The Circle of the Sun (2005)
by JoAnne Soper-Cook
from Phantom Phantasies, 2007
Authors' notes are such tricky beasts. They can give readers an extra filip of insight into a work or give authors a forum in which to express their thanks to someone or their interest in a subject, but in general they detract from the proceedings, particularly when a story is so short that they look like they take up a disproportionate amount of room. My major issue with Soper-Cook's author's note here is that it informs the reader of the content of the story a little too much; it gives away what should be (and is attempted to be used as, at the end) the crux and point of discovery of the story, without really adding anything else worthwhile.
The story is told in first-person present-tense format, an interesting choice I don’t see much, mostly because it is very difficult to pull off and a lot of readers instinctively dislike it. Soper-Cook manages it fairly well most of the time, keeping Erik's thoughts engaging and flowing. Her prose is, in fact, by far the best aspect of this short story; it's poetic and evocative, well-constructed and appropriate to her storytelling style, and, if occasionally overdone and maudlin, at least consistent throughout most of the story.
Lovely though the prose may be at times, however, the rest of the story suffers from a lack of research, plotting, and proofreading. Typos and grammatical mistakes are intermittent, and the author's note also claims that the story is set in ancient Cornwall, yet Erik's father is named Cailleach (an intensely Scottish name that literally means “old woman/old hag”) and mention is made of uisge, the Irish Gaelic root word for whiskey, both of which cause me to think that the author really doesn't have her Celts straight. Following this trend of confusion and false advertising, the title page of the book claims that these stories are based on Leroux's work, but Soper-Cook's Erik is clearly Lloyd-Webber-inspired with a condition that affects only half of his face and none of his body.
All of these things could probably have been endured for the sake of the rather nice writing if the story's premise had held up, but, alas, it did not. The story makes no sense when read on its own. It features an Erik living several centuries before the events of Leroux's novel and follows him as, tired of the ostracization and abuse of living with his parents, he runs away from home, falls in with some Romani travelers, and finds himself beaten and robbed rather than accepted as one of their number (such a short story and yet it managed to pack in so much racism). It closes with him attempting to drown himself a few times and then getting back up and wandering off.
In order to actually understand what is supposed to be going on, one must refer to the beginning author's note, which explains that Soper-Cook is fond of the theory that the Phantom is at least in part supernatural and immortal, and is attempting to portray his long-ago origins and his discovery of the fact that he is unkillable. Unfortunately, while it's very nice of her to explain that in the note, the story itself does an incredibly poor job of presenting it, to the point where it is entirely unrecognizable. Even the story's title makes no sense without this illumination from the author - and, frankly, it doesn't make a lot more sense even so, despite my assumption that it probably has something to do with symbolism and eternity.
I suppose the fact that his father is Cailleach is meant to be a clue as well, since the Cailleach is a fairly major figure in Celtic mythologies and often considered a goddess, but now I’m just confused about why this extremely female deity is showing up as someone’s human father. Was the story trying to imply that his father is just some dude and his absent mother is the Cailleach? That would make more sense and you could possibly get some mileage out of the idea that the Phantom is deathly because his mother is a goddess of winter and thus of the dying of the world, but Soper-Cook doesn’t touch any of it. (And anyway, he isn’t a walking skeleton, he’s a guy with a right-side facial problem, so it’s not really the same.) Besides, if you’re going to go to all the trouble of setting the Phantom up as an Irish/Scottish demigod, shouldn’t that in some way affect, you know… something in your story, or at least have a link to the original?
Even sadder than all of this is the realization that, even if the story had made it obvious to me that Erik was an immortal discovering his state, it still wouldn’t have been complete. Soper-Cook doesn't make any statement or suggest anything about his immortality, instead serving it up as a sort of, "Hey, here's what's up!" without anything to ramp up to it or make it relevant afterward. Anything that might have related that to his character or the themes of his later story, or tied into themes Soper-Cook herself might have invented, would have made the exercise worthwhile, but instead it just dangles there, clueless and without purpose.
In the end, this little short-short has some lovely language and the beginnings of some good imagery, but all that pretty filigree is framing a story that is woefully incomplete and uninspiring, which makes it a good effort but not much else.