The Climax (1944)
by Florence Jay Lewis
This is the novelized version of the Waggner/Karloff film from way back in the mists of 1944, which incidentally makes it the oldest book I've yet read for this project (not counting the venerable Msr. Leroux's text, of course). It was never reprinted, so it's also the physically oldest book I've yet red for this project, and I was a little bit afraid it was going to fall apart if I didn't handle it with tweezers on a bed of hypoallergenic cheesecloth beneath specially calibrated no-UV lights in a hermetically-sealed clean room. But it turned out that the little cardboard ex-library binding was surprisingly durable and endured under a plain old reading (and also my cats sitting on it a lot, like furry little book terrorists).
Much to my surprise, the foreword - possibly more of a prelude or something, since it's concerned completely with setting up the plot - is awesome. Not only does the prose have a poetic tone and immediately pull the reader into a somewhat hazier world of exciting melodrama, but it also makes it very clear that Lewis will be approaching the character of Dr. Friedrich Hohner from a more sympathetic point of view than did the film her novel is based on; where Waggner and Karloff together created an aura of suspenseful terror centered on the main character, Lewis takes care to heighten the tragedy inherent in his personality as well, seeking to make her reader identify with him more before she sends him off on his evil errands. Her take on the tragic events of the novel ends with this bald statement: "It was his tragedy first of all; his was the greater," leaving no doubt that she wants readers to view him in a sympathetic (or, at least, heavily pitying) light. (Can we accurately say his tragedy is greater than that of the woman he murdered over it? Probably not, but that doesn't mean he can't be interestingly sympathetic.)
It's here (you know, at the beginning) that Lewis' stylistic choices begin to give me problems. While the language and tone are still generally great - evocative, vivid, emotional, all contriving to paint an almost visible picture of her scenes - there is a lot of sentence fragmenting, which not only leaves things hanging oddly now and then but which also makes a lot of the action seem short and choppy in delivery. There are also a lot of punctuation issues, usually having to do with commas not making scheduled appearances where they ought to, but I find myself wondering if any of this has to do with changing grammatical standards over time. I mean, this is the forties; I don't know what the standards were then, or whether they were appreciably different, and so I'm not sure how to judge, really. So I went with trying to ignore most of them where they didn't make it hard to understand what was going on, and thus show mercy.
Something I will not show mercy for, however, is sloppiness, and the worst example of that in this book is a lot of unnecessary word repetition. Words appear twice in consecutive sentences (or even in the same sentence!), which is unimaginative and redundant, and doesn't add anything to your sentence. Sometimes repetitive word use can be emphatic (for example, "His strange eyes stared and looked even stranger..."), but most of the time here it doesn't read out that way successfully. It's not a massive, all-the-time problem, but it is chronic, and makes otherwise interesting prose a little bit less enjoyable.
Lewis' campaign to sympathize Hohner for us continues apace in these first few chapters, which she uses to really heighten the tension and describe his troubled mental state. As in the film, we begin with Hohner in the present day before jumping into the flashback, and much attention is paid to the crushing remorse (or, at least, sorrow) that he feels, with statements concerning how he is "punishing himself to the point of almost unbearable pain and mental anguish", all of which follows nicely on the tragic air set up in the foreword.
While the setup is the same as in the film - Hohner arrives at the theater to brood about in the night on the anniversary of Marcellina's death - his mental state is a far cry from the brooding but ultimately in-control character presented by Karloff. This Hohner is completely and unequivocally unstable, and consequently the film's aged doctor sitting down to contemplate and recall the events of years past becomes a character who has full-blown delusional episodes, and who is not remembering scenes but actually mentally regressing into them. The retelling of the night Marcellina died occurs in a hallucinatory flashback brought on by being in her dressing room, which adds the interesting question of whether or not events occurred as he relates them, or whether they might have been skewed in a more romantic light by his subsequent years of confusion and self-torture. He drifts in and out of these visions, and interestingly enough is aware of them but powerless to stop them from happening as every stimulus - the sweeping of the stagehand's broom, the shadows backstage, the dust covering Marcellina's things - tosses him helplessly back into them. It's worth noting that there are a lot of hallmarks of classic PTSD here, although I always hesitate to pathologize a fictional villain when often the problem is just incurable asshattery.
Due to the greater amount of detail able to be packed into a narrative that doesn't have a film's time constraints, we learn a few new things and some of my questions from the original movie are answered. Lewis makes it clear that while Hohner and Marcellina aren't married, they were at one point engaged; however, she broke things off with him in order to remain free to sing at the opera, an obvious sparking event for his maniacal hatred of her voice and career and his belief that both are malicious agencies bent on stealing her away from him. Lewis also makes a point of letting us know that Marcellina is in the habit of accepting expensive gifts from many nameless admirers, which Hohner uses to rationalize his jealousy a little bit more concretely than in the film (not that this is a great motive for murder, but this is not a character we should expect justification from). A few more statements are of interest, particularly his angry assertion that "He had made that voice!"; the parallel to the original Erik, who felt that he had created Christine's voice through his teaching, is obvious despite the fact that Hohner is no teacher. He is referring, of course, to the fact that he is a throat specialist and has kept her in great shape for singing, but I wonder if there isn't also a subtle implication that he may have surgically tinkered with her vocal cords as well, which would make his statement a literal fact. The text has no definite answer either way, though he does make it clear that he's no stranger to throat surgery later, so you have to wonder.
A line from the film, in which Karloff muttered jealously that any man could hear Marcellina "for the price of a ticket!" has been altered in a significant manner here, embellished to read, "any man, for the price of a ticket, can feast his eyes on you and hear you sing... to him!" The idea that Hohner believes that the voice he created belongs strictly to him has been fully presented, but more interesting to a reader up on Phantom literature is the obvious hearkening to Leroux's text, in which Erik insisted that any time Christine sang it should be for him and only for him.
Lewis dedicates some time here to informing the reader that Hohner has clearly been mentally unstable for some time prior to his psychotic break with Marcellina, but has been hiding the signs of his illness from her, making her unaware of the situation and unable to either offer him help or recognize that she might be in danger. The implication is that her rejection of him was a trigger that caused him to progress into unstable violence, though it could also be that this is a problem he was always struggling with and that just wasn't always apparent before now, which is very appropriate for a Phantom character. Either way, Lewis chooses to once again make her character somewhat more histrionic than Karloff's interpretation and has him murder Marcellina in a sudden fit of fury, rather than in the calm, detached manner that the original Hohner does so; afterward, apparently coming to his senses, he cries, "What have I done?" and falls sobbing on the floor, another obvious ploy from Lewis to encourage us to pity him despite his horrible actions. I'm not super fond of the character's switch from calm to explosive; it's a valid interpretive choice, but I feel it makes the idea that he could hide his illness for so long somewhat less believable, and detracts from his aura of powerful control, which is one of the greatest weapons in this particular Phantom's arsenal.
Jarmila, our Slavic Carlotta-stand-in, gets an equally Slavic last name here: Vadec. Unfortunately, it still doesn't shed any light on her nationality or what the writers - either Lewis or the screenwriters - were trying to say about it.
When the maid finds Hohner and immediately sets up the hue and cry that he's dead back in the present day, she's more justified in thinking this than in the film, since instead of having fallen dignifiedly asleep in a chair he's passed out on the floor of Marcellina's dressing room after having sobbed himself into exhaustion. Intriguingly, Seebruch and Brunn immediately fear that he has committed suicide, which says that they are much more aware of his mental instability than they were in the film, in which everyone was pretty much oblivious to the issues lurking beneath Karloff's polished exterior. Not only are they aware, but their solicitous care of the man reveals that they genuinely pity him and have a certain sense of fondness for
the doctor, believing that his trauma comes from having lost his true love to senseless tragedy years ago, and their sympathy for him again encourages the reader to pitch in with their own. Seebruch even tries to give him some counseling on the fly, which is very touching despite the fact that it doesn't help, like, at all.
In keeping with the visibly elevated emotional state of the good doctor in this novelization, his freak-out when he hears the aria from The Magic Voice is somewhat epic, and Seebruch and Brunn, again with much sympathy and sadness, corral him and take him off somewhere to recover. Even the reader trying very hard not to fall for Lewis' lsympathization gambit will find it difficult not to pity Hohner at least a little bit as he tries desperately to figure out if the voice he's hearing is real or only another of his hallucinations.
It's worth noticing that the word "angel" has been bandied about a bit; Luise uses it to refer to Marcellina during the earlier flashback, while the staff of the theater use it to refer to Angela here, making the first of many obvious links between the two women (and, of course, Angela's name is... well, Angela). It's interesting that the phrase is being used for the Christine character rather than the Phantom character, as it was originally the other way around and won't really be called into ambiguity until the 1980s or so with Lloyd Webber's musical.
Another of my many questions from the film is answered when Lewis lets us know that the story is set in Vienna, Austria, Mozart's favored city and popular center for classical music. It certainly explains all the Germanic names, though it does possibly shoot my theory about them adding to an aura of suspense or fear during World War II in the foot.
Lewis wastes no time in showing us the obvious differences between Marcellina - presented in the flashback as somewhat conniving and selfish, probably at least in part to help further sympathize Hohner - and the fresh-faced Angela, who is blonde sweetness and light personified, as any Christine character should be. In fact, where there was some question in the film as to whether or not Angela or Marcellina more properly functioned as the Christine character, that role falls squarely on Angela in this novelization, which clears up a lot of ambiguity. Where Marcellina rejected marriage to Hohner, Angela is extremely excited when she believes that Franz is proposing to her, even though it turns out he was only talking about changing her stage name (brutal, dude!). Franz is, as in the film, a musician himself, which makes him more palatable as a possible mate for an opera singer, a compromise we first saw in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film with the introduction of the character of Anatole.
Interestingly, we learn through Hohner's internal seething that some of his instant hatred for Angela's voice seems to be due to oddly-placed jealousy; he feels that she is being paid compliments that should be reserved only for the deceased Marcellina, and is reacting to her perceived usurpation of the dead diva's spotlight. This has obvious parallels to the original Erik's determination that Christine (and through her, himself, of course) should be the premier attraction of the opera house, and also re-underscores the dichotomy between his hatred of Marcellina's/Angela's voice and his proprietary belief that he has created it in all its glory.
At least Franz catches on to his accidental foot-in-mouth moment earlier, and decides to go buy a ring and actually propose this time. Smart move, sir.
Unfortunately, he decides this while waiting outside for Angela after her performance, and is thus absent looking at jewelry when she emerges and is immediately accosted by Hohner. Lewis intentionally describes both waiting men in order to contrast their desirable qualities; emphasizing Franz's sweet, boyish charm against Hohner's dark, sophisticated air. The comparison is of course strongly reminiscent of Leroux's Erik and Raoul, both representing different sides of love and allure for the bewildered Christine.
On page 74, I stopped and started making undignified laugh-smothering noises because of this sentence: "Angela could not see the menace lurking in the sinister expression of his dark face with the oddly gleaming eyes that looked coldly down on her." Could you possibly pack any more clauses into that poor sentence? Let it breathe!
Lewis' description of Hohner's rooms is much darker and more evil-seeming than the shadowy but mostly innocuous apartments of the Waggner/Karloff film; in particular, there are mentions of leering portraits of his ancestors and demoniac-seeming statues dotted about the place. I found myself wondering about the idea of the Phantom's ancestors; no one ever seems to address his lineage past his immediate parents or children, and it could be such an interesting idea. C'est la vie. Maybe someday.
Interestingly enough, a mask (though only a metaphorical one) is mentioned here, and the idea that Hohner's generally civil persona is a mask hiding the turmoil beneath is a good one (in fact, we'll see it much later, in 1989 with Tem's short story): "Even he, a master of self-command, could not quite control the muscles of his face then. It was a horrible mask could she have seen it, before the glow of the match suddenly went out. Then in the darkness he waited until he got a complete grip on himself again." The various more obvious parallels to Leroux's story make this novelization seem almost to be closer to the original novel than the film on which it's based was, and I find myself wondering if Lewis based it on an earlier screenplay, as has been the case with a few other novelizations on the list (notably the Sanford/Green interpretation of the Lubin/Rains film).
The Angela of this book seems most of the time to be much more naïve than Susanna Foster's portrayal of the character in the film; while she's sensitive to her creepy surroundings, she doesn't seem to have nearly as much inkling that something might be wrong, and goes more willingly into his web. Much mention is made of the powerful qualities of Hohner's voice, which is said to affect Angela "like a drug"; of course, it's in context of his hypnotic powers rather than in a musical manner, but the effect is essentially the same (especially since the original Erik had his share of hypnotic abilities as well) and the origin of the idea is clear. In addition, Hohner's eyes are here described a few times as "blazing" or as having "points of light" at their centers, reminding me of the original Phantom's otherworldly golden eyes.
While he never quite gets to the organ-playing that we're all so familiar with, Hohner does play the piano rather feverishly in this chapter, in an attempt to drown out the ever-present voice in his head (it doesn't work, but no one is surprised by that, I'm sure). The chapter closes out with another example of how much more hysterically motivated this version of Hohner is, as he has a screaming fit, calls helplessly for Luise, and then leaves the door to the passage to his secret room open in a fit of confusion and distress, allowing her to begin discovering his secrets. It's a little bit tiresome, especially when compared to Karloff's masterful playing of the same scene, but nevertheless consistent with the character Lewis has set up so far.
While Turhan Bey is often criticized as being too over-the-top in the film, the Franz of this novelization is even more so in some places, all but hysterical over Angela's confusion and dissociation; while it's not exactly necessary in some places, it does bring to mind the original Raoul's somewhat emotionally overwrought behavior in some scenes of Leroux's novel. At the same time, Angela's distress and hypnotized distraction are explored in more depth than was possible in the film, and again correlate more strongly with the original novel's Christine and her occasionally helpless enthrallment to her mentor.
An interesting change from the film is that Luise has, right up until this point, thought of Hohner as something of a hero, soldiering on despite the loss of his beloved Marcellina, and has taken care of him not out of obligation (as was implied in the movie) but out of the same desire to take care of him that Seebruch and Brunn earlier demonstrated. Where the Luise of the film had moved into Hohner's house years ago expressly because she suspected him of being behind Marcellina's disappearance, this one only arrives at that suspicion when she discovers his secret passages and notices his dangerous obsession with Angela. The change gives her character a bit more depth, which I appreciate, and adds a little more emotional complexity to her motives. It also reminds the reader that Hohner suffers from issues that are apparent to others and motivate their sympathy, even if he is not fully aware of this.
The maternal affections of Mama Hinzl for her boarders, including Franz and Angela, is substantially played up by Lewis, who has the woman refer to them as her "children" in her internal monologue and whose role as foster mother is suspiciously similar to the original novel's Mama Valerius (though, of course, more robust and extended to Franz as well).
Lewis makes the interesting change of having several reporters present for the first rehearsal in which Angela finds herself unable to sing, allowing them to witness her failure and presumably spread an appropriate amount of doubt amongst the public. Reporters and critics will not make an important appearance until the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, in which they will become a linchpin, so these may be distant forebears of that plot device. Similarly, Franz embarks on a course of ranting and all but forcing Angela to try to
sing, which also strongly recalls the 1983 film and Korvin's overly forceful exhortations toward his wife and protégé, and which again makes me wonder if this novelization had any influence on that forty-years-away version.
In an interesting flip from the original dynamics, it's Franz's (Raoul's) passion and support that make Angela able to sing despite her mental blocks, whereas Hohner (the Phantom) causes her to shut down and be silenced; it looks counterintuitive at first glance, but then again, what Christine required in the original novel was more passion in her singing, so Franz's support of Angela makes sense in that context, since this Phantom is intentionally trying to squelch that passion.
By this point in the novel, Angela is mirroring her basis character, Christine: she is now aware that she is in thrall to Hohner, but she is helpless to break his power over her or even to really articulate it to others, and thus spends most of her time either under hypnosis or despairingly trying to reassert her own personality when briefly away from his influence. It could make her seem like a helpless damsel in distress, but Lewis does a good job of instead presenting her as a woman trying her best to navigate an impossible situation in spite of repeated restrictions and failures.
It's interesting that it's Franz - pretty much the only person in the entire book that isn't privy to Hohner's sad history - who is also the only one to recognize his evil for what it is. The sympathy of the other cast members blinds them to the possibility of his capability to hurt others, which in turn is something that could be said for many fans of the story in general. Much to Franz's dismay, it sucks to be the only one who believes the truth, because no one will listen to him.
Also interesting is the fact that Luise gets to be full-on privy to some of Hohner's hypnosis and abuse of Angela while she is under his care. It seems that he doesn't think she'll recognize what she's seeing, or that she wouldn't act on it if she did, which pulls in the idea of the hubris of genius quite nicely (hello, again, original novel themes!). Luise, in turn, is more of a motherly figure than she was in the film, and more obvious in her attempts to spare Angela from Hohner. In fact, she stages a massive histrionic fit when Angela "disappears" from Hohner's house, which only appears less than over the top because his reaction, which includes almost throttling her to death, is even more so.
It's interesting that the female characters have a great deal more intentional influence on the story in this novelization than they did in the film, with Luise taking more initiative to protect Angela and stop Hohner, Angela fighting more visibly for her freedom and personal determination, and even long-ago Marcellina making firm decisions that change the trajectory of the story. I wonder how much of that is due to the novelization being written by a woman, potentially for a female readership, as opposed to the original play and screenplay adaptation being written by men.
The book form of a novelization gives us more room to explore Angela's fragmented mental state in the post-Hohner days, which is a good thing because its effects often seemed vague or too easily dispelled in the film. The pacing of the story is much better, and her more pronounced issues make her behavior seem more reasonable and the audience feel more sympathy and encouragement for her struggle.
Someone suggests poetically at this point that Hohner has had "a maggot in his brain" ever since Marcellina died. Eww.
Franz's very determined problem-solving attempts seem to be borrowed from the Lubin/Rains film (to which, after all, the Waggner/Karloff film was supposed to be a sequel), but he goes about things in a more social and politicking manner, which seems more appropriate for a Raoul character.
As opposed to the original novel, in which Christine was desperately trying to please Erik with her voice while she was free to have a gentler, sweeter love affair with Raoul, it's Franz that Angela is trying to please with her voice here. Instead of trying to impress a maestro, she's simply trying not to let down a musical peer, and the change gives her strength and achievements a more personal feel, especially when she does triumph over Hohner's control.
Ooh, here's a big change: the king, who was a boy of about nine or ten in the film, has been remade as a mature man in his early thirties here. I suspect that this is partially because Lewis didn't feel the need for the comic relief of the boy-king in her extremely dramatique narrative, and she felt that an adult would lend more gravity to the situation; it's also worth noting that the older king heard Marcellina sing as a boy, and therefore there can be more pressure put on Angela to measure up to her standard, a situation that wouldn't have been possible with a much younger ruler.
Oddly enough, someone mentions here that Marcellina was brunette, though I seem to remember that June Vincent looked quite blonde in the film. I can't see any real reason for the change, unless it's one of those darker hair meaning a less "pure" or "good" character as opposed to angelically blonde Angela things. Oh, well.
When things start going awry here and Luise accuses Hohner of having murdered Marcellina, he is extremely convincing and heartfelt when he violently denies the accusation, claiming that he only killed her voice, not Marcellina herself. It seems that he really believes his own claim, which is fully possible considering his mental instability and the fact that he's still keeping her corpse in the next room.
Hohner is much more outwardly violent in his attempts to stop Angela's voice here. Where in the film Karloff simply stared with frightening intensity as he mentally tried to exercise his control over her, this guy is ranting, banging, throwing things, and generally having a massive tantrum as he slowly realizes that he is powerless to stop her. The book form is more conducive to showing his mental state fading in and out of reality than the film was, especially when he begins hearing Angela's voice and Marcellina's almost in tandem.
Thirteen chapters in a book. Dramatic!
Page 234 commits a cardinal sin (at least in my book, which is the one I use to judge everyone and occasionally throw at authors) when it breaks the narrative flow of the entire preceding book and directly addresses the reader, suggesting, "Let's retrace our steps and..." Look, I know the book is almost over, but that is no reason to break your suspension of disbelief now with an authorial convention you have never used up until this point. Way to throw cold, soapy water over my head while I was reading.
I wondered about the uncanny preservation of Marcellina's body in the film (incidentally, we only find out about it in the last ten or so pages of this novelization, probably because Lewis wanted the big reveal to be part of the climax - ho ho ho - of her story); Lewis offers us a vague explanation here when she says that Marcellina's ghost may be maintaining her body, but a more concrete one when she implies that Hohner may be imagining her bygone beauty instead of seeing what is doubtless a dessicated corpse (or, possibly, nothing at all - who knows, since we can only see the scene from his point of view?). The idea that she might not be there at all and that he's imagining his shrine to his love is a poignant one.
But what's not poignant is Lewis' regrettable choice to axe Hohner's loving sacrifice from the end of the film. Instead of barricading himself with Marcellina, choosing to die with her rather than have her taken from him forever, Hohner here attempts to escape the burning room and dies when flaming debris falls on him from above, knocking him onto Marcellina's bier, there to die painfully. I have to suppose that Lewis intended a more moralistic ending, showing the reader that Hohner's dastardly actions led to his miserable downfall and destruction, but it still made me very sad inside. After all the trouble she'd gone to to sympathize his character in the early stages of the novel, it felt like she had forgotten where she was going by the end.
My overall feeling for this book is one best summed up as: eh. It ain't bad, and it does some interesting things, particularly when contrasted with the film it's based on, but in the end it's nothing that I would be able to call good, either. The window into schlock fiction of the forties was fun, though, and I feel virtuous and intrepid that I found a copy of such a comparatively old text.