by Becky L. Meadows
...what did I just read?
Because it seems like I just read a terrifying trainwreck of a novel with the most miserable asshole characterizations I've ever seen, not to mention an epidemic of contradictory theories, destructively poor plotting, awful technical execution and tooth-grinding morality sermons that made me want to dye my hair black and start my own cult just to escape. It's like Meadows' previous book had dirty dirty sex with D'Arcy's and made a baby. A demanding, monstrous, shrieking, flesh-eating baby. With the plague.
Way back when I reviewed Meadows' first Phantom novel, 2001's Progeny, I said something to the effect that her introduction made me think she was into some of the same astral theory that D'Arcy used in her 1999 novel Mystery at the Opera House. The back cover of this book makes me look like Nostradamus, what with its psychics and past-life experiences and "spirits" chasing people around for centuries.
Oh, by the way, the quote on the back cover is from Meadows' previous book. She's quoting herself already. This is a bad sign.
The second bad sign is the very first line on the first page in the dedication: "This book is dedicated to my guardian angel, Erik, who sees me through all things I attempt and keeps me safe when I'm in those vicarious situations I always wind up in..." Ah, yes, who among us has not ended up in vicarious situations?
Apparently someone heard me whining about how there were too many books-within-a-book in Progeny, because this time there are eight of the suckers, even if you don't count the prologue and epilogue. They're all about three chapters long and as before serve only as breaks for Meadows to jump from one character's point of view to another's. Dishearteningly, all the characters sound exactly the same; there's no variation in tone, voice, or vocabulary amongst the lot of them, meaning that the constant giant titles reading CHRISTINE or SABINE are necessary to differentiate one from the other without a great deal of confusion. I can't say that this is surprising in light of the previous book, but it does make me sad; it would have been nice to see some of those things improved on for round two.
Basically, what is going on in the prologue is that Christine has just died (she was shot at the end of Progeny, remember, and despite my fond hopes, this is indeed a direct sequel to that novel) and embarked on the usual cliched travel down a tunnel toward a white light, but instead of wanting to go to Heaven or otherwise begin checking out the afterlife, she spends all her time bleating about how she wants Erik with her. This is especially annoying because Meadows makes a point of telling us constantly in the narrative voice that Christine is filled with overwhelming joy and immeasurable happiness and peace, except apparently not really, because not having Erik makes her soul weep with anguish! Except that it's bursting with afterlife ecstasy! And sadness! And joy! And misery! And elation!
The mounds of emotion that so plagued me in Progeny have become lumps, so now I have to contend with things like the "lump of sorrow" in Christine's breast. Frankly, I preferred the mounds. At least they didn't make me think of life-threatening health concerns.
Unmoved by her tantrums and pleas to be returned to Erik, the Being of Light (never explained; Meadows is above these petty questions in her books) insists that Christine drink from a river in order to erase her memories of this life so that she may be reincarnated in another. This is interesting in that the various theories of reincarnation are always fascinating to me (Rudyard Kipling's famous quote comes to mind - "They will come back, come back again,/as long as the red earth rolls./He never wasted a tree or leaf./Why should He squander souls?"), and because the river that causes forgetfulness seems such an obvious borrowing from Greek myth, specifically the river Lethe that runs through Hades. It’s pretty much the last interesting thing that ever happens, and the only piece of worldbuilding you’ll see.
Book 1: Catherine
Guess who she is.
(Oh, wait, sorry. That's supposed to be a secret that won't be revealed for many mysterious chapters.)
The first scene involves Catherine, our plucky heroine, beating her own head against her vanity because her husband has just struck her during a fight they were having. Not a promising beginning, even if the head-beating is vaguely reminiscent of Christine's actions when tied up in Erik's basement. It turns out that her husband, Charles, was swinging his arms while arguing and accidentally hit her; actually, she says in her internal monologue that she believes this and that he's never hurt her before, but it doesn't matter because it is so blindingly, immediately obvious that he's going to be a Bad Man Who Doesn't Deserve Her or Love Her Enough. Considering Meadows' track record, it seems obvious that Charles is destined to be the Raoul analogue, despite the fact that the idea of Leroux's Raoul perpetrating physical violence on Christine’s person is laughable. (Yeah, I know she had him do that in Progeny, too. I’m still against it.)
Charles, by the way, was the name of Erik's father in Kay's 1990 novel; Meadows borrowed extremely heavily from that book in Progeny, even borrowing the names "Madeleine" and "Nadir" for her own use, so it seems like it's too much of a coincidence to think that this is accidental. If it's not accidental, though, it's confusing, because this Charles has pretty much nothing to do with that one.
By the time Catherine is finished describing all her fantasies of murdering Charles, I’m already over her as a protagonist, but the fight is winding down now while Charles apologizes profusely for accidentally whacking her so no murders actually occur. It turns out that the fight was over the fact that Catherine has decided to buy tickets to go see Lloyd Webber's musical again... which, Charles points out, she has not only seen a million times but which is also not a great fiscal investment for them since they are apparently broke. Catherine retaliates by pointing out that Charles recently spent a lot of money on a lawnmower. Clearly a pleasure expense on his part, I'm sure. These things are the same.
After their fight ends in Charles stomping out of the house, Catherine turns to the obvious source of comfort - a glossy photo of Michael Crawford she has framed and hung in her study. In fact, I know exactly which one - this one, from the loving, meticulous description that adds nothing to the text except to tell me that if I was harboring any hope that any of the at-least-vaguely-connected-to-Leroux elements of Progeny were going to carry over, now is the time to let them die a merciful death. While I love the Lloyd Webber musical just as much as the next person and I see nothing wrong with writing fiction based on it, the fangirling in this novel is so over-the-top that it starts bordering on parody.
Catherine - who refers to the picture as "Erik", despite the fact that the Phantom is never named in Webber's musical - talks to the picture. Constantly. Pretty much any time she's by herself (later, she will abandon having to be by herself). She eschews conversations with actual humans in favor of it. She uses it as a combination therapist, spiritual guide, and patron saint. When she isn't allowed to see it for more than a few hours, she becomes upset and unstable. It crosses the line from "quaint fan quirk" to "ridiculous obsession" really quickly, which is unfortunate because it’s obviously trying to hit some sympathy from other fans who recognize similar feelings. Catherine is also, it is mentioned in passing amidst all the Erik/Crawford love, both a writer and a singer. Yeah, she's not a self-insert AT ALL.
Catherine's internal monologue about how much Charles sucks begins here and will not end until the novel does. Unfortunately, her ability to be a contradictory pain in the ass in the initial argument was apparently not a fluke, because she doesn't make much sense and I just end up feeling like I'm trapped in a room with an incessantly-moaning hypocrite. In particular, the dual whines that Charles never tries to "fan the spark of their love" and that he "bitches about [her] not spending enough time with him" don't go well together. I'm at something of a loss as to how I'm supposed to like or sympathize with this character, and I'm only in the first chapter of an entire book that features her as the main protagonist. Uh-oh.
I will say, though, that Meadows has me in her corner (sort of). I do think that Charles and Catherine should not be together. I don't think I'm supposed to feel that way because I think Catherine is too much of an immature dipshit to successfully manage a stable relationship with anybody, much less someone as volatile as Charles, but take what you can get, right?
In case there was anyone left who didn't yet think Catherine was not entirely healthy, we discover here that the picture of Crawford Erik talks back to her when she rambles at it for long enough. She is also convinced that she sees him moving around sometimes; his expression changes and his features move. The picture occasionally glows. She also hears his voice, even when she's not near his picture (which, it turns out, is almost never since she also has glossies at work and in a tiny frame in her purse. Okaaaay). Catherine does not get people to check it for prankster evidence or special-effects nonsense, despite being an actress and, you’d think, aware of those things, nor does she call for an exorcism, and I’m starting to think that she might have an actual delusional disorder.
Oh, god! There is a "huge lump swelling in [her] throat"! Call an ambulance! This woman is going into anaphylactic shock!
Catherine heads off to the show, which she is also taking her best friend Sabine to. Sabine (who is almost painfully obviously an analogue for Meg in her Lloyd Webber turn as Christine's friend and confidante) will be playing the role of comically disinterested friend who just Doesn't Get It when it comes to Catherine's love for the Phantom. This does not stop Catherine from constantly regaling her with snippets of the story, heavily editorialized ("I love Erik and Christine, but I don't like Raoul much..." NO. YOU DON'T SAY). At least I didn't have to feel all that sorry for Sabine, mostly because she kind of seems to be a roaring asshole, too.
I will say that I'm glad the novel is set in modern Kentucky (probably not coincidentally, where Meadows is from); a lot of Progeny’s problems came from Meadows really not being able to handle writing in a different time period, so at least that issue will be mostly circumvented here. I say mostly because, lacking the ability to bring the modern era to 1881, Meadows has instead found a few ways to bring 1881 to the modern era, but we'll just save that for later.
Meadows has conquered the line-break disease that so plagued Progeny, but unfortunately document formatting still remains a challenge, now in new and interesting ways. For the entire length of the novel, all incidences of the left single quotation mark (') are replaced by underscores (_) for no apparent reason. I have no idea how this sort of thing happens, or how anyone could fail to check their book over and notice it before sending it off to the masses, but there it is. It happens a total of 27 times that I counted, and is distracting wherever it occurs, not to mention looking woefully unprofessional. Why is Meadows even using that many single quotations, you ask, since she is from Kentucky and not Britain? Well, apparently she prefers to emphasize words with single quotation marks instead of more conventional methods such as italics, so they occur rather more often than you might expect them to.
Sabine, it turns out, is into psychics and paranormal phenomena, which naturally Catherine doesn't believe in because it's silly (unlike talking to and hearing the voice of a fictional character played by Michael Crawford all the time, of course). By the way, Sabine is perky and blonde while Catherine has brunette curls and a china-doll-like beauty. Why, hello, Ladies Devenish and Brightman. Fancy meeting you here!
We descend now into over a page of straight-up recapping from Lloyd Webber's musical, complete with straight-from-the-libretto lines inserted. Readers might find themselves taking an impromptu nap, especially if they are not caught up in Catherine's passionate but lukewarmly-written description of her love for the musical (she feels all of Christine's emotions! She hears Erik speak the lines in her head!). She makes a point of noticing that she's never been this in tune with the story before, which prompts me to wonder why that is since she's apparently seeing it for the umpteenth time and there doesn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary about it. (By the way, they're in Kentucky - does Kentucky have its own permanent staging of the show in the early 2000s? If not, how is she seeing it all the time? Is she traveling around with the tour? If that's the case, I definitely sympathize with Charles' financial frustration.)
Catherine's response to all this sensory overload is to have a sudden vision, in which Erik inexplicably has burning red eyes and the Persian is present (Leroux! We hardly knew ye!) before she starts screaming about it and then passes out in a crowded theatre mid-performance.
Yes, we are only as far as chapter two. Buckle in now. We are greeted on page nineteen by this gem of a paragraph:
"'Welcome to Grover Publications. Please enter your password.'
'I certainly don't feel welcome right now,' I replied. I indulged in a smile at the wit in my own sarcasm."
If that's what she thinks is witty sarcasm, that explains why I am about as entertained by her as I would be by watching Charles mow the lawn.
Catherine's boss, Karen, is introduced specifically for the purpose of being a mean jerkface so we can again empathize with how haaaaard Catherine's life is. Since most offices don’t let employees come in late or sass their managers, it's not working especially well. Karen is unrealistically evil for no apparent reason, not only banning pictures in cubicles (a major event for Catherine, of course... what will she do without glossy Crawford Erik to get her through the day?!) but also getting into a huff about how hideous that picture Catherine keeps in her cubicle is. Right. Because Michael Crawford is SO UGLY in that picture, y'all, it's like I can BARELY LOOK AT HIM. It's not like this is Leroux's Erik we're talking about, people. Karen also smokes in her office, despite being uptight enough to ban pictures because they don't promote a professional environment. Seriously, couldn't Meadows have just given her horns and a pitchfork and called it a day?
I'm somewhat confused as to why everyone keeps emphasizing that Catherine fainted during a play. My god, man! She fainted during a play! I… guess maybe it’s a callback to Christine fainting at the end of her debut in Leroux’s novel - the whole “tonight I have given you my soul and I am dead” thing - but I feel like it’s a stretch.
Hilariously, there is much ado about how Crawford Erik, both in the pictures and in real life, y'all, has one blue eye and one brown eye. While Crawford did wear a dark contact lens in Webber's stage show to emphasize the dichotomy of the half-face deformity, it's very confusing since Meadows will also haul in Leroux's description of the Phantom's eyes as gold from time to time, or make them turn red as though he has suddenly transformed into the villain from The Care Bears.
Catherine's doctor apparently went to a fancy doctor school where you get ALL the specializations at once, judging from the bizarre way he decides that her problem is some kind of mental drama and insists on grilling and diagnosing her before referring her to, you know, an actual psychiatrist. Judging from his conclusion that there must not be any physical cause for the faint because she has normal blood pressure and his assertion that anxiety attacks don't just happen, they have to be triggered, he may actually just be some dude off the street who watches a lot of House and hasn't yet been caught and removed by actual medical staff.
Catherine drives home, musing on her recent misfortunes. Her internal monologue caused me some concern; shit, if "music had the power to rob me of all rational thought and transport me into other magical times and places", causing it to be "not uncommon for me to drive long distances with little notice of how I had gotten there", I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be allowed to have a license (speaking as someone whose significant other is narcoleptic, the DMV looks very narrowly upon people who lose all rational thought and drive long distances without knowing how they got there). Sadly, for both me and for the rest of this book, she makes it home and it's time for Catherine and Charles: the Rematch.
Look, I know that words are hard, but when you say things like, "His love transpired all thought, all time, all space," do you really expect readers to know what you’re saying? Transpired?
It's very nice of Meadows to be up-front about her interpretation of Leroux's novel on page 31; there are no real surprises in her belief that Christine loved Erik but chose Raoul because he was safer. I already know Meadows' take on the story because I've read Progeny, but it looks like she's tending even further toward the romantic, almost exclusively Lloyd-Webber-influenced side of the scale for Phantasy, so at least we know the score. It's interesting to wonder what influenced that shift away from some of the more Leroux-faithful elements in her previous novel; fan input? More exposure to the Lloyd Webber musical and its spin-offs? There's no way to know.
A flashback scene concerning Charles having a jealous fit over Catherine making out with a guy in one of her plays is oddly off-kilter, mostly because it makes him sound a lot more like Erik, the possessive, controlling artist, than like Raoul, the gentle, somewhat meek aristocrat who never got further into the performing world than watching the show. Exploring how that kind of a power-struggle dynamic is different in a modern setting could be very interesting, but unfortunately I'm pretty sure Meadows is blind to the irony inherent in making Raoul the one prone to violent jealousy (sure, he was jealous, but in his case it usually just led to moping). By the way, Catherine hauls off and slaps Charles in this scene, thus neatly bringing in the awesome double-standard of violence: it's okay if she intentionally smacks him one, but if he accidentally hits her, god help the man. Domestic abuse isn’t okay from women any more than it is from men, and Catherine is the fucking worst.
Argh! We don't put two speakers on the same line! They get their own paragraph breaks! Otherwise, you end up with readers like me who have to stare at page 37 for an extra fifteen seconds before they can figure out what just happened!
This novel is a great example of someone trying too hard to make a character into The Villain and making the reader feel sorry for them; the constant, bizarre demonization of inexplicably rageaholic Charles makes me feel sympathy for the character just because she's so thoroughly and trashing him when he hasn’t actually done anything yet, while Catherine, who never does the least redeeming or even interesting thing to encourage me to like her as a protagonist, earns more and more intense shades of dislike every time Meadows tells me how awesome she is. SHOW me Catherine being awesome - I will think she's awesome! SHOW me Charles being a dick - I will think he's a dick! But don't just TELL me those things and then have the characters occasionally do bizarre things that don't make any sense, just in case I wasn't listening. Not only does it not work, it demonstrates poor understanding of characterization and dramatic development, and - possibly worst of all - it makes me feel condescended to and offended as a reader.
Catherine (after coming home to find Charles waiting with a candlelit, home-cooked meal and promptly picking another fight with him) spends some more time talking to the picture of Crawford Erik about how much she wants him. At this point, I wonder if, in a twist I didn't see coming, she actually is suffering from a severe mental illness and this story is all about her struggles in coping with it. That'd be an interesting approach. Sadly, I am only clutching at straws again and I know it. The description of Erik himself is hilarious, and also apparently written by a person who has never met or heard of him:
"Erik was devoted, warm and loving, giving, protective. Christine had betrayed and given up her angel..."
Snort. Yeah. Because Erik was so warm, with the rants and tirades and homicides. So giving, with the ultimatums and demands and homicides. So protective, with the kidnapping and wrenching and dragging and homicides. Even Lloyd Webber's Phantom is not in the same realm as that description. This is an alternate universe where, somehow, Raoul's best traits (warm, loving, giving, protective) have been transferred to the stalker he was trying to protect his girlfriend from. This is a really good example of a trend I've noticed emerging in later Phantom literature: a bizarre crossing of the two characters, where Erik ends up with Raoul's protective, warm gentleness and Raoul ends up with Erik's unstable rage and violence. It’s a case of writers wanting to have it all; modern readers and audiences find the Phantom alluring and attractive because of his power and sexual connotations, but they still want the romantic concepts of warmth, safety, and freedom, so they assign them to him as well. In essence, they are rejecting the idea that Christine might be choosing between two different kinds of attraction and instead saying that loving someone or being attracted to them has to encompass ALL the good traits, so there’s one guy who is the winner and one who is the loser.
Catherine suggests on page 43, "Maybe we can make our own reality if we want and believe in something hard enough." No, dear. If we could do that, I would have a million dollars and eternal youth, and we wouldn't have pesky things like wars and assassinations and bad books to worry about. Even your friend who's into psychics thinks you're kind of weirding her out there.
When Sabine attempts to touch the portrait of Crawford Erik, its eyes "shoot warning flames". Whoa nelly! Fire extinguisher that Phantom, stat! Oh, Meadows, it's good to see that a new novel hasn't dampened your love of ridiculous hyperbole.
I still can't get past the earlier part of the chapter, despite desperate attempts from Meadows to make me sympathize with Catherine and her funhouse-mirror view of the world. She comes home from a long day at work, and Charles has set the table, cooked a fabulous meal, lit candles, chilled a bottle of wine, and starts to rub her shoulders... and then when he wants to know why she has a referral card to another doctor, she screams at him for "invading her privacy"? Dude, he's her husband. He's literally crying with concern when she refuses to tell him and he starts wondering if she's dying of a brain tumor or something. How the hell is it none of his business? Also, lest we forget, she HIT him, because that’s somehow fine because she’s a woman. I’m so sorry, Charles.
That horribleness will pale, however, in comparison with the next round of nonsense. After Charles stomps out of the house after their fight (AGAIN... in fact, Charles' response to most of their fights is to leave and go to his mother's house, where she pats him and feeds him pie while telling him that his wife sucks; I can kind of understand the appeal of this as a coping mechanism), Catherine suffers an incredibly intense vision wherein she is a pregnant lady trapped in a tower, while a man who looks exactly like Charles comes storming in, screaming about her infidelity, and is then summarily murdered (with telekinetic powers, no less, a la the 1998 Argento/Sands film or, again, D'Arcy's 1999 novel) by a man who looks suspiciously like Crawford’s Erik. It is obvious that the first man is intended to be an unstable, raging asshole, while the dark murderer is meant to be an avenging, protective angel. It is also obvious, in case no one was yet getting this vibe from the book, that Catherine is experiencing a vision of a past life.
What's not obvious is how this makes sense, theoretically. Catherine is obviously intended to have been this woman, named Katelin, in a past life (in case readers had doubts about how true this episode is, her hand begins really bleeding when she is injured in the vision! gasp!), and it's equally heavily implied that Charles is the reincarnation of her ranting husband from that time period. The reader may wonder at this point when the reincarnation of Erik is going to make his appearance, but that leaves the questions of what's up with the glowing picture and already the odd odor of half-assed theoretical background is beginning to permeate the book's pages.
More distressing than the question of what's going on now is the question of what was going on then - the time period of Catherine's flashback, with its towers and hunting knives, seems medieval, which would place it before the events of the Phantom story. If, as she seems to be suggesting, this is a love triangle that's been played out over and over and over again in a succession of lives, isn't that... you know... incredibly sad and awful? I mean, I know she's trying to build a romantic fate/destiny/souls thing here, but all I can think of is how miserable that kind of predestination seems as a theory for the universe. Is Erik also physically disabled in every single reincarnation? Because that would suck monumentally. I mean, you could say that Erik is always kind of a bad person and that's why, which I would sort of buy, except that Meadows so obviously doesn't share that vision of him as a warped personality, and anyway, that would just be a different kind of awful, implying that ugly people are ugly because of being Bad and pretty people pretty because of being Good. And why does the earlier Phantom call the earlier Raoul "monsieur"? Are they always French, and the fact that they're American this time is just a fluke? Does fate have flukes now?
I'm confused and it is not in a good way.
Book 2: Charles
"Waves of exhaustion soared through my mind and landed across my shoulder blades." What an auspicious first line for this chapter. How could the prose possibly get better?
I'd like to know why everyone in this book screams all the time. Meadows appears to be allergic to the word "said", because it almost never makes an appearance, and if anyone is ever arguing (which, of course, Catherine and Charles do constantly), they're always screaming. Catherine screams. Charles screams. Charles' mother screams, while baking cookies in her kitchen. In my head, this book sounds like a trailer park reality show.
Page 59 features Charles, in pondering how he sometimes feels he doesn't know Catherine very well, asking, "Who was the woman behind the mask?" Yes. Very subtle. Thank you.
There's a lot of pondering in this book, by the way. Even in the more action-oriented chapters, scarcely a page or two goes by without someone descending into intense, soul-searching, maudlin, and long-winded navel-gazing. Since it's all telling instead of showing, it isn't doing much to stimulate my interest in the characters and their motivations, and since it's also all in the exact same voice and tone and features absolutely no information beyond what is baldly stated, it's also deeply boring. More than once I despaired of ever finishing this book, just from looking at the pages left, calculating a percentage, and realizing in despair that there were literally hundreds of pages left for me to plow through in which nothing was going to happen.
Catherine's lips have "curled mystically" on page 60. I have no idea what that means, unless she's casting some kind of lip-driven magical spell or perhaps communing with the divine via her mouth.
It's great to see that Charles isn't immune to being horrible; Catherine can't have all the fun, after all. A particularly fine moment is when he blames Catherine for making him angry enough to drive like a maniac; yes, I'm sure she WANTS YOU DEAD. That's the logical conclusion to come up with here. All of these people need to be sent for a time-out, with no driver's license or juicebox until they start behaving themselves on the road.
Charles is understandably confused when he finds Catherine weeping in the library, and somewhat disconcerted to find that she's looking at a picture of a woman who is her exact match in every way - a woman in a history book (man, Catherine is so good at sleuthing)! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, apparently you always look EXACTLY THE SAME when you get reincarnated. Because that makes perfect sense, theoretically. I mean, you couldn't be allowing people to look differently in their reincarnations. Next thing you know, you'll be saying white people could get reincarnated as black people or vice versa, or that men could sometimes be reincarnated as women! My god, man, where do you draw the line?! (Don't mind those pesky Hindu and Jain people over there who largely originated modern theories of reincarnation - they think people can even be reincarnated as animals or unknown beings.)
So the answer is yeah, apparently Erik DOES always have to be physically disabled and/or disfigured in every life, and so does everyone else. What a fucking bummer. I don’t want to live in Meadows’ universe. I had kind of assumed that Catherine was just seeing past-life Charles as Charles because her brain was inserting that as a placebo, but no. No, they look the same. It doesn't even make sense on cursory examination - I mean, what about declining populations (for example, people whose populations have severely suffered due to attempted genocides)? What about evolution? What about--
Have I mentioned how much I love the spiritual and astral theory in this book yet?
Oh, by the way, it turns out that this particular previous version of Catherine was a Russian princess, which makes the "monsieur" even more baffling, and makes me wonder if the Russians are naming their princesses as if they were Irish now (Katelin the Russian princess? Really? “Katerina” is RIGHT THERE).
By the time Charles has managed to cart his hysterical, not-making-any-sense wife home and put her to bed, I'm kind of compelled in spite of myself, but for all the wrong reasons. Meadows has unwittingly created such a great setup for a story about a temperamental but ultimately concerned and even tortured husband trying to care for his episodic wife while both struggle with volatile mental illnesses that I wish that were what was actually happening here, even though I know nothing of the kind is going to play out.
Catherine goes off to practice for some production she's in. While I understand Meadows' intent in having her singing the role of Desdemona (in Leroux's novel, Erik sings Desdemona's lullaby to her, so it's a nice tie-in), when she's discussing practicing "songs" and generally displaying about as much operatic knowledge as an elephant seal I find myself fervently hoping that there's some unknown-by-me musical version of Othello out there and that something horrible is not happening to Rossini and Verdi lovers right now. At least we know Meadows did read Leroux’s book.
This book, by the way, has a lot of sex in it. Most of it, where it doesn't cut away, is described in the same purple way it was in Progeny, so that you have a vague idea what's going on but are mostly thwarted on details that don't involve angels and souls and the soaring of ecstasy. It's already hard (snort) to take it seriously, but when, as in this sex scene, you also add in broken quotes, random extra spaces, and mad overuse of the words "breasts" and "mounds", it becomes a serious trial to read through. I thought that was the extent of it, until I got to the end of the scene, found out what was actually happening, and was consumed by irrational anger.
You see, Erik possesses Charles and uses his body to have sex with Catherine. This isn't a new idea in ghost/haunting fiction at all, but the key difference is that in most haunting fiction it's acknowledged that this is not a good thing. A ghost has invaded someone’s body and forced them to have sex that they did not consent to; it’s a rape scene. It’s always horrifying for everyone involved.
But not to Meadows. She presents this as a good thing - i.e., the real lover (Erik) is getting to make contact with his love, and the idea is cemented by Catherine's constant blathering about how it was the best sex she's ever had (poor Charles, who has no memory of the evening past the foreplay, is very confused by this). Basically, rape is okay - in fact romantic! - as long as the people involved love each other.
What the fucking fuck, Meadows.
It’s obvious she doesn’t know she’s writing that. She thinks this is a romantic scene where people are able to share intimacy across centuries. It’s fine, because Erik loves Catherine, Catherine loves Erik, Charles loves Catherine, and he doesn’t even know it happened so it’s fine, right?
It’s not fine. Charles has been raped, his body and free will overpowered by someone else’s for their own pleasure. Catherine has been raped, being tricked into having sex with someone other than the husband she consented to sleep with. I don’t care if Charles can’t remember it; not remembering rape doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I don’t care if Catherine enjoyed it; experiencing pleasure during rape doesn’t make it okay. I don’t give a flying fuck if Erik loves Catherine so deeply that the stars sing in harmony with his fucking soul. Rape is rape is rape, and it is not okay, and an author trying to convince readers otherwise needs to go sit the fuck down.
The obvious attempt here is to give Catherine a way to live out her fantasy of sexing up the Phantom without putting her in the negative light of cheating on her husband, but Jesus Fucking Christ. Meadows' insistent attempts to romanticize and glorify it are nothing short of stomach-wrenching.
Oh, look. There are more "rainbow tears" on page 86. God, I missed those from Progeny, didn't you?
It is by this point pretty obvious that Erik is, for some reason, a rapist ghost instead of a reincarnation like everybody else (please note, however, that no one will call him a ghost at any point in the book, because ghosts are bad things; Erik is a spirit, thank you very much, and is a mystical being of eternity or something equally trite), and that he seems to be haunting the picture of Michael Crawford in Catherine's office.
This chapter's beginning would actually make a great horror story in the vein of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, as Charles arrives in the office in the middle of the night just in time to save his wife from a dark, shadowy spirit that is trying to wrap itself around her. Sadly, while Charles' immediate plan after this debacle is to want Catherine to see the psychiatrist and then to go on a long vacation away from the house that appears to be seriously stressing her out, they somehow end up going with Sabine's plan instead, which is more along the lines of "let's go see a psychic!"
Oh! The psychic! Since going to a psychiatrist about her psychological problem would be ridiculous, Catherine instead drags Charles with her to go see the psychic, because clearly that will fix her right up. The psychic is... wait for it... he's French. NO. Even better, he's named Fermen.
Yes, welcome to the party, manager-turned-modern-day-psychic. No, there's no reason for him to be here, but that's okay, because everyone knows it's a cardinal rule of sequels and spinoffs of this story that all characters must be represented, no matter how incidental to the plot or nonsensical their existence might be (in fact, I'm pretty sure SuperAssManager from Catherine's job is intended to stand in for Carlotta). By the way, he, too, is a reincarnation (of just one manager? Where, pray tell, is Moncharmin? Why no love?), based on the fact that he claims he has met Catherine in a past life. So, anyway, they go to see Msr. Fermen, the French psychic who lives in Kentucky, and, after almost not making it because they nearly get into a car accident when Sabine brakes to avoid crossing a black cat's path (do you think I'm joking? Honey, don't you think I wish I were?), they arrive to meet a dude who is pretty much going to be painted as Enemy #2 (behind Charles, naturally), mostly because he would like to exorcise Erik and obviously that would be disaster. Who would fucking sexually assault people in the night?
He starts not making sense right away, starting with claiming that Charles can't accompany his unstable wife into his office because he'll throw off her vibes or some bullshit, but somehow Sabine can go in and nobody gives a damn. His insistence on calling everyone "Madame" and "Monsieur" in the middle of Kentucky is also getting to me (but it's a Phantom story! There's got to be French in it!).
This would be an excellent place for the psychic/paranormal/astral theory upon which this book is based to be at least a little bit explained to the reader so that, if they're like me, they can stop being confused and pissed off about it. Unfortunately, all we get is some half-assery from Fermen about how there is a world of spirits we can't see and they sometimes have the energy to interact with us. Considering that we've been watching Erik float about and bug Catherine for the entire book, I think we've gotten that far already.
The scene mostly involves Catherine being put into a lot of hypnotized trances (a little bit reminiscent of the 1944 Karloff/Waggner film, but with less awesome), during which she cries and screams and everyone chastizes Charles when he tries to object, hug her, or otherwise stop her from suffering. A particularly painful moment, prose-wise, is when she regresses to a past life (who could she have been? You'll never guess!) and Charles wonders, "What woman could sing with such a voice, such inspiration, such intense emotion as to bring tears to my usually dry eyes and wring blood from my very heart?" Gag me.
But wait - we're going to find out about the timeline! Joy! Apparently Catherine's past life as Katelin occurred only 80 years ago, putting it at about 1922 if we assume that the book is set in modern-day as of its publishing in 2002; I searched in vain for contextual evidence of this in the vision from a few chapters ago, but was forced to conclude that there was absolutely nothing in the scene to indicate time period except for the wee touches that had made me think it was a good deal earlier. So, okay, fine, except for the further assertion that the Phantom story occurred a further fifty years before that, which places it circa 1872. Dude, they hadn't even finished building the Garnier yet in 1872, due to pesky issues like a massive civil revolt.
Book 3: Sabine
Sigh, I hate reading this character's point of view. She's pretty much just a foil presented to agree with Catherine and disagree with Charles. I forgot it was her a few times because her voice, as in all other chapters, sounded so similar to the other characters'.
Sabine had, up until this point, been at least minorly sensible; she was taking the view that this was probably not the actual Erik (what with him not really existing) and instead some kind of malevolent poltergeist that was seizing on Catherine's obsession in order to gain control over her. It was a very interesting idea, and a premise I would have loved to see actually explored in a story... but this is not that story, and Sabine, once she's seen Erik once, does a complete 180 and is thereafter utterly convinced that he's not only real (and therefore existed at some point) but that Catherine is OBVIOUSLY Christine's reincarnation, based on the fact that she sings really prettily when Fermen has her under the influence.
Now that we've gotten The Setup out of the way, we can progress to 300 pages of Catherine and Erik Fight For Their Love, starting with a rousing round of insults aimed at Charles, who is apparently small-minded, irrational, unimaginative, and temperamental because of his refusal to believe that his beloved wife is the reincarnation of a fictional character and that she should go live with a ghost instead of him. Fermen also gets in on the action, telling him point-blank, "You see, sir, your wife, Catherine, is obviously the reincarnation of Christine Daae." Occam wept.
Props where props are due, however... just as there was between the same two in Progeny, there is a credible emotional relationship between Catherine and Charles; it's not a throwaway "oh she obviously doesn't actually love him" situation, which I appreciate, given this novel's tendencies. Of course, that also makes Catherine's behavior a lot more reprehensible as the book wears on, but you can only play both sides of the fence in so many ways.
Oh, hey, everyone suddenly remembers that Sabine and Catherine almost got mugged in a parking garage a little while back, but Erik ran the mugger off with his Spirit Powers. Apparently nobody really noticed this before now or thought it was particularly strange, though much time is devoted to how Sabine could totally feel the mugger's negative energies from a mile away because she is very astrally special.
Meadows suffers from Overexciting Verb Disease, a chronic condition that causes untreated authors to write things like "imprisoning the steering wheel in her grip". What, does the steering wheel have the capability of yearning for freedom? If not, she could just... I dunno... HOLD it or something.
Sigh. Flashback to college, when Catherine has a tarot reading that informs her she'll meet her future husband tonight, despite the fact that even an occult dunce like me knows tarot cards don't actually work that way (she'd be more likely to hear that, say, someone or something that will change her life is about to appear, or that she is about to encounter conflict or a decision). Clearly, she has been taken in by a hack who just got very lucky on their guess.
Sabine, who says that she has been "ticked off to the disaster that would strike", leading me to wonder if she's trying to combine personal anger with the phrase "tipped off" to create an exciting new event in English, drags Catherine off to a frat party in this flashback. Much time is devoted to how boring Charles finds all the "fraternity games", and how he's so very unlike all the frat boys, but no explanation is forthcoming of why he is nevertheless still in the fraternity. (I guess Meadows is trying to use it as a stand-in for the French aristocracy, but as with most things she doesn’t care enough to commit to making it work.) The big point of this flashback is to illustrate what a horrible husband (and all-around person, in general) Charles is by revealing that he slept with Sabine after that party, despite having expressed an interest in Catherine.
So… one time, years before he and Catherine were married and before they even dated, Charles and Sabine slept together consensually, so that makes him the bad guy here? I mean, yeah, he probably should have told Catherine once they did get together since she and Sabine are friends, but I notice Sabine didn’t feel the need to share that, either. Oh, but Sabine feels bad about it, so she’s not a bad person and it's not her fault even though she angsts that she can never tell Catherine because it would mean the end of their friendship. Her complicity in this misbehavior does not stop her from thinking verbatim that Charles "isn't good enough for a woman like Catherine," so she's still a hypocritical buttface, which is probably why she and Catherine get along so well.
I’m having honest-to-god flashbacks to Progeny with the half-assed excuses for why it’s totally okay for Christine to cheat on her husband. Christ almighty.
It is obvious that Sabine is the character who has never read Leroux's book, based on her assumption that Catherine "couldn't possibly be in any danger from someone who loved her so much," referring to Erik. Apparently she has also never read any fiction or seen any media involving stalkers, serial killers, or crimes of passion. (But she HAS seen Lloyd Webber’s show, because we SAW her go to it with Catherine, and I gotta tell you, Sabine, Christine is in plenty of danger in that adaptation, too.)
She also thinks, while watching Charles desperately try to comfort and understand what his wife is going through, "Poor Charles! Unhappy Charles!" I enjoy this because it's very reminiscent of the same phrase being said about Erik in Leroux's text, another (probably unintentional) example of how the two characters have somehow been swapped.
Someone needs to help me understand why Sabine thinks that Charles wants her to stay the night at their place because of him. He hasn't shown anything but serious animosity toward her (unsurprising, considering her habit of telling his wife she should leave him) and Sabine was there to witness his extremely tearful and tender devotion to his wife a mere few hours ago. I also have NO idea why she up and decides in the middle of the night that it's probably "what's best for Catherine" for her best friend to be spirited away by a possessive, violent ghost. I hoped she'd just been mind-whammied by the ghost, but no... she just knows how to not stand in the way of True Love.
She also believes Erik has "powers [she] couldn't even foreshadow". We need some kind of fund to pay back the thesauruses of the world for what Meadows keeps doing to them.
I was still holding out a little hope that this wasn't actually a sequel to Progeny, despite the quote on the back cover and Christine's little escapade in the prologue, but at this point Catherine remembers the existence of Christian, the Phantom-spawn from the previous novel, and our fates as readers are sealed. Apparently Catherine is also a sorceress queen, since she can send Erik out to curse people she doesn't like (her boss, naturally), and Erik has mad laryngitis powers because he can cause said boss to lose her voice for a few days (so yeah, she’s Carlotta, whose only apparent reincarnatable features are “is mean to Christine”).
Despite having decided mere hours ago that she wants Catherine to be with Erik because it's clearly what would make her happiest and be best for her in the long run, Sabine is now conflicted and worried again. I would appreciate internal conflict if it didn't look exactly the same every time, as if the characters were all tied to a pendulum, covering the exact same territory over and over and over and over. They don't come off as complex characters with internal conflicts, because they really aren't; they just come off as what they are, which is inconsistent.
And then, we're going to Paris! I agree with Charles, who also thinks that this doesn't seem like a rational response to the problem when Fermen comes up with this brilliant plan, but nobody cares about what either of us think. The psychic claims he has a special friend there (no, not a "special friend", though that would at least explain where Moncharmin is) who can help Catherine's case, and since these characters are all apparently completely without impulse control, off they go to France, because they can totally afford that instead of useful things like doctors. The painful railroading villainization of Charles continues when Sabine is angry that he insists on going to Paris with Catherine; yeah, he's obviously going because he's secretly evil and wants to sabotage her life, not because he's concerned about sending his mentally ill wife off to a foreign country with a bunch of assholes who keep trying to separate him from her and seem to be making her condition deteriorate.
Book 4: Catherine
But I don't want to read her point of view anymore! I'm coming to hate her as much as I hated Christine in Progeny! I'll just be over here, sobbing into my graham cracker pie.
It is interesting to note here that while most versions of the Phantom story (including Meadows' previous one) make the titular character a mortal man, often without any supernatural abilities at all, this novel features a wholly supernatural Phantom, even if it is only as a sequel to him previously being a wholly mortal one.
Catherine likes to "pour" over journals. It makes me sad for those poor, waterlogged books. And while we're at it, what's up with the "hordes of sobs" she's got going on on page 168? Good lord. I'm picturing tiny, sad Mongols.
Speaking of pendulums, Catherine alternates between accusing Charles of not supporting and trying to help her enough in her time of need to ranting, enraged, about what an unutterable bastard he is for wanting her to get rid of Erik. How dare he "take that away from her"! Who does he think he is, ordering her around and telling her he doesn’t want to be literally raped by her fucking sex ghost?
In addition to no one ever simply talking, they also never simply walk. Charles is the worst culprit; he "storms" everywhere. Out the door, in the door, down the sidewalk, into the bathroom, across the room, pretty much any time he is in physical motion, even if it makes no sense whatsoever because he's not angry at that time. I began envisioning him with a little cartoon raincloud following him around everywhere he went, dampening carpets and shooting tiny thunderbolts at small animals.
Catherine becomes progressively more and more reprehensible in her treatment of Charles throughout this chapter; not only is the double standard of physical abuse still in effect (she boxes his ears! Dude, OUCH), but she also screams at him endlessly and spends the entire time he's trying to get the psychic to set up an exorcism musing that if she could sabotage the process and allow Erik more time to build up energy and assume physical form, she might be able to have sex with him. There isn't enough spirit-possession in the world to make a woman this annoying. Couldn't she start pea-souping or something so I don't have to hate her so much? No, so all I have is the nagging question of why, since he's been an incorporeal spirit for over a century, Erik suddenly feels such a pressing need to have sex when he hasn’t even had a BODY in centuries.
"I had become one solid mass of stimulated nerves which, like an abandoned mine shaft, threatened myself with collapse at any moment."
If there was ever a sentence constructed specifically to make English professors reach angrily for the red pen, that would be it.
Poor Charles. By page 183 of this 450+ page book, he has been officially dropped like a bad habit in favor of fantasizing about Erik, whom Catherine "wants more than anything else in this world". Sorry, dude. Welcome to being the Raoul character in a Meadows novel.
In case she wasn't emotionally or behaviorally inconsistent enough for us, Catherine also becomes just straight up inconsistent when, after explaining that she had heard of reincarnation but "never thought about it", she now tells us that she had "developed a respect for [it] during [her] college years". Either you’ve thought of it or you haven’t, Catherine!
Then, sex. Because Charles and Catherine tend to have a lot of sex even though she screams at him all the time and I would frankly be concerned about spiritual possession if I were him. After the usual Meadows-style sex descriptions ("The heat of his body soaked through my dress"? Eww) and misplaced words ("clinged"? Really?), Catherine bursts into a crying fit after discovering that she's having sex with Charles and not, as she was busily dreaming, with Erik. My sympathy is not excited (except possibly for Charles, poor bastard).
I thought about pointing out how even if she is the reincarnation of Christine, vows are until death do them part so she can stop blathering about how unfaithful to Erik she's being, but then I remembered that they didn't actually even have any vows. By the time she's on the balcony, talking to nobody and begging Erik's forgiveness for sleeping with her husband, I pretty much just want to stab her, especially when she starts in on the "I have to sleep with my husband but it's you I love so don't get mad okay" bullshit. If you really feel that way, step up and divorce the man, you asshole, or TELL him you don’t want to have sex with him and then DON’T. Literally no one is making you. Stop rationalizing your awful behavior.
Speaking of awful, let's talk about Erik some now. If he's a spirit who can seem like anything he wants to be and who has complete control over his manifestations and appearance, why the ever-present mask? Couldn't he just be, you know, NOT DISFIGURED if it's still bothering him? He doesn't have a body anymore! What the hell is he doing? I'm also confused as to why, as he lets us know in this chapter, he refused to be reincarnated; you'd think that if there was ever a character that would leap at the chance, he'd be it. New body, new life, new karma... but no. Somehow, it's more "romantic" for him to turn into a tortured ghost and spend all his time trying to stalk his girlfriend's successive lives.
Catherine keeps talking about killing herself so her soul can soar free with Erik's, blah blah blah, but unfortunately she refuses to actually do so and I am stuck with her for 250 more gruelling pages while she thinks about how Charles sleeps with his mouth open and Erik would never be so bourgeois.
It occurs to me that another interesting twist to this story could have been that Catherine isn't actually the reincarnation of Christine, but because she looks so similar and has such an obsession with the story Erik might have mistakenly fixated on her anyway. At the very least, it would have made more sense than the "you're always incarnated as an exact double of yourself" theory (argh). Alas, another road not taken.
How delightful. We'll start off this chapter with a scene ripped straight from Progeny. I'm annoyed enough by Catherine's asinine whines that Charles has "betrayed her trust" by trying to get the psychic to exorcise Erik, and by the time we get to this paragraph, halfway down page 205, I am physically ill with rage:
"It was horrible to have to live this way, to have to watch every word, every phrase, every look I gave, knowing that Charles could take any of them and use them against Erik... I was finally here, at the very center of Erik's world, where I could possibly return to him to be with him always. I needed Charles because I didn't want to come here alone... Charles and Monsieur Fermen had plotted to use me to get to Erik, to harm him. Maybe I could use them somehow to get to Erik... to stay with him."
But Charles is the bastard who doesn't deserve her because he slept with her friend that one time in college a decade ago. Reading this book is torturous and I am offended by it.
Oh, god. People are talking about Christian and I just remembered what happened at the end of Progeny and if the characters now run into Erik's descendants I will cry tears of sadness. At least let none of them be living in the opera house basement. Please?
A lot of this book could be comedic gold for parody. Erik's got deep red lips (ooh la la!) and Catherine's heart has just "exploded in a million droplets of utter misery". Fire in the hole, y’all!
Book 5: Charles
I'd say I was relieved to be out from under the tyrannical rule of Catherine's horrible mental processes, but it's now time to play the Charles Is A Bad Man game again, much to my chagrin. The problem with Meadows' attempts to make me dislike Charles is that her treatment of him is so wildly inconsistent that I end up just disliking the author instead. He spends chapter upon chapter trying to save Catherine, attacking spirits, holding her tenderly, sitting up all night with her, and then at random he starts this chapter getting some kind of excitement high off of feeling all powerful while he has to hold her down while she's having some kind of flailing fit. How does he keep going from loving, concerned husband to rapist/murderer in ten seconds flat? I know the issue of his temper is supposed to show the reader that he's unstable and has a dark side, but Sabine's temper is every bit as bad and Erik's and Catherine's are actually worse. Again, it's extremely poor characterization and it just makes the book more of a painful trial to get through.
Oh, and STOP TELLING ME ABOUT HOW HE SLEPT WITH SABINE ONCE A DECADE AGO. I KNOW. YOU SAID. If I promise to think he's not worthy of your massive asshole of a heroine, will you promise to STOP TELLING ME ABOUT IT?
At the end of this chapter, Catherine begins singing a song from Marsha Norman's and Lucy Simon's musical The Secret Garden. I love that show as much as the next person, but quoting an entire song's lyrics in your novel is a no-no. Not only is it boring for those who don't know the song and only marginally more interesting for those who do, but it's a bad idea because someone else owns the copyright to those lyrics and I do not see acknowledgement or permission from Norman/Simon anywhere in this book (their names aren't even mentioned with the name of the show). Here's an idea: WRITE YOUR OWN DAMN SONG LYRICS IF YOU WANT A DRAMATICALLY APPROPRIATE SONG.
(And back off of Lily's lament to her husband - she was an admirable character and I don't want her besmirched by too much close contact with Catherine. Yeah, it’s “How Could I Ever Know”, a song sung by a ghost who manages to NOT be a rapist and who wants the object of her love and affection to be able to move on and live his life happily. It’s not a match here.)
Oh, fuck me. Fermen's mystery friend has a chateau that they are even now approaching. This is France and I am aware that many people there have chateaus, but I bet if we pool our mental resources we can probably figure out whose this one is.
Oh, look, it's the Chateau de Chagny.
Oh, look, there's a portrait of Christine Daae de Chagny in the hallway.
Oh, look, she looks EXACTLY LIKE CATHERINE.
Oh, look at that, I'm out of rum. Excuse me for a second.
The characters have all by now mostly accepted the reincarnation theory, which means they’re just torturing the reader when they wander around trying to figure out whose chateau this could possibly be and why the picture of Raoul (Count de Chagny, apparently, so Philippe must have eventually died and also decided to change his honorific to match the British equivalent) is not on the wall in its intended spot next to Christine's. When the owner of the chateau is finally located, he turns out to be named Christian, and of course he is a dead ringer for his namesake and the illustrious Erik, whose presence brings joy to Catherine's heart and so forth. Weeping occurs, both in- and outside the book.
Apparently, the first Christian had a massive stained-glass window depicting Erik and Christine entwined in eternal love put up in his office. I hope he at least waited for Raoul to die first. Prick.
So here we are, then, with Erik's great-great grandson. I guess Erik II (remember? Christian I's kid with Madeleine II? Meadows, when I have to use this many Roman numerals for only a handful of generations, something has gone awry) got some love from someone after all. Apparently the curse of the facial disfigurement stopped with Erik II, since otherwise, according to Meadows' previously-set-up every-other-generation nonsense, this guy would be a victim as well. Christian II is naturally beautiful, graceful, sensual, and perfect, because, as Catherine is prone to incessantly pointing out, he's an exact copy of Erik (except without that little horrible deformity inconvenience). Since he's not a new character by any stretch of the imagination, he's about as interesting as a cardboard stand-up.
There appears to be a prison tower... in the Chateau de Chagny. Please, someone tell me that it had a Russian princess with an Irish name in it once. This isn't silly enough yet.
Fermen enlightens us very briefly on more reincarnation bullshit. According to him, spirits "sleep" for an indeterminate number of years after leaving the body, before returning to a new one. How does he know this? I have no idea, because he will refuse to explain and so will Meadows.
What a total shock we are all in for when Christian II unveils the portrait of Raoul (kept hidden in the prison tower) and it looks exactly like Charles (because remember, when you're reincarnated you LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME, ALWAYS). Charles is surprised, which is starting to get a little bit unbelievable but I suppose is understandable when you're staring at an ancient oil painting of your own face. I don't know why Fermen and Christian are so astonished that he doesn't believe them and thinks they're running a scam; he's quite correct that it would be incredibly easy to have the oil paintings commissioned and to have a dramatic unveiling to convince him of the truth of their story. Of course, his disbelief is another example of his stubborn refusal to accept The Truth.
Catherine's screaming rants about how Charles needs to back off and leave her alone because this isn't about HIM for once, okay, it's about HER, are wearing very thin. I disagree; Charles is her husband, which means her mental health and behavior kind of are his concern, especially when he genuinely thinks she’s ill and needs help and that these people are taking advantage of her. There is definitely a huge history of men using “oh she’s crazy” as an excuse to do awful things to their wives, but we can SEE Charles’ inner monologues and thoughts, so we KNOW he isn’t just gaslighting her. It doesn’t make sense, Meadows!
Goddammit, people! The word "pilfer" has a distinct meaning (theft of a small item or items)! You cannot "pilfer around a room!" You can't just use words completely interchangeably with one another just because they start with the same letter!
And if Erik can hurl people through plate glass (nice lack of concern from EVERYONE over that guy's terrible injuries, by the way), why hasn't he done it before, specifically to Charles and/or the muggers? Sigh.
Book 6: Catherine
This book is interminable. The pacing is so incredibly slow and painful. And NO, you cannot sacrifice something on an ALTER.
We're back in another past-life experience with Katelin, this time involving people trying to exorcise Erik and some riders chasing her through the woods. Riders with swords and torches... chasing a woman through the woods... in the 1920s. Okaaay. Far worse than that is the fact that Erik isn't supposed to have a body anymore at this point since he refused reincarnation after his death in the 1800s... but Katelin is pregnant with his child. Seriously, are you trying to tell me he has fertile ghost-semen? WHAT IS GOING ON IN THIS BOOK?
Oh, and sure, I totally buy Raoul/Charles/Whatever this guy's name is carving WHORE into Katelin's forehead with a knife in front of a bunch of people. That's totally supported in his/his/his character. When you can’t figure out how to make readers hate your villain, just have him do something outlandishly evil for no reason. That’s the stuff.
I've pretty much given up at this point after Catherine returns to the present day and spends some time with Christian, mocking the peasantry, talking about how Christine's ghost haunts the trees near the chateau (HOW?!), meditating on how she's still sleeping with Charles but it's just to use him so she can get back to Erik. Especially once people are saying that they "new" something, and are describing the "horde of agony" in their souls, I've lost the will to continue.
It turns out that the crest of the house of de Chagny is apparently a lion rampant with a snake in its mouth, trampling on a shield. This isn't a real crest, possibly because all the symbolism is ridiculous - a lion rampant represents dauntless courage, while it's eating a snake that represents wisdom and trampling on a shield that represents a brave defender. Actually, that kind of describes the conception of this book in a nutshell.
I'd like to know why Erik insists on calling Christine/Katelin/Catherine/whatever "child" in all his incarnations. It was appropriate for the original Erik in Leroux's novel because he was so much older than she was, but here, where there are reincarnation shenanigans going on and the question of age is abruptly a non-issue, it just ends up being super creepy and inappropriate.
Oh, look, Christine got a fancy giant obelisk-style grave monument while Raoul got a shitty little one next to hers. Oh, Meadows, I already KNOW how you feel on this particular subject, I promise you don't have to keep reinforcing it.
"If I could describe the Chateau de Chagny in one word or less, I would choose 'home'." Yeah, that's not an asinine statement or anything. Also, Catherine seriously needs to do some legwork to win me over as a protagonist, and this:
"Charles put his hand on mine. 'It's all right, honey,' he said. 'I'm with you.'
That's great, I thought. But where's Erik?"
Is not doing it. I don't like you, Catherine. I'd love it if you would hurry up and die - WHICH, BY THE WAY, IT IS JUST AS BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS YOU'RE GOING TO EVENTUALLY DO AS IT WAS IN PROGENY. SPARE US THE 150 PAGES OF WAITING.
Just as in Progeny, Meadows is inconsistent in her own definitions of devotion and romance, which is intensely frustrating to me as I watch her drama excruciatingly unfold. There's enough flailing around to choke on about how long and through how many lives Erik has waited for Catherine and how much he deserves her because of all this faithful love and desire and time-spanning romance, but there's no acknowledgement of the fact that Charles, who's not only loved her through at least as many lives but has actually died and still found her in spite of being reincarnated with no memory of it, should be viewed in the same light. Both men have followed this woman throughout the ages (why???), faithfully devoting themselves to her, but somehow only one of them deserves to be recognized for that?
Oh, wait, sorry; Erik refused reincarnation and is instead a violent rapist ghost haunting otherwise innocent people while Charles has committed the cardinal sin of sleeping with somebody else once ten years ago in college. Obviously, Erik is the more worthy one here. The idea that Erik refusing to move on is somehow more poignant and romantic is baffling to me; it's not only refusing to acknowledge Erik's redemption and growth at the end of Leroux's story, but actually drawing that out to its greatest extreme, leaving us with a character who refuses point-blank to mature and grow because of his own selfish wants. It's like the Barthelme story without the self-awareness, and it's a seriously disheartening example of Meadows completely and utterly missing the point. Romantic is one thing it certainly isn't.
Riiight, she's singing a Mozart motet in the dead of night after not practicing for a month. I'm sure that's going well.
Catherine starts macking on Christian II in this chapter, which is just so many kinds of wrong I don't even know where to start. Her "he's just like a miniature Erik, how could I not?" justification actually makes me want to cry. At least he has the good sense not to let it go too far, but my fucking god. I mean, I know that Christian (of any numeral) is supposed to be Hotter Erik and if you’re using Christine as a self-insert then obviously you want to bone Hotter Erik but SHE IS HIS MOM.
Catherine almost hurls herself off the balcony here, and I finally dislike Charles as much as Meadows wants me to when he arrives in time to stop her from doing so (by the way, everyone will yell at him for the next three chapters about how unnecessarily violent he was in stopping her from committing suicide. The cad). Obviously, Catherine is being ridiculous since she knows she's a reincarnation a few steps removed and I don't see why she thinks killing herself won't have the same result, but you know, whatever. At least if she died this book would probably be over soon.
Charles and Catherine have, up until this point, been sharing the old master bedroom of the chateau (apparently either they've forgotten where Christine's room was or Meadows is assuming that a nineteenth-century couple always sleep together in the same bed); Fermen decides that Charles' presence is proving too distracting and counterproductive and kicks him out, making him stay down the hall. I'm at a loss as to why he's counterproductive (would her hurling herself off the balcony have been productive?) or why Fermen has the authority to do this, or why Charles goes along with it despite his obvious reluctance and why Catherine herself, who admits she doesn't want to be stuck in this room alone, doesn't object. The Plot Must Go On.
And now, a revisited description of Christine and Erik banging from the good old Progeny days. Thanks. Without your lovingly crafted literary help, I might have forgotten. When Erik asks Catherine if she loves Charles and she immediately responds, "Not nearly as much as you," I just want to go to bed. Meadows' Catherine has the same problem that her Christine did (not surprising, since they're the same person); she can't just make an adult decision so we can all go home, so she has to torture all the other characters and us, too.
Book 7: Sabine
The Charles hate continues. Christian has an irrational dislike of the man (why? he doesn't know what happened at the end of Progeny and dislike of Raoul isn't genetic) and Sabine muses about how Catherine loves him with "part of her heart but not her soul". I know Meadows has a specific intent for that phrase since she uses variations of it so often, but for the life of me I can't figure out what it's supposed to be. In particular, the following line made me see red:
"Yes, Catherine had a superficial, human love for Charles, but her love for Erik cut through to the core deep within her."
The bizarre thing here is the suggestion that mere "human" love is somehow not good enough. Love, both as a concept and a social convention, is an extremely human concept; Meadows herself is reinforcing that with her constant stream-of-consciousness narration of the very human characters' feelings, with the more distant, impersonal refusal of the god/spirit/whatever's refusal to let them linger because of it, and with her own insistence that the motivations of practically everyone in this book center on it. Love doesn't make these people inhuman - even Erik, who she's made such a point of showing as every bit as human as the race that spurned him, isn't somehow "beyond the pale" of that emotion, judging by his actions. So much of the action and emotion in this novel centers on the "soul" as if it were some mystical thing beyond humanity, and yet Meadows makes a huge point of showing us over and over that every soul is, in fact, human. I'm completely mystified.
And, of course, there's the fact that I'm not sure what "superficial love" is supposed to mean, since it's pretty much an oxymoron. A more appropriate word might have been "infatuation", though despite being more correct it would still be wrong as far as Charles’ feelings go. Which we KNOW because we READ HIS SECTION. It’s like the author wants us to know Charles isn’t good enough so his love can’t be as transcendent and pure, but she also can’t bear for everyone not to love Catherine with their entire soul, so she just waffles back and forth.
Seriously, Sabine needs to get the fuck over herself. Every time she starts feeling sorry for Charles, she thinks about that time they had sex (years ago in college! consensually! once!) and decides that no, he deserves the torment of losing his wife. Is this some kind of repressed "Woe! He did not choose me though I gave him my womanly treasures!" business? Because seriously, I cannot figure it out.
There's more business all over page 385 about how Catherine and Charles only love one another out of "convenience", and how "superficial" it all is, etc. Again, I think perhaps the wrong words are being used here. Even if Meadows were using better words, though, I think I'd contest this because of the massive importance everyone has put on reincarnation and how only the strongest, most closely-tied souls can find one another from life to life. Again, how does Raoul/Charles get no props for always finding and falling in love with his Christine/Catherine? Only Erik is cool when he stalks people over a period of centuries?
Everyone spends a lot of time wondering why, if the original Christine obviously loved Erik so much, she chose Raoul instead. The answer to that, dear characters, is the interminable Sartre-style waiting room that is Progeny. Be glad it does not exist in your reality.
And now we're... sneaking into the Opera Garnier? In the middle of the night, these five people with absolutely no burglary experience whatsoever? Even Sabine thinks that Christian's accommodating unnamed security guard friend who is on duty alone all night is too convenient. I also love how the security guard knows how to get down to the catacombs in one convenient trip, and how seamlessly he will now disappear, never to be heard from in this narrative again.
The melodrama of Catherine's personified heart speaking to her on page 393 threatens to swamp me entirely. The cheese only gets thicker until the candles "cast gold lightning bolts across [Erik's] raven hair" and I'm outright hooting with laughter. Finally, in a crowning moment, Erik starts singing... a Sarah Brightman song.
My god, because if you were a centuries-old artist who was renowned as one of the most astounding and progressive musical geniuses ever to exist, that would be your choice when finally reunited with your true love, right? I can't even catch my breath. Fuck glasses, I'm just bringing the bottle for the rest of this book.
A recurring theme over the course of the book has been the fact that Erik seems to have the body/bearing/movements/what have you "of the most noble aristocrat". For one thing, the fact that Meadows never actually describes what that kind of bearing or movement is makes me think she doesn't know, and the "body of an aristocrat" makes me wonder if she's trying to make me think of the Phantom as slightly chubby and pale. But more importantly, Erik isn't the aristocrat; Raoul is. One of the most central ideas for Leroux's original character was that he was the lowest of the low, the man whose handwriting was a child's despite his amazing mind, who couldn't even associate with the common peasantry. He was representative of the disenfranchised dregs of society, not the privileged upper echelon - that's Raoul. Meadows is once again completely missing the point of Leroux's work; she's assigning the qualities of an aristocratic nobleman to Erik to associate him with power and refinement, demonstrating the exact social perception that Leroux was poking fun at. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM, MEADOWS.
The hysterical repetition by pretty much everyone that God himself could not separate Catherine and Erik is annoying, partly because of the melodrama and partly because I assume this is the Christian God they’re talking about, meaning, well, guys, he's GOD. Anybody? Hello?
Book 8: Trio
Part 1: Fermen
Oh, good, now we're in parts instead of chapters. I'm glad that distinction was made.
Random French for no reason? Check. Random capitalization of ordinary nouns? Check. Egocentric implication that only Erik's love is deep enough to escape the cycle of reincarnation despite the fact that that dismisses countless epic romances the world over? Check. Is this chapter over yet?
Why, yes, Fermen, you ARE the worst planner ever if you only have one copy of your prized manuscript. It's 1998, dude - haven't you heard of floppy disks? And who the hell - oh, never mind, he's in the torture chamber now and Erik has completely abandoned all pretense of redemption or growth from the original novel.
Part 2: Charles
Meadows spells out point-blank the concept that so irks me in Phantom fiction: that Christine (pretty much devalued to the point of symbolic prize) is owed to Erik because he suffered more and is thus more entitled to her. Erik rants, "You wanted her, but you had not earned her..." on page 422, and again, "You, who never gave her a thing, never earned her love... I gave her music..." on 423. It's frustrating to see Christine so easily removed from her decision-making status in the original novel, and even more frustrating that Meadows clearly doesn't realize that she's doing so. Worst of all, it's not even accurate, since in the time period of the original story a stable, loving husband with a lot of money and status was pretty much the epitome of a guy who could give his wife what she needed.
Then Meadows saw that I had part of my bottle left and threw down the gauntlet. Erik ties Charles up and has exhibitionist sex with Catherine in front of him. This, it is implied, is Charles' just desserts since Erik has had to watch him having sex with Catherine all these years (may I suggest you reincarnate like you're supposed to instead of being a ghostly voyeur and SOMETIMES RAPIST for other peoples' wives, Erik?). The behavior is so far beyond the scope of the original character that I can just stare it in disbelief, and the implication that this is not only okay but somehow on the side of justice makes me literally ill with anger. Meadows, impervious to this, makes the reader watch the entire thing, too, in more detail than any previous sex scene in the book.
Oh, and it's also okay because Erik and Catherine love each other more than Charles could ever hope to emulate. Just look:
"Erik had not only made love to her body. He had made love to her very soul."
Seriously, the whole thing made me so upset I can't even crack jokes about it anymore. For Charles, this is a legitimate horror movie, and he can’t get out.
Part 3: Sabine
Thank god, I needed some comedic relief after that chapter. Page 429 delivers with "Her streams of tears became fourteen carat crystal under the candlelight." Classic Meadows! Wait, there's more - "His eyes poured golden rivers down his face and mask." Oh, that wacky, wacky author.
Oh, hey, we get what we didn't get in Progeny - a non-vague description of Erik's face. It's pretty much textbook Lloyd Webber - half-faced, leathery skin with red blotches and tears, malformed lips, etc. The immediate self-pitying monologue afterward makes me want to shoot people. Seriously, not only do I not understand why spirit-Erik, the Master of Illusions, still has this disfigurement, I also feel compelled to point out that I think that particular point of sympathy has been milked as far as Meadows can milk it at this point.
Erik's furious questioning of how Raoul/Charles has always found Christine/Catherine throughout their reincarnations just makes me despair more. Yeah, it's obviously because he's a bad man, not because his soul could have an important connection to her or anything under this bizarre, poorly-explained spiritual theory Meadows has set up. And clearly he deserves to die because he's had her with him all these years, that bastard. Even more hilarious is further input from the psychic that reincarnation occurs so that the souls can "learn" more, leading me not only to want to know why the fuck they're always reincarnated as the exact same race and gender but also why souls should "flock" to other souls they know. It makes no sennnnnnse.
As an interesting aside, at some point amidst all the madness Sabine and Christian struck up a romance, which they will retain until the end of the book. Since Sabine is pretty much the Lloyd Webber-style Meg stand-in and Christian functions as the non-ugly Erik, you could theoretically say that this is our second incidence of an author pairing Meg and the Phantom romantically (the first, also shakily constructed, would be the 1991 Stuart novel).
The pain is coming thick and fast now, as if in rushing to the climax of her tale Meadows is feeling the need to pack in as many inconsistencies and mistakes as possible. Improper past tenses, incorrect word usage, and random spaces! Massive failure at symbolism and dramatic pacing (though of course there is demonstrated mastery at ambiguity)! People seeing the ghosts of their dead fathers even though supposedly they also should be doing this reincarnation river stuff! And hey, as they run through the halls of the chateau, I have to ask, why are there no pictures of Erik II, Christian I's deformed son? Not cool enough to be the Count after his father because of his uglyface? Killed at birth? Who knows? Meadows appears to have forgotten his existence!
By the end of the penultimate scene, when people are talking about how they can feel love in the soles of their feet and discussing how they have "no qualm" with one another, my stamina has almost given out. I have no objection to Charles throwing Catherine over his shoulder and marching her off to the boat, despite everyone else screaming about what a violent prick he's being; his wife has just told him she's going to leave him for a ghost and is fully intending to remain under the opera house until she starves to death so she can be one, too, and frankly I'm impressed that he hasn't yet given up on her in the face of all the combined assholishness pointed in his direction all the time. I also have no objection to him howling that he wants a divorce when this is over while she's clawing at his face, though I think he's being a sucker when he starts crying afterward and says he didn't mean it. Leave the buttmunch, Charles. Be free.
Sabine, who has made such a point of telling us she knows nothing about the story and barely paid attention to the musical and book when Catherine shoved them under her nose, suddenly becomes enough of an expert to remember the chapter about the siren and to start screaming at everyone not to lean over the edges of the boat, which gets them all to the shore in time. And then it's the Final Faceoff, with Charles trying to take Catherine with him, Erik (and Christian, and Sabine, and Catherine herself) trying to stop him, and then everyone is screaming and running around and grabbing each other and then there is a loud noise and--
Yes, this book has just ended EXACTLY THE SAME WAY that Progeny did. Charles tries to shoot Erik (where did he get a gun? Where did he hide it during the action? Does he even know how to use it? Why didn't Erik disarm him when he was tied up? Trifling details!) and instead hits Catherine, who dies dramatically and beautifully on the shore of the lake while Erik wails in torment. Even my delight in Catherine's final demise cannot soothe my rage at the complete pointlessness of this ending. Since Christian I isn't here to beat his face into the wall, Charles just goes catatonic on his own so we can make sure Raoul is Sufficiently Punished; additionally, I'm pretty sure part of the self-insert fantasy upon which this plot depends involves neither Erik nor Charles ever being able to come to terms with the loss of Catherine or to deal with themselves even remotely normally. Erik's tears are apparently made of crystal. Mine are made of disappointment and rum.
In the grand tradition of Meadows epilogues, some people (Sabine and Christian) have a baby which they name after one of the recently deceased characters (Catherine), and everyone mopes around in nonsensical angst for the remainder of their lives. A particularly brain-wrenching moment is when Sabine and Christian have Charles "taken to a home" when they decide he's too mentally ill for redemption, which they completely cannot do since they are no relation to him and have no legal power whatsoever over his actions or disposition.
Sabine reflects that, now that she has Christian, "Catherine has her Erik, I have mine, I think." Excuse me while I vomit.
The most brilliant part of this is the assumption that Catherine is now with her beloved Erik. Didn't we just do this song and dance? Isn't she even now "sleeping" between reincarnations or whatever the hell Fermen said souls do? Ah, no, because, you see, Erik had built up enough power to keep her with him.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Erik has in fact defeated God and taken his place, thus validating the beliefs of evolutionary polytheists everywhere. Now we can all go home.
I hate to give a failing grade to something that doesn't have enough technical issues to make it completely unreadable, but I have to admit that I wouldn't put this on the same shelf with anything in the D categories, not even the Forsyth novel. It is pure, incredible crap. It is the WORST.