The Phantom of Chicago (1993)
by Lori Herter
from Silhouette '93
Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh.
The writing style of this story isn’t much fun to read. It's not completely miserable, but fundamental things like word repetition and awkward adjectives are everywhere. That’s a shame, because the story isn’t good, either, so we have to suffer through reading garbage that makes our eyes cross every few lines.
When it comes to influences, there are two: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 stage musical, and, much to my mingled dismay and entertainment, Disney's 1991 animated film Beauty & the Beast. While Herter makes it a point to mention Leroux (twice, in fact!) as the author of the novel, there is not even the slightest inkling of material that could be attributed to the book in here. It's all Lloyd Webber, all the time, oozing overt sexuality from its very pores. The Disney film doesn't have too much influence except that Herter seems to have spliced it with the Phantom story in order to transform the sympathetic Raoul into something more approximating the abhorrent Gaston, and she also raided the animated costume department and stole Belle's pretty gold dress for her heroine. (I’m not projecting that; she literally says so.)
As a side note, I'm always puzzled when authors decide to "cross" the Phantom story with the Beauty & the Beast myth. The Phantom story IS the Beauty & the Beast myth: the idea of a hideous monster with serious personality issues requiring the love of a beautiful woman to redeem him is pretty much a direct import from the French fairytale. It's just a version with several compelling specifics, thanks to Msr. Leroux, that allows it to stand on its own. "Combining" the Phantom story with Beauty & the Beast is like combining chocolate and cocoa and saying you've created something new.
Obviously, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with wish-fulfillment fantasy in and of itself; it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it makes us feel good stuff, and everyone should enjoy it! The problems come in when it peddles some truly abhorrent stuff in among the cutesy clothing choices.
The plot's pretty simple, if unnecessarily contrived: there's a dude named Eric with a limp in a Phantom costume hanging out in the old tunnels under the Chicago Loop, and he kidnaps Crystal, over whom he has long been lusting, ostensibly to save her from her no-good handsome fiance Tony. And then there's lots of underground fornication. It's not an uncommon plot in knockoffs of the Phantom story, but it's the way that it's done that's simultaneously so hilarious and yet so awful. I was absolutely unable to keep a straight face for most of the prose, especially after I spent an entire page listening to Herter describe Eric's hair, of all things, and then was confronted with the spell-binding line, "As the heavy material [of his cape] swished majestically about him, a sure sense of dark eminence settled over him." DARK EMINENCE.
I tried to make a note about the inverted social status of the characters here. Crystal is a wealthy socialite while her fiance Tony is a general layabout nobody, which is a flip from Leroux's original conflict of Raoul as the privileged aristocracy and Christine as the performing peasant. But there's no real social message in this story. The closest we get is a lot of people whining about how they're only loved for their money, which is not exactly spellbinding new territory.
So there's a masquerade ball, because that's a general prerequisite of most Phantom stories, and Crystal is going to it with Tony, and they are dressed as Belle and the Beast from the Disney movie. Much fuss is made over Crystal's cleavage, which is apparently spectacular; in fact, it is so spectacular that Herter feels the need to tell me that Crystal's body is great what feels like every other line. Between the tragically entertaining description (I think I lost it somewhere around the "puffs of spun gold" on Crystal's arms) and the intensely awkward exposition, in which Crystal's father tells her about how their lawyer Jay is missing and has probably been murdered even though she already KNOWS, the dismal writing seems almost at home.
In case anyone had any concerns that there would be any deep characterization going on here, Crystal's father hates Tony and disapproves strongly throughout the conversation of her engagement to him. Crystal, when she's not stuttering in a totally unrealistic manner, is entertainingly blase about the whole thing and admits multiple times that she doesn't even know why she's engaged to him other than that he's hot. She says a lot of things like, "Attraction is something you feel, not think about." The author couldn’t be more clearly declaring that Crystal doesn’t have to feel bad about dumping Tony because he’s not right for her if he were literally being pushed off a bridge.
I actually felt sorry for Tony during most of this conversation, which I don't think was Herter's intent. He was being so neatly pigeonholed as a meathead with a pretty face and body but no redeeming features beyond them and no real love attached that I was hoping that Herter would pull an upset, and show that he had unplumbed depths that Crystal could discover and fall in love with (not that Crystal has any depths, either, but I had hope). I mean, it's the exact same situation as in Leroux's novel; everyone assumes that Raoul is only interested in Christine for sex, and that she's only gold-digging, but they do in fact love one another purely and sincerely.
But no, Tony is just a hunk of studliness, which I guess means we don’t have to care about his feelings. Sorry you got engaged to someone who you thought loved you, Tony. The author needs a Raoul to throw on the floor and you’re it today.
More malarkey ensues as Crystal's father whines about how she wouldn't date Jay, the presumably-deceased attorney, and she makes lots of declarations about passion! and sexual attraction! and not dating the boring, safe guy! And, oh, look, it's like every book based on Lloyd Webber's musical has climbed from their combined candlelit lair to squat in the middle of this short story together. Ironically, Jay is the one being given the usual Raoul “role” of being the safe, boring, uninteresting love interest that no one could really care about because he lacks the Phantom’s “passion” in these interpretations, even though Tony, as the love interest who is actually with Crystal, is also about to get dumped for being boring and not able to compete with her Phantom-inspired passion, even though he was explicitly stated to just be here because she thinks he’s hot.
A lot of interpretations that want Raoul and the Phantom to compete for the lady’s affections have this problem, where they want Raoul to be boring and useless so that the Phantom looks better but also need him to be a viable antagonist, and this story weird decided to be the first to give us two Raouls that it dislikes for different reasons. One is attractive, fashionable Raoul, whom we are supposed to dislike for being superficial and uninteresting, and one is safe, dependable Raoul, whom we are supposed to dislike for being boring and unfulfilling. We’ve had a lot of twin Phantoms and split Phantoms, but I guess I need to start a column for double Raouls now, too. (Or do I? Stay tuned for this to get even sillier.)
Much to my amusement, Crystal is engaged to Tony and is even discussing her libido right and left with her father of all people, but she hasn't slept with him yet because there's somehow no passionate connection there even though he makes her hot whenever he comes around. They’re just together and also engaged due purely to hormones but also they NEVER ACT ON THOSE HORMONES EVER even though they are both consenting adults who think the other one is ridiculously hot and seem to have no religious or cultural objections. Welcome to Romance Novels 101, where the very first rule is that the Heroine Must Be Pure and Virginal, because no one wants to read about Sluts In Love. God forbid other people got to touch her various body parts before the Phantom did, thus RUINING THEM FOREVER.
Tony finally arrives in this scene and I cheered that I was about to escape from this conversation between Crystal and her father, but the cheering quickly gave way to uncontainable laughter. Tony is wearing Stripper Raoul Couture, including epaulets with no shirt and a mane of wild, untamable hair framing his broad, manly chest, not to mention the carefully described trail of man-hair leading down into his pants. Seriously. I'm at a loss as to how this is meant to represent the Beast, unless Tony is relying on his personal hairiness to confuse other party-goers. The scene is mostly here to establish that we are not to like Tony, even though he sounds hilarious. By the end of the chapter, all we’ve really learned is that Crystal is clearly a doofus because reasonably evolved tadpoles could tell that Tony is a mobster, and also I hate Crystal and her whiny, over-privileged, tantruming-to-Daddy little ass. I hope Tony shoots her.
The entire beginning of the chapter reads like a wet dream from someone who just saw Lloyd Webber's stage play and was smitten beyond functioning. A gent dressed as the Phantom shows up at the masquerade ball and sweeps Crystal off her feet with his handsome demeanor and commanding presence (and very nice white teeth for a dude hanging out underground with no toothbrush, too). There's lots of flirtatious dialogue which is meant to be alluring but which mostly just made me roll my eyes ("Who are you?" "I'm the Phantom in your life." Sheesh). He leads her off under the building via an ancient service elevator, and kidnaps her into the underground so we can go have our romantic rape fantasy.
Herter makes a point of invoking Leroux's name, letting Crystal tell us in her internal monologue that the Phantom's name was Eric in Leroux's classic book. Since neither Herter nor Crystal can even spell the original Erik’s name, I’d bet this has more to do with making sure that the notoriously litigious Lloyd Webber show didn’t take legal action by making it clear that the story is totally based on the public domain novel than anything else.
Since it has been blindingly obvious to me who the Phantom actually is since about five seconds after the story started, I spent most of this chapter asking in increasingly frustrated tones how Crystal could possibly not recognize the voice or mannerisms or lower half of the FACE of a person that she PERSONALLY KNOWS. He even told her that she knew him, but still no glimmer of recognition. Other moments, such as when his blinking panicked her into spilling her wine, or when his use of candles suddenly put her in the mood despite the fact that she was a kidnapping victim who was afraid of being raped, did not improve the situation at all.
There is one good line here that stood out for me in the morass of Crystal's musings: "Ethereal beauty surrounding the threat of violence was a paradox she didn't know how to cope with." That's a very applicable line for at least some of the themes of Leroux's original novel, but alas, they will not be appearing in this story. Good-bye, relevant line. It was refreshing to meet you here. Go somewhere with less rampant use of the passive voice and live free.
The Phantom (because of course it's totally a mystery who this guy is, seriously, you'll never guesss, it's a secret) spends a lot of time both telling Crystal and moping to himself about how she's always ignored him and no one ever loves him and guys like Tony get all the attention because women are stupid. And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the class struggles and conflicting social influences of Leroux's novel have been distilled down to the eternal struggle of the nerd vs. the jock. Let’s break it down.
It’s a tired misogynist trope that women only go for men who are attractive trash and can’t make decisions for themselves based on who and what they like. Stop doing that.
It’s a tired misogynist trope that women need a man to force them to realize that actually, they wanted to date him instead all along because he knows better than they do. Stop doing that, too.
Men being studly and/or athletic is not shorthand for them being stupid, insensitive, or without positive qualities. Stop doing that, too.
Seriously, has it occurred to you that sometimes women might like men because they are attracted to them or interested in them? The fact that women do not like you, super mystery man, is much more probably because you’re not giving them a reason to, not because they are Foolish Strumpets who don’t appreciate your hidden depths.
“Woe is me, women don’t like me because I don’t look like Antonio Banderas!” is not equivalent to “all of society has actively tried to exclude and destroy me because I am terrifyingly physically disabled and they are ableist.”
Go the fuck away, man, you suck.
But he won’t go away, so instead we have to sit around and listen to Crystal think about how Tony may be virile but this guy has a soul connection to her.
And now it’s time for the sexual assault.
The Phantom's goal here is to make Crystal realize what a fool she's been for ignoring him in the past, and to that end there's some makin' out. It’s intended to be titillating and is the exact opposite. Crystal is afraid of this guy, which she says and thinks repeatedly, and wants to run away, which he is fully aware of. She isn’t consenting and his determination to make her realize that of course she actually wanted him to force this on her is nauseating.
Of course, since this is a rape fantasy, the Phantom doesn't see anything particularly wrong with his actions because she's cooperating and Crystal spends a lot of time struggling with the fact that, much to her dismay, she kind of likes it. This is an especially gross piece of rape apologia that is used to cause harm to real-life victims: the idea that if a person being sexually assaulted experiences arousal or pleasure, they must therefore be consenting and it’s not actually assault, no matter what they said. It’s a way of letting a rapist claim they had consent even when they clearly didn’t and it sadly often fucking works, and this story fucking sucks.
The scene goes on FOREVER because it is absolutely FULL of Crystal's mental dithering, wherein she continually stops planning her escape because he feels so good and he's loved her all his life and therefore this isn't really rape, it's just heavy foreplay, even though she keeps trying to stop him and he won’t listen to her. She wonders, "Could he make her go mad with ecstasy?,” because that’s definitely what we want to focus on here, because again, Herter thinks this scenario is hot and assumes readers will actually be much more into whether or not an ensuing rape scene features an orgasm than whether, you know, it features a rape.
Finally, Crystal manages to grab a heavy flashlight, club the Phantom in his bad leg, and escape (naked except for her panties, of course, because why not keep making this pseudo-titillating like a bad comic book), which gives us a brief moment to cheer and be pleased that something is going right for once.
The dude does some perfunctory shouting about how he loved her and how could she do this to him and general rage, which only cements the fact that he is entirely fucking dangerous and horrifying. His "hero" status in this story is deplorable, because he hasn't done a single "hero" thing so far. Kidnapping, subterfuge, and rape are not hero acts; they are villain acts. I apologize for pointing this out, but seriously. This guy should be dropped off a pier.
The best bright spot of this chapter is the Phantom's unintentionally hilarious inner monologue as he limps through the sewers looking for Crystal (who has, of course, gotten totally lost); most of it has to do with his chagrin over the fact that maybe he shouldn't have thought Crystal was quite that stupid. He slogs about in the dark looking for her for a while until he finally finds naked Crystal and hauls her back off to his lair.
I don't even care what happens to Crystal anymore by this point, I'm so frustrated with the author and the whole story. She keeps pondering - "What, did she want him to take her by force?" - yeah, we get it, Herter, and agonizing over how awesome he made her feel during the rape scene, and also how mean she was to hit him with a flashlight and should definitely feel guilty about it. She falls back on the old, "Oh, well, it must be Stockholm Syndrome" defense, which does not actually exist and even if it did, no, it fucking well is not, and even if it did AND was, that wouldn’t be an excuse for SEXUAL ASSAULT.
There's now several pages of my least favorite part of romance novels (well, most romance novels, the ones that don’t have sexual assault scenes in them), the Highly Contrived Plot Device to Keep the Leads Apart, which in this case is the Phantom's new determination to treat Crystal like a hostile prisoner and Crystal's indignance that how dare he be pissed off that she hit him in the gunshot wound with a flashlight. The arguments over who is the bigger jerk are interminable, and the internal monologues wailing over how MEAN the other person is being don't exactly relieve the boredom. Herter's solution to all this overwhelming tension is to have the Phantom pass out in a delirious fever from his wound, which has apparently been infected on and off lately.
And now, the crowning jewel of the story: when the deliriously ill Phantom rolls about in his sleep and brushes up against Crystal, SHE starts sexually molesting HIM even though he blearily says no (because he's trying to pretend he hates her, but of course he really likes it secretly so this sexual assault is okay, too, despite his inability to consent). Never mind what I said earlier; Herter is right. These two are clearly soulmates. Quite apart from the awfulness of the constant assault, my bewilderment over why she is burning with curiosity but doesn't unmask the guy when he's unconscious and delirious beside her is also a factor of considerable concern. Sure, sexually assaulting the six and defenseless guy is one thing, but she would never invade his privacy by taking off his mask.
Then, after the Phantom miraculously recovers from his fever enough and there is some heartfelt dialogue about how Crystal is a knockout with a zillion boyfriends but she's totally almost virginal anyway, we come to the hot sexing, which is pretty boring for hot sexing. My only real comment on that was scrawled in the margin of my notes: "Please stop describing nipples as 'pink nubs'. Once was enough." There's really not a lot more to say here, except that everybody is cool with all the sexual assault earlier, so it's time for some hot hot lovemaking. Please note that this does not make Crystal a Bad and Evil Woman, but only because it's her true love and she won't sleep with anyone else ever again.
When we get to the end of the chapter, as Crystal is leaving to go back to the upper world and the Phantom is moping over how she wouldn't really love him when she learned his true identity, we get to the real prize. When Crystal insists that she'll still love him (because rape is a building block to a healthy relationship), he tells her morosely, "Remember, in Leroux's book, the Phantom never won Christine. She went off with her handsome hunk, Raoul."
Why is it that this idea of the Phantom being the hero of Leroux's novel is so extremely widespread? True, he is a sympathetic villain, which may confuse the radar for some people, and those viewing the Lloyd Webber musical are even further pushed in that direction by the softening and romanticization of the character in that version. The write-off of Raoul as nothing more than a pretty face is also fairly commonplace in Phantom literature. There is a very interesting conception that the Phantom is not only sympathetic, but that he is more deserving of Christine than Raoul is, simply by virtue of having endured more hardships in his life. This idea of the entitlement of the underdog is very widespread, particularly in modern-day American culture, which puts an emphasis on personal achievement and "paying dues" in order to achieve rewards; from the standpoint of the average American joe, Raoul, who is wealthy and handsome, has done nothing and endured nothing to deserve Christine's love or presence, whereas the Phantom has suffered his entire life and should be rewarded with some happiness.
Obviously, this idea is bizarre when you break it down - for one thing, it completely removes Christine as a character from the equation, making her a symbolic trophy for one man or the other rather than a person participating in the situation - but it's an extremely common view that is unfortunately totally foreign to the dynamics that Leroux was attempting to introduce in his original metaphor.
This chapter also features the stunning realization that the police TOLD the Phantom to kidnap Crystal and sex her up in his underground lair to keep her safe while they go after Tony (who, no shit, is a mobster... poor Tony). Everyone is free to join me in a rousing bout of howling laughter, because this is the most hilarious police solution I have ever heard of. Crystal's chagrin that she didn't figure that out herself is unfounded, because I don’t know who this dude talked to, Crystal, but I promise you it was not the police.
This chapter involves nothing of note except for the Phantom avoiding Crystal for no good reason in order to prolong the angst, Tony getting arrested (sorry again, man), and the incredibly shocking revelation that the Phantom is Jay, the attorney, and his wound came from being shot by Tony in a jealous rage. We end the story with Crystal unmasking Jay, who she is still somehow unable to identify by herself, amid a fall of flowers and fluffy happy love and handsomeness, and then they're shagging away amid gross misuse of the present perfect tense while I cry into my piña colada.
The author's note at the end of the story confirms the conclusion that I'd already come to: that Herter's story is based exclusively on Lloyd Webber's stage show and that she had written it in a flurry of romantic, starry-eyed bliss after seeing said show. I'd feel a sense of triumph, but all I really want to do is go lie down.