Night of the Phantom (1991)

     by Anne Stuart

Ah, yes. It has Fabio on the cover, so you know where we're going here, folks! 

 

This book is, in a few words, incredibly silly. It is absolutely not concerned with any of the themes or commentary of Leroux's original novel, so it is a testament to the old man's writing abilities that a surprising number of correlations do come through anyway. Anne Stuart mentioned on her website way back (now gone, sorry!) that she conceived of it as a combination of the Phantom story and the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (of course, the Phantom story pretty much is just a later form of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, but she's not the last person to go for that combo platter), and the elements she uses of both are pretty readily apparent. Also readily apparent is sheer rampant bananaboats.

 

Some of you may be looking at the cover and wondering who, exactly, that totally handsome and dashing dude played by Fabio is. Maybe Raoul, right? Oh, read on, my friends. You are in for such a delicious treat.

 

Prologue

 

This prologue would totally have made me think that the main character was a vampire if I hadn't already had a general idea what was going on. It's very short, which is all right since it needs that room to pack in the unstoppable drama. Unnamed figure sits in his room, broods about how he hates the light and only the night is fit for him, plots revenge on someone and marinates in his own angst. We establish here that the Lloyd Webber stage musical is going to be a big, big influence on this book; the language here is already reminiscent of Lloyd Webber's lyrics, though it's going to get very much more obvious later on in the novel.

 

Chapter 1

 

Names can be entertaining things. Used properly, they can also give the reader a little insight into the characters they're going to be spending time with. Alas, the names in this novel almost baffled me sometimes. For example, our main character (and Christine analogue... sort of) is named Megan and often called Meg for short, which is confusing since Meg is a ballerina in the opera in Leroux's novel and a friend and confidante for Christine in Lloyd Webber's musical version. This may, in fact, be deliberate; Meg and our Phantom character do not have any kind of a mentor relationship going on in Stuart's novel, being strictly concerned with power balance and romance. This could actually be looked at as the first traditionally published romance that prefers to stick Meg and the Phantom together as potential romantic partners, though many other elements of Megan's character are more in line with Christine. Still, Meg Carey vs. Meg Giry... yeah, that's probably not an accident.

 

The Phantom, not incidentally, is named Ethan Winslowe. There's the name Ethan, which means "strong, firm, and impetuous" (why, look, the romance hero trifecta!), but more importantly there's the surname Winslowe, which was the Phantom's name in the 1974 de Palma/Finley film. You wouldn't expect a 1990s romance novel to show a lot of influence from a camp rock horror musical cult hit... and you would be right, since it turns out that there is no discernible Phantom of the Paradise influence anywhere else in the novel. I am forced to write the name off as having no relevance, though the extreme coincidence of it continues to arouse my suspicions every time I see it.

 

We get right in here with my greatest annoyance in the prose: it is riddled with sentence fragments. Skilled authors can use sentence fragments judiciously in their prose to great effect, but that is not what's going on here. The fragments are overused and often thrown in there with reckless, nonsensical abandon where they aren't needed, and the result is a choppy, irritating style that, despite its intention to emphasize the words, actually detracts from the impact of a given sentence.

 

This version of the Phantom is set up exclusively as an architect, rather than a musician. The idea's source is an interesting topic for speculation, especially as Leroux's original work only mentioned Erik as a contractor working on the opera house's construction once in his epilogue (then again, he did do a lot of engineering in Persia, so that might be factoring in). It seems possible that Stuart may have encountered Kay's novel of the previous year, though the time between the publishing of the two books is slim enough to cast serious doubt on that idea. A few short stories from Greenberg's anthology mentioned Leroux's Erik in an architectural context, but Kay's novel was the first to really give him a thorough, concrete background in that particular field.

 

Anyway, Ethan is a reclusive genius architect who never leaves his house because of some kind of mysterious medical condition. Reese Carey runs a big-name contracting firm and builds a lot of Ethan's buildings. Reese is also a generic asshole - self-involved, conniving, conscienceless, and generally slimy, all of which neatly set him up as the big villain of the story (though there will be others later, as well). His dialogue is accordingly not overly realistic, since Stuart isn't going to waste much time giving his character a lot of complexity. To set up the basic conflict, Reese failed to build one of Ethan's buildings exactly to the specifications he ordered; the building subsequently collapsed, and Ethan is now threatening to out Reese to the authorities as responsible for the debacle. Reese is here representative of society, particularly affluent business society (the elite of modern-day America), which the Phantom finds alternately disgusting in their hubris and strangely alluring in that he is not allowed to be privy to their world. I actually don't think that Stuart intended to introduce any class friction in her novel, implied or otherwise, but the concept was such a strong part of Leroux's original narrative that it may have carried over without her even having been aware of it.

 

It's worth noting that the juxtaposition of the Phantom character being concerned about his reputation (without knowing that the builder didn't construct it properly, people are inclined to blame his maverick architectural design) a little bit odd, since he's traditionally been fairly unconcerned with the opinions of a society that rejected him, but Stuart solves that problem by giving Ethan a well-developed conscience so that he can be angry that people were hurt in the name of greed rather than angry that his name was attached to the situation.

 

Reese, of course, is Meg's father, and in the expected Beauty and the Beast form he sends her off to face Ethan and plead his case, despite the fact that she was planning on quitting and touring the world, like, tomorrow. This constant bowing to her father's was one of my greatest problems with Meg's character. Not only is she supposedly excited by the prospect of her new life and firmly set in her resolve to reach independence, but her father stages a suicide attempt in order to grab her sympathy and convince her to do his dirty work - and even though she KNOWS he staged it, she goes off to do what he wants anyway. And she feels guilty for even thinking of leaving him to his own mess. I understand familial love, but seriously, this dude is faking suicide attempts to make you cover for his criminal negligence. At this point, it is time to erase his phone number and pretend you've never heard of him.

 

The weird thing is that Stuart really wants Meg to be independent, fiery, take no nonsense, adventurous, and then doesn't bother explaining why on earth she's putting her life on hold to meekly run errands for a man she knows is being horrible. Her internal narration over the whole affair is mind-boggling: "If Ethan Winslowe held to his revenge, there'd be no way she could leave Chicago. She'd have to stand by her father in his disgrace." (pg. 15)

 

...why? Does he have a shock collar on you? Get your ass on the plane to the south of France and let your dad rot for his crimes. Even taking into account that she believes her father (no, I don't know why) when he says that it was an honest mistake and Ethan is just trying to blame him out of spite, she still utterly fails to explain why on earth she'd go through with this after he tried to force her into it with a staged suicide attempt. What the everloving hell.

 

But, no matter how little sense it makes, off she goes to the little town of Oak Grove, which is the most hilariously horror-movie little place ever. Stuart makes it a point to inform us that no one ever goes there; the town line sign says, "Founded 1835, Lost 1902", which is incredible. Which of their taxes paid for that? Do the locals run the whole place as a historical re-enactment at all times? Is their major industry anti-tourism? You can't just drop a silent-movie prop into your novel and not explain, Stuart!

 

The place is full of people who hide in their houses and peer out through the shades, and everything is overgrown and old. Everyone Meg meets there is a creepy hickish hulk, speaking entirely in classist we-don't-cotton-to-furners-round-these-parts cliches and bent on intimidating her personally. I seriously could not wait for ghoulish children to start wandering out of the cornfields. The inhabitants of the town are ridiculously superstitious; grown men and women are constantly talking about how Ethan has the "evil eye" and anyone who looks at him goes blind or mad. The consensus of the entire community is that he is the Devil's son (Mammon, is that you?) and that he steals children. It's like it is actually STILL 1835 in Oak Grove, and there seems to be no real reason for this (other than, of course, Stuart's need for a convenient setting for the absolutely adrift-from-reality plot she has in store for the reader).

The sad thing is that you could really do a lot with this premise if you put in the bare minimum of research or sensitivity. Small towns (or hell, even cults if you want to get weird with it) are scary places for minorities due to the isolation and lack of resources to deal with discrimination, and superstitions and religious beliefs have always been used as convenient excuses to target people - it wouldn't be hard to highlight Ethan as someone suffering from systemic discrimination in a tough environment, thus making the townspeoples' behavior not only more comprehensible but also more sinister. But that would have required basic sensitivity to plot and characters, which we don't have here, and Ethan would have had to be visibly "othered" by the community in some way (given how many of those accusations against him are textbook traditional bullshit directed at Jewish or Romani people, either could have worked), but the truth is simultaneously more ridiculous and more boring than you would believe.

 

Chapter 2

 

Upon arriving at Ethan's mansion, Meg meets Salvatore (meaning "savior" or "salvation" - she's a subtle one, our Stuart), his manservant. I initially thought that Salvatore (whom Ethan calls "Sally" for no apparent reason since all indications say that they don't like each other much) must be analogous to the Phantom's henchmen in earlier film forms of the story- - i.e., Ivan in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film and Lajos in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film - but other than being very strong and intimidating and working for the Phantom, there seems to be no correlation between him and his predecessors. Even if she didn't consciously borrow from earlier versions, however, Stuart's inclusion of his character raises an interesting question: why do later interpreters of the story so frequently feel the need to give the Phantom some kind of sidekick or co-conspirator? In Ivan's case, it was to absolve the Phantom of any blame in the murders and terrorizing of the opera company, allowing him to have all of the mystique and fear and none of the responsibility. Lajos, on the other hand, was more of a plot device, intended to make the Phantom's added-for-the-film fall from grace and escape into the catacombs more believable for the audience. The unnamed assistant boy that Raoul shoots in Bischoff's 1976 novel is almost certainly borrowed from the 1962 film, but he is an innocent in that version, the lonely Phantom's only companion. Conversely, Lloyd Webber's version of Madame Giry serves as both aide and traitor, held at arm's length from the character, much the same way Carriere does in the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries.

 

By the time we get to Stuart's novel and Salvatore, the idea of a secondary assistant character for the Phantom is pretty solidly established. Is this because human beings in western cultures are so very socially tight-knit that the idea of someone existing completely without human contact is unrealistic for us? Or, maybe closer to the mark, is it that we can't relate very well to a completely solitary character, and we need some human interaction in order for us to see him as a person rather than a monster (there's no denying that, starting with the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, there has been a real push to humanize and sympathize the Phantom's character)? Since Lloyd Webber's musical version seems to be the largest influence on Stuart's novel, it's likely that Salvatore and Ruth (who will be introduced later) are intended to fill the same roles as the opera hosue managers and Madame Giry, but they're more up close and personal even than Lloyd Webber's characters were.

 

Leaving psychological conjecture for later, back to the plot: Ethan decides to just outright kidnap Meg and keep her locked up in his house, which is illegal and absolutely not a good plan in any way for anyone, but which he will get away with for way, way too long because Stuart is not overly concerned with things like realism (you have no idea, yet. Just wait). Meg never gets to see him, but she assumes from all the technology sounds she hears in the house and the rumors circulating about him that he has some kind of terminal disease and is an invalid being kept alive by machines, thus explaining the townsfolk's superstitious dislike of him. Ethan, unsurprisingly, is a grade-A asshole to her, because it is an unwritten rule of a certain kind of romance novel that the hero must be the absolute worst stain on the planet so that you can see how real their love is when it RedeemsTM him. (Wait, you say. Where's Raoul? I'm sorry about what's in store, y'all.) 

 

My favorite continuity moment is also in this chapter, with the sudden revelation that there are video cameras in all the rooms of the house and Meg must realize she is being watched at all times, despite the fact that we had just been assured that half the house wasn't even wired for electricity.

 

I really try to love heroines but Meg is not making it east for me. Not only was she so alarmed by the architecture of Ethan's house that she almost fainted (from seeing architecture? Do gables freak her out or something?), but she doesn't even object when Salvatore locks her in a room or constantly tells her she's a prisoner. She just sort of wanders around in dumbfounded amazement that this is happening. I can understand a certain level of disbelief, but like... pick up something heavy and throw it at a window, or maybe tell Sally where to get off. Stop lingering blankly because the plot needs you to be here but your author didn't want to write any real reason you're not doing anything about it.

 

Chapter 3

 

Meg needs to stop whining about how her father doesn't deserve this kind of treatment. Granted, his truly assholish nature is yet to be revealed, but she knows that he's a manipulative jackass who's basically run her life, she knows that he intentionally cut corners in order to save money and got people killed as a direct result, and she knows that he faked a suicide attempt just to force her to do his bidding. I completely fail to see how she could possibly believe that he doesn't deserve to go to jail for putting his financial gain ahead of the physical safety and well-being of the people who were going to be using his buildings. Maybe it's just that I'd make a really lousy romance heroine; if a member of my family was enough of a dick to do that and then not even be sorry about it, I wouldn't be feeling particularly guilty for not throwing myself on the sword for them. The fact that the whole premise is entirely ridiculous - this modern-day dude just up and kidnaps a woman and keeps her in his house, saying that she has to stay because she "amuses him", and nobody seems to notice or care? this isn't somehow horrifying and Meg isn't in mortal fear that maybe Hannibal Lecter is going to pop out of the wings? - doesn't really help me look more favorably upon Meg's choices.

 

However, it is nice to see that Stuart included that mainstay of Greek mythology, the Abduction of Persephone. It's one of those myths that is closely tied to the Phantom story (and one of the reasons that said story is so enduring, I think), so even if she was a bit blatant about it, it was good to see the ideas connecting there. The idea of Persephone's swallowing of the seed as a fairly sexually charged act is one that isn't often explored in Phantom literature, and that makes the whole thing even more appropriate for the setting and the story. She makes another, brief reference to Ethan as a Gorgon a little bit later; while I approve of the inclusion of the mythological bases of the story, I think this one was a bit misguided since the Gorgons are such powerfully feminine figures and I feel confident in stating that Stuart is not trying to introduce a genderfluid Phantom to us (which is sad because I would read that). Well, and also for one other reason, which we'll get to later.

 

Then there's some kind of bizarre moment where Meg feels someone's breath on her in the corridor, or something, and makes a big deal out of it mentally. Even after having finished the novel, I have no fucking clue what that was about. Unless it was ghosts. It was probably ghosts. Did you know this novel has ghosts? It does, but they're stealth ghosts. They sneak up on you and not in the spooky way.

 

Ethan is frequently referred to throughout the novel as a metaphorical spider, sitting in the center of his web, spinning nets to trap people, feeding on others, etc. I couldn't help but wonder if this might also suggest a bit of influence from Kay's novel, which is the only previous place that I've seen the spider metaphor used so consistently. (I also wondered how on earth Stuart thought it was going to sell with a hero who... does not... do those things.)

 

Chapter 4

 

I enjoyed the constant struggle over food that Stuart kept going for the first part of this novel; the continual offering of food from Ethan and Salvatore and Meg's steadfast refusal to eat any of it was a neat mirror-precursor that would play itself out again in the form of the constant tug-of-war involving sexual desire between Ethan and Meg later (oh, come on, you knew they were going to get it on eventually). It was a nicely subtle touch in a sea of unsubtlety, especially since it plays into the Hades/Persephone metaphor from the last chapter.

 

Things continue to follow a pretty traditional Beauty and the Beast mold, as Ethan informs Meg that he will leave her father alone as long as she stays with him and she spends a lot of time alternately moping and plotting her escape (she's not a very good plotter, so this goes on for a bit). I understand what Stuart is trying to do here, but the story just doesn't survive the transplant to modern times very well without more work than she seems willing to put in; Meg's disappearance not raising a flag for someone, even if not her asshat father, just doesn't make much sense, and neither does the ready-made witchhunt village or the constant insistence that no one ever sees Ethan's face. I mean, Reese may suck giant monkey balls, but even if he doesn't care what happens to his daughter, how is he passing up this perfect chance to send authorities after his business rival who's causing him problems? Ethan kidnapping Meg is a dream come true and he's just over there being utterly useless as a villain.

 

Ethan's character is pretty indefensible for most of the novel, which made it difficult for me to align him as a hero. His I-promise-it's-so-tragic past does not give him license to sit around and snicker over how he planned to rape Meg (or at the very least initiate sexual advances and then scare the bejeezus out of her with his face, which is not better what the fuck is wrong with you). Why are we trying to sell a guy who kidnaps a woman and makes plans to rape and terrorize her as the hero? When does Raoul come rescue this poor dummy and take her to the south of France? 

 

Rather than begging Christine (as a representative of the "good" in society) to accept and love him despite his ostracization, Ethan is pretty much just an asshole using his physical challenge as an excuse to treat people, including Meg, badly. Having been treated badly is not an excuse for visiting the same treatment on others, and while lashing out at a humanity that scorned him is a big part of the Phantom's M.O., this kind of specific pettiness is not only a little bit out of place, but it also makes the character completely unpalatable for the hero role. It's a well-established romance novel trope that the heroine generally redeems the hero, in some form, from some kind of character flaw, but I both didn't believe that Meg's influence would have a lasting effect on him and didn't think that he was a particularly worthwhile dude even if it had. I don't care about sitting through two hundred pages of waiting to see if the would-be rapist reforms. Can we not just have a hero who doesn't contemplate rape? Why is that bar too high? He has a perfect right to be upset over the discrimination he's faced, but the shit he pulls is not excusable here or later in the book.

 

Speaking of assholes, Meg finally decides not to be on Reese's side in this little spat anymore after it's made clear to her that he'd rather leave her for dead in Ethan's clutches than out himself on his building mistakes. It's an uphill battle for anyone to get her to believe it even then, though so far no one has seen an ounce of humanity out of Reese, and I have no idea why Meg is so sold on the idea that "he wouldn't do that". (Oh, yeah, apparently Ethan told Reese to back off and not do anything about Meg's captivity and he wouldn't give away his bad building practices. A prince among men, especially since all those "if I don't let the world know he'll do it again and more people will get hurt!" ethics seem to have immediately evaporated in the face of wanting to get laid. And it STILL DOESN'T MAKE SENSE, OH MY GOD, JUST HAVE HIM ARRESTED AND NOW HE CAN'T DO A DAMN THING TO YOU, REESE.)

 

Meg falls ill with pneumonia, which is a romantically consumptive disease that strikes characters when the author is in need of a plot device to drive them together. She is discovered passed out on the ground by the gardener, Joseph, whose warm and kindly exterior and general fatherly air were completely confusing to my parallel-oriented brain, which was trying to wrap itself around the idea of Buquet as a mentor figure. Like Meg, this seems to be a case where Stuart borrowed the name but assigned it to a completely different character, so I left it alone after a few more chapters made it pretty clear that Joseph really wasn't going to play any kind of a Buquet role.

 

Stuart has a little bit of a problem with misleadingly incorrect sentences, the sort that say something when they were clearly trying to say exactly the opposite. Statements like, "He picked her up in his arms with an effortlessness that made her grimace and curse her extra ten pounds," abound. They're so close to saying what they're trying to, and yet so very far away.

 

Chapter 5

 

The town doctor gets hauled in to diagnose and help treat Meg, and he serves as yet another reminder that the townsfolk are terrified of Ethan and think that he's the spawn of Satan for reasons still not explained to the reader. After all this cringing and doom-crying and dire threatening from the townspeople, my expectations are high; this had better be a really serious business physical condition or other issue on this Phantom, because these are modern people with modern sensibilities, right? Ethan had better have a maggot crawling from his eye socket and a hideous rictus of supernatural evil permanently stamped upon his face. There's some side plot involving the doctor and something bad that he did a long time ago, but my curiosity isn't really piqued because everyone is being so hysterical about Ethan that I can't focus on red herrings over the sound of imagining what he could possibly have going on. Like, does he have literal devil horns?

 

Delusional from the fever, Meg thinks that Ethan (whose face she doesn't see, but already we're noting that this is very much a Lloyd-Webber-inspired Phantom, whose body is not subject to the same deformity as his face and is therefore Hot, Baby) is some kind of saving angel tending her in her sickness. It's actually a very nice way to set up the mental divide that Christine has in the original novel between her "angel" and the Phantom; the fever allows her to have a plausible reason to believe that the man taking care of her is almost angelic, and keeps her off her bearings enough to justify her not putting the pieces together to conclude that it's Ethan. The Phantom is in the basement where she knows Ethan lives and the angel is in the tower where she's convalescing, and it's a neat way of giving us a well-thought-out translation of Christine's confusion in a modern context.

 

Unfortunately, this did not exonerate Stuart in my eyes when she kept reusing the exact same lines in her prose. I was trying to pretend they were probably just similar lines and I wasn't yet acclimated to her style, but when she said that Ethan was "pouring that sickly sweet medicine down her throat" TWICE in two pages, verbatim, I don't know what to do other than wave despairingly at the ranks of editors out there in the mist. Other images are also repeated ad nauseum, such as the darkness of the night (which is, apparently, very dark) and the distressing fact that Meg's chest seems to keep catching on fire whenever Ethan gets too close to it.

 

In a ridiculously dramatic scene wherein Ethan carries the feverish Meg over to the open window and stands there with her, with the curtains blowing impressively about his knees and the rain pouring down on their faces and Meg, I assume, rapidly succumbing to illness because everyone knows soaking a person suffering from pneumonia in freezing rain is definitely the right way to go, she becomes lucid enough to catch a glimpse of his face (when it's illuminated by a dramatic flash of lightning!), but it is intentionally under-described to stop anyone from figuring out what he looks so early on in the novel. Feverish, half-dead Meg still has the mental acuity to think that he looks like "a fallen angel gone to rule in hell", which is a nice snapshot of the drama level for you, but which clearly gets the point across and brings to mind several previous versions of the story (Lloyd Webber's, most obviously).

 

And then, the most stomach-churning, squirm-inducing moment of the novel: we've established that Ethan keeps pouring the "sickly sweet medicine" down Meg's throat. In her haze, she mumbles that it tastes like bubble gum, and Ethan remarks that he's never had bubble gum; she suggests that he try it, but clearly he's not about to go drink her cold medicine out of the bottle. So instead, he decides to STICK HIS TONGUE DOWN HER THROAT, and suddenly they are making out with hot fiery passion (even though she's internally also going "oh no, I'm not strong enough to stop him!" in case we got any ideas that this was consensual while she's dying of fever) and he's swabbing the cold medicine off the inside of her mouth and she's still at death's doorstep and this is the grossest thing I have ever read.

 

This is in the top ten most hideous first kisses in literature ever.

 

Unsurprisingly, Meg pulls through her illness and wakes up the next morning by herself in her room, where she promptly realizes that Ethan and the Phantom in the basement must be one and the same (despite retaining enough of her faculties to put all the pieces together, she has still conveniently forgotten what his face looked like so she can continue to be fascinated by the mystery of it all). So we're back to the status quo of Ethan lurking in the basement and Meg alternately angsting over how she wants him (but will never admit it) and whining about how he's keeping her a prisoner against her will. The disappointment is almost as crushing as the boredom.

 

Meg's train of thought reverses on itself (in the same inner monologue!) and she suddenly doesn't know that Ethan and the Phantom are the same... or does she? The writing is so unclear that I have no idea whether she's being metaphorical or has lost some time to her fever or what. I'm so confused at this point that I don't have the first clue what Meg is thinking, other than that life is unfair. Somehow, out of all the mysteries Stuart has set up here, I don't think she intended "What, exactly, is the heroine thinking?" to be one of them.

 

Chapter 6

 

By the beginning of this chapter, she knows that they're the same person again, though I'm not sure why she changed her mind again (if I had to guess, maybe edits that didn't catch the continuity error). Regardless, she knows what's going on now.

 

As part of his campaign of asshattery and attempts to scare Meg, Ethan has made sure she's given access only to Stephen King books in her long hours of sitting around waiting for him to let her go, to make sure she's in a proper frame of mind to wonder what he's going to do to her. I hate him. The only time one is named is when Salvatore comes to talk to her about something and says off-handedly, "Oh, you've been reading Christine," which is cute but not cute enough for me to not want the villagers to come set these men on fire already (hey, Sally, what's your excuse for helping your employer keep a woman prisoner in his house?). Meg's internal monologue continues to get on my nerves, especially when she says things like, "How could one have erotic fantasies wearing bright red Reeboks?" Clearly, this woman never went to college.

 

Then, another short foray into the confusing mindset of the townsfolk, wherein Meg meets the local minister, who is bugfuck incomprehensible. Not only do we learn that the entire town considers television and modern electrical appliances to be sinful (what? Is this an Amish community, and Stuart just forgot to tell us? what religion even IS this?), but the minister informs us that Ethan is the spawn of the Devil. No, really, he's ACTUALLY Lucifer's offspring. Then, as if I wasn't already about to toss the book across the room out of sheer disbelief at the anachronism of it all, the minister starts claiming that Meg is a succubus and that God will smite her from on high with a thunderbolt. If you live in small-town Arkansas, this book is personally targeting you. What century is this supposed to be? Because, seriously, it is not the twentieth, and that means we have continuity problems. If the town is run by a bizarre cult, you need to TELL US ABOUT IT, AUTHORS.

 

Meg is bright enough to realize that the minister is dangerous, but she is not bright enough to take his offer of rescue, preferring to remain locked in the house with the blackmailing potential rapist instead of spending some uncomfortable time with the local zealots. I can understand that the locals aren't going to be too much help with her escape back to civilization, but at least with them she wouldn't be LOCKED UP. It seems like an improvement. But leaving would have gotten in the way of the True Love that's a-brewin'.

 

My big problem with Stuart's setting this story in Bananatown in the heart of NotVeryLikely, USA is that it's a big, fat contrivance to aid her in trying to make Ethan's character more palatable and sympathetic than his original form (Erik). Not only is the entire community uniformly all in on this bizarre worldview, but she makes them hostilely, confrontationally aggressive in order to set Ethan up as a martyr. She can't, or won't, set the entire thing in a world or time period that would be intolerant of Ethan's situation, so instead she creates a little pocket reality in the middle of "normal" space where her story can play out uninterrupted. Most writers do this, to some extent, but here it renders many of the original novel's (and, by extension, this one's, too) ideas moot. It's only the people of Oak Grove who are evil and unloving and willing to set store by appearances, so Leroux's original statement about the intolerance and hypocrisy of society as a whole is totally lost. You could even have done something with Oak Grove as a particularly violent microcosm of larger social ills, but it would have required basic effort and so it didn't happen. I would really have loved for this novel to try to tackle an update of the idea, showcasing the way normal society reacts to disability in this day and age; sadly, all I got was rampant anachronism in order to make the plot easier and shallower.

 

Meg's discussions with Joseph, the gardener with the confusing name, make a few things blindingly clear. For one, Joseph is obviously the town doctor's "mysterious" mistake, which we will not be enlightened about for several more chapters. For another, Joseph is kind of a jackoff who talks about how his deceased wife deserved to die for being so awful to Ethan. And for yet another, Joseph is obviously Ethan's father, which is a problem because Ethan's father is dead (this doozy won't be revealed until the fifteenth chapter or so, but you'd have to be pretty tired of paying attention not to figure it out). Wait, hold the phone. We're allowing ghosts, now? Hot dog, are we going to do some kind of magic realism thing? Maybe Ethan really IS the son of Satan, struggling with his own inner conflicts!

 

...no. Never mind. Turns out that Joseph is the only thing even remotely supernatural about the whole novel. Stuart adheres strictly to reality (anachronistic and confusing reality, but reality nevertheless) for everything else in her novel, making Joseph the Ghost this frustratingly random element that she seems to have thrown in just for the hell of it. Well, not for the hell of it: he has a purpose, and its name is Exposition. Take away Joseph, and another fifty pages or so would be necessary to bring everyone up to speed on what was going on, at least; Ethan and Meg would have to like, have actual conversations and grow comfortable enough to share information. It's lazy, and the confusion of KNOWING that Joseph was a ghost the whole novel even though Stuart refused to say so until the very end (perhaps assuming that her readers have never heard of this fresh new twist she just invented) just made all the anachronisms and ridiculously contrived situations that much more frustrating because I was always looking for a supernatural explanation for the madness that, of course, wasn't there.

 

Chapter 8

 

Now, we've spent the entire book listening to Meg whine about how she's ten pounds overweight. She brings it up a lot, and it's mildly annoying, but most of the time I'd just write it off as, "Hey, look, a romance novel heroine that isn't a perfectly gorgeous supermodel, nice," and go about my business. She moans and complains about how she's too heavy and she's not really attractive and etc., ad nauseum, as an obvious self-insert opportunity for readers who might be sensitive about their weight and would like to envision themselves as the romantic heroine for once. So, at the beginning of this chapter when her actual proportions were revealed, my indignation was vocal. She's 5'2", and weighs 125 pounds.

 

Ah, yes. The overwhelming, terrible, hideous weight of 125 pounds. Truly, she is a monolith among normal humans. The fatphobia drips off the page and I don't even know what else to say about it. The average weight of an adult human being in the United States is about 168 pounds; at this moment in 2019, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift weight 125 pounds each.  If Stuart really wanted to have a heroine who was fat and discovered she could be beautiful and desirable anyway, she'd actually be fat, but instead she not only refused to make her fat (because that wouldn't be attractive, right?) so that plot couldn't happen, but she also made sure to give us exact measurements to make sure that after all of Meg's crying about how fat she is, we didn't accidentally think she was really fat.

(No, Meg does not have an eating disorder in the text, and if she did, I'd want to see it treated with sensitivity instead of a cheap way to have the heroine connect with the hero - see, I'm also Not Beautiful! - and be reassured by him that no, really, you Are So Sexy.)

 

Meg has somehow gone through her entire life without learning what a succubus was (this was important so Ethan could say dirty things to her by way of explanation) and after beating that into the ground a bit, Ethan reveals that Meg's father is a monumental asshole who not only is not going to come find and rescue her, but who has also been cutting corners and costs and not building Ethan's buildings right all over the place, not just in the one building that he swore was a "mistake". Meg is unaccountably shocked by all this, and keeps saying things like, "I don't believe you. He wouldn't... he couldn't!", despite the fact that she keeps TELLING us in her internal monologue that he totally WOULD and she KNOWS it. MEG. SET EVERY MAN YOU KNOW ON FIRE.

 

If we can digress for a moment and look at the idea of Erik as a romantic hero, it's actually a very interesting metamorphosis. In his original form, Erik was extremely hideous and about as un-romantic as it is possible to be, but over time he has been "updated" in the cultural subconscious; Leroux's version of Erik represents a forbidden love outside of society's boundaries, and as this has been increasingly identified with sex over time, modern versions of the story more and more start making the Phantom outright physically desirable. The same phenomenon crops up again and again in later intepretations of the story, especially those based (as this one is) mostly on Lloyd Webber's greatly sentimentalized stage musical: we view Erik's devotion, sensuality, and piteous circumstances with a great deal of understandable sympathy, and that leads many a writer and interpreter to place Erik in the hero role rather than Raoul, who audiences sometimes don't sympathize with as much because he doesn't have so many obstacles to overcome.

 

Much of this idea stems directly from Lloyd Webber's extremely popular musical, which was the first version to really popularize the idea of the Phantom having a relatively small, localized deformity and the accompanying angst instead of a hideous full-body condition and a horrifying willingness to murder everyone in several city blogs. Stuart isn't really doing anything particularly new with the story here (unless, as earlier discussed, she's starting the ball rolling for the idea of a romance between Erik and Meg Giry), but her novel is an excellent example of these tendencies toward romanticizing and idealizing a character that, while originally a villain with sympathetic tendencies, has been changed so radically in the eyes of the typical reader during the passage of the last century that he becomes instead a tragic hero.

 

Meg actually makes an outright reference to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale here, which we really don't need but Stuart has this horse in the stable so it's going to get ridden. Then she goes on to do one of the most confusing things she does the entire novel; she decides to do a striptease for the camera in her room, knowing that Ethan is watching on the other end. Supposedly, she still hates and fears this guy, and she can just go change in the bathroom where he can't see her (as she does in the rest of the book), so what gives? I don't get it. She says that she wants to taunt him and make him suffer by showing him her hot sexy body which he can't have, but she's totally mortified after she's done it and she never, ever does anything like it again (or before, we're given to understand). It seems like just another contrived situation to stir the pot a bit and get Ethan's nether parts all aflame so the sexual tension can rise. She also manages to sneak in another dig about her weight, in case any eye remained unrolled.

(I really, really, really don't like having one character threaten another with rape and then having the victim decide to intentionally try to upset and entice the potential rapist with sexual attention, just because she felt like "being naughty." This is a setup for "she made me" and I am already done with these characters enough, y'all.)

 

Chapter 9

 

Now, my friends, the plot begins to burst fully into bloom. Meg awakens one night to the smell of something burning, and finds her way to a window in time to see most of the town's population outside, wearing white robes and pointy hoods, burning a cross and chanting various religiously heated things in Ethan's general direction.

 

Wait.

 

What.

 

So Ethan's being persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan? I... wait... what? There are so many things that are wrong with that that I can't even come up with them all on the spot. Why are they persecuting him? Again, Stuart didn't actually do anything that would make sense here, like having Ethan be of any non-white ethnicity or visibly from a foreign country or ascribing to a non-Christian religion. I mean, I guess the name "Ethan" has Hebrew roots, but it's not the kind of stereotype of a Jewish name I'd expect to see if you're trying to signal something subtly.  This version of the Klan seems to be a cartoonish organization that persecutes Ethan just because he's rich and not from this town and they don't like him, and while I can sort of see the southern Gothic idea of the persecution of crumbling southern aristocracy if I squint (We Have Always Lived in the Castle this ain't), it still doesn't really make any sense. The Klan is a horrifying symbol of hatred and terrorism in the United States, and repurposing them to weaponize against the poor beleaguered rich white people, in addition to casting them as easily visible frothing zealots instead of the much more common in real life "friendly neighbors" who do their horrible stuff behind closed doors, is... well, it's gross. I don't care if the 1990s were a less enlightened time, it was gross then, too.

 

Aaaaaand now Ethan and Meg will make out in the romantic glow of the burning cross while things explode (like Meg's car, which the protestors light on fire). Charming. Meg's repeated desire to get jiggy with her hated asshole captor just doesn't make any sense to me; she mentions Stockholm Syndrome earlier in passing, but there's no real evidence of that (it's not like she's formed an attachment to Salvatore, who is her immediate captor and a much more likely candidate for that sort of thing) and she herself doesn't lend any credence to the theory. No, it's another example of The Plot Must Go On. It must! There's got to be some sex in this novel somewhere!

 

Then comes the pure entertainment that is page 128, on which Ethan attempts to convince Meg that he's awesome while he feels her up (still in front of the burning cross. It lends a very sensual glow to the proceedings, apparently). All of Ethan's dialogue here seems to be blatantly paraphrased from "Music of the Night", the Phantom's seductive song from Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical. I won't type out the entire mess, but anyone who's interested should give it a read-through; if that part of the chapter wasn't inspired by Lloyd Webber's song, I'll eat one entire tractor tire. Ethan also begins a somewhat annoying habit of calling Meg "angel" a lot, which again recalls Lloyd Webber's musical forcefully. Ethan brings the monologue to a close by groping Meg's lady-parts, which she apparently thinks is so awesome that she faints and gibbers a bit in mindless pleasure, etc. Because kidnapping victims are usually very into being sexually molested by their unknown but obviously totally jackoff captors. She never gets mad at him for essentially sexually assaulting her, either, not even later when she's (supposedly) returned to her right mind. There's some more making out, too, which includes the bewildering line as he's holding her, "He hadn't had a chance to kiss that mouth. He did so now..." Does he... not remember the vomit-inducing cold-medicine-tasting kiss? Because I definitely remember it and am doomed to remember it forever, probably.

 

I haven't discussed Ethan's voice much here, primarily because the musician facet of the Phantom's personality is nonexistent. Stuart does, however, give him a sensual voice that at times seems almost hypnotically powerful, at least where Meg is concerned. It adds a nice touch, since the constant emotional heightening that his voice engenders is a nice parallel to the other sensual things that are generally going on, only in a different arena (sound instead of touch).

 

Meg later makes some statement along the lines of, "It didn't matter if he looked like Freddy Krueger...", which might be a little call-out to Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street and also played the Phantom in the 1989 film directed by Dwight H. Little. A few other touches later on, such as Ethan's previous relationship with Ruth (she's a sex worker, although the book goes through a lot of gymnastics to try to pretend otherwise because it's not above adding anti-sex-work nonsense to this heady brew) and the implication that he might have contacted ladies in the sex industry for most of his previous relationships reinforced my suspicion that Stuart had probably encountered the 1989 film, which included an interlude in which Erik hired a sex worker with whom he had a nice if sad evening. 

 

The previous relationship with Ruth is odd for me, though; having already had a relationship with a woman of whom he was very fond, who fell in love with someone else and he was forced to let go for her own good, seems like a previous iteration of the same Phantom story; in which case, Ethan has already achieved his "redemption" for letting Ruth go without a fight when she wanted to head out and marry someone else. Of course, because Ethan is being set up as a misunderstood martyr, he's not really in need of all that much redemption (well, I, personally, think he is, but my opinion doesn't factor heavily here).

 

Ethan leaves a gold ring on Meg's finger after their little midnight tryst in front of the burning cross, which depicts the Roman god Janus, whose purview is beginnings and endings, symbolic in a story that revolves around relationships. Meg's behavior regarding said ring is almost bizarre; she's always putting it on and then taking it back off, throwing it away and then running back in a panic to find it, etc. While Christine was conflicted about wearing Erik's ring while still being Raoul's ("play" or not) fiancée, without the mentor-relationship that existed between Christine and Erik and literally any dynamic that would help, Meg just looks like a chicken running in circles. She doesn't have the added dimension of having made a promise to wear it, or of owing loyalty to a man who helped her achieve her dreams; she's just being nonsensical.

 

Ethan, concerned that perhaps anyone in the reading audience might still have any sympathy for him, reveals here that he's intentionally poking the hive of angry zealots with a stick. It turns out that he's quite rich and owns large swathes of land in Oak Grove, and he's selling it to a huge Psychic Research Center to build a base here, which of course infuriates the townsfolk because they feel as though he's importing straight, undiluted evil right into their community. He's doing this for no other reason than to spite them, because he knows they'll hate it and he wants to torture them. That is literally what he says. Justification is attempted via Joseph, who apparently died of a heart attack due to the malicious neglect of the townsfolk (the doctor in particular), but even if this were true - and it's hard to prove that the townsfolk "killed" Joseph in a category-length novel, and Stuart doesn't really bother trying - it still doesn't seem appropriate for Ethan to intentionally destroy an entire community. Ethan then goes on to be surprised and confused by the fervor with which the people in said community hate him.

 

Chapter 10

 

I understand that Salvatore is a long, slightly unwieldy name. I do. But that is no excuse for Meg to be sometimes calling him Sal in her internal monologue. They are not friends. They do not like one another. She does not know him on a nice, casual basis. Ethan can call him Sal or Sally all he wants, but Stuart needs to suck it up and type the last six letters when she's writing from Meg's point of view.

 

The growing insistence on both Meg's and Ethan's (and Joseph's, and Salvatore's, and Ruth's...) parts that Ethan will, literally, die if Meg leaves him, it obviously intended to be a tie to the Beauty and the Beast myth, but it's just sigh-worthy in a modern context, not to mention a bad look on a guy who was already being pretty horrifyingly manipulative and controlling. Unless he desperately needs a bone marrow transfusion and she's the only one who can provide it, her leaving will not actually kill him (and even if her leaving DID actually murder him, that doesn't mean he gets to KEEP HER LOCKED UP IN HIS HOUSE FOREVER WHAT IS THIS PLOT). Did one asshat making spurious suicide threats not feel like enough for this book? Why are there TWO?

 

Meg's constant struggle against the very literal prison that Ethan keeps her in (she literally gets lost in the house, since parts of it are unlit and unmaintained) is fairly analogous to Christine's confusion and fear over the Phantom's mysterious power over her in the original tale; the idea that she is not entirely sure she wants to escape is also present, though this theme of struggling with freedom is presented only nominally and does not tie into the original themes of maturity vs. childhood much.

Chapter 11

 

Much to my amusement, when Meg finally sees Ethan's face, she mentions that she had been expecting him to look like Lon Chaney's Phantom, or (again) like Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), two of the more famous film Phantoms in the U.S. at that point in time. Meg's unwanted intrusion into Ethan's private space is tantamount to Christine's umasking of the Phantom in the original story; Ethan doesn't wear a mask, unlike most Phantoms, so showing up unannounced pretty much allowed her to see everything. He starts in on the requisite tantrum, but Stuart fast-forwards us to the same scene as the end of the Lloyd Webber musical and shuts him up with some kissing meant to reassure him that she doesn't care about his hideous appearance.

 

Oh, and said hideosity? The mystery has been solved, and I hope no one wanted to be impressed. Ethan has a birthmark covering the entire side of his face and body, from forehead to hip on one side. That's it. The rest of him is almost preternaturally beautiful. Stuart devotes a little bit of time to trying to worsen the birthmark - she mentions something about it making his eye droop a bit at the corner, or something - but it was way too little, way too late. Birthmarks definitely do carry a social stigma in American society, especially if they're large enough to cover a significant portion of the body, but they do not translate to a stigma that requires one to hide forever in a darkened mansion in the depths of no man's land while frothing villagers chase one with pitchforks and torches.

 

But apparently Ethan doesn't know this, because he immediately goes off on a tirade at Meg, asking her jeeringly if she was going to tell him about the advances in modern surgery or talk about how there were people out there who had it worse. Meg reacted to this with sympathy and understanding; I reacted to it with incredulous disgust. You know what, Ethan, my man? Modern surgery is incredible. You're filthy rich, so if you hate your birthmark so much, why not do something about it? And even if surgery isn't an option, there are plenty of people out there that are way worse off than you are. Burn victims, people with serious diseases, people who have been through wars or plagues or extreme violence and come out the other side worse for the wear - you know, the people we expect to be in a position to be the Phantom, because they really are being rejected by society at large. Now, telling someone with a problem that other people have it worse isn't helpful, so I get Ethan's frustration (I mean, self-invented because Meg DIDN'T say any of those things, but the implication is he's heard them before), but at the same time, he seems bound and determined to angst over something just because the plot demands it rather than because he has actual problems relating to it.

Frankly, the fact that Ethan is purple on one side does not excite my sympathy. It motivates me to think that he needs to stop pissing and moaning like a whiny child about how miserable he is when all of his misery is self-inflicted - no one makes him live in Oak Grove, no one makes him work with Reese, no one makes him harass zealots until they attack him, no one makes him crouch in the darkness in a half-wired house. He does all those things to himself, and the book absolutely does not want to go into any kind of exploration of him having past trauma or mental issues that would push him to act this way because that wouldn't be sexy. And now we have a whole town full of zealots and Ethan's own mother all acting like he is the literal incarnation of Satan on earth for no reason whatsoever, and the plot was already on its last legs.

 

Why completely pull the punch of Ethan's deformity like that? It probably has to do with the conflict between modern sensibilities and standards of attraction and the apparent contradiction inherent in the original source material. As I mentioned earlier, the modern reader of Leroux's novel finds Erik intriguing in his mysterious sensuality, attractive in his desperate devotion to his love, and sympathetic because of his tragic and lonely past. One of the most popularly presented morals taught in our society is that appearance doesn't (or, at least, shouldn't) matter, so the idea that Erik has been shunned because of his appearance, despite his obvious genius and talent, is one that excites pity in the audience, even if that's a very shallow surface reading of the original story's themes. Especially when considering that this Phantom is probably largely based upon Lloyd Webber's, who is significantly less deformed and more sympathetically presented than the original, it isn't at all difficult to see that it wasn't a huge leap for Stuart to make Ethan even less frightening in order to serve her purposes.

 

Added to that is the fact that romance novels generally follow very specific formulas, and publishers probably wouldn't want to put out a hero who wasn't, if not jaw-droppingly gorgeous, at the very least physically attractive. (Although clearly they can publish one who is a POTENTIAL RAPIST so I'll just be over here being salty about that.) The watering down of the horrific aspects of the original Erik's character is something that's been going on consistently in pretty much all following interpretations of the story (with the possible exception of the 1925 Julian/Chaney film); one the one hand, this allows us much more freedom to sympathize with the character, since his treatment by his fellow men is that much more unjust, but on the other hand, it's an example of the very undesirable societal responses that Leroux was pointing out in his novel. Leroux's point was that society as a whole shuns those it disadvantages (the disabled, the unattractive, the lower in class, the foreign) and often multiplies and exacerbates those peoples' problems as a consequence - that we create our own monsters by choosing to persecute those we perceive as flawed rather than accepting or aiding them. Each subsequent interpretation of the story that "softens" Erik, making him less and less hideous and less and less dangerous, is only proving his point in its haste to make the character more tolerable for its audience. Ethan is a prime example of this social intolerance of the disadvantaged, and the fact that no later interpretation that has chosen to focus on a romantic storyline has dared not to "beautify" the Phantom.

 

It is now patronizingly explained to us that Ethan keeps his rooms lit only by candles because he doesn't want there to be an overabundance of light in these rooms, despite the fact that he has a room full of television monitors so there is obviously electricity in this part of the house. Has Ethan never heard of dimmers? Indirect track lighting? Lampshades, even? Pfft. Candles are very dramatic and romantic, but they're impractical, expensive, and messy over the long haul, not to mention a fire hazard. More aesthetics from the Lloyd Webber musical bleeding in, probably.

 

But buckle in and get ready now to splutter in general disbelief when Salvatore begins exhorting Ethan to "return to the island". Turns out that Ethan owns a small island in the neighborhood of Martinique in the Caribbean, where apparently, according to both him and Salvatore, no one cares what he looks like and he can live unmolested in the sunlight like anybody else. Um... so... WHAT IS HE DOING lurking in his big falling-down house in the middle of Bumblefuck, Nowhere in a community full of people who think he's the spawn of Satan? It's evident from the explanation that Ethan only sticks around Oak Grove to torment the townsfolk, mostly out of a desire for revenge over the supposed death-by-neglect of his father, but I am not on his side in this crusade. Stuart relies heavily on the hostility of the townsfolk to justify Ethan's constant antagonism toward them, but it only works to a point, after which I begin to think that Ethan really needs to leave them the hell alone and go somewhere else. Batman he is not. And you know, if Stuart had had the stones to actually make the villain the Klan, it would have given Ethan room to be trying to protect other people from them and thus a good motivation, but since she won't, she's just got a hero who is intentionally attacking a community's weird belief system because his dad died in the hospital there. 

 

Even more important than Ethan's relationship with Oak Grove, however, is his relationship with the rest of the world, as typified by the Caribbean island: specifically, he has one. So much for being rejected by all of society, woe is him. As far as we can tell from the context of the novel, the only people that reject Ethan are the superstitious folk of Oak Grove, which throws quite a wrench into the works when it comes to anyone having any sympathy for Ethan's whinging about how he never fits in anywhere and society can't accept him. Society does accept him; he has no problems anywhere except for Oak Grove, and is so successful and innovative an architect that his buildings are in great demand all over the country and he's filthy rich. That's not being rejected by society. That's being part of the eccentric elite. Stuart wants to have it both ways - she wants to retain the idea of Ethan being set apart from the rest of the human race, so she provides the hidebound community of Oak Grove to shun him and generate sympathy, but she doesn't want him to be really left behind by society (nobody wants a romance novel hero who's actually, you know, not rich and handsome or something) because that doesn't make him a desirable mate, so he still gets to be wealthy and famously successful and socially acceptable to anyone who isn't a big fat jerk.

 

So, you're thinking, okay. So all the themes of social/class injustice and inequality have been destroyed, but things couldn't get worse, right? That's what I thought, too, until I got to midway through this chapter, and Raoul showed up. Oh, yeah! Raoul! I knew we were missing something in this story!

 

His name here is Rob Palmer (his last name is not innocuous, alas) and his characterization hurts me a little bit inside. Rob is a former boyfriend of Meg's, but she dumped him when she discovered he was cheating on her a while back, and she never really loved him anyway, so case closed. Poor Rob is falling prey to one of the most popular phenomenons in derivative Phantom-based fiction: in order to smooth the way for a romance between Ethan and Meg, he has been recast as a villain. Like the original Raoul, he is physically attractive and rich, has a pre-existing romantic relationship with Meg, and shows up at Ethan's mansion in an attempt to rescue her from the kidnapper's clutches. Unlike the original Raoul, however, he is an immoral sleazebag who is in cahoots with her father on all the poor building shenanigans, and he only wants her for 1) her body, and 2) her influence over the stockholders of her father's company. (Does... does Meg have influence over the stockholders of her father's company? I thought she was leaving the country! Just being related to him will not actually do that!)

Why this sudden, apparently unfounded demonization of Raoul's character? Like the prettifying of Erik, the original story is being converted into a different kind of tale, and that means everyone is taking a hit. The original Raoul was representative of childhood and of a carefree and gentle romantic love that didn't come with any expectations of personal change or sexual strings attached. Because of the undemanding nature of this love, which doesn't pressure Christine or push for passion overwhelming propriety (which is generally represented by Erik, not Raoul) some readers more used to a modern non-Gothic romance setup read it as boring or lacking or unfulfilling, the same way that they find Erik's tempestuous relationship with her to be more interesting. The sympathy factor also comes into play: Raoul, as a handsome, monied aristocrat born with a silver spoon his mouth, seems to have an unfair "advantage" over Erik, the disabled outcast, so sympathies tend to gravitate toward the "underdog". (Of course, viewing it that way only works if you consider this a question of which guy "deserves" Christine's love and companionship more, which in turn only works if you don't care which one she wants or what she thinks about it. Which is sadly a common problem.) The combination of finding Raoul to be a lukewarm romantic hero and of seeing Erik as a more sympathetic figure often leads modern readers to view Raoul as a roadblock to a fulfilling relationship between Christine and Erik, rather than a romantic contender in his own right. So we toss him into an Evil Three-Piece Suit and lob him at the plot like an anvil.

 

Rob is, sadly, extremely typical of this perception of the character. He has no redeeming characteristics other than his supposedly good looks, which don't count for much because Meg is disgusted by him physically despite them. After arriving and saying some asshole things and doing some other asshole things, Meg refuses to go back with him, and there is an attempt at sexual assault (broken up by Salvatore) before he's packed off on his way, never to be seen again in the novel. He is present for a grand total of four pages. Not only did the presentation of him as a villain betray a lack of understanding when it comes to the role he played and themes he represented in the original novel, but as far as I can tell, he was totally unnecessary to the plot of Stuart's book. The only real reason I could see for her to have included him was to beat the reader over the head with a huge bat marked "APPEARANCES DON'T MATTER (AS LONG AS EVERYONE IS STILL HANDSOME) BECAUSE ASSHOLES ARE PRETTY, TOO". It seemed like Stuart felt that she needed to include Raoul from the original story, but as he was inconvenient to her plot, she made him a throwaway Antagonist To Love to make Ethan look better by comparison and then booted him back out in favor of a few more extra pages to devote to sex scenes. Blech.

 

I found myself often frustrated by Ethan's character (as if that comes as a surprise to anyone at this point, eh?). His literally split-in-two face, one side of which is beautiful and one side of which is b̶e̶a̶u̶t̶i̶f̶u̶l̶ purple, could be a nice idea to give us a visual cue to the split in his personality between the genius and the monster. Or so I was continually telling myself, but it doesn't work, mostly because Stuart never really allows Ethan to be either one. We know that he's a genius architect because he has this nifty house and tons of money, but we never see him actually DO anything but lurk in the darkness and sulk in front of his surveillance monitors, and while I would certainly say that kidnapping a woman, threatening to rape her, and intentionally trying to destroy an entire town's religion qualify as monstrous, Stuart clearly doesn't agree because these things are presented as points in his favor.

 

Chapter 12

 

Meg continues to get on my nerves with her ill-advised, nonsensical version of Stockholm Syndrome. She spends a good portion of this chapter moping over how Ethan's been avoiding her since Rob's visit, and whining about how he doesn't always show up to sit there and creepily watch her sleep and/or touch her while she's unconscious. Yeah. The worst nights for me are always the ones wherein my captor, who is holding me against my will, doesn't show up to grope me in my sleep. Man, I hate it when that happens.

 

But far more entertaining than Meg's ridiculous moaning over Ethan is the bizarre concept that is about to make an appearance. You see, Ethan is, of course, torn up with desire and love for Meg, etc. etc. And he's decided that he's going to let her go, apparently because the plot sensor in his office went off to tell him it was now time for that part of the story. So he goes to see her in her sleep one last time (again, SO CREEPY), then goes out to stand dramatically in the moonlit garden and wallow in angst about how he can't have the one woman who could make him whole, blah blah blah. And then, ladies and gentlemen, there is this gem of a line:

 

"The longing was so intense, it shook his body, and in full, aching silence, he tilted back his head and called to her, not with his voice, but with his heart."

 

And Meg, inside the building, WAKES UP out of a sound sleep.

 

"She could hear him, in her heart. She could feel him, nearby at last, waiting for her, calling for her. And she could no more ignore that call than she could stop her heart from beating."

 

Feel free to take a moment to indulge in undignified guffawing.

 

I am sad to say that there is no framework in this novel to support these kinds of shenanigans; nobody is psychic or anything and the aliens have not landed. No, it's just literal random maudlin SOUL COMMUNICATION because dammit, it's HARD to come up with real reasons for people to talk to one another and/or have sex. Discussion about it goes on for a bit in the narrative voice, including such amazing phrases as "deep within his tortured soul", being used seriously. There's also some fun with dialogue that the characters swear they don't know if it's being said aloud, or "directly to their hearts". I was reading this part at work, by the way, and it was really difficult to maintain the proper level of decorum.

 

And then, straight off into the sex we go. The prose, even where it is grammatically correct, is so purple that it might as well actually be written in lavender ink.

 

Chapter 13

 

In an intensely confusing interlude, Meg has a discussion with Joseph and he tells her about Ethan's plan to sell most of Oak Grove to the Center for Psychic Research, and she reacts with great surprise and horror at the idea because he's going to get himself killed if he keeps bothering them into violence. I went, "Uh, what?" and flipped back to chapter nine, and sure enough: she already knows about this, because Ethan himself TOLD her, and she had the same reaction there. How could a continuity error that large get passed over in copy-editing? I'm baffled. No one noticed that the same scene occurred twice? Why do all the characters in this book keep coming up with confusingly selective and causeless amnesia? It makes my head hurt and I don't get to conveniently forget about it.

 

We've hit the point in a romance novel that's tricky: the hero and heroine have finally hooked up, people have admitted that they love one another, and you'd expect everything to be fine and dandy for the happy ending... except that we have four chapters left to go, so some conflict is needed to keep things going. I was hoping that Stuart would play up the tensions in the community, which she does, but she also instigates some completely ridiculous relationship conflict between Ethan and Meg, specifically that Ethan is determined to send Meg away and NEVER SEE HER AGAIN, WOE even though he's convinced that he will DIE WITHOUT HER YO, and Meg is going even though she doesn't want to and HOW COULD HE USE HER LIKE THAT, and there is so much fucking ANGST. There is no reason whatsoever for this. Ethan waffles around some talking about how he has to send her away for her safety because of the mob of angry people running around that wants to kill him, but, as Salvatore is constantly reminding him, he can just put his ass on a plane and go back to the island and live there in sunlit happiness at any time. No one is forcing him to hang out here in his mausoleum of a house. Meg is no better; she can't decide whether to whine about how he obviously used her and what a jerk he is for sending her away and crying because she loves him so much and she can't believe he's doing this to her, but she's still determined to leave. I want them both to do LITERALLY ANYTHING so I don't have to listen to this ridiculous whining and complaining, which will continue, literally, until the next to last paragraph of the entire book.

 

Ethan then develops a determination to commit suicide via mob, which is probably supposed to be a reference to the 1991 animated Disney version of Beauty and the Beast but in a Phantom context reminds me more of the famous final scene in the 1925 film version of the story, in which Chaney's Phantom chooses to let the mob tear him to pieces rather than escaping. In both cases, it's a reaction to the knowledge on the Phantom's part that he has finally, irrevocably lost Christine, but the difference lies in the fact that Chaney's Phantom has truly lost his lady-love forever, and Ethan is just having a break with reality.

 

Chapter 14

 

Ethan spends some time moping around and refusing to see Meg until she leaves, and everyone talks sadly about how he's now dying of grief from having to send her away. I realize that this is borrowed directly from the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, but what works in a classic fairy tale just doesn't fly in a modern-day real-world setting. I just kind of want Ethan to either grow up and deal with his decision or stop forcing his girlfriend to leave because he'd rather sulk in his mansion until a mob burns it down than go live with her on a pretty tropical island somewhere.

 

Meg helps drag the whole thing out some more by bursting into tears, jumping into Ethan's car and attempting to drive it out of town in the middle of a thunderstorm, and then driving it into a ditch. After crashing the car there, she immediately sprints back to Ethan's house instead of actually making the escape she was ostensibly attempting, and immediately has sex with him again. Way to escape your abusive captor there, Meg. The sex is just as hilariously described as it was the first time, and includes phrases such as "like angels' wings", which are being used purely non-ironically.

 

Meg also complains some more about how fat she is, which prompted me to advise her in my notes to shut up. Better yet, however, she suddenly comes to the realization that Ethan thinks she's beautiful, "...and if he thought so, she did, too." Well, isn't that special? Good to know that our heroine needs the validation of a dominant male before she can feel good about her body. The progressiveness is overwhelming. But, at least, she does stop whining about it after that, so I suppose I should count my blessings.

 

Chapter 15

 

The townspeople stone Ruth (because she's Ethan's housekeeper and associates with the Antichrist) and she's sent to the hospital, and Ethan starts to mope some more about what an ass he's been. I have little sympathy for him, despite his newfound remorse; he HAS been an ass, and people HAVE been hurt because of his actions, which he didn't consider when he was up to his vengeful asshattery. He's going to have to do more than say he's sorry. Sadly, he just decides to lock Meg in her room and not tell her what's going on "for her own safety", which doesn't impress anyone. Then he goes to lurk and brood, lurk and brood. SIGH.

 

Naturally, Meg doesn't stay in her room and she gets kidnapped by the townsfolk. As if all the ridiculousness wasn't pronounced enough:

 

"She screamed for him. Megan's voice, Megan's soul calling out for him."

 

Ethan, of course, instantly knows she's in trouble from his den in the basement of the house despite having no way of knowing what's happened. I know it's not really appropriate to be snickering over Meg's imminently fatal inconvenience, but seriously, any time Stuart trots out the idea that Ethan's and Meg's souls are so closely connected by their love that it's like SOUL TELEPATHY, I get a massive fit of the giggles.

 

Ethan promptly gets lost looking for Meg. Lost. In his own house. Some Phantom he is; all his lord of the domain/master architect credibility just went right down the tubes.

 

Oh, and by the way, guys, we just found out that Joseph is the ghost of Ethan's dead father. No way! I know, right? Shocker. All this Hamlet's father stuff with him popping in and out for exposition but then disappearing for the action is really pretty funny, as is the fact that nothing else in the novel has the slightest touch of anything other than normal realism (well, except for all the organs and souls talking to one another, but that's... I don't know what you call that, but it's not a genre).

 

The townsfolk, led by their frothing-at-the-mouth minister, prepare to burn Meg at the stake. They call her Hecate, Greek primordial goddess of sorcery and the underworld, which... are they pseudo-Greek now, or something? Are we reliving the Roman crackdown on the cult of Cybele in rural Arkansas (because if we WERE, I would read THAT book)? Their religion seems to be cobbled together out of completely random elements of everything that could be thrown out there to tell the reader that they're fanatics (though the familiar white-sheeted uniform does not make a reappearance).

 

Chapter 16

 

As Ethan is rushing to Meg's rescue, he is forced to use his backup car since she already crashed his primary in the ditch earlier. Behold Ethan's backup car:

 

"...the huge black '57 Thunderbird that had been his mother's pride and joy, complete with spiky tail fins and enough shiny chrome to dazzle a blind man."

 

Okay. So as Ethan's riding to the rescue in the Batmobile (looks like I was wrong - maybe he really IS Batman), I ponder the fact that, in order to make him the most sympathetic and entrench him most firmly in the hero role, Ethan has been given Raoul's role to play here as rescuer in addition to all his Phantomy attributes. This is why the completely off-the-wall antagonists (in the persons of the mob and minister) have been added, because Ethan can't very well be rescuing Meg from himself (actually, he could, but I don't really see this book suddenly developing the depth to do that very efficiently). The irony of the Phantom rushing off to rescue the damsel from the kidnappers seems to be lost on Stuart, who treats it all with weepingly serious prose from all the traumatized characters.

 

We get a little bit more backstory on Oak Grove to cement the townsfolk as uniformly evil, mostly having to do with the fact that there were some Salem-esque witchhunts there back in the day and that's what started all the paranoid violence. Hilariously, Joseph, whose only role thus far has been as Plot Advancer and Exposition Master, suddenly also becomes the ever-popular Deus Ex Machina and starts showing up to scare the bejeezus out of Meg's guards, causing one to fall off the cliff in panic at seeing him and the other to have a heart attack and die. This is less than effective because Meg makes the stunning choice to claim in a temper, when the minister comes back, that she killed them with the Evil Eye, which is enough to cause the remaining townspeople to go ballistic and attempt to burn her at the stake immediately. At least Meg and Ethan have something in common in this relationship, what with their mutual love of intentionally antagonizing dangerous people.

 

Did I say that Joe was a deus ex machina? I'm sorry. We have here ACTUAL deus ex machina, which I have quite seldom seen seriously used in a narrative: the minister exhorts God to strike Ethan (who has arrived in time for a dramatic unveiling atop a cliff amongst the storms and the rain, etc.) down for his sins, and is promptly struck by lightning, which kills him. That'll teach me to go bandying words like "deus ex machina" around when there's still the possibility of ACTUAL godly intervention. Then about ten thousand police miraculously show up (there's some malarky about them joining the townspeoples' convoy without them noticing, which is both patently ridiculous and leads me to wonder why they just sat there while that dude was abusing Meg and trying to burn her at the stake; maybe they, too, were waiting for a sign from the Big Guy) and the day is saved.

 

Chapter 17

 

I couldn't focus for a few minutes because Stuart actually referred to the townsfolk as "so het up" IN THE NARRATIVE and I was too busy giggling. I wish the giggling had lasted, because now we were back to the Ridiculously Contrived Conflict between Ethan and Meg, where he's still insisting on sending her away and everyone is weeping over it. I don't understand. I really don't. Even his "the danger of the mob" defense is gone, because there's no further danger from the mob. WHY WON'T HE JUST GO LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER? It makes absolutely zero sense, and Stuart doesn't bother to explain anything, leaving us frustrated and annoyed and once more wishing that the characters had died in the fire that destroyed Ethan's house last chapter so we wouldn't have to listen to this.

 

So, heartbroken, Ethan goes off to his pretty sunlit island and Meg goes back to Chicago, where she stands beside her father all through his trial (WHY?) and fires Rob before spending most of her time moping around like an idiot, despite the fact that she keeps talking about how she's going to move on. She finally decides to take that long-ago aborted trip around Europe to help her get her bearings back, but as she's heading to her gate she passes another gate that's flying to Martinique, and oh, look! The Hackneyed Romance Story Airport Shuffle! She switches to the plane to Martinique, despite the fact that planes really will not let you do that on a whim ten seconds before the plane takes off (maybe this was different in 1991, before the heightened security; I'm not sure, but it seems unlikely), only to realize upon arriving that she doesn't know what island near Martinique Ethan lives on, and there are a lot of them. She is saved by yet another ridiculously convenient coincidence when Salvatore was hanging out, like, right where she got off the plane. He sends her in the right direction and then hires a boat to go off and mope by himself because Ethan doesn't need him anymore because, as we all know, friends instantly become dead weight the moment you make a romantic connection.

 

Then Meg, of course, doesn't know where on the island Ethan is, but the ghost of Joseph conveniently shows up one more time to point her in the right direction, and then everyone lives happily ever after, the end. Bang the drum, wave the flag, hallelujah, we're done.

 

As a side note, Stuart, possibly fearing that we, the readers, are not bright enough to realize that we are reading a Phantom-based story, uses the word "phantom" with wild, sinful abandon. It is everywhere, ridiculously overused and beaten into our heads at every turn. It is especially entertaining because Ethan clearly isn't a phantom, being pretty solidly a real guy for 99% of the book; if anyone's a phantom, it's Joseph, who's actually, you know, a ghost. I gave up counting, but the word is used at least thirty or forty times, often for DRAMATIC EMPHASIS.

 

The reason this novel didn't get an even lower grade from me than it did is all in the writing; despite the fact that the characters were insufferable, the plot laughable and the settings extremely unlikely at best, Stuart is very good at creating an engaging narrative and keeping things flowing at a brisk, interesting pace. Which is why she has four RITA awards and I have a website where I yell about grammer.

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