The prose so often sneaks close to amazing; it has a poetic, lyrical quality about it sometimes that I really enjoy, but it never quite makes it up to snuff. It's like Vale Allen knows what she's trying to do, but just hasn't quite mastered doing it yet. It's not bad, per se, but if it were just a little bit better, a little more careful attention paid, it could have been spectacular. It makes me sad that it isn't spectacular.
Erik hits upon the brilliant idea of having Marisa sing for him (he's hoping she'll suck, so he can get over his crush on her and go home, which okay sure but how about you just GO HOME ANYWAY BECAUSE YOU ARE AN ADULT), but unfortunately, of course, she's amazing and it makes him go all wibbly inside. Of course, I'd like to point out, as a singer, that nobody sounds that nice un-warmed-up, at age barely sixteen, after a large meal of heavy food, at the end of the day. Like more than a few interpretations of this story, however, this appears to be light on the side of musical knowledge; Marisa sings Bing Crosby's "Sweet and Lovely", which, despite being a perfectly lovely song, does not include the mentioned "E above high C", which is a note typically reserved for Mozart and Donizetti and others of their ilk. I can only assume that she actually meant the E above C2, which is a fairly common note in female literature, though it certainly isn't something you could term "high" unless you happen to be a contralto.
And then Marisa goes and kisses Erik on his way out the door, and you know what? Daddy dearest STILL DOESN'T CARE. Someone revoke this man's parenting license immediately. It's okay to let your daughter learn things on her own, even in the thorny world of romance; it is not okay to tacitly approve of her making blatant romantic advances toward your friend, a man who is literally twice her age, while she is a minor. CAMERON. WAKE UP AND GET A RESTRAINING ORDER.
Erik, in a welter of sexual frustration that Vale Allen made me read with my own two eyes, goes home and demands that Raskin tell him about his sexual encounters so he can experience them vicariously. Apparently this happens fairly often, since Raskin doesn't bat an eye (and why should he? He's all dead inside from being in the 'Nam anyway, and also Vale Allen doesn't care about developing him as a person). While it's an interesting psychological moment for Erik - he is literally unable to imagine contact with Marisa on his own and requires a "human" intermediary, possibly because of his belief that he is unworthy of human contact in its most basic form - it is still horrible because of the uncomfortable American Beauty vibe of the man BLATANTLY SEXUALLY FANTASIZING ABOUT A MINOR WITH HIS OTHER ADULT FRIEND'S HELP. This entire book is a crime.
In the first move I have appreciated on his part, Erik decides that his affection for Marisa is wrong and that he must avoid her from here on out. I would have appreciated it more if he had thought it was wrong because she was A LITERAL CHILD instead of thinking that it was wrong because he is so ugly and angsty that he can never have human contact, but I'll take what I can get. He spends a lot of time cooped up in his room listening to music, which is usually described in blatantly sexual terms in case we had forgotten that he has a big old hard-on for Marisa (discussion of how there are "speakers throbbing from the powerful thrust of Corelli and Vivaldi, Mozart and Handel, Beethoven and Chopin" is another thing that I had to read for you people).
Way more interesting than listening to Erik perv about his underage crush is Vale Allen's copious use of jazz and easy-listening standards as well as classical music. It shouldn't be a surprise, but as this is the only "modern" version of the Phantom story I've read yet that actually included the musical angle, it's the only one that's yet addressed the idea of that aspect being "modernized". Leroux's original Erik was, after all, something of a musical maverick far ahead of his time in terms of theory and composition, so it makes sense that a more modern version of the character should be interested in the later musical forms instead of remaining stagnant. Not that he's entirely current considering the musical movements of the fifties through the seventies, but at least Vale Allen is making an effort.
Erik, interestingly enough, sees himself as an interloper in Raskin's sexual encounters (which are apparently both frequent and remarkably passionless, but again, in case you forgot, Raskin is a one-note cliche of emotionally damaged goods), since he's vicariously experiencing them via description. He refers to himself as "the uninvited third party", putting the two men in a sort of strange symbiosis. What I want to know is what Raskin thinks about his employer always wanting to know about his sex life, but of course that would be interesting and somehow less creepy, so no one ever tells me. I also want to know if any of these people Raskin is having sex with know that someone else is getting the play-by-play later, because that's deeply uncool and he can sign up for a damn phone sex hour like everyone else if he wants to get remote sexual gratification with people who are down for that.
The first chapter went to great lengths to convince us that Marisa wasn't spoiled and that she and her father had a great relationship, but based on how easily Daddy seems to fold on everything (except buying her a dog, and apparently refusing to do so is a greater evil than letting her boink a man twice her age), I'm totally unconvinced in very short order. Marisa's obvious lack of maturity - which is really okay, because she JUST TURNED SIXTEEN and I don't expect her to think or act like an adult yet - is super, super obvious and their "great relationship" seems to be just one where they coexist and never in any way bond or have thoughts or feelings about each other.
My continuing impatience with the lack of realism regarding Erik's and Marisa's instant, abiding attraction toward one another is building up a head of steam here. They've met TWICE. In that time they have not even had a decent conversation. They just stare at each other. She's sixteen. He's thirty-one. He thinks she's mighty pretty and she surely wants to know what's under the ugly mask, but that is not enough to establish True Love. I'm having a seriously hard time trying to accept this as making any kind of sense in the real world. I understand the crush on Marisa's part - it's probably equal parts maternal instinct and a desire to "save" the poor man, spiced with just enough hormonal activity to keep her teenage circuits humming, but "morbid interest/desire to nurture + hormones" does not actually equal "true love" in my book. And, of course, Erik's just being a giant creeper.
Vale Allen's been better than most of the other authors thus far, but there's some pretty blatant paraphrasing of the lyrics to Lloyd Webber's "All I Ask of You" in here (ironic because that song is about Christine's relationship with Raoul, you know, her age-appropriate actual boyfriend). I guess she just couldn't resist the wizardry of Harold Prince.
At first, I was glad that it was readily apparent that Vale Allen had some carpentry knowledge; she gives us a very detailed account of Erik's busywork as he remodels and rebuilds an old house (which just happens to be right across the street from Marisa's. Way to "avoid" her, buddy). However, after FIVE PAGES of exhaustive descriptions of exactly what the house looked like in every room, I was no longer excited. By the time it finished, I was testy, and ready to excuse this indulgence only if it turned out that this exhaustive description of the house was entirely necessary to the plot. Surprise: it wasn't. Six pages of architecture and furnishing discussion is half the Battle of the Hornburg, lady! Also, Erik apparently needs a little help with his interior decorating. If navy sheets are the "darkest he could find", he's not trying very hard.
Vale Allen throws in various details in an attempt to more closely tie this Erik to his illustrious forebears; for example, he turns out to be a boating enthusiast, though he never goes boating and only seems to own the boat when it's convenient to be ferrying Marisa around like a particularly heinous-looking gondolier. For another example, he has "books on magic" in his library, though these are never explained and are instantly forgotten. I'm not really impressed by these attempts to add the trappings of the original Phantom, mostly because they show all the forethought and deep character development ties of a commercial jingle. Still, they are present, which is more than we get in a lot of versions.
Marisa proceeds to spend most of the next two YEARS pining and moping over Erik, despite the fact that she met him TWICE and he has no discernible redeeming traits at this early stage, since she has yet to peel his layers off and expose the delicate specialness of his onion-like interior. The only positive side effect of this is that she is now about to turn seventeen, which is... not at all less creepy when we note that he is still thirty-two, and has been thinking naughty thoughts about her since she was fifteen. After all this time moping over a guy for no good reason whatsoever, she finally manages to steal his number from her father and call him, at which point Erik laughs at her instead of saying something nice to let her down (because she's his friend's SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER) and she hangs up and runs off a-teary-eyed to plan her suicide instead of realizing that she's been behaving ridiculously.
And what's up with Erik magically getting hold of her unlisted private number at the drop of a hat? Creepy.
So, shortly before Erik repents for laughing at her and goes to pick her up in his gondola motorboat, this inner monologue happens:
Do I hate you, Marisa? Hate? I adore you, revere you. I would drop my life down at your feet and allow you to dance on it, if the fancy took you. I want you as I've wanted nothing else, nor ever will again. You're in my mouth, my ears and eyes and throat. My hands crave your hair, the bends of your elbows, the acquaintanceship of your flesh and the bones it conceals. Just your name, the sound of your voice in my ear, and control is lost. I am rendered deaf and blind, dumb and senseless with the pleasure your very voice gives to me. You're the living embodiment of every lovely thing ever created... I could never hate you, dearest child. It's me... This face, this grim joke of fate, is what I hate. But you? Not ever, never you. If I die as a result of loving you, I will never be capable of bearing you the least malice.
See what I mean about the prose? There are some turns of phrase up there that are just lovely, evocative of Leroux's, but others that are clumsy enough to drown it out. And none of that matters because he is talking about A LITERAL CHILD, WHO HE REFERS TO AS A LITERAL CHILD, OH MY GOD, PLEASE STOP PRETENDING YOUR WILD DEVOTION MEANS SHE IS REALLY THE ONE WITH THE POWER HERE, HUMBERT.
By the time Erik finally shows up in his gondola motorboat, Marisa has already determined that she will, and I quote, "let him do anything" that he wants. Not only that, but her running internal monologue (which is not yet as impressive in scope and angst as Erik's, but give her time, ladies and gents, give her time) makes it pretty clear that she totally wants to have sex with the creepy messed-up-looking guy who is her dad's twice-her-age friend who she only met socially once and who recently blew her off in a fairly cruel manner. She's a teenager who has suffered a blow to her ego so I understand her, but I don't understand why Vale Allen thinks this is romantic instead of HORRIFYING.
Then, of course, they go to his underground bachelor-pad-cum-music-room, and he plays piano and they sing, and she puts her head on his shoulder, and he sings her a lullaby that he refers to as his "night music" which should totally NOT be confused with Lloyd Webber's "Music of the Night" which is totally DIFFERENT, and then he takes her home and she is now convinced that she LOVES him SO MUCH. She's still not even seventeen. He's still thirty-two. Vale Allen still hasn't shown me a good reason for any of this to be happening (spoiler: because there ISN'T ONE).
Marisa proceeds to sneak out via motorboat every night to spend time at Erik's place, and she does this for several months. And yet neither her father nor her housekeeper manages to notice anything other than, "Gee, Marisa, you look kind of tired," or, "Maybe you should eat more, you look worn out." They are all panicked and full of consternation when she collapses of exhaustion and has to be taken to the hospital, where doctors diagnose the problem as anemia and malnutrition, the solution to which is to... get a lot of sleep? Look, people, anemia and malnutrition are eating problems, not sleep disorders. Even I know that, and most of my medical knowledge comes from watching the first season of House. What is wrong with this hospital's staff?
Erik, in the first in a long series of exasperating moves, immediately blames himself for her collapse (which has some merit, since he was the guy dragging her out all night every night like the predatory jackass he is) and descends into a truly epic angst-funk, which includes running away to Europe so he can't "destroy her" anymore (this is the first instance in this book of someone fleeing to a different country amid a rain of tears, but it won't be the last). A following scene in which Erik flies into an angst-fueled rage, rips his mask off, and screams at Raskin about the torture that is his life is a rare moment of pricelessness; Raskin just calmly reminds him that he was in Vietnam and has seen people in much worse shape, and suggests that he suck it up and start acting like an adult. Thank god. Alas, Raskin will go back to being an enabler in short order, including telling Erik to go right back to what he was doing so he annoys him less.
Vale Allen clearly does "get" Erik's emotional state; he isn't exactly all glued together all the time, and the fact that he was injured at a very young age helps make that "shunned his entire life" angle work a lot better than the usual burn-scars-from-two-years-ago plan that a lot of modern interpretations use (yes, I do mean you, 1983 Markowitz/Schell film).
And now, it's time for the first sex scene. Yes, really, now I'm actually reading statutory rape scenes in this real-ass published romance novel and somehow no one ever stopped this from happening. Even if you somehow bang your head and forget about the ages of the participants, the only really erotic part of the scene is in the foreplay, because these are two virgins, so Vale Allen spills a lot of ink on how hesitant and worshipful and naive Erik is so we won't think of him as predatory and Marisa is mostly just in pain and I had to take a fucking break, y'all.
As the next chapter heads off toward the culmination of the sex scene, I'd just like to note that Marisa is still seventeen and take a moment to say, very loudly:
Vale Allen keeps doing this thing where she recognizes the problem and tries to keep anyone from getting upset by that with Erik repeatedly realizing that he's too old for Marisa and it making him conflicted and worried, but unfortunately that both doesn't fix ANYTHING AT ALL and seems to betray an inability to understand that that's how a lot of predators act in real life, too. Just saying something is wrong doesn't absolve you if you still DO IT. Now we're stuck here with a guy who is having sex with a minor half his age even though he knows it's wrong because he really really wants to.
This book makes me need a SHOWER.
After he's already missed the months of nightly shenanigans and the statutory rape of his only daughter, Cameron finally decides to have a chat with Erik about appropriate behavior in regards to Marisa after she tells him that she's been having nightly "music lessons" with him. Oh, thanks for taking things so seriously, dad. Too bad you're, like, two years too late! No parenting awards for you. Marisa's adolescent rantings about how unfair he's being and how he doesn't trust her to be an adult further place her as stunningly not at an adult level of maturity. (That's okay. What's not okay is the behavior of EVERY ADULT IN THIS BOOK.)
The chat goes by without incident, since apparently, despite Erik and Marisa being two of the worst liars in the universe, Cameron decides to believe that they're just having music lessons at eleven o'clock at night, even though they're making out at the end of his driveway afterward. Maybe he's nearsighted. Or maybe, like I said above, he's just outright enabling his adult friend to take advantage of his daughter and he can join everyone else up against the fucking wall.
The only other option is that Erik is only getting away with this because his FRIEND, Cameron, thinks he'd never be enough of a dick to sleep with his UNDERAGE DAUGHTER, and he's not hitting even that STUNNINGLY LOW BAR of decency.
Then it's sex, round two. No one is using any kind of protection, in case this wasn't gross enough, and Marisa started on birth control pills yesterday and I am so sad for her that her health care provider failed her and she doesn't seem to know that they take a few weeks to build up in her system enough to actually prevent pregnancy.
In case you were just dying to know more about this predator, Vale Allen presents us with some concrete reasons for Erik's appearance; at the time of his horrible accident (which killed both of his parents, too, by the way), the art of skin grafting was in its infancy, and while the surgeons did the best they could with what they had, it was only the 1940's, after all. The "patchwork" appearance of his face is due in part to the fact that the surgeons were forced to use skin from several different parts of his body, most of which didn't match the skin on his face, and the result was a face with a vast number of different skin textures on it. The same idea applies to the many scars and burns on his body (he does have them, yes... we usually just don't hear about them because he has clothes on a good portion of the time although NOT OFTEN ENOUGH). Exacerbating the mess is the fact that he refused to complete the treatment... apparently even an eight-year-old will put his foot down after twenty-odd painful surgeries or so (although I want to know who his guardian was, because eight-year-olds don't have medical power over their decisions). He elected not to allow a prosthetic nose, fearing that it would make him look even more like a freak, and went for the mask option instead. It's not perfect, but it's not a bad explanation for a modern context.
There's a bit of a hint of class friction hanging around, too: Erik's family, the D'Antons, are apparently very well-to-do and upper-crust English people, so we have another instance of Erik being a part of the nobility (we just saw this in Ashe's novel, actually). In this case, it just means he's emo because he wasn't allowed to fraternize with the lower class as a kid, or something else that rich people boo-hoo about into their teacups. It doesn't really come into play with Marisa, since her family's intensely rich, and anyway the dynamic is totally wrong for a character who was originally the very embodiment of the lowest social caste.
Erik has a pervasive, rock-solid certain belief that Marisa's eventually going to leave him. This is both another expression of his self-loathing (which I support in character context) and another excuse for him to mope at the drop of a hat (which I do not support, at all). In other news that I don't support, Marisa is still painfully young and immature. The scene in which Erik helps her with her high school English homework is particularly squirm-inducing, especially when they wander off and have more sex afterward. STOP MAKING ME READ THAT. OH MY GOD.
As a side note, though, said homework has to do with Jane Austen, and I think Vale Allen is trying to use it to reference the kind of subtle commentary Leroux used in his novel also? Or maybe she isn't and I'm making that up, but either way, his interpretation of Austen - "She's painting you a portrait, then laughing and saying, 'Can you believe how ridiculous these people are?'" - is spot on for the old man, too.
THIS BOOK IS SO ICKY.
In a move that should surprise no one (my notes say I called it back in chapter 6), Cameron has a heart attack and dies, leaving Marisa devastated and Kitty, the housekeeper, in charge of everything. Kitty is not any closer to being in my good books when she has no kind of objection to Marisa (still seventeen!) running immediately to this much older guy who is obviously sleeping with her, despite her self-professed role as Marisa's surrogate mother. The only thing I can hope is that since she doesn't know Erik personally, she doesn't realize he's so much older under all the obscuring garments and so forth, but seriously, he's obviously not a youth.
Also, I'd like to know how Erik's face is trashed and his body is fucked up, but his hands are perfect and gorgeous. Peoples' hands get diced up in car accidents more than most other parts of their bodies, due to the instinctive reaction of using them as a shield or a stop. I mean, I know why, but I also hate it.
Erik takes Marisa to her father's funeral, and there's some highly unrealistic staring and gossiping and whispering from all the people who are ostensibly there to attend the funeral of their dear friend and colleague. And no, it's not because they're all thinking, "oh my god, someone save this child from the predator"; no, they're whispering about the way Erik looks. Personally, I don't care how ugly some guy that came is, I'd be more focused on the dead guy, but maybe that's just me. But the fun doesn't stop with the meany mean mean people at the funeral (Marisa conceives an impressive hatred of her family, by the way, for being mean to Erik); Cameron left a letter for Erik along with his will, which reveals that he totally knew about Erik and Marisa all along and gives them his blessing. So there go my last hopes that he was just that oblivious and didn't notice that Erik was banging his underage daughter; it's that he didn't care. He encouraged that. Oh, well, that makes it so much better.
Raskin's bloody background, which includes a lot of childhood abuse and the murder of his father, is a little confusing and disconcerting, since it doesn't seem to serve much purpose. Out of left field, hey, did you know Raskin has always been totally messed up? But, on the other hand, I like that he's getting developed a bit, and his nasty background supports the hypothesis that he's an outgrowth of the earlier violent Ivan/Lajos characters.
Readers of the original book will be entertained to find that Erik's father was apparently named Philippe. Hey, look! Erik's a de Chagny! (That's going to be a serious thing in later works, but it's just an Easter Egg in this one.)
And bam, Erik marries Marisa on her eighteenth birthday, so OBVIOUSLY everything is fine now and he's not a huge predator because look, the LAW SAYS he is allowed to do that, and my hatred for him could power a small village.
Apparently feeling that this is not a real romance novel unless everyone ends up in heterosexual bliss, Vale Allen then informs us that Raskin and Kitty have struck up a romantic relationship. It's confusing. They don't have much in the way of personality and whatever they had has now been removed in favor of a generic Happy People in Love template.
Erik and Raskin conspire to teach Marisa drafting so she can help them out with their little architecture firm. I was trying to look at this as maybe an extension of Erik's desire to train Christine in music in the original story - i.e., Erik is more of an architect here, ergo he is teaching her architecture instead - but we also already did the music teaching schtick. It's nice to see a Christine character get to branch into other interests, I guess, but it would be nicer if they weren't only Exactly the Same Interests as Her Husband and also he wasn't a fucking child molester.
Also, like fifteen years go by. Most of the rest of this book will take place with Marisa now being somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-eight to thirty-five years old. For those keeping score, that makes Erik somewhere from forty-four to fifty-two years old. This fast-forward in time does not have any appreciable effect on Marisa's impenetrable mental shield, which allows her to keep a teenage mindset and maturity level no matter how old she gets.
Vale Allen seems to catch on one of the fundamental concepts of Erik's character in the original novel when she mentions in the narration that Erik is "the living embodiment of [society's] every secret fear." However, she never expands upon the idea, so it seems like it might be a sort of accidental meeting with one of Leroux's themes, like two literary ships bumping in the night.
Snort. Erik throws a stool through a stained glass window and roars like a beast upon discovering that another man looked at Marisa with appreciation. How dare you, sir! I suppose he doesn't have as many social skills as your average guy, but most of the time he seems perfectly cultured and classy. I was, however, very entertained that when Erik tried to reassure Marisa by insisting that he couldn't think of anything she could ever do would make him so angry, she thought, I can. Ha ha, yeah, I can, too. Do I sense some foreshadowing toward a Raoul character? Or just Marisa finally escaping to Europe and going backpacking through Romania or something and feeling cleansed of all this horribleness?
Hey. Where the hell is Raoul, anyway? We're halfway through the book and our Christine character is already married to Erik, and... sigh. Maybe that was actually him.
This chapter involves a lot of frank discussion of various methods of birth control (IUDs, diaphragms, side effects of pills, etc). This is mostly because Erik is madly paranoid that Marisa will get pregnant and give birth to a child that will hate him because he's disfigured. I really only noticed because romance novels so seldom address birth control at all that I was glad to see that Vale Allen was being nicely realistic. Phantom-based stories do often address the potential consequences and dynamics of Erik having children, but since his disfigurement here is from an injury rather than genetic, it has to be about his Angst rather than something gross like worrying about inflicting a condition on a child.
Chapter 22 mostly exists to let everyone know what mean, horrible bastards the Establishment (and by extension, the rest of society) is; Raskin gets pulled over for speeding, and subsequently arrested when the officer pulling him over discovers that he has a prison record (because he kills and/or assaults people sometimes, so once again how dare you, officer), and Erik gets quite a bit of attitude from the local police force when he attempts to muscle his way into the station and demand Raskin's immediate release or else. While the police are harassing Raskin and Kitty, which is uncool, Erik is threatening police officers and I do sort of have to feel like maybe they have a point in not liking him. Marisa is also highly offended by everyone's treatment of her angry, punitive-financial-measures-threatening husband, because what is this world coming to when a guy can't even come in and threaten the local police force with political ruin to get them to do things for him just because he wants them to?
(Do you know how hard you have to fuck up your narrative for me to want to side with the cops, Vale Allen?)
After that little mess gets sorted out, with the police yipping away from Erik's wrath with their tails between their legs, we are treated to the revelation that Raskin was totally making up all those sexual encounters he shared with Erik and he has in fact been celibate since returning from Vietnam (except for Kitty, naturally). Because... that was the thing that made him an unpalatable romantic character, and not the murders and stuff? What happened to Raskin being mentally damaged from the war in which he saw lots of terribly maimed and killed people? What happened to him being the perfect companion for Erik because he was also ill-equipped to deal with the rest of society? What happened to showing a semi-realistic portrait of a man trying to cope with trauma by reaching out for other people and experiences, however fleeting? What happened to the dude who killed his father? I guess Vale Allen got tired of him about two-thirds of the way through the book and replaced him with a character that looked the same but was secretly an entirely new possible space alien with lots of squishy feelings.
Someone should tell this new Raskin that the phrase "spayed" refers to female animals only, and is thus not particularly appropriate for Marisa's male dog. Just putting that out there. I think you want "neutered", Hal.
Marisa, who has heretofore been annoying and insipid but has not motivated me to real hatred, achieves entirely unprecedented levels of frothing dislike out of me here. You see, the fact that she wants children and Erik is adamantly opposed to the idea and this has been a major bone of contention in their marriage. Marisa has whined, tantrumed, moped, complained to Kitty, and generally been insufferable over the whole thing, while Erik has castigated himself on a regular basis for making her unhappy. Frankly, the whole thing is very tiring to watch, especially after it has dragged on for a few chapters. Nobody owes you any goddamn progeny, and if you don't like it, Marisa, either leave him and find someone who does want to raise kids or acknowledge you care about him more than your theoretical motherhood. You're an adult now.
Anyway, Marisa is monkeying around with different kinds of birth control, and eventually she decides to hell with it and she'll just get a tubal ligation. However, she goes home, forgets that she removed her IUD, and has sex with Erik. Twice. And then when she remembers, she feels SO BAD for betraying his trust that she just CAN'T TELL HIM... and proceeds to have sex with him SEVERAL MORE TIMES over the next few days.
Hey, you know what that is? Rape, again, in this novel that somehow still thinks it's a romance. Marisa is having sex with someone while intentionally misleading them about the terms to get them to agree, which is called rape by deception and is repugnant. Rape by deception laws probably weren't on the books yet at the time this was written, so she's not doing anything illegal, but she's still doing something fucking disgusting and you didn't need to make her ALSO HORRIBLE TO MATCH HER HUSBAND, JESUS CHRIST.
Was there not enough horribleness in this book? Why is this happening? And no, I am not impressed by Marisa's constant woe-is-me guilt about how she wishes she had told him because she just KEEPS DOING IT. UGH.
To add some more unnecessary drama to this horrorshow that is still, somehow, limping along, it's time to finally figure out where Raoul went. His name is Stefan and he is an extremely good-looking young man that Marisa meets on the train shortly after seeing a man commit suicide by leaping in front of it; he comforts her and gives her a ride home. While the idea that Christine might have departed with Raoul partially out of a sense of remorse at her "betrayal" of Erik in Leroux's novel is a valid interpretation and an interesting avenue to pursue, I already sense an unfortunate tendency toward villainizing, and I fear poor this poor Raoul-stand-in is about to become a bad guy through virtue of Not Being Erik.
But oh no! Erik went to the train station to pick Marisa up and saw her get out of another man's car! THE BETRAYAL. Like any other rational adult, he hides in a secret room under his house and mopes until she gets tired of looking for him and leaves again.
Not to be outdone in the realm of asinine decisions, Marisa decides that if her husband's going to be so mean and ignore her, well, she's just going to go have dinner with that pretty young man. But not out of a desire for revenge; no, no, she just wants to talk about the train accident with the only other person she knows who was there (and you know what, that would be fair in the hands of another author; she's traumatized, he'll understand, and her husband is nowhere to be found to help her). The fact that she gets all dressed up and goes to another man's house while pissed off at her husband has nothing to do with anything, obviously, even though it very obviously does.
Marisa never really stopped being a self-centered brat and it shows, which doesn't invest me in her happy ending very much. It occurs to me that Marisa's happiness is by far secondary in this story; what's important is that Erik is happy, that the Phantom be "rewarded" or "compensated" for all the misery in his life with a perfect young wife to love him. Which really puts grooming her from childhood into even clearer perspective. This is shameful.
Unsurprisingly (at least, if you read my note about how I knew it was going to happen), Stefan is turning out to be a bit of a jerkass, because he's a stock villain and not allowed to have things like feelings of his own regarding the trauma he also just experienced. She sticks around for dinner anyway.
This I can say: at least there's suspense. I'm honestly not sure if Marisa's pissed off enough to sleep with Stefan, so there is an element of the unknown in play here.
Oh, look. More rape. Vale Allen doesn't stop at just making Stefan unappealing in contrast to Erik, or making him generally unpleasant or flawed in some way in order to make her point; no, he has to be a rapist, and Marisa has to stab him in the arm with a broken wine glass in order to escape (but not before being punched in the face and partially violated, of course, because there wouldn't be enough angst or unnecessary vilifying of Raoul's stand-in if we left too early, and besides, how would we make sure Marisa was immediately and soundly punished for hurting Erik's feelings if we didn't let YET ANOTHER GUY rape her? Why am I trapped in his paperback hell?).
I'd just like to point out that there can be times - in fact, most times fall into this category - in which a woman is interested in two different men and both men are perfectly acceptable or likable or worthy, and it turns out that the woman only loves one of them and that settles the matter. We do not need a choice between a noble, self-sacrificing dark hero and a slimy rapist woman-abuser in order to know who to root for (well, in this case, maybe we do, since they're BOTH SLIMY RAPISTS SO YOU KNOW, IT IS MORE CONFUSING THAN USUAL). I needed another BREAK here.
Marisa calls Erik, weeps out some kind of half-assed confession that includes a lot of apologies but no actual explanation of what she did so we can spend time with Erik's tortured betrayed feelings assuming his wife cheated on him instead of Marisa's feelings about being a RAPE VICTIM, and then she runs away to the south of France. Erik, also clearly a master of rational response, responds to this by attempting to shoot himself in the head, and has to be wrestled into submission by Raskin. I'm not sure where Kitty (who, it occurs to me, is really the Madame Giry analogue in this story; the case could be made that Raskin is a sort of Persian analogue, which would make this the first ever version in which the Persian and the Madame get it on) is during all of this, but who cares? Raskin and Erik are going to get on a plane and goddamn FIND Marisa wherever she is, regardless of the fact that fleeing to France is usually a pretty good indicator that someone does not want to see you.
Why am I spending all my time with ERIK? Marisa was just raped by a casual acquaintance while already traumatized by witnessing a gruesome suicide and what we care about is how toweringly in love her creepy child molester husband is and how he cares about her even though she cheated on him? What IS this?
The hunt continues and we don't hear a goddamn word about Marisa or her suffering or how she deals with everything because, if you didn't know by now, she's not important.
Aside from a lot more navel-gazing (Erik and Raskin have found Marisa, but instead of talking to her they have elected to just stalk her from French town to French town, on the theory that she might bolt if they popped out of the bushes unexpectedly), the only remarkable thing here was Marisa's self-inflicted head wound, which she acquires after banging her head repeatedly on the wall in an attempt to kill herself. This was defiant and almost somewhat admirable in the original Christine, who was tied up in Erik's basement listening to her lover be murdered; it doesn't have the same impact here, especially since it's more of a horrific trauma response to everything awful that has happened to this poor woman.
Nice to see Erik has not at any point stopped thinking he should stalk and creep and be generally awful to this woman he ostensibly loves.
Everyone is finally reunited; Erik and Marisa go off and have a second honeymoon or something, Raskin goes back to Connecticut and proposes to Kitty, Stefan probably needs at least five stitches but nobody cares because he's the worst, and we can all go home. About goddamn time. Vale Allen closes things off with another quote from Leroux's novel, and we are finally free to go our merry way and read something without any rapists or child-molesters in it.
So my question is: did Allen set out by sitting down at her desk and saying, "I'm going to write a book where a pedophiliac villain and his traumatized child-bride triumph over all odds, while also turning the original hero into a self-obsessed rapist and throwing in some random characters for no particular reason at all"? Because I don't have any other explanation.