Phantoms of the Mind (1996)
by Carrie Hernandez
from Angel of Music: Tales of the Phantom of the Opera, 2005
This is the best of Hernandez’s small selection of stories: delightful, thoughtful, and inventive. Not only is the premise both clever and cunningly revealed, it's an example of a fresh approach to some of the story’s characters that hasn’t previously appeared in published Phantom literature.
We are introduced to our main character here: Lotte, a young French girl with a rocky relationship with her father following her mother's death. The abuse she suffers at his hands is described heavy-handedly, probably out of a desire to make sure the audience is sympathetic, but the prose is still evocative and thoughtful.
The chapter starts with two common Phantom-story elements: a violin, which Lotte plays when her father isn't around, and a carnival, in this case a traveling circus that stops in town and enchants her. Lotte doesn’t have any skills that would be particularly useful for a circus, but eventually she uses her winsome little face to convince El Moco (literally "the mucus" in Spanish) to let her help him clean up after the elephants. Her desire to escape her normal life and embrace the fantastic trappings of the circus is foreshadowing for her later choices, and, of course, anyone familiar with the Phantom's usual backstories will already be suspecting that he's lurking around some corner here.
The circus strongman, El Piojo (literally "the louse", appropriate since he is unambiguously a horrible person), is also introduced here to add an element of danger to the proceedings with his very obvious, very nasty sexual interest in nine-year-old Lotte. The pedophiliac character is very strongly reminiscent of Javert in Kay's 1990 novel, but Hernandez also gives him a disability, a twisted leg that requires him to walk with a cane. While both the author and Lotte do show some sympathy for El Piojo’s struggles, which are obviously meant to foreshadow and align with Erik’s, the decision to continually flag evil characters by making them disabled is one with a long and very damaging history, so it’s not a lot of fun to see it here.
It’s interesting that the carnival and its workers are all presented here as at least nominally ethnically Spanish. This is actually some foreshadowing for the end of the story, but it’s subtle enough not to be obvious and a welcome relief from the usual parade of anti-Romani stereotyping.
Despite narrowly avoiding rape when El Moco intercedes to rescue her from El Piojo, Lotte, who is as bad at predicting consequences as any other preteen, can't resist peering into El Piojo's tent when she hears weeping. The scene of her searching for the source of the sound brings Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden to mind, which is probably intentional given that the stories have parallel characters of adventurous young girls who discover physically disabled young boys who are being mistreated by their adult caretakers. Who she's going to find isn't much of a mystery to the Phantom-acquainted reader, but the scene is dramatically played out and her initial impression that the horrible-looking creature (Erik) is a demon is believable, as is El Moco's heartfelt conviction that the boy is a monster. Superstition plays a large role in Hernandez's story, and happily she manages to keep it from getting out of hand while still making the beliefs of the characters seem real.
Erik's cage being kept in El Piojo's tent is again reminiscent of Kay's Javert, and given that the man is a pedophile, it’s also got a lot of the same very disturbing implications.
Erik is, as in many backstories, being exhibited by the circus as the famous Living Corpse (who, interestingly enough, plays a harp in his cage rather than a violin). His deformity is obviously drawn from Leroux's original: taut, yellow skin, perpetually visible teeth, a missing nose, and constantly-oozing sores give him the classic deathly appearance, so much so that it's no wonder the superstitious circus folk believe him to be demonic. Various scars, most likely souvenirs of abuse and hard living, marry his distressed appearance to the ability of his life to worsen it.
One of the loveliest moments in the entire story comes here, when Erik hypnotizes a curious Lotte into believing that an origami butterfly he makes for her has come to life and become real. The description of the hypnosis is compelling and magical, giving him a supernatural luster without ruling out the possibility of his mortality, and his line at the end - "'Oh, yes,' he said. 'For you, it's quite real.'" - is a lovely little moment of meditation on the nature of performance itself, acknowledging the illusion without destroying her belief in it. Hernandez uses the symbol of a Monarch butterfly to represent rebirth throughout the story, a bittersweet and lovely idea drawn from Mexica folklore, in which it was believed that the souls of the dead might be reborn as Monarchs.
Despite the extremely sympathetic presentation of Erik so far, including his weeping, captivity, musical talent, and kindness to Lotte, Hernandez manages not to draw his fangs completely, also illustrating his murderous rage when attacked by circus-goers; he even seems dangerous for a moment to Lotte's dazzled eyes.
The butterfly scene ends with another fantastic moment, this time from the opposite end of the spectrum: El Moco drags Lotte away and describes to her in no uncertain terms how much hatred Erik holds for all beautiful things and his profound and sincere belief that he would go on a killing rampage if he were ever to be let out of his cage. El Moco is not lying about believing Erik is dangerous, and his very real fear and loathing of Erik again drives home how the superstitious people around him consider him alien. The real treat is when Moco forces her to put her hand on the Monarch and realize that it was never real in the first place, a shattering of innocence that he believes is necessary to save her from being seduced and destroyed by the monster in the cage.
The final moments of the chapter are a perfect and moving depiction of superstition, when El Moco leans down and says, "You let him look into your eyes, didn't you?... Then he's inside you now. God have mercy on your soul," before leaving. As a poorly-understood pseudo-science, hypnotism seems very much like magic (or demonic possession) to El Moco, and Hernandez again uses it to weave Erik's human and supernatural natures together into a believable whole.
El Moco very much seems to function as a sort of precursor to the daroga, who does not appear in this story, although I’m not sure if that was intentional.
Erik is currently twenty-seven years old in the 1840s, making him around sixty when the action of Leroux's novel starts. It’s nice to see something closer to the usual estimated ages of Leroux’s book, especially since it gives more weight to Erik’s decisions and makes the contrast between him and the child Lotte (and his eventual manipulation of Christine) even more stark.
Lotte is undaunted by El Moco's warnings (well... she's a little daunted, but also very kind-hearted) and attempts to sneak into Erik's cage to give him a blanket; in another scene that underlines his dangerous savagery, he dislocates and almost her arm off before realizing that it's her, reacting with immediate and pitiless violence to a human presence near him. It’s a little hard to believe that Lotte forgives him for this as quickly as she does and goes right back to worrying about him, considering how unbelievably painful and traumatic having your arm ripped out of its socket and then shoved back in would be to a child, never mind this coming on the heels of El Moco’s worries, but Lotte is obviously supposed to be a Christine-esque character with boundless reserves of compassion, so the reader will just have to roll with it.
In fact, she's so worried about Erik even after this that she decides to go break into El Piojo's tent and steal the key to free him, never mind what a horrible idea this is, how both El Piojo and Erik have recently attacked her, and how Erik himself tells her not to do it, concerned that El Piojo will do awful things to her. The ensuing scene is similar to the one taking place in Raoul’s bedroom in Leroux’s novel, as Lotte falls down and makes some noise and El Piojo instantly jerks awake, instinctively and automatically sure that Erik is coming to murder him. His immediate fear and assumption tell us that he is all too aware of how dangerous Erik is, never mind making it that much more implied that he is abusing Erik as well. I'm reminded of Mommy Fortuna from Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, traveling across the countryside with the knowledge that one day the monstrous harpy will escape from her sideshow and devour her.
Of course, once he gets over his fright and realizes that it's only Lotte, El Piojo is only too pleased that she's voluntarily made her way into his bedroom in the middle of the night and once again tries to rape her before Erik appears from nowhere and strangles him to death with one of his harp-strings (right on top of the panicking Lotte, in fact). The harp-string here takes the place of the Phantom's famous lasso, but it's an appropriate choice. How, exactly, Erik has magically teleported out of his cage to come to her rescue is annoyingly handwaved, however; he just says that he couldn't escape until she really needed him to, at which point he picked the lock with a harp-string, but this explanation is pretty silly and contrived considering the enormous amount of physical and mental abuse the character has apparently been putting up with just because he didn't need to escape that much yet. It is the most disappointing part of the story and makes it hard to take his misery seriously when he could literally have just left at any time.
There are a lot of thematic questions to be asked here; for example, does Lotte's love and kindness invalidate or lessen Christine's later, since now Christine is not the only person ever to show Erik that sort of kindness and understanding? Does Erik leaving Lotte behind for her own sake, as he does, invalidate his later redemption, as he has already done it once before? Lotte's too old to be Christine herself, but is her name being Christine's storybook heroine what draws Erik to her later in his life? You might be wondering about these things, because I totally was, but you should stop, because you (and me-of-the-past) do not yet realize what Hernandez is up to.
At this point, a lightbulb went off over my head and I start wildly shouting OH OH OH OH IS SHE CHRISTINE'S MOTHER? THAT WOULD MAKE SO MUCH SENSE while frightening the rest of my household, but this did not turn out to be the case. It was a good theory, though.
In adulthood, Lotte becomes a barmaid who flirts with everyone but actually dates no one, good-natured and sweet but still retaining a bit of that childhood innocence. She's a singer now, having given her violin away to Erik when he departed (thus enhancing its significance in Leroux's novel), and strives to improve her voice for her own enjoyment by mimicking Erik's technique, which she hears every night in her sleep. The constant, recurring dreams of Erik are clearly the product of more hypnotism, again in a benevolent vein; Erik has left her with a permanent, faithful friend that will never leave her. Or, more prosaically, maybe he’s literally just visiting her and singing to her in her sleep without her realizing it. Either would be on-brand for him.
Lotte's flaxen hair dulls as she grows up and is brown by the time she's an adult, a phenomenon that occurs in many children. Here, it represents her growing up and out of her childhood innocence, although Hernandez is probably also using it as shorthand to signify her becoming less innocent as she becomes an adult, especially when the blonde hair is described as “angelic”. Christine is also described similarly in Leroux’s novel, although, as always, the equation of being super pale, blonde, and/or northern European with innocence and virtue is a problem when it implies that people who are darker-skinned or -haired are less virtuous or worse as people.
It is very obvious that Lotte isn't Christine's mother when she meets Daddy Daaé (first name Samuel this time, a weird choice for a Swede) and four-year-old Christine and saves the two of them from freezing to death in a harsh, homeless winter, letting them move into her home until spring. Christine's mother, we learn, was named Therese (a saintly name with nice connotations), though we won't learn anything else about her. More interesting is Samuel himself, who explains to Lotte that they're currently homeless because he "lost the title to [his] land" in Sweden. The Daaés being landowners certainly bumps them up on the social ladder away from people like Lotte, though they are from Sweden (so it barely counts to folks in other countries) and they're certainly not nobility. It's still a shift in dynamic, though, and one which makes Christine, however currently destitute, less of a radically lower-class choice for Raoul later.
Alas, eventually Lotte is not fast enough to evade the violent drunks from her establishment and she is brutally beaten and raped by one of them on her way home. Though we don't see too much of the rape itself, since Lotte has been knocked unconscious for most of it, it's still emotionally charged, especially since the reader has been delivered from the same threat more than once before and this time there is no timely rescue to be had. This is probably meant to show us how Erik’s presence was a safety that Lotte no longer has, but unfortunately it’s more than a little bit gratuitous. The sexual nature of the violence doesn’t have anything to do with the story, really, so it’s just there for shock value.
Well, actually, it’s probably there to signify that Lotte has finally lost her innocence and become an adult in the wake of this trauma. Which is certainly something a rape victim could feel, but is again pretty problematic to suggest as a writer, implying as it does that rape victims are forever dirtied by their attackers or can no longer be considered “innocent” regardless of their own feelings on the matter.
Interestingly, Erik has continued to rot in Lotte's dreams, becoming more and more physically horrific as the years wear on as if he really were a corpse. This is a splendid magic-realism blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, as it causes the reader to wonder whether Erik is truly getting worse, and if so whether the nightly visits are something more concrete than mere post-hypnotic suggestion. It's also always nice to see an author acknowledge the possibility that many disfiguring conditions get worse rather than staying the same, especially if you're in poor health and living in a basement without medical care most of the time.
The major source of tension in these chapters is in Lotte's relationship with toddler Christine, who makes no secret of the fact that she doesn't care about the woman who takes care of her in the slightest. Lotte, who developed romantic feelings for Samuel early on in their stay with her, is desperate to please the little girl and become close to her out of a desire to fit into their family unit, but Christine is having none of it. Hernandez errs a little too far on the side of making Christine unsympathetic in her behavior, but she’s only four years old, after all, and not wanting to share her only parent with a random interloper is perfectly understandable.
Also very important is the fact that Christine is something of a dead ringer for Lotte - not in facial features, which are understandably different in a Swedish child than in an adult French woman, but in her pale, golden-haired beauty, the presence of which daily reminds Lotte that she no longer possesses it. Lotte is, of course, beautiful in her own right, but she ignores this fact; to her, the only appearance that truly mattered to her was the one that Erik knew and loved. For Lotte, every day spent with Christine reminds her of her childhood self, who was loved by Erik, and reminds her that her adult self does not merit the same emotion, a feeling driven home by Samuel's exclusive dedication to Christine and lack of response to her romantic overtures.
The situation eventually comes to a head when, after beggaring herself to take care of them for the winter and to treat Christine to things she asks for in the hopes of buying her love, Lotte upsets Christine by saying she wants to be like a mother to her, and Christine runs home to cry hysterically to her father about the woman trying to replace her Mama. Neither side of the fence is wholly unsympathetic or wholly virtuous; Samuel and Christine have been very literally living off of Lotte and are aware of her feelings but have intentionally avoided addressing the situation, while Lotte herself has been pushy and intrusive and has attempted to insert herself into their lives whether they want her there or not. Both parties have valid reasons to be upset, so it's a bitter but logical conclusion when Lotte returns home the next day and finds that the Daaés have left without saying goodbye, never to return.
See, my prediction that she might be Christine's mother had a tiny kernel of correctness at its core, didn't it? She wasn't, but she tried very hard to be and suffered for it.
Lotte, hurt and abandoned, determines to shed the last of her childhood innocence and make something out of herself instead of waiting endlessly for her Angel of Music to return. She becomes a sex worker in order to pay for voice lessons, which she appears to not enjoy but to think is justified since she’s already “tainted” by her rape, which is sad to read. Over time, her dreams of Erik become less and less frequent, as she is symbolically rejecting her childhood (and, by extension, him) in favor of her future. Again, we have the implication from the author that sex causes an irrevocable loss of “purity” or “innocence” that sucks all the butts, so while I get the idea that Lotte is letting go of her childhood, the shorthand throughout this story is not nearly as much fun as its more clever and emotional moments.
And, of course, Lotte giving up on the idea of her childhood angel and deciding to dedicate herself to her future is a parallel to Christine much later rejecting Erik’s control over her life and letting go of her own childhood feelings about her father and the angel.
It was at this point that the story’s twist becomes obvious: Lotte is Carlotta, the famous opera diva whom the Phantom targets and silences later in order to spotlight Christine. It’s a fantastic choice, showing not only a sympathetic and challenging backstory and personality for a character that all too often gets relegated to being a cardboard antagonist, but also suddenly forcing the reader to confront the Phantom’s behavior. Christine is not the first vulnerable young girl he has ever attached himself to as an adult, intentionally warping her relationship with reality and making her dependent on him; she’s the second. It’s a pattern, and both girls were forced to grow up into women and cut themselves free of him to live their own lives.
Clever and original as Hernandez is being, I have to wonder why no other authors have ever made this connection, even just based on names; Lotte is a diminutive form of Charlotte, and the Italian form of Charlotte is Carlotta.
Due in part to her own relentless determination and in part to her childhood tutoring by the Angel of Music, Lotte becomes an international singing sensation and becomes part of the opera company at La Scala in Milan (incidentally, I love that Hernandez uses real opera settings and knowledge throughout this chapter, which really helps the proceedings ring true). Ruthlessly climbing to stardom on the back of several music teachers and finally achieving true fame, Lotte is sent back to France to sing as part of her contract with La Scala, but is convinced to go as La Carlotta instead of under her own name, as the Italians want the glory of having trained her and don't want to admit her French origins to her countrymen.
I made a bit of a mess because I was drinking when the director told her casually that there is no opera in Spain so there should be no problem with her impersonating a Spanish singer. Why does everyone think Spain just somehow missed out on the entire musical revolution that gave birth to opera? Why does nobody love the zarzuela?
Damn it. Hernandez does refer to El Moco and El Piojo as "g**sies" here, after all. Guess I still haven't seen any version in which the carnival isn't Romani-run, or in which the author doesn’t use slurs to refer to them and depict them as largely evil and dangerous.
Carlotta's career as she tours Europe and eventually settles at the Garnier is briefly but ably sketched out for us. She is an incredible singer, beloved by everyone who hears her, due in no small part, it is implied, to the fact that she is the only opera singer in existence who ever learned under the Phantom himself. There's also a nice mention in passing of Garnier's infamy as an architect (many architecture aficionados of the time absolutely hated the Opera Garnier's design and called it an eyesore) and even a sweet, undemanding romance between Carlotta and Philippe, Raoul's older brother and the Count de Chagny, who I was thrilled to see turning up in a version where he wasn't either totally forgotten or for some reason a villain. Their relationship isn't serious - it's a classic patron/performer relationship - but it is based on mutual affection and liking for one another, and there are no hard feelings when he eventually begins spending more time with La Sorelli (in fact, he continues to visit Carlotta and send her gifts even then).
It's an exquisite kind of torture for the reader to watch Carlotta's annoyance with the Phantom. She has no idea who he is, so she's just irritated by his pranks and generally tolerant of his haunting, and since he, in turn, has no idea who she is (and has no reason to want her to leave yet), he keeps his shenanigans confined mostly to the level of leaving tacks on her chair or moving her cosmetics around when she isn't looking.
I cannot stress enough how much I love that Hernandez makes it clear that in no way is Carlotta being targeted by Erik because she's a bad singer. It never makes sense that Carlotta would actually be bad at singing, which makes so many versions of this story painting her that way baffling, and even the ones that try to explain her presence via nepotism really can’t pull it off. She's a fantastic singer, but once Christine comes on the scene, suddenly Erik has a strong motive to want her out of the spotlight.
And Christine is indeed here, and Carlotta's response is predictably but understandably violent. While she tries to restrain her dislike of the girl initially (and Christine herself either has no memory of Lotte from her childhood or doesn't recognize Carlotta to be her), especially as she has no particular talent (it's very clearly implied that she only gets a spot in the company due to the influence of the de Chagnys; as Meg says in Leroux's novel, she sings like a crow), too many factors are working against Carlotta to ever allow her to accept Christine entirely. Not only is she worming her way into the de Chagnys by way of Raoul, which threatens Carlotta’s relationship with Philippe and potentially might place the two men at odds about which of them to support, she is also still cherubically beautiful, the one in a thousand who doesn't grow out of that golden childhood prettiness as Lotte herself did. When Carlotta finally realizes by overhearing them through a door that Erik is in the opera house and teaching Christine himself, her pain and betrayal is gut-wrenching.
Christine isn't Carlotta's competition; she has quite literally taken Carlotta's entire wished-for life, all her hopes and dreams, and made them her own, from her appearance to her Angel to the love of her father, without even realizing what she was doing. For Carlotta, miserable and totally unable to return to what she once was, it is unforgivable that this golden child should get everything handed to her when she was once the same and had it all taken away. It's not fair to judge Christine based on her actions as a toddler, but Carlotta can't do anything else, and so for the rest of the story she is something of an unreliable narrator.
None of this makes her campaign to ostracize Christine any more attractive, of course, but it certainly makes it more understandable. Most magnificent is the sucker-punch to the gut that she lays down when, in an offhand, unconcerned way, she mentions to Christine that she, too, was once visited by the Angel of Music. Tragically, Christine returns to triumphantly tell her that the Phantom has unequivocally denied this, and Carlotta's black depression that Erik fails to recognize her even when she has directly put herself in front of him is far more injurious to her than the brief uncertainty was to Christine.
Christine has a paperweight in her dressing room, a glass ball with a Monarch butterfly inside it that was given to her by Raoul. Carlotta steals it when she sees it, and her attempts over the rest of the story to find craftsmen to free the butterfly from the glass (in case, she tells the dumbfounded men, it is still alive) parallels her own attempts to break out of her self-created world. In the end, of course, the butterfly is dead, and Carlotta's fate is foreshadowed.
Carlotta is understandably somewhat thrown for a loop when Christine tells her boldly that she is Little Lotte, and further relates the story from her childhood. Christine doesn't remember Lotte at all, and the bald usurpation of Carlotta's very identity is the last straw. The realization that Samuel must have loved her in his own way to have told Christine such stories about her comes too late (he died years ago), but is poignant nevertheless.
Carlotta is only too aware now that Erik loves Christine because she is literally Lotte come again - even the coincidence of the name must have been a powerfully compelling force for him. That the real Lotte, now a brown-haired, powerful adult, is right under his nose but that all her struggles have made her not only unrecognizable but undesirable to him is a piece of exquisite tragedy. It seems possible (especially if, as suggested by Lotte's long-ago dreams, his condition is worsening as he ages) that Erik may even believe that Christine really is Lotte in his madness, either reincarnated or simply come back to him, still young and innocent and beautiful.
His romantic interest in Christine is a little bit strange in this context, as he had none when it came to Lotte, but then again Lotte was a child, and Christine is what he must imagine she would look like as a woman of marriageable age. (Then again, he did target both of them while vastly older than they were, which… does not speak well of him.)
The scene in which Erik uses his ventriloquism to destroy Carlotta's reputation is moving and fierce, quite a turnaround from its usual played-for-laughs status in most retellings. Not only does she not leave the stage when he begins croaking during her singing, she starts belting the aria out with ever more volume and beauty, fighting his noise with her own voice until the end of the scene. She is fierce and proud and teary-eyed, refusing to be cowed even as her tutor and idol tries to destroy her; it's a version of Carlotta you can't help but admire. She thinks to herself that she's literally fighting for her life, and considering that the career she's worked so hard to build will be over if she doesn't and that Christine will definitively supplant her in every part of her existence, she's not wrong.
Where Christine is “created” by the Phantom, Carlotta is in a very real sense self-made. She took it on herself to create her career, she learned how to sing and she found patrons and producers to hear her, and she became an international sensation all by herself, all through her own determination and effort after she realized that she was wasting her life waiting for the Phantom to return. This scene is the crux of that, with Carlotta’s voice, powerful, beautiful, and unequivocally her own, directly fighting against the influence that almost destroyed her once.
The story's end is sad and contemplative; once the chandelier falls and the end of Leroux's novel plays out, Carlotta sits in the wreckage of her life, career over, ambitions demolished, and fully aware that Erik is at that very moment dying somewhere in the cellars below her. Her quiet mourning for Philippe is nice to see, as is her sadness that few knew him as well as she did to know that he was a good man. Her condemnation of Christine for abandoning Erik is present, but it's less than heated; she isn’t really surprised by her choice, and while she thinks of her as selfish, the reader has to wonder if she just recognizes that Christine, just like herself, had to escape from the Phantom’s influence in order to be free to live her life. More than worrying about Christine, she is afflicted by the certainty that Erik is dying because she has grown up; thinking back, she believes that if these events had played out when she was Christine’s age, she would have remained with him and everyone would have lived in the end. The story functions as a beautiful metaphor for the need for freedom and self-determination to become an adult; Erik, the Angel of Music and protector of childhood, dies when the child finally and completely grows up and leaves him behind.
The very end feels slightly unfinished, as though there remains something to do with the story. Perhaps a final discussion of what Carlotta ends up doing, or something that might tie it into the end of Leroux's novel and the Persian's final account? But in general, the story is amazingly well-done and emotionally satisfying.