The Holocaust Opera (2005)

     by Mark Edward Hall

          from The Holocaust Opera: A Collection of Dark Tales, 2012

Warning time, friends: this review is of a story that is about the Holocaust. It's going to talk about the Holocaust a lot, at length, often angrily, so if that's something that bothers you, this might be one to skip.

 

I have one thing to say, and it is: Ugh.

 

Ugh ugh UGH.

 

I'm sure this story didn't mean to go so wrong, but it went down a road from which there is no return. I came in expecting something that was probably going to be as entertainingly bad as its cover (which apparently even the publisher realized was a multifold tragedy, since a new cover has been issued since I got my copy) and came away trying to decide if loathing, anger, or resigned despair was the best emotional response to what I had just read. Sadly, none of those responses are because it's a horror story; they're because it's a bad story.

 

The story opens with a quote from the Book of Lamentations ("Is it nothing to ye, all ye who pass by?"), which is appropriate for a story centering on the Holocaust of World War II, and one from John Sebastian, which is less appropriate to the subject matter but more appropriate for a Phantom story ("The magic's in the music and the music's in me").

 

I could forgive the poor technical skill of this book if the writing itself were good, but, sadly, oh, so inevitably and sadly, this is not the case. I thought that the narration was in a character voice for a few pages due to the irritating frequency of repetitive statements and descriptions, but this did not turn out to be the case (well, it kind of is - it's the main character narrating it, but she has all the individual voice of a piece of wet cardboard). And even if it had been, the overdramatic and cliched prose, such as when people are running to their houses "like vampires scurrying from sunlight's dark promise", is inescapable. I took faint comfort in the fact that, at least, this meant that this was probably not going to be a story about actual vampires (and it is not, so thank god for small favors, I guess).

 

Oh, and Hall loves hyphens, by the way. So much so that he uses them wildly so that they occasionally change the meaning of sentences. I'm not sure what it means to have "wonderfully-wise parents" instead of wonderfully wise ones, but I don't have the energy left to try to unravel that particular puzzle.

 

At any rate, the main character and our Christine stand-in is named Roxanne Templeton, a young woman with more talent than she knows what to do with who has moved to New York to Make It Big. She has no money and no plans, so this would probably not go well were she anyone except a musical prodigy of untold genius and beauty, but there you go. Roxanne is one of the most useless Christines I've ever seen; she has no purpose in the story except to be in it and emphasize things that are going on with the Phantom character, has no interesting individual character traits or development, and informs us of her feelings in a stream of stilted consciousness that has all the emotional resonance of paint drying. In short, she's boring and pointless, which is not helpful when she's also one of the main characters. She doesn't quite achieve the standard of inanity set by the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film's Randi, but if she weren't actively narrating the story she'd probably be pretty close.

 

At any rate, while searching for an apartment, Roxanne happens to pass by the basement of a brownstone from which is issuing beautiful piano music. The music is described with Hall's typical cliches, but it is also described as "the sound of angels weeping", which seems like a direct callback to the line from Leroux's novel (unsatisfied with doing this once, Hall will be describing it that way again at the end of the story).

 

Roxanne is trying to see in the window when she is accosted by a homeless woman with a dire warning. While I yawn to remind myself that I am in fact awake despite the snoresome lack of originality, it is explained that no one who lives on this street ever tries to listen to the music because it is rumored to make people go insane. Who this woman is or what she's doing here is never explained; the Phantom himself, when we meet him in a bit, says that “bag ladies” avoid the street like the plague, but if she's some kind of messenger or emissary trying to either save or damn Roxanne, nobody ever mentions who sent her. Other than the mighty force of Plot Device, of course.

 

Roxanne, however, has not only already decided on her own that the music is "supernatural", but also that she must see through this basement window at all costs, so she goes back to snooping while the only character with any sense in this wreck of a story trundles off. She eventually succeeds in her spying and manages to make out the figure of a young man playing the piano. She can't see his face, but she knows, of course, that it must be beautiful. This would be charmingly naive in most Christines, but since it turns out that she's right in a page or so, it's just irritating. Of course we couldn't have someone hideous creating such heavenly sounds. That would be ridiculous.

 

On page 193, Roxanne (and, apparently, Hall) gives up entirely on making sense and just gets on the batshit train:

 

"I suddenly became frantic and fidgety. I didn't know what to do next. I knew what I wanted; I just didn't know how to go about getting it. I felt like an addict in need of a fix. I knew that I did not have the courage to heed the bag-lady's admonitions. I stood on the sidewalk, whirling around like a mad dervish."

 

All this from looking in the window, y’all. Aside from highlighting the stunning stiltedness and boredom of Hall's prose and the prime example of his inappropriate love of hyphens, it also gives us a nice example of the weirdly out-of-place hyperbole that dots the text. If she's actually whirling like she's performing a Sufi traditional dance at high speed, she's going to collapse. I realize that this is meant to illustrate the power of just hearing some of the phantom music wafting into the street, but it's so poorly presented that it's just illustrating that Roxanne doesn’t make any sense and Hall has no idea how to get his characters moving in a believable manner.

 

Anyway, Roxanne is so moved by her foray into Persian dance that she goes and knocks on this stranger’s door to explain how much she loved hearing his music from the street. Leaving aside the fact that this is silly - okay, sure, she's moved by the music, whatever - the interlude is depressing because the Phantom figure, here named Jeremiah Gideon for maximum Jewishness, is indeed a paragon of the sensitively beautiful artist type, his only problem being a jagged scar that mars his cheek, once again because we can’t have our Phantom being undesirable, heavens. Roxanne, of course, is immediately smitten and begs him to let her sing whatever he's writing. My dislike of her only intensifies when she says things like, "I'm a rock singer, but I have the voice for opera. I could do it if someone would show me how," because everyone knows that if you can sing in one style you are obviously totally perfect for another style regardless of your total lack of training or knowledge of your own vocal state. Oh, and let's follow it up with a discussion of how his music can't really be opera because it isn't "stuffy"! Perfect.

 

I shouldn't be surprised that Roxanne has no musical knowledge to speak of, because it's pretty clear that Hall also doesn't have much either since he keeps refusing to put quotations around song titles and frequently refers to how Roxanne has a "four-octave range", which is not only ridiculously rare but also basically impossible without vocal training that Roxanne has already told us multiple times that she hasn't had. And not only does Roxanne totally have a four-octave range (it’s the second coming of fucking Mado Robin over here) that she has nurtured to maturity at age twenty-one through the sensitive oeuvre of untrained rock singing, Jeremiah is immediately able to tell this (not kidding, he also says that she has a four-octave range) after hearing her sing. Once. Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust". If you need a moment to compare the two clips, feel free. I'll wait.

 

But let's go back to the plot! Jeremiah, who does not ever go out and socialize with the world but totally could if he wanted to except that he's too much of a sensitive, romantically tortured soul to do so, owns the entire brownstone he lives in. He only uses the basement, however, and has all the upper floors sealed off, which is a giant neon sign alerting the reader to the fact that there are probably dead people or something up there (spoiler: there are totally dead people up there). I'm actually vaguely reminded of the 1989 Tam story, in which the Phantom character also sealed off most of his house to prevent anyone from bothering him, except that that was a much better story.

 

Jeremiah refuses to say outright that his parents are dead, even though he frequently hints at it. If any of these setup/foreshadowing/omen things that were happening in this story were at all subtle they might have been effective, but since they're not it's just an endless cavalcade of horror cliches. By halfway through it I seriously needed Hall to pull something inventive out of his ass to save the proceedings, but this was a vain hope.

 

Okay. So. Now is the time we're going to start talking about the Holocaust, so this is your last chance to flee, dear readers. Jeremiah, whose parents were imprisoned in the concentration camp Auschwitz, is writing his opera about the Holocaust. This is not actually a bad choice; on the contrary, it's an interesting one, and in the hands of a skilled writer might have been something very poignant. Making the Phantom a conduit for an entire group of peoples' suffering instead of a solitary outcast of humanity would be a severe character shift, but if a writer committed to it, they could do a lot with the similar themes. As I noted in the 2005 Binkley novel (which used the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center as a plot point), it's difficult and dangerous to use a real-life event that is so emotionally laden for so many people, but it's not a bad idea in and of itself.

 

But the execution is bad. It's so bad that it's offensive, and the cardinal rule of writing things about the Holocaust is Do Not Be Offensive. The fact that such a tragedy existed in history is so offensive to the human mind that adding to it with insensitivity or poor literary choices is instant death for any artistic endeavor. It's especially hard to write about the Holocaust in the horror genre because it's very difficult to avoid seeming like you're playing the real-life horrors of the time period for cheap thrills, and Hall is not capable of avoiding this pitfall. I was ill with rage by the end of this story; I can't imagine how it would come off to those whose families were actually affected by the tragedy.

 

One of the things Jeremiah does far too often for the story's good is go on extended rants about the Holocaust: how hideous it was, how horrible and insensitive humanity can be toward one another, and how no one who wasn't there can understand the depth of suffering and despair it caused. These are not inaccurate sentiments (and, in fact, the theme of humanity being entirely unredeemable bastards to one another is a thread that runs through Leroux's novel, too), but the problem is that Jeremiah himself was not actually in the Holocaust, being born in New York a few decades later. I'm completely down with the fact that seeing how it affected his parents plays a role here, but when he's screaming at Roxanne that she can't possibly understand the emotions he's experiencing because she wasn't there, the fact that he also wasn't there is difficult to ignore. There’s so much material available here! Generational trauma from the Holocaust continues to affect Jewish people today! But instead, the focus is on this.

 

Worse, and here's where things start to unravel, the intention of his opera is to inflict this unspeakable despair he's talking about on everyone else. He explains to her in no uncertain terms that he wants to drag humanity into the same pit of suffering that was experienced by inmates of the concentration camps via his music, which is again almost okay in context but, in the end, really not. You can see Hall struggling in the text, trying to make sure that readers Get It - a lot of Jeremiah's dialogue has to do with his fury that people want to forget about the Holocaust and his determination that it never be repeated again, both of which are perfectly understandable - but the point at which that crosses into "so all of humanity should experience the worst despair ever endured" is where his morality falls off a cliff. And, again, I'd totally be down with this in another story - I could even have seen it from the original Erik (whose Don Juan Triumphant, too hideous to be played, certainly has a lot of parallels here), but there's not enough psychological groundwork for Jeremiah to make it work. He's not mentally ill, pushed past the edge of sanity to where he thinks making other people suffer is the only way to save the world. He's not an evil person who wants to hurt the rest of humanity the way his family has been hurt. He's meant to be a good guy, and in fact his innate goodness is what allows him to triumph by the end of the story, and it's difficult to reconcile that characterization with his blatantly malevolent intentions.

 

Anyway, Roxanne is too smitten with him to pursue the argument and backs off, going back to practicing with him during the day and singing with her rock band at night. Oh, yes - she was hired on the spot at the first audition she ever attended in New York to be part of a lucrative rock band that pays all her bills. How marvelous! She likes the difference between her fancy opera voice with Jeremiah and "the rock voice of which [she] earned [her] living", which tells me that she also likes prepositional failure.

 

Things finally start to get concretely supernatural (that's a fun phrase!) here, but sadly not in a way that is especially interesting. Roxanne decides that she wants to seduce Jeremiah, who so far has ignored her flirtations, and shows up unexpectedly at his brownstone one night. Because she apparently harbors a deep and abiding ambition to be a cat burglar, she decides to peer into his window while he's playing again instead of knocking and is horrified to discover both that the music is terrifying and overwhelming in a way she's never experienced before, and also that Jeremiah is surrounded by a semi-clear fleshy sac where he's playing at the piano. What is this sac? You're not ever going to find out, readers. I'm sorry. It turns up several times, but what the point of it is, where it comes from or what on earth it's meant to be are never explained. What it is is a visual cue that The Evil Is With Us. I want to try to find something - like, is it a womb? Or a heart chamber? Or anything else that might have representational value? - but instead I'm going to find what's left of the Grand Marnier in my cupboard.

 

Roxanne runs home and has horrible nightmares, anxiety attacks, and other episodes based on having heard this music, and Jeremiah eventually shows up to find out why she hasn't been coming to singing practice. The solution, obviously, is to immediately invite him in and begin banging him, so she does.

 

On page 207, this gem: 

 

"After eating, we made love again, and then again, each time more desperate and impassioned than the time before, as though our obsessions were dragons and we were attempting to slay them."

 

Snort. With what, acidic secretions? Jeremiah's attack penis? I see that the use of the noble simile is also something Hall is not entirely solid on.

 

Colloquial phrases like "half-assed" also dot this story's narration like a particularly malignant type of pox. I'd love to pretend these were expressions of Roxanne's character, but the bland, totally character-less way she's written leads me to believe that they're just expressions of Hall's writing style. Roxanne is also prone to saying things like "Never in a million years did I expect to find what I found", just in case the story's cliche quotient wasn't yet filled. This makes me sad, both because the phrase is even here and because I, too, want to not expect what I find! Where's some suspenseful love for the reader, dude? Nowhere, especially not when Roxanne is totally by chance meeting Jeremiah's old teacher from Juilliard, who knows all about his music, has been trying to study it, and is slowly entering a mental breakdown as a result. The Older Mentor Who Has Learned Too Much But Inspires the Younger To Keep Searching is classic Lovecraft, but in Hall's hands it's expected, it's trite, and it's boring. And this coming from someone who loves Lovecraft’s works in spite of his many crimes against the English language and also his inescapable racism.

 

Readers do get to giggle, however, when the teacher questions Roxanne's relationship with Jeremiah by noting that "he doesn't usually take on prodigies". It's the opposite problem from that we just had in the 2006 Whitehead novel, where the Phantom insisted on calling his student a "protege" all the time; Hall obviously means protege, but somehow has mixed it up with an entirely different word.

 

Of course, the professor warns her that she should stop hanging out with Jeremiah, but she can't bear to do so because she is already "past the point of no return". The Lloyd Webber influence isn't surprising after the wussy little facial scar, but I had been clinging so hard to my hopes for Leroux to be involved, what with the possible confluences of themes.

 

And now things go down the drain forever and the rest of the story just becomes something to endure until you get to the end and finally see freedom, glorious freedom. Jeremiah and Roxanne go to a pet shop that has mysteriously appeared where it didn't exist yesterday, which is basically a gross parody of a store that screams that The Evil Is With Us even though the fleshy sac is, for once, not present. (Again, the appearing/disappearing curiosity shop is such a great horror device, and it’s utterly squandered here.) The animals are malnourished and abused and the proprietor is a gleeful caricature who always wears gloves, has a thick German accent and is outright compared to Josef Mengele, one of the most infamous figures of the Holocaust, right in the text. It's obvious that there are supernatural shenanigans going on, what with the disappearing shop and the outright weirdness of it all, but even so the scene makes no sense; it has no purpose other than to try to creep out the reader, which it can’t do when it’s just annoying and clichéd, and provide foreshadowing, which it does clumsily. Roxanne saves a kitten, they flee, I'm bored.

 

Oh, and look at that headline in the paper the next day - the Juilliard teacher has committed suicide. THE SHOCK IS OVERPOWERING. More obvious Lovecraft homages turn up, including the professor's assertion (both earlier and repeated here by Roxanne) that in Jeremiah's music "the math is all wrong", which is reminiscent of the gleeful destruction of Euclid in many of the Lovecraft mythos works. Again, I'm bored; nothing is happening here that hasn't already been done to death.

 

As she slowly begins to realize that there's something a tad bit wrong with her hunky boyfriend, Roxanne starts musing on page 221, hurling me into a fit of confused irritation:

 

"Perhaps Jeremiah's music, for some inconceivable reason, was born on the rim of the universe, - a place I had once fleetingly and stupidly delved into during a childhood bout of petulance - or perhaps it hadn't been born at all, but conjured instead from some dark place."

 

I have no idea what she's talking about. Delving into the rim of the universe in her childhood? What does that even mean? What the hell is she talking about? There's been no mention of anything having to do with her childhood before, and you'd think she'd be better mentally equipped for all this if she'd been delving, or whatever. The only thing I can think of is that maybe she's referring to her ill-fated spying on Jeremiah and the flesh-sac incident, in which case she wants "childish" instead of "childhood", not to mention a heaping serving of Making More Sense with a side of Are You Kidding Me?

 

Since they're coming up with investigational dead ends, the police have decided to play the tape of Jeremiah's music that the dead professor had on the radio tonight at six o'clock in the hopes that the composer might come forward and have some pertinent information. I don't know enough about police procedure from watching Law & Order: SVU reruns to know if this is actually something the NYPD would do, but I do know enough to wonder why on earth they think the specific music that the music professor was studying when he died has anything to do with anything.

 

All this madness is finally too much for Roxanne, who demands an explanation of Jeremiah until he gives in for no apparent reason despite his staunch refusal to do so earlier. Amidst a rain of continuing writing disasters, Jeremiah leads her upstairs to the sealed upper floors, where - shock to end all shocks! - it turns out that the corpses of his parents are sitting mostly mummified (though how that happened in a New York climate I really don't know - they ought to have rotted pretty profoundly).

 

Roxanne understandably panics about this, but now we've come to the story's own Point of No Return. In wooden talking-head exposition occasionally punctuated by "No!" or "It can't be!" or other indistinguishable and forgettable protests from Roxanne, Jeremiah explains what's really going on here: that the evil presence attempting to sabotage their lives is actually Josef Mengele. THE Josef Mengele, which makes the earlier mention of his name in the pet shop overpoweringly silly as foreshadowing. Many readers may be confused about what the hell Mengele, who presumably died a few decades ago in South America, could possibly be doing in modern-day New York, especially since nothing that is going on makes sense. Hall is going to tell you, but don't hold out hope that it's going to make your life any happier. 

 

It seems at first that it must be the ghost of Mengele, though this doesn't explain why he's choosing to haunt Jeremiah, who he never met, rather than any of the people he knew in life; at least a ghost would make sense when it comes to all the obvious supernatural powers and creepy behavior. But that's not what's going on. I'm going to quote for you what's going on, from page 229, so you'll know I'm not making it up.

 

"'Evil comes in many guises and has called itself by many names,' Jeremiah said. 'Lucifer, Cain, Grendel. Every faith has its name for evil. The victims and the survivors of Auschwitz - my father included - believed Mengele to be the earthly manifestation of Azrael, the Angel of Death. The Talmud, the Jewish Holy Book, has references that equate the Angel of Death with Satan, implying that he is evil rather than good. Azrael in Hebrew means "assistant or helper to the gods," thus angel. It is said that he is forever writing in a large book and forever erasing what he writes. What he writes is the birth of man, what he erases is the name of man at death. This is what Mengele did at Auschwitz. He erased the names of millions of good human beings from the face of the Earth.'"

 

There are few books that can create a level of disgust in me that suggests the idea of finding a fireplace and permanently ending them, but that did it. Here are a few of the reasons that this premise is not only bullshit but pretty goddamn offensive bullshit:

 

A) I want to see sources on where the fuck the Talmud equates Azrael and Satan. I feel like they would be difficult to come up with, considering that Azrael himself is not actually in the Talmud; a different figure named Azael is, but in spite of the similar names there are few Jewish scholars that equate the two figures as the same.

 

B) Even if you do equate Azrael and Satan, which I'm sure someone somewhere has done considering the long and checkered history of study of Judaism, this premise is utter bullshit because in Judaism Satan is not evil. The Talmud certainly talks about him a lot, but there he retains his traditional Judaic role of being appointed by God and ultimately helpful to the divine order of things. He's a prosecutor and a tempter, but he does these things on God's orders specifically to weed out the truly faithful. Satan is evil in Christianity, which made the label the proper name for a fallen angel rather than a title bestowed on a servant of God, but we're talking about Judaism here - as devout and distinct Judaism as you can get, considering the subject matter - and making the Satan = Lucifer = Devil = evil leap is so thoroughly Christian that it hurts. You absolutely cannot base your Jewish characters' beliefs on Christian rhetoric without presenting some reason for the two belief systems to have merged; in doing so, Hall makes himself look like he has no idea what he's talking about and comes off as disrespectful to the religions he's plumbing for material.

 

C) It's mind-boggling that he even made the connection, since some Jewish texts seem to identify Azrael with evil all on his own anyway without any need for specious attachments to the Christian Devil. It's possible that the author felt he needed more backup since mainstream Judaism tends not to take this view when it pays attention to Azrael at all, but conflation with Christianity was not the way to get there.

 

D) Did it ever occur to Hall, or any editor involved in this trainwreck, that those Jewish readers who aren't equating one of their God's angels with the Devil might find the suggestion that Mengele and Azrael are one and the same to be a tiny bit offensive? It'd be one thing if that were the widely accepted interpretation of the figure, but for those who view Azrael as the lord's ordained servant, what this story is basically saying is that God specifically sent Mengele to torment and murder his people. Charming.

 

E) Story-wise the worst offense here is that this choice makes Mengele no longer a member of humanity but a power outside and beyond its control; all of Jeremiah's ranting about man's indifference toward man and how humanity can never forget its behavior is being completely invalidated by this revelation. If Mengele (who the story uses very much as the single representative for the horrors perpetrated in the Holocaust; Hitler is mentioned only once in passing, and no other historical figure makes an appearance) is in fact a supernatural agent, that means that humanity isn't responsible for what happened. It wasn't their fault; it was the Devil's. By making the driving force here be a crazed supernatural being bent on the mass destruction of humankind, humankind itself is absolved of blame for the incident - something I doubt Hall even realized he was implying, judging from his characters' speeches to the contrary earlier in the story. It is sad, frustrating, and ultimately infuriating to realize that.

 

So, by the time I had recovered enough to also wonder why the hell the word was being spelled "Arian" and to note that the Nazi-movement-was-founded-in-the-occult-and-backed-by-demonic-forces idea is a pretty stock one as well, I was basically too pissed off about everything to care about much in the story anymore. Everything is on a sharp downhill slope from here on out as Hall chooses to add a mad musical genius angle to Mengele's character, something that is absolutely unsupported by history and only invented for this story. I realize that this is a Phantom story and that music is therefore a key factor, but why invent some new way in which Mengele was a horrible monster of a person? Why ignore his very real and historically verified crimes and tendencies, including his obsession with twins and mutilation of children, neither of which are addressed in this story? Why use Mengele, an incredibly polarizing and distressing character, if you didn't actually want to use Mengele? 

 

This story could so easily have featured a big baddie who was the author's invention, who had all these characteristics and more and whose use could have made sense, but instead it chooses to take a universally reviled criminal against humanity, make him the main villain, and then ignore his actual crimes in favor of altering him into a music-obsessed Devil. Using Mengele is a dangerous on its own; it's tough to do that without losing your audience. Using Mengele and then refusing to acknowledge half of his atrocities because you're too busy coming up with half-assed religious bullshit to make the plot more supernatural crosses the line into offensive yet again. It makes it seem as if the story is just using Mengele in order to capitalize on the horror and emotional trauma inherent in just using the character's name, and again the cavalier usage is cheapening, unsatisfying, infuriating.

 

At this point, to facilitate explaining everything that led up to this point in excruciating detail (for Roxanne's benefit, because it sure ain't for the reader's), Jeremiah's narration suddenly turns into a series of flashbacks to the 1940's, relating the events of his grandparents' and parents' internment in Auschwitz. While this is a good idea in theory - god knows I've had enough of Jeremiah's endless and uninspired point-blank explanations - the execution fails yet again, as the flashback is still told in Jeremiah's voice from third-person omniscient perspective despite the random titles reading "Then" and "Now" intended to separate the two time periods. Rather than actually writing the events as a flashback, we're still listening to Jeremiah's interminable drone, and Roxanne's occasional interjections of "No!" or "That's terrible!" or "It can't be!" are still not helping.

 

This makes me sad, because by rights the parts of the story set during the height of Nazi power in Germany should have been the most interesting, especially since they should be filling in the gaps to explain what’s happening in the present day. But they read like a history lesson, with very little of what is happening actually coming from the characters' perceptions instead of from continual narration, and the poor storytelling is only broken up by poor writing skills when the already jerky and uninspired prose is now further fragmented every other paragraph by parenthetical English translations of all the German words being used. Hall could have solved this problem by either using the English terms (since ALL OTHER DIALOGUE BETWEEN CHARACTERS AT THIS POINT IS IN FUCKING GERMAN ANYWAY) or just using the German without translating it, since it's mostly little bullshit phrases like "Raus", meaning "Get out", that the average reader can figure out from context clues and not miss anything if they don’t anyway.

 

Also, for some reason, the narration feels the need to repeatedly hammer how "handsome" Mengele is. I realize this is probably meant to further illustrate his handsome, charismatic Devil idea, but since I have actually seen pictures of Mengele, I have to once again wonder if we are talking about a completely different character.

 

At any rate, because Mengele is in this story a mad musical genius who wants to use music as a conduit to drive all of humanity into madness and suicide instead of anything he was actually doing to ruin humanity's day, he handpicks Jeremiah's parents, Aaron and Eva, to help him do this since they are respectively a very gifted composer and singer (side note: is it weird, in context of a story about the Holocaust, to be naming other female characters Eva with the spectre of Hitler's wife hanging out just over everyone's shoulder?). They are joined in this endeavor by Brawne, a German woman and singer who is Mengele's mistress and also one of the most frustratingly pointless characters I have ever had the misfortune of meeting. Brawne's only purposes, aside from having a confusing name that is thoroughly un-German and makes me think of Keats, are to be hot, start sympathizing with the Jewish prisoners, and then be murdered to illustrate how "unstable" Mengele is becoming, as if he weren't already a dude who was routinely performing incomprehensibly horrific experiments on human subjects.

 

A parallel can be drawn at this point between the modern-day Phantom and Christine (Jeremiah and Roxanne) and an earlier echo-situation between Mengele and Eva, with whom the mad scientist has become obsessed. Hall's limping attempts to be mysterious about whether or not Eva is being regularly raped by Mengele are irritating and detract from the story; I know he's trying not to reveal his big plot twist yet (what, oh what, could it be?!), but the situation is so obvious to the reader that the characters all look like crash test dummies for not knowing what's happening.

 

The rest of the flashback sequence contains quite a lot of description of atrocities being committed and the increasing desperation of Jeremiah's parents, including Aaron's father being killed to punish him for an escape attempt, various abuses perpetrated against prisoners, and an eventual uprising led by Jeremiah's father. It's all described with such whitewashed lack of variation or interest that any emotional resonance it might have had is lost; what should be meaningful and poignant horrors and triumphs are completely undercut by emotionless and poorly-written prose. This story is a terrible offender against the Show, Don't Tell rule - there's nothing but telling all the time, and as a result it manages to make boring and uninteresting one of the greatest tragedies of history.

 

Once the flashbacks end, with Jeremiah and Eva escaping to the United States after the invasion of the Allies, Jeremiah proceeds to explain that his parents committed suicide to prevent the evil of Mengele from moving on to him; confusingly, there's a lot of talk about how only keeping the house sealed could make Devil Mengele believe that the curse had died with them and how he didn't find out otherwise until just now. This makes no sense, partly because it just makes no sense anyway - what, was Mengele living in the upstairs apartment and unable to see anything out of it? Are we going with the idea that the Devil doesn't know what's going on downstairs? - and because Mengele has been running around being a pet shop proprietor and surrounding Jeremiah in fleshy sacs while playing piano. More pressingly, why didn't Jeremiah just MOVE SOMEWHERE ELSE after all of this instead of living in the Basement Apartment Beneath Evil? He claims he couldn't move because whomever bought the place would surely open the second floor and let Mengele out, but he could just move AND STILL OWN THE HOUSE. HOW DID THIS PLOT EVER GET PAST AN EDITOR?

 

And the fun is not even over yet. The story continues; if it sounds like Jeremiah is bad at telling his tale with any flow, that's because he is due to Hall's attempts to have several layered reveals so that the horror ramps up, but since these reveals are poorly concealed and visible from a mile away, the actual effect is just that both Jeremiah and Hall himself are bad at storytelling. In part two of this increasingly boring yet terrible horror finale, it is revealed that Eva was actually impregnated by Mengele and gave birth to Jeremiah years later, an episode which is meant to be the height of horror but which is mostly just something to stare at, between the fleshy sac showing up again to surround Eva, the floor opening up to show demons cavorting about with Nazi officers in Hell, and Mengele's demonic head (I'm serious, he has horns and everything) appearing in the sky to taunt Aaron. The evil is cartoonish and without any real punch, and I couldn't help continually picturing Tim Curry from Legend whenever Mengele and his devilish horns were mentioned.

 

Much worse than the failure of the horror in this scene to be horrifying is the sermonizing of the characters, particularly Eva, who castigates her husband for never "rescuing" her from Mengele. When he points out that he could not possibly have succeeded in attempting to do so, she shames him with her impassioned speeches about "But you could have tried!", as if somehow that would have been a better choice than the one that got them both out alive. I'd accept this from characters, but again the complete lack of characterization or voice makes it sound like Hall is moralizing himself, criticizing survivors of concentration camps for the way in which they survived, and it's unattractive in the extreme. The scene ends with Eva successfully delivering Jeremiah, Mengele's devil-spawn Antichrist baby, and with both parents deciding that clearly getting rid of this baby would be wrong so they should raise it to adulthood instead. A little character development or explanation of why Aaron doesn't kill the baby would be fantastic - it's a great opportunity for emotional struggle and character choices! - but instead we just get "That would be wrong, so we'll raise him." SIGH.

 

It's worth noticing that the idea of music behaving virally is a solid horror choice that could be very potent; it's similar to the basis of Koji Suzuki's Ringu and incorporates the idea of helplessness in the face of transmission - i.e., once you've heard it you can never unhear it, nor can you really take precautions against it - and inevitability. Unfortunately, Hall does exactly nothing interesting with this, one of the few good ideas in his story, so we'll just have to watch it sail on past our literary window with fondness and regret.

 

There is one surprise in all the twists that Hall is attempting to pass off as shockers, and that is that Roxanne, it turns out, is actually a reincarnation/reanimation/some form of return of Brawne (the woman she's been seeing in her nightmares), intentionally created by Devil Mengele in order to force Jeremiah's talent out of him. It is not a good idea. It is not an interesting idea. It is not an original idea. But it is an idea I didn't see coming, so kudos, at last, to Hall for finding a way to surprise me. I wish it had been a good way, but at this point I'll take it.

 

The final scene of the story, again meant to be a pinnacle of horror with Devil Mengele booming evil laughter all around, Roxanne tied to the floor, and the whole place slowly sliding into the mouth of Hell, is caricatured and uninspired, devoid of any original ideas, interesting description or anything else that might actually have sent a tingle up any readers’ backs. Jeremiah's triumph over evil by Just Saying No is not exactly a surprise, either, nor is the fact that his grand gesture of defiance is a pedestrian declaration of "Fuck you," before playing music of goodness and light instead of music of evil, thus handily defeating Devil Mengele, who immediately disappears forever.

 

Roxanne somehow instinctively knows the lyrics to what he's playing, thus giving us the opportunity to read some of Hall's bad poetry before we get out of this thing, and therein lies the final moment of outrage for the entire story. I'll reproduce the lyrics from page 273, just for you, the reader who has made it to the end with me. I figure it's too late for you anyway.

 

There'll be no more offerings, no more children, no more sacrificial lambs,

There'll be no more obedience and atonement, no negotiations, decrying the unfairness of,

Generations dying in the ovens of hatred,

Abraham's deference to a god gone mad, a deity of submission long passed

From depths of darkness' void, the anguished voices shall finally be heard,

And rise triumphantly from the ashes, to take a final stand,

For mercy will never again be begged and we shall live in honor, not favor,

And never again ask, as we have in ages past,

Why we were victims of some madman's dream,

Not in this life, nor the lives that wait beyond the door, not ever, ever again...

Amen.

 

UGH. This, THIS RIGHT HERE, is what people need editors for. It's not that there aren't good ideas in there, or even occasionally good descriptors, but that is a pile of steaming poetical fail that desperately needed someone to edit, re-edit, and maybe take it out for a beer to rethink its choices. And speaking of choices, I'm sure the moment that it goes horribly wrong is apparent to many readers: after all this time hammering on the Jewish people and their right to be themselves, after all these sentiments of the strength of their spirits and beliefs, Hall wants to wait until the very end of the story to blatantly and intentionally shit on their religion? Jeremiah the devout decided at some point to not only become an atheist and blame belief in God for the persecution of his people, but also write an opera in which he uses their voices to declare those sentiments? 

 

Maybe Jeremiah is an atheist. Maybe Hall is. I don't know and I don't care, but that one line is as insensitive and offensive a slap to the face of the Jewish community as you can get. I understand that with the assumption that Mengele = Azrael, the assumption that God = behind the Holocaust follows, but no. You cannot claim to speak for a people who were persecuted, tortured and killed because of their ethnicity and religion and have the audacity to reject that religion for them en masse. You cannot honestly stand there and think that the millions of Jewish people who died in the Holocaust would want you to present them to the world as rejecting the very God and religion that many of them refused to renounce even under brutal treatment. Well, you can, but to do so is a terrible, terrible choice.

 

With Devil Mengele vanquished, the police still play the music on the radio but now it's merely untainted genius that everyone can enjoy, and things end on a note of hope as Jeremiah and reincarnated zombie Roxanne kiss in the snow. It's much too late for anything to save this story, even a message of uplifting hope. I have read a lot of extraordinarily bad things in this project, but I have found a new benchmark for the worst it can possibly get.

 

In the end, I'm sure Hall's intentions with this story weren't malicious. It's very clear (sometimes even to the detriment of the action) that he's attempting to cover his bases and make sure readers don't think he's trying to be intentionally offensive, which makes his failure so all the more tragic. This isn't a case of someone writing something to intentionally make people angry; it's just a case of a story that is so badly written that it can't help but do so.

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers

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