The Phantom of Manhattan (1999)
by Frederick Forsyth
This is one of those books that lives in infamy. It is a legend among readers of Phantom-related literature, and for good reason. It’s terrible and it spawned yet more terribleness in the future. It is the broodmother of derivative material discontent.
Forsyth is a very well-known British author of political and military thrillers, with millions upon millions of books sold, multiple movie adaptations, and a frequent appearance on the bestseller list; he’s probably the most well-known and influential author in Phantom literature. He was a journalist and war correspondent as well as a political spy before he was a writer, and he continues to do political commentary to this day. So you’d think this might be a Phantom book that deals with some of those topics - perhaps the recent wars and their effects on Paris, or the social struggles of the severely affected class divide in France, or maybe something neat involving wartime injuries and the Phantom’s famous disfigurement.
It’s not any of those things. What it is is a trainwreck.
The preface to the book is about as famous in Phantom circles as the book itself, and I'm afraid that I was unable to avoid having some idea what was in it ahead of time because it induces a white, frothy rage in a lot of people who then post about it on the internet in very large letters. As shouldn’t surprise us from a journalist used to writing realistic thrillers, Forsyth writes it in semi-realistic pastiche style - that is, from the conceit that the Phantom really existed and the events of the novel really happened, and Leroux, as a reporter, was actually telling the truth in his own framing device about everything that was related to him by his sources.
Forsyth also repeats Carl Laemmle's - the producer of the 1925 first film adaptation of the story - tale about meeting Leroux in France and reading his novel before deciding that it should be immortalized in film. Philip J. Riley's book, published the same year, claims that this story was entirely fabricated by Laemmle, who had been mostly bullied by industry pressures and fractious stars into doing the film, in order to make it look like the whole enterprise was his own excellent idea. Who is correct? Well, since neither of these dudes bothered to cite their sources, the world will never know. Forsyth isn’t giving us a lot to extend the benefit of the doubt toward him in either this preface or this book, though.
Forsyth says some things about his interpretation that I disagree with, which happens a lot in nonfiction - that the original novel is a love story rather than a horror or mystery one, for example, which is Ye Olde Oversimplification - but things really begin to heat up around page xiii, when he calls the Phantom story as originally written "ill-used" and that Lloyd Webber's version has "pared away the unnecessary illogicalities and cruelties featured by Leroux and extracted the true essence of the tragedy". Of course, Leroux has a lot of illogical moments in his writing; he forgets characters, cuts a few corners on execution in favor of letting the reader's suspension of disbelief carry the idea, and occasionally contradicts himself or just fails to explain things. The original novel has a wealth of fantastic ideas and is very much a classic of the Gothic tradition, but it ain't perfect. But Forsyth is more interested in talking about this “unnecessary cruelties” thing than in technical problems, which leaves us with a weird screed that seems to be saying that Leroux wrote his own characters - you know, the ones he invented, himself - as too cruel and imperfect, and that the story was too violent and horrifying as a result because of his Agenda of Cruelty.
Of course, Leroux wrote the novel and invented the characters, so saying he’s “wrong” is hilarious and also inaccurate. It’s part of the overall conceit of the story being based on true events, which allows Forsyth to say that Leroux reported it inaccurately due to his own biases and desire to sell the story. Unfortunately, fans of the Phantom story did not take this idea well, both because many interpreted it as Forsyth ragging on the novel he was writing a sequel to without recognizing the journalistic framing device, and because many who did know what he was doing still found it obnoxious.
It’s interesting that this preface is hated so much, because Forsyth is essentially doing what most writers of transformative work, especially fanfic writers, do: saying that a work’s literary canon is insufficient or incorrect, and creating a new work to expand or fix it. If I had to guess, I’d say the main problems are firstly that readers felt Forsyth was insulting and dismissive of a classic literary giant to shore up his own work, and secondly that they almost universally felt that his fix-it sequel was one million times worse than the original, so there wasn’t much goodwill left to go around.
Basically, readers of transformative work will rally behind “alternate universe where the author’s bad plotting or poor characterization is fixed by delving into the characters’ psyches, using canon to support new and more meaningful derivations, and/or addressing social concerns that the original didn’t”, but they will much less often rally behind “alternate universe where the author’s original was beloved but it didn’t mesh with a completely different book I wanted to write so I’m going to drag everyone wildly out of character and then claim it’s because the original author was a hack”. Instead of following the novel’s framing device, readers just got mad at it.
Forsyth moves on into an informative discussion of the building of the Opera Garnier (nothing too fancy that you couldn't find out with an hour or two in the library, but still nice for the casual reader), and I thought, "Oh, huh. So that must have been the page that makes everyone loathe this book with such burning passion. Well, yeah, I think he sounds like a presumptuous dick there, but maybe all this reaction is still blown out of proportion some." That was the end of my innocence, y’all.
Forsyth immediately heads into an in-depth analysis of A) the things he doesn't like about Leroux's novel, and B) the reasons that the Lloyd Webber musical is far superior, finishing off with C) all the reasons that Leroux's version is actually wrong and Lloyd Webber's version is the correct interpretation of the story.
He starts out by pointing to Leroux's introduction, in which the original author claims that his story is true, and criticizing it for making such a dangerous and unsubstantiatable claim. This is actually kind of hilarious in a tongue-in-cheek way, since of course Forsyth is literally doing the exact same thing here and it’s sort of a wink to the audience that he knows it, but with the general bad-form criticism of Leroux’s writing throughout, it comes off as a bad look. People have been writing “the author was wrong and here’s why” for centuries; the problem here is the execution, not the concept.
Forsyth points out that Leroux is translated as saying that the events of the novel "do not date more than thirty years back"; since the novel was formally published in 1911, most readers (including me, usually) place the date of the events thirty years prior in 1881. However, "not more than" indicates that it may also have been less than thirty years, so the actual date might be anywhere between 1881 and 1911, although probably more toward the older end of the spectrum, since when something happened last year, no one says “couldn’t be more than thirty years ago” about it.
Of course, that’s based on translation, though; I don’t know which one Forsyth was looking at, but while the widespread de Mattos translation does say “not more than thirty years back”, the Wolf translation I'm looking at right now translates the line as "not much more than thirty years ago", which is substantially different in meaning and would place the date at 1881 or earlier. Lowell Bair’s translation says the events in question “go back only thirty years”, which implies specifically 1881, Mirelle Ribèire’s says “no more than thirty years” which jibes with de Mattos’ (but also says thirty years outright in the annotations), Coward’s says “did not go back more than thirty years” which matches Ribeire and de Mattos, and the much-maligned Lofficiers’ says “about thirty years ago” with a footnote that gives the year as 1880.
In case any Francophones want to weigh in, the original French is:
Les événements ne datent que d’une trentaine d’années...
Which my amateur translation skills think is closer to “the events only date back about thirty years”, but I’m not a pro. The point is, English translators of this classic French novel perpetrate a lot of nonsense upon those of us trying to parse out its canon a century later. We may lay many sins at Forsyth’s door and will later, but this one isn’t on him.
Anyway, Forsyth uses his translation and its indication that the year is probably slightly later than 1881 to back up his decision to set the events of the story in the year 1893, which is pretty common in later adaptations that want to be able to use slightly more modernized elements. He points specifically to the passage in Leroux's text in which Erik effects a blackout of the entire opera house for a few seconds before turning the lights back on; he makes a very good observation when he notes that, as described, this would be much easier and more plausible to do with electric lights than with the gas lights that would have been in the house prior to the refit in 1893. Of course, he has to keep up his chant of Leroux was Wrong by saying, "This would put the date rather later than Leroux would have it," at the end, even though that doesn’t make sense because he just complained that Leroux didn’t give an exact date and that the range he does give includes 1893, but whatever. There are bigger fish to fry here.
Such as the Lloyd Webber ass-kissing that’s about to start! You know everybody loves some Lloyd Webber, even to the point of a lot of people considering it the definitive version over Leroux’s original; for sure, there are a ton of people who only know that version, or who were first exposed to the story through it. He essentially lists all the things that are different in Lloyd Webber’s adaptation in order to explain how they are the “correct” version and fix mistakes that appeared in Leroux’s novel, which continues to not endear him to a large field of already cranky people.
For example, he says, "[Leroux] appears also to have made an error with the position, appearance and intelligence of Mme. Giry, an error corrected in the Lloyd Webber musical. His lady appears in the original book as a half-witted cleaner. She was in fact the mistress of the chorus and the corps de ballet..." The tone is condescending, especially when he goes on to explain how Leroux had an unreliable memory and this is the result of faulty reporting, and again so much of this framing device could work better if it explained its “the author was wrong” alternate take on events in some way other than “because he was bad at his job.”
It’s interesting that Forsyth so clearly and directly makes a point of telling us and the rest of the world that his book is based on Lloyd Webber’s musical, not the original novel. Most sequels and adaptations go the other way and disavow Lloyd Webber, even if they’re obviously based on it - because the Really Useful Group, which owns the show, is notoriously litigation-happy and has taken action against derivative works based on Lloyd Webber’s musical in the past. Of course, Forsyth has two things in his corner here: he’s traditionally published and popularly established as a big-name author with a big-name publishing house, and Lloyd Webber himself read and liked his work, so he probably doesn’t have the same problems that indie writers with no representation do.
On we go, with Forsyth now pointing to the fact that the opera house chandelier never actually fell out of the sky and that it weighs much less than Leroux's chandelier does, which facts he refers to as a "glaring error". Again, this is part of his framing device of “I’m writing in reality, Leroux was writing in reality, therefore any fictitious elements are Mistakes”, but again, it’s obnoxiously toned and, more importantly, doesn’t really matter. If the weight of the opera house’s chandelier or the fact that it didn’t fall actually mattered to the book he’s about to write, it would make sense to pause and explain to the reader how it worked, but they aren’t so it isn’t. The only real reason to bring it up is to further establish Leroux’s account as untrustworthy, which has already been done by this point (successful or not, we get the point). This is another reason this preface annoys readers, because Forsyth overexplains and overdesigns his new version so much that it sounds like he’s airing some kind of personal grievance with Leroux rather than just trying to give the reader a framework to move on with.
But that’s not the worst part, really. The worst part, and the most reasonably off-pissing for most people, is the discussion of the Persian.
Forsyth starts off by referring to the character as a “mountebank” a few times, which tells you we’re not going in a complementary direction, and then goes on to actively hate the character and explain why everything he ever said in the original novel was a lie (with a side order of once again calling Leroux poor at reporting since he didn’t check the Persian’s allegations thoroughly enough). It’s not hard to see why; as we’ll see when we get to the plot of the book (oh my god, we’re still in the preface, this is some kind of penance), Forsyth wants the Phantom to be a sympathetic and misunderstood character, so the daroga, who pursued him from Persia and explained that he was a repeated murderer and intentionally armed others to try to stop him from continuing to terrorize the opera house, must be a liar, because no one wants to sympathize with a guy who builds torture chambers and stalks defenseless women. (Well, I think reading all these has shown us all that this is not true, but in general.)
At any rate, the Persian is characterized by Forsyth here as an evil, manipulative figure who had a personal grudge against the Phantom and therefore intentionally tried to commit character assassination against him, lying about the tragic and noble figure to villainize him forevermore in Leroux’s account. This is not the first time a writer has done this; Siciliano also made the Persian an evil villain in his novel, which came out a few years before this one and might have been an influence. Just like Siciliano, Forsyth doesn’t like Leroux’s morally-questionable and emotionally-damaged Erik, so he tells us we were misinformed so he can write his new, shinier version, and that requires the Persian to be a liar, and that requires the Persian to have a reason to be a liar, and that would be hard so we’ll just say he’s evil and call it a day.
I’m sure I barely even have to point out why it’s a really bad idea to take the one confirmed character of color from the original novel and declare that he’s actually evil and scheming to bring down the Virtuous Hero, but I’m going to anyway. Leroux’s Persian suffers from some exoticism due to the time period, but Forsyth has made his Persian (and Darius, who’s about to burst onto the scene in a whole terrible new way as the only character of color in this novel) an evil representative of all that is unholy (that’s literal, you folks may not be ready for this later). Our one man of color is a demon bent on bringing down the white representative of western capitalism for his own selfish gain. He’s a racist caricature of the Evil Foreigner and it’s very very bad, all the way around, do not pass Go and do not collect any money whatsoever.
And if you enjoyed “Forsyth can’t be bothered to come up with a reason for the Persian and Darius to be evil beyond ‘because I said so’”, you’ll love the Bad Psychology that is the extremely half-assed explanation for why the Persian is so obviously lying in the first place. Forsyth seems to think that having any sympathy for the original novel’s Erik is “a sentiment utterly impossible if one believes the Persian", which is hilarious because if that were true, we wouldn’t have umpty-million adaptations of the story, half of which present him as tragically misunderstood and lovable; he can’t sympathize with the Phantom as written, so obviously no other reader ever could and therefore he has to fix this problem before he can move on. (Ignore the fact that Lloyd Webber, who he spends all his time worshiping from below his glowing pedestal of storytelling, apparently sympathized just fine.) He then goes on to also say that the major flaw in the Persian’s Clearly Lying version of events is the fact that he tells Raoul that Erik had a long and varied life before coming to live beneath the opera house, to which Forsyth replies, "If the man had enjoyed such a life over so many years he would certainly have come to terms with his own disfigurement... Why on earth should he then decide to flee into exile...? Such a man... would have made a tidy packet from his contracting work and then retired..."
So, yeah, again, Forsyth thinks someone with a major life-affecting disability wouldn’t have had this problem and would have sucked it up and moved on, so obviously, the Persian is lying about the fact that he hid from people and had severe psychological problems. And because he can’t conceive of the Phantom having this kind of psychological problem as a result of his disfigurement, obviously it must not have been so, so he’s got to fix that before we can move on, too.
You know, you could have just written a book that didn’t have this preface attached to it, man. Sentences like “Madame Giry was the ballet mistress” completely prevent the need to write long paragraphs explaining why she should be the ballet mistress. “Many people had said he was a murderer, but they didn’t know the truth,” covers a lot of ground and then I could be reading the actual narrative instead of slogging through this preface like I’m desperately searching for the last oasis before the end of time.
Forsyth’s closing argument is that "the only logical step for a modern analyst to take" is to assume that about a third of Leroux's book is incorrect and he’ll now fix it for us, with the help of Sir Andy. Another problem with all this is that the faux-intellectualism of it is not suited to the genre this story lives in - any of them, really - and he just sounds pompous, whether you liked Leroux’s original story or not. Some of the mess here in the preface is probably intended to catch readers who don’t know the Phantom story (or only read or saw one adaptation of it) up to speed, while the rest is meant to “correct” readers who do know the story ahead of time so they don’t come in with the wrong idea of the universe it’s set in, but it doesn’t really do either job well. Honestly, it boils down to this: if this book were well-written, it could have established its version of the universe in the actual text instead of in this preface. To justify its existence, the preface needed to add something, such as an element of realism with its conceit about the real existence of the Phantom, and it’s too busy establishing an alternate canon to do that, either.
Basically, it’s bad and no one likes it.
At least we know exactly what this book is based on; Forsyth mentions the films in passing but says they’re “flawed” interpretations (without getting into any details, which makes me think he either doesn’t think they’re as important in the cultural consciousness as Leroux’s book and therefore he doesn’t have to defend his work against them, or he hasn’t seen or studied them in much depth), so it’s pretty much just the Lloyd Webber musical from here on out.
I needed a break at this point, so I came back to read the actual book itself three days after the preface. This is a sequel to the events in the musical, not a retelling of the original story.
Madame Giry gets a first name: Antoinette. This is not actually the first version to give her a name; Bischoff's 1976 novel assigned her the name Michelle. It’s a trend to give her a first name in a lot of derivative literature that (mostly based on the Lloyd Webber show or Love Never Dies) gives her a larger role, and this one, oddly enough, has become sort of the go-to staple for a lot of later works.
I don’t have a lot to say about the actual writing in this book, because it teeters between “not actively annoying to read” and “fine I guess but totally forgettable”. It’s all very short sentences, fragments, choppy points for emphasis, and laundry lists of things happening in a very dull if-then sequence that immediately exits your brain as soon as you read it. It reads like a lot of thriller writing, actually, which is what Forsyth mostly writes; when you have a complex web of intrigue or lots of things exploding, short choppy prose is stylistically helpful, but here it comes off as stilted and boring.
Madame Giry, who is currently dying with entirely too much fanfare in a convent somewhere, has been given some more backstory in addition to the changes from the musical. She is now referred to as the "Mistress of the Chorus", which apparently also includes the ballet girls for some reason (probably because Lloyd Webber’s show combined the singing chorus and ballet dancers in order to showcase his then-wife Sarah Brightman's ballet talents) and has also been given two marriages (one young and passionate, the other later and loveless) and a generally tragic widow-with-child role to play. Forsyth assigns Meg Giry to Christine as her personal maid now that Christine is a famous and lofty opera singer, because apparently she is totally necessary to the plot despite being almost unnecessary even in her role in Lloyd Webber's musical and even more unnecessary in her blink-and-you-missed-it appearances in Leroux's novel, and bang, a few pages in and we've got all the characters from the musical in general proximity to one another. A lot of derivative works also feel the need to include all of the original story’s (or show’s) characters, whether they do anything useful for the new work or not, out of a sense of nostalgia or a feeling that the work wouldn’t be “complete” without them.
More interesting than Giry's backstory, however, is the new backstory Forsyth has invented for the Phantom, who naturally couldn’t keep his backstory from the Leroux novel because that was related to us by the Persian and is therefore Slander. According to Madame Giry, who insists on telling all of this to a comically disinterested priest, she rescued a five-year-old Erik (who gets the name from Leroux's novel, even if he gets no other characteristics) from a traveling carnival freakshow, in which he was being abused and displayed for money. There's a lot of silliness about Giry's burgeoning mothering instinct and how she came to think of him as one of "her two boys" (you are happier at this innocent moment not knowing who the other one is) and let him live in her flat, scaring her actual daughter to death, before transferring him to his exciting new existence underneath the opera house. The idea of Erik performing in a circus or freakshow was mentioned in passing in Leroux's novel, though it wasn't really expanded on until Kay's 1990 prequel; it seems unlikely that Forsyth is drawing from the latter since there aren’t any other nods to it (and Kay’s novel makes the Persian a major character and a very sympathetic one).
Erik is also given a new last name here: Mulheim. It joins the ranks of other versions that slap a last name on the Phantom for one reason or another; here, it seems to be a result of Forsyth seeking to make the Phantom more of a real-life person with societal ties, however tenuous. The name itself doesn't seem to have much of an applicable connotation, unless this version of Erik is secretly a miller's son or something.
Now it's time for some math, when Madame Giry claims that Erik was born forty years ago. Since it's 1906, and she says that Erik was born forty years ago, and Forsyth places the events of Leroux's novel in 1893, that makes Erik... twenty-seven during all those terrorizing and kidnapping shenanigans. The change to something close to half the original character's age is disorienting; it makes sense in that a character pushing seventy would be less effective for the kind of sequel that Forsyth has in mind, but it also diminishes quite a lot of the Phantom's powerful presence and father imagery from the original. Much of Erik's psychological hold on the original Christine came from the connection to her father and his full lifetime of experience before beginning to manipulate her, and it's very difficult to take that seriously with a mid-twenties Phantom. (But, of course, the Phantom clearly couldn’t have had a lifetime of experiences because only an untalented or young and insecure person could ever have his problems. Obviously.)
Erik's backstory continues to explain that his parents were carnies for a traveling circus (interestingly, his father was a carpenter and an engineer, though again I doubt there’s any influence from Kay's novel), and they eventually got tired of his hideous face and sold him off to be exhibited in another carnival, which is frankly a missed opportunity for interaction with himself and his parents if they stayed with the same carnival, as it also seems more logical for them to do. From there, Madame Giry rescued him, and he immediately got down to business educating himself by reading the extensive library at the Garnier (which, by the way, is indeed enormous and fantastic). I really like the idea of him giving himself an eclectic, self-taught education on any and all subjects he finds interesting, except that I can't get past the part where I can't figure out where he learned to read.
Forsyth is wasting no time in sympathizing the shit out of his version of Erik, no doubt in pursuit of undoing all the damage caused by that scurrilous Persian. His first move will be to assure us, the readers, that Erik has never actually killed anybody on purpose; in case we're confused (come on, even Lloyd Webber's Phantom killed people!), he explains that Buquet hung himself and Erik was just blamed for the death, and that he'd just meant to quiet Piangi in order to go onstage, but the other man fought him and was accidentally killed.
Ah, yes. “Your honor, I wasn’t trying to murder him, I was just trying to strangle him enough to knock him out and he made me kill him by fighting back! This is not my fault and I am not morally culpable for his death.” A truly universal defense. Even Lloyd Webber's version of the Phantom is too nasty for Forsyth's delicate sensibilities, so apparently even that holy grail of interpretations needs a little retconning to line up with Forsyth's kinder, gentler Erik. (Of course, there's not even a tiny mention of the tragic fate of Phillippe or the death-by-squashing of Madame Giry’s replacement; they’re from the original novel, so as far as Forsyth is concerned, they don’t exist and no one cares about them.)
And here, AGAIN, I want to say that there's influence from Kay's novel, but I really think it's more influence from daytime soaps: when Raoul finally makes his way down to rescue Christine, it turns out that she's pregnant (because he's a nice guy and he loves her, he marries her and pretends the kid is his). Kay used the same device, having Raoul bring Erik's child up, but she did it with a lot more buildup and reasonable deduction, even if I wasn't exactly a fan of her version of this, either. Forsyth just kind of hurls it at us out of the blue and makes sure to tell us that Christine was two months pregnant at her wedding to make sure nobody gets any scandalous ideas about the baby actually being fathered by Raoul or something. The only person who knows this, apparently, is the still-expiring Madame Giry, even though it's a pretty safe bet that most of the French aristocracy that know the Vicomte and his wife can probably count to seven and deduce that a few months are missing.
So, at any rate, Madame Giry, who has the stamina of a Wagnerian soprano because this exposition has been going on a very long time in her ostensibly dying breath, smuggled Erik out of the opera after the mob failed to hunt him down and packed him off to New York in the hopes that he would Start a Brave New Life, or something along those lines. It's interesting to take a look at the fact that, rather than just implying it as some versions do, Forsyth has actively given Madame Giry the role of Erik's mother; he's not the first writer to "correct" the lack of a mother figure for the Phantom in the original novel. Christine’s role as his proxy for mother and society and romance is simplifed down to just love interest as a result.
Then Antoinette Giry finally dies and sails off toward the light and the ghost of her dead first husband amid a rain of maudlin joy, or something, all of which was pretty boring since the backstory it was based on was flat, unembellished, and introduced five pages ago.
Time for Greek mythology corner! Forsyth describes the present-day Erik as possessing "wealth and power beyond the dreams of Croesus"; while Croesus is not strictly an imaginary figure, since historians are fairly certain he was an actual Ionian king, he's been blended with myths (particularly those pertaining to Apollo) over time until achieving mythic status on his own. The phrase is used ironically here, since Croesus was very much a representative of light and a servant of Apollo, while Erik really can't be said to represent any kind of light at all. (Okay, it’s actually probably just used as a colloquialism meaning “he’s really rich y’all” and Forsyth didn’t think about it as much as I just did.)
My question about where Erik learned to read is now joined by the question of where he learned to speak English, which he apparently doesn't have much trouble with upon arriving in New York. Forsyth's offhand explanation that he picked it up from a few English librettos in the Garnier library doesn’t really work out, since reading someone’s opera buffo in a foreign language absolutely does not prepare you to have conversations with anyone that aren’t about the tragedy of the lost message or how the count is going to accidentally marry his horse. Librettos aren't big on grammar or vernacular since they’re designed to be sung and are usually more poetic than conversational, and the sheer volume of English librettos one would have to read and fully understand with no help in order to gain a decent grasp of the language is mind-boggling (and in excess of the Garnier's library, I'm pretty sure).
At this point, we are introduced to a new character and I need y’all to fasten your seatbelts for the rest of the book. His name is Darius, which technically makes him another returning characters, since Leroux's Persian had a servant named Darius, though he didn't really get to do much in that novel. He was also, presumably, Persian, though nobody ever really tells us. As far as I can tell, this Darius doesn't have much to do with that one - he's a guy from Malta that Erik runs into and then takes with him mostly by chance - so why the same name? All I can think of here is that the name is being used to tie Darius more closely to the original Persian's roles, by which I mean his roles as defined by Forsyth, since Darius is the most cartoonishly and inexplicably cardboard evil villain you’ve ever seen in your life.
But the fun doesn't end there. Erik mentions that Darius converted him from his old and foolish beliefs to "worship of the one true god". Now, Darius is already obviously evil, and since Malta is one of the most uniformly Catholic countries in the world, I was wondering if Forsyth was going to try for some kind of anti-Catholicism move here, which has fallen out of favor in the past few decades but used to be a pretty popular move to villainize a character in older novels (think American novels where good humble Protestants are menaced by the old-fashioned and vaguely pagan Catholic powers, or British novels in which the Church is an iron-fisted institution bent on world power as opposed to nice English people and their nice neighborhood Anglican bakeoffs, etc). But, of course, the original Erik already was Catholic, like most people in France in his time period, so how could he convert to Catholicism?
The second largest (which is about one percent of the population, so "largest" is a very relative term) religion in Malta, according to quick and dirty online research, is a tie between Judaism and Islam. A conversion to either of which would have been an interesting choice, especially since Darius, who spent a lot of time with the Persian who was presumably Muslim, would make sense as being Muslim himself and Erik’s original version lived in Persia himself for some years, but no to that, either. In fact, no amount of educated guessing could actually have come up with what is going on, which will be revealed shortly. I think Forsyth was trying to build up suspense for a grand reveal here, but it didn’t work and I spent some time wondering if he just sort of forgot to finish writing his thought.
And now, Erik is a clown. Yes, there he is, working the Coney Island fairgrounds and amusement parks in a clown suit! You see why people make fun of this book.
I get what Forsyth is going for here; he's using this as a way for the character to move around and interact without having to deal with the consternation caused by his face, and the “sad clown” image is a pretty culturally common enough one to get some traction here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense with Erik’s previous characterization - either in Leroux’s novel or Lloyd Webber’s show. It doesn't even make sense in light of Forsyth's own backstor! This man was abused and exhibited as a freak in a cage for years as a child and traumatized by the experience, so now he wants to voluntarily exhibit himself for the amusement of gawkers? He was so traumatized by the way other people treat him for his appearance that he literally hid underground for years to avoid them, but now he’s trying to get them to laugh at him? He works as a clown for two YEARS, and I can't even understand the character doing it for two WEEKS.
I could see trying to do this as a way to show that the character has hit rock bottom; after losing Christine, his domain, and everyone he’s ever known in Paris as a result of his actions, the Phantom must return to the same roots he came out of and rise above them, this time on his own and in such a way as to become a better person. And, I mean, he has to eat like everybody else, so he has to do something, but… this Erik not only doesn’t become a better person or feel he’s hit rock bottom, he actively rejects trying to do that, and he could have done so many other things! He makes a point of telling us how superstitious the carnival folk are, but he doesn't bother trying to do the same thing he managed with supposedly rational upper-crust people in the heart of Paris and haunt people for money and influence? If he's so big on avoiding public mockery (which he still is, as he tells us repeatedly), why doesn't he just hide instead of running around covered in greasepaint?
Also, he's now carrying a gun to defend himself from muggers. Apparently his preferred methods of swift and deadly strangulation and traps and vaguely superhuman physiology evaporated somewhere on the trip across the Atlantic. Oh, wait... this version of Erik didn't kill anybody. That's right. Okay, Fluffy Bunnykins Pacifist Erik can have a gun..
If Forsyth wanted so badly to write a book about a misunderstood genius who never killed anyone and was betrayed by a woman he had never wronged and who then bartered his self-esteem to survive and became a sort of Everyman Rising from the Dust of the American Dream, then why the hell is he writing a book based on the Phantom story? If this were an original novel, he could do whatever the hell he wanted, and no one would be able to say boo about it. Sweet candy crackers, I even would have tried to go with it if he'd shown the character's personality changing through adversity, or given us an event or backstory that explained Erik's change of heart, or given us any kind of justification at all, but instead we’re twenty-two pages out of the preface and he’s a clown with a gun.
We're moving on to one of Forsyth's strengths: he really has a visible fondness for Old New York, and his interest in the subject makes his descriptions and events on Coney Island some of the most interesting of the book. I was very excited when Erik met Paul Boyton, who was a real-life Coney Island showman and the builder of the very first permanent amusement park, but as Erik predictably began to help him design the place, my excitement began to wane and dissipate when it became apparent that Forsyth's research into this bit of history was pretty cursory. For one thing, he claims that Erik designed six rides for Boyton's Sea Lion Park and that they were all great successes when the park opened, but a quick look at the history of the place will tell you that the park only had three rides when it first opened.
Forsyth's description of the rides Erik designed is also hella vague: "I designed them... using deception, optical illusion and engineering skill to create sensations of fear and bewilderment among the tourists..." Okay, but that makes it seem like Forsyth has no idea what Erik designed and is just trotting out the most generic of generic amusement ride descriptions in order to placate his readers. Considering that the original rides at the park were a slide ride, a water ride, and a mini roller-coaster, I don’t know where the deception and optical illusion come in, but I don’t think it was actually on the rides themselves.
When the park's popularity begins to decline, Erik moves on to start working for the next large one that was built there, Steeplechase Park. Forsyth doesn't explain or describe anything whatsoever in Erik's contribution to this park except to again say that he designed rides. His final move to Luna Park is similarly vague and disappointing; I would at least have thought that Erik might have noticed the destruction of his rides when Sea Lion Park was destroyed in 1902 to make way for Luna, but apparently he didn't give much of a shit so Forsyth didn't bother to mention it.
As a former New Yorker myself and one who really, really finds Coney Island and its fanciful, checkered history fascinating, I was deeply bummed by the slapdash handling of what could have been an awesome opportunity to transport readers to an almost completely forgotten age. The last Coney Island amusement park, Astroland, just closed permanently a few years ago, and the culture of the amusement parks is a thing of the past now. For those that might be interested in a little bit on the lost land of illegality and sleaze rubbing shoulders with carefree entertainment, there's a decent website on it here for those that aren't into library-diving.
A particularly bewildering new running theme here is Erik's newfound obsession with money. The original Erik had his extortion racket going on, but that was really a means to an end in order to live comfortably; Forsyth's Erik wants to roll around in his dollars like Scrooge McDuck. His schemes balloon to enormous, ridiculous heights until he's described as a gigantic multi-millionaire (in 1906? Holy cats, we got a second Carnegie on our hands here, folks) who keeps on collecting, collecting, collecting. He talks about it a lot and is obviously fixated on the acquisition of wealth. I spent a lot of time despairing and asking in increasingly desperate tones why something so out of line with the original character was being given so much prominent handling, but never fear (or, fear a lot): Forsyth is coming to the rescue to explain. You see, the religion that Darius has converted Erik to is not in fact Catholicism, or Judaism, or Islam. It is a religion that does not actually formally exist except in a metaphorical sense: the cult of Mammon.
I had a vague idea what this was all about because I live with a dude who has a Degree in Religious Stuff, but I went looking for specifics only to discover that there really aren't too many. The term mammon (in Hebrew, ממון, literally “money” or “profit”) occurs in Biblical literature and generally means greed or avarice associated with ill-gotten wealth; in the New Testament, the concept is vaguely personified a few times, probably in order to contrast the undesirable concept with God. The Catholic church latched onto this, as it did with many things, and the Middle Ages saw the "demon" Mammon referred to in some non-canonical texts as an actual entity, despite the lack of textual support for this.
So Darius is a worshiper of Mammon? Um. Okay, sure. Weird, but okay. My first thought was that this was going to be metaphorical, like most references to mammon (usually just translated as "wealth" or "greed" in modern bibles); i.e., Darius is out for himself, he acknowledges no authority over him, he's reaching for the ultimate symbol of power, etc. But no! Actual conversations with said god - opium-induced, but still - will be happening later in the book.
So Darius (who, by the way, is evil, did I mention how evil he is? VERY) is a worshiper of Mammon, who is totally an evil demon and a real discrete entity going around trying to steal good peoples’ souls by impersonating a deity, and Erik is now also his disciple, because... well, apparently, because Darius told him about it and he thought it sounded nifty. I don’t understand Erik's conversion to this cult here and I’m not going to because all we get from Forsyth is some offhand remark about how worship of this god won't include pain, which is annoying and self-indulgent and also not nearly enough. Forsyth doesn’t care if he establishes it because, again, he’s not going to show anything that got this character from the Point A he started with at the end of the Phantom story to the Point B of now because he really just wants to be writing an original book that has nothing to do with that one and for some reason, possibly because his family is being held hostage, he just can’t stop.
Much wordcount is spent telling us what Erik is up to, which seems to be mostly world conquest. He owns huge stakes in Coney Island; then he wins enormous sums of money in illegal gambling; then he plays the stock market for a while with fantastic results; then he decides to be a railroad and steel baron. It is therefore not a glaring surprise when it turns out that he also constructed the Manhattan Opera House for his own enjoyment, mostly because he had a hissy fit when the Metropolitan wouldn't cater to his whims and decided he’d just take his toys and go home, so there. And then he carved out the canals with his fingernails, shat out the pristine new Staten Island Ferry, and created the Flatiron building by pancaking its roof with the massive weight of his ego! Oh, sorry, that was just the logical progression I was seeing after Forsyth spent this entire time equating genius/impressiveness to wealth and then using the masses of wealth to show us how great Erik is and what a bad idea it was for anyone to ever have been mean to him.
A few readers may be fooled into hope when several characters discuss legendary opera singer Nellie Melba and her imminent arrival in New York, but they shouldn't be. She will not be discussed at length, and because she is not part of the dramatics going on between the characters of Leroux's novel, she will not actually be allowed to do so much as set foot in Manhattan within the pages of the novel. (Which is too bad. This is a woman who managed to handle Oscar Wilde; a story where Erik tried to fixate on her only to get her operatic foot in his ass would be a delight.)
Erik's internal monologues are painful, both because they don’t sound much like the original character and just in general because they are exhaustively whiny. Long periods of agonizing over how Madame Giry was the only person who ever loved him are only interrupted by long periods of whining about how unfair it was of Christine to leave him and how it's because she was such an unfeeling creature that he's turned to the worship of Mammon and become A Bad Person. Needless to say, the original themes (extremely present in Lloyd Webber's musical, too, even if we're ignoring the novel) of the Phantom finally achieving his own salvation and growing as a person by letting her go have been completely axed. Learning? Growing? Achieving redemption through sacrifice and maturity? No. Instead, he's going to angst angrily in his piles of money before locking himself in his room and listening to screamo with his speakers at maximum volume. YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND HIM.
This chapter is mostly devoted to showing us how silly French people are by letting us follow the hapless guy that Madame Giry sent off to give a letter to Erik and watching him fail catastrophically at his task. Personally, I felt bad for the guy, since, "Find a guy named Erik in New York and give this to him" is not exactly the most reasonable request of the year. Naturally, through a stroke of fortune and the intervention of a plucky New York reporter, the letter finds its way to Erik anyway.
I think this is supposed to be comedy?
This reporter has immediately begun referring to Erik, who is known to him only as a mysterious tycoon who owns half the city and doesn't mingle with the common folk much, as the Phantom of Manhattan. Yeah, that's definitely not contrived or anything.
It is revealed here that Totally Evil Darius is the reason that the Met wouldn't give Erik a private box, because he was trying to stop him from messing around with this opera stuff and getting distracted from his True and Glorious Purpose of Amassing Wealth for the Great Lord and Master the Totally a Real Deity Mammon. Because he’s evil!
Every note in this chapter has "Oh, god," appended to its beginning. Oh, god, of course he's importing Christine to sing at his new opera house, because that's a great idea. Oh, god, of course he wrote another masterpiece opera, because apparently Don Juan Triumphant was just a warmup and not his magnum opus that he said he would die after completing. Oh, god, it’s time to talk about how he’s still the most superlative musician ever to grace the earth even though he’s spent the past several years being a stockbroker clown and being directly sabotaged by Darius. Wouldn't his sulk party following Christine's departure and his decision to devote himself to the acquisition of wealth be sort of counter to the production of that transcendental music that was so central to the original character (note: composing this opera and whining about the events of years past will be the only musical things Erik does until the very end of the book)?
I do love this chapter, because the column by obvious fop Gaylord Spriggs is much better suited to Forsyth's writing style. It's interesting and informative without dumping too much, the voice is engaging, and the overwrought style suits the subject matter. Alas that it is not very long and we're back to the rest of the book now.
Forsyth's love of New York City is still apparent here, and again the description is one of his strengths. The fond immigration litany here from the random Catholic priest almost makes up for the fact that there is a random Catholic priest involved for no reason other than to Oppose the Forces of Evil (y’know, Darius).
The Phantom's new opera, in keeping with the very American theme we're running with here, is about the American Civil War. It's called The Angel of Shiloh, which caused all sorts of misgivings in my belly, but I decided to reserve judgment until I got a more thorough idea of what it's supposed to be about. (In case you wondered, no, Forsyth will not be addressing any of the racially charged social and cultural issues of the American Civil War. Whether that’s annoying because it’s a big damn thing to ignore or a relief because we really didn’t want to see what he’d have done with it is up to you.)
There's quite a bit more reporter nonsense and newspaper article stuff, all of which seems like a fairly obvious nod toward Leroux (or maybe just Forsyth’s own background). Unfortunately, this is mostly overshadowed by some more confirmation of how heinously evil Darius is. Sigh. It is because he really is the original Darius, and he caught Evil Bastard disease from the Persian?
Christine has arrived in New York with her son, Pierre de Chagny. Anyone who didn't get a premonition of literary doom at that statement has not been paying attention to Forsyth's masterfully subtle foreshadowing.
All right, the reporter is calling Erik the Phantom of Manhattan again. Why is he doing that? This is not France, so the word fantôme is not involved, and even if it were, it means "ghost", not "guy I don't know anything about". There is no haunting going on here! He's just living in a skyscraper! No one tells folktales about him!
In this chapter, some mysterious agency (GEE WHO COULD IT BE?) sends Pierre the monkey music box that was featured so prominently at the end of Lloyd Webber's musical. Magically, Pierre manages to take it apart, put it back together, and then jump it through a large number of hoops, all with a tiny screwdriver and only his own ingenuity. Now, we already knew about Pierre's parentage from Madame Giry, but the fact that he is a natural engineering genius is very obvious foreshadowing, provided just in case we, the readers, somehow missed the literal obvious telling earlier. Also, while I can accept that Pierre is able to figure machines out with facile ease and that he probably speaks pretty good English thanks to the efforts of his Catholic priest tutor, I find it a little bit too much of a stretch that he can discuss complicated mechanical concepts in English.
The music box, in case anyone was wondering, does indeed play "Masquerade" from the Lloyd Webber musical, which prompts Christine to go into a fit of hysterics and hide herself and her son in her hotel room for a while, which is a reasonable response to the what is probably a PTSD trigger or at least a suggestion that a violent stalker from her past may now be preparing to menace her and her child. Unfortunately, reason deserts her shortly thereafter and rather than increasing security or informing the authorities, she decides that the thing to do is to hunt Erik down and give him a stern talking-to, which leads her to set up an appointment to go tour the amusement parks of Coney Island on her quest.
(Although, then again, she knows that last time the authorities, her fiancé, the daroga, and a literal mob of angry stagehands and performers couldn’t rescue her and she had to literally talk him out of murdering her, Raoul, and/or everyone else, so… maybe she thinks she has to handle this alone. Which is sad and terrifying.)
Of course, Erik, who owns all the amusement parks and probably everything else in the entire borough of Brooklyn, instructs the workers to open the places up for a private tour for her, even though it's winter and everything is closed down. On the one hand, I approve of derelict amusement parks, since they're creepy as hell; on the other, I am deeply afraid that this is going to be handled with Forsyth's general amount of subtlety and finesse up to this point (which is to say, not much).
Erik's internal monologue reveals his master plan to beg Christine to love him some more. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh. Not only has he thrown the redemption and growth of the original novel's ending out the window, but he hasn't even retained any of the maturity he keeps so desperately trying to convince us he must have. He's regressing. It's saddening and I'm sad.
Unfortunately, I was soon to miss mere sadness. This is where one of the infamous moments of this novel happens: Forsyth has decided to go ahead and castrate Raoul.
We're treated to another flashback-style retelling of events from Madame Giry's perspective, where we discover that she also "adopted" Raoul after, in a tragic sequence of events, he attempted to stop a rape/mugging in progress and was shot in the groin. Way too much explanation is offered to make sure we know the exact kind and quality of the resulting injury, because as readers we definitely needed to not only know that the trauma rendered him permanently impotent but also get all the details of what pieces of his anatomy still work and how much.
It’s not subtle: Forsyth wants to represent Raoul as literally “unmanned”, unmasculine, impotent, an unsuitable romantic prospect for Christine, and he also wants to make sure that he lets us know that this happened before he met Christine again at the opera and swept her off. Many pointed statements, akin to, "Oh! How tragic that he can never marry! What kind of strange, desperate woman would marry him when he has no penis function?!", are made, hammering home the idea that Christine had to marry him because of her pregnancy and that he is essentially less than a man with all the subtlety of a jackhammer to the forehead.
It’s not subtle, but it is disgusting. It manages to be transphobic, exorsexist, ableist, and a slew of other kinds of offensive all at once. He doesn’t even explicate it, because the way it’s framed makes it clear that he expects the audience to automatically see Raoul as lesser because of his injury; the book takes it as read that of course a man who can’t get an erection is lesser compared to one who can, and of course no woman would really want him, and of course the inability to have sex or father children basically renders him pointless, and of course no one could possibly love someone unless they were also in passionate constant penetration-sex-having lust with them.
Yeah, it’s a problem of Forsyth having created an unlikable hero and having to figure out some way to shove Raoul offstage - especially the dashing, heroic Raoul of Lloyd Webber’s musical - because otherwise Erik is more obviously the trashboat he is, and he also wants to make sure the reader doesn’t doubt that Pierre is Erik’s son instead of Raoul’s, even though he already told us, so making Raoul impotent fixes everything. But it fixes it incredibly badly and it’s extremely obvious how much of a lazy patch it is, literally retconning the source material with an unimportant side event perpetrated by unnamed nobodies and related through backstory because actually writing ANYTHING AT ALL THAT PUT IN A SHRED OF WORK was apparently too fucking much.
While I have talked about Raoul's role as the traditional "sexless hero" of Gothic literature, that doesn't mean actually sexless and now I’m just kind of mad about having to think about this when I use the term. It just means that he's sexually nonthreatening (i.e., safe, comforting, representative of stability and family), which he can definitely be while still having a sex life and procreating. I doubt that Forsyth is trying to work with that idea here, since he doesn't actually work with any of the familiar roles of Leroux's work; and anyway, if he wanted to play with Gothic character types, being able to love a woman but unable to physically ravish her pretty much makes Raoul the perfect male love interest for that kind of literature, which is not what I think Forsyth is trying to go for.
It's worth pointing out that Madame Giry's usurpation of the mother role for Raoul, too, is something we haven't seen before. She's basically taken Phillippe's place (but better, because, you know, Madame Giry is being canonized as we speak), since that character was removed from this version. I’m not sure why Raoul needs a family to interact with, considering that by the time we see him in this book he’s already married with a child and his connection to Madame Giry is totally irrelevant except for a vague stab at making him a foil/parallel to Erik, her “other boy”. I’m wondering if Forsyth was trying to prevent him from being an orphan and thus sympathetic, but also didn’t want to put in any work inventing an actual family for him.
As if things weren’t terrible enough yet, the end of the chapter features the Phantom bursting into spontaneous rhyme:
"You can spit on me, defile me; jeer at me, revile me; but nothing you can do will hurt me now. Through the filth and through the rain, through the tears and through the pain, my life's not been in vain: I have a son."
I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Blah blah blah, this entire pointless chapter is pointless. Meg-the-maid angsts around the place, too, not to be left out of the general angsting-over-things-that-happened party. I would probably have some angst, too, if the author had busted my knee and ruined my ballet career in order to have a reason to ship me off with Christine and keep the original cast together, even though I had no function whatsoever to the story. Sorry, Meg.
Again, Forsyth's obvious love of old New York in general and Coney Island in particular come through in this chapter. I enjoyed his characterization of the fun master, and I share his enjoyment of the self-contained universe that was Coney Island. I really wish that things had been described here with a little more flair and skill, but he is trying, and at this point, I'll take anything this author does that isn't a grievous sin and file it under success. Sadly, it trends gradually downward, until I'm just reading in a blank haze of boredom, reflecting on the brutal fact that this prose is boring me by talking about things that I usually find interesting.
Oh, look, Religious Confrontation! Naturally, the Catholic priest is able to sense the obvious Evil of Evils radiating from Darius, Mammon-Worshiper Extraordinaire, and there is a Staredown of Souls. Darius loses and runs away, because he's the bad guy and that's how it works. This was a very tense paragraph about people just staring at each other in religious furor.
Christine apparently can’t handle anything that’s going on, because she decides to leave her kid with the priest and go play in the Hall of Mirrors. You would think that a woman looking for a violent stalker who once almost murdered her husband in his cunningly-designed mirrored torture chamber might not want to dive into that particular attraction, but she decides it's the best place to find Erik for a chat. And, of course, she's right, so once again, maybe her trauma is working for her in a weird way here.
Erik pops up and, predictably, begs Christine to love him some more, and, predictably, she says no. The shock! The angst!
Well, no, neither of those emotions are present, because we already did this in the original story and no one is surprised that, having not even talked to each other since then, it hasn’t spontaneously reversed itself. Christine's heartfelt declaration of love for Raoul here is actually quite touching, though I suspect that Forsyth was not trying to move us with her emotion so much as he was trying to make us sympathize with Erik's wounded, tragic heart. Please. Seriously. I read this book already.
So, being the mature and improved gentleman that he is, Erik immediately demands that Christine leave her son here with him if she's not going to stay, because apparently no lessons were learned the last time he tried to force his wishes and emotional needs on others by kidnapping people to force them to love him. On the one hand, I can kind of see this, since he might view the boy as his creation and therefore something to shape... but on the other hand, he found out about his existence last night and generally seems vastly antisocial, so I have great difficulty taking his internal protestations of love for his son seriously. I don't care if your sperms were involved; you haven't even talked to the kid yet, so I'm really not sure you can say that you love him in more than a very, very abstract sense. And if you DID love him, you might have some pause in demanding that he never see his mother again. Just a thought. He's only twelve.
Their argument over custody of the unsuspecting Pierre is also, like so many things that shouldn’t be in this book, flat and boring. Christine eventually manages to get Erik to agree to wait until the kid is eighteen and let him decide for himself if he wants to hang out with his biological father whom he's never met, which is really the best we could possibly hope for at this point.
But wait! That’s not even the best part of this scene. The best part is the fact that Forsyth just actually gave up on writing this scene and just wrote the conversation in script form. Yes, prose and dialogue apparently because too much here, and I’d honestly rather assume he’s lazy than assume that he honestly thought that this would be a better stylistic choice. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in a published novel, and I’m a librarian.
The chapter ends with the shocking realization that, oh no! the Phantom was lying when he agreed to wait five years for Pierre to come back! Letting his son grow up and make an adult choice is for losers! We leave him plotting his attack, because things just went so well last time he kidnapped someone and demanded their affection.
As I mentioned in passing earlier, Darius has an actual conversation with Mammon at one point during which they decide that, hmm, yes, it's very troubling that Erik might start paying more attention to people than to acquiring wealth and he should be discouraged. They make a point of telling us that Darius was enjoying a large quantity of hashish at the time, but I can’t figure out if that’s supposed to signify that he’s hallucinating or dreaming, or just be shorthand for him being Evil and a Drug-User again, or if I actually have to accept the fact that Forsyth was asking his readers to deal with the idea of a demon-god controlling Darius' actions and whispering in his ear.
But yeah, that is what’s happening, because in obvious parallel Pierre's priest tutor has a conversation with God. Not a generalized one, either; a straight-up discussion, in which God is so conversational and vernacular that even the priest seems bewildered. God talks like a very modern, very open-minded Protestant, which doesn't make any sense in light of the context (again, even the priest seems confused); particular moments of divine bizarreness included the priest saying, "There are no other gods, Lord," and God replying, "Nice idea, but there are many," and the revelation on page 130 that apparently God has a finite amount of time, since he needed to wrap this prayer up and get on over to a war happening in the Balkans. He also does a nice Religion for Dummies spiel on basic Christian theory for his priest (who apparently slept through divinity school) and for those of us out here in readerland who weren't yet bored or confused. So if there are any Catholics reading who were worried Forsyth wouldn’t find a way to insult them, too, he’s got you!
The general thrust of the conversation, and the task God eventually drops on this priest, is that Erik must be redeemed, and they should get right on that. His redemption in the original story has obviously been dropped on the floor, and no one explains why God has decided it’s this priest’s job to go personally usher him toward heaven. (Or why he isn’t trying to do something more challenging or spiritually resonant - like, why aren’t we trying to save Darius? I mean, we know why, but come on.)
Also, God keeps comma splicing.
Someone refers to Erik as a "phantom financier" of the new opera house being built, since no one has ever seen him. You will all use this word for this character and you will like it.
Christine, despite this madman lurking about waiting to kidnap her kid, goes ahead and performs the debut of The Angel of Shiloh, I guess through a combination of contract obligations and naively believing Erik when he said he wouldn’t steal her child from her. The fact that Erik promptly knocks out the lead tenor and takes his place gave me immediate heartburn, despite the fact that I should have seen it coming a mile away. Why didn’t I realize? Haven't I learned by now that Forsyth thinks that originality is for losers and that no one can do better than just slavishly following the exact format of Lloyd Webber's musical? Apparently not, because I didn’t expect the reprise of the musical’s Don Juan Triumphant scene, but here we are.
The plot of Erik's opera is actually interesting; the fact that Christine is playing a battlefield nurse is reminiscent of one of the early, discarded drafts of the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, while the fact that Erik's character's entire face has been destroyed and he wears a mask of gauze while he contemplates suicide reminded me strongly of the 1937 Weibang/Shang movie. I doubt any of this is on purpose from Forsyth, who made it clear in his foreword that he doesn't think much of any of the film versions of the story, so I can't extrapolate anything from it.
I laughed a lot when Teddy Roosevelt came to the premiere of this opera. We’re pulling celebrities for Erik’s premiere!
The articles about the opera’s opening have to be suffered through. While I like Forsyth writing in journalist mode better than in novelist mode, his reporters are reporting completely incidental things for no apparent reason, like the fact that the lead tenor passed a note to Pierre. I mean, yes, you want to tell the reader things, but could you do it in a plausible fashion?
And then, bang, boom, it's 1947! Didn't see that coming, did you? Forsyth, who really enjoys other people writing flashbacks, has jumped us forward in time so that the rest of the story can be told by this reporter when he is an old man. This chapter features what is by far the best-written part of the book: the reporter's (now a professor) lecture soliloquy on journalism. It's not the best-written part of a lot of books, but in this book, it looks positively brilliant. It’s pretty analogous to the swap over the Persian’s account in Leroux’s book, except of course not like that, because we hate the Persian now for some reason.
The professor's monologue on events is much more poorly written. Please, please, please, stop him from reversing verbs and objects when he talks. "Here was I..." and "Matters not much..." and absolutely no reason for any of it. His description of the final events of this book is also hampered by the fact that apparently he needs to do a four-page recap first, even though WE JUST READ ABOUT THAT, OH MY GOD.
Darius decides that, naturally, the thing to do here is to murder Pierre. Because he's distracting Erik from making money, or something, but mostly because Darius needs to be an appropriately evil monster to make Erik look better by comparison and help effect this "redemption" that everyone is losing their minds over. The priest figures this out by translating some murderous Latin that Darius was conveniently shouting in case anyone wanted to learn his plans, and then everyone piled into a coach to have a carriage-chase to try to rescue him.
That was only funny for a minute. Allow me to quote Christine:
"That last evening, in the darkness by the lake beneath the Opera I was so afraid I thought I would die of fear. I was half-swooning when what happened... happened."
Erik does not refute this sequence of events in the slightest. So I'm left staring incredulously at this book that's trying to convince me to be on the side of a man who is not only a dangerous stalker, kidnapper, and murderer, but who also raped a terrified, half-fainting girl? And I'm supposed to feel bad for his pain and want her to give her kid to him? What in the name of fucking God are you trying to do here, Forsyth? Because you have done a spectacular job of making me hate your main character's guts. I hope the priest fucking exorcises him right back where he came from.
His subsequent impassioned speech about how he loves his son doesn't raise my opinion of him one iota. No, I'm sorry; you discovered his existence two minutes ago and have never spoken to him. You don't love him with yearning, uncontrollable emotion. And if you did love him, you'd leave him the hell alone instead of bursting into his life to destroy the foundation of his loving, happy family. But all of that would require the level of maturity necessary to sacrifice your own wishes in order to let someone you loved go to be happy - and, apparently, that was a fucking fluke the first time you did it (oh, wait, I'm sorry, you raped her first. Okay, so it's just in general something you don't possess).
Darius shoots Christine at this point because his aim is bad. I don't care anymore, and am sort of relieved that things are winding to a close. At least, I didn't care until Christine, cradled in her husband's arms, uses her dying breath to tell her hysterical twelve-year-old son that THAT's not your real daddy, THAT guy is your real daddy. Then she expires, so I couldn't root for anyone to slap her. Raoul doesn't try to deny this, and instead of taking care of his kid as I was expecting him to do, he says, "It's true! He's your real dad! Today, my son of twelve, you are a man. Pick who you want to go with. I'll just sit here with your mom's corpse bleeding on the ground."
Needless to say, I feel about ten billion times more pity and sympathy for this poor kid than I have felt for Erik at any point in the book. His mother is dead, his father is telling him that he's not his father, and this frightening stranger in a mask is crying and trying to take him home. Even at the age of twelve, that's too much to fucking handle.
Pierre picks Erik to go home with.
I tried to write something about how Pierre unmasking Erik was parallel to Christine doing it in the original story, because it is and it’s obviously another place where Forsyth is “fixing” the original by having it happen again but now with a positive outcome, but I couldn't concentrate because WHAT THE FUCK.
He's a traumatized child who's just seen his mother die, and instead of going home to bury her and live with the only father he's ever known (who, by all accounts in this novel, has been nothing but loving and responsible), he decides to go with the hideous guy he DOESN'T KNOW because he feels sorry for him? WHAT IS THIS.
It’s an assumption that whoever is blood related to you automatically has a claim on you and that being related to someone automatically engenders love that trumps whomever you actually consider your family. It’s also using Pierre as a prize to console Erik for his terrible life, literally giving a child who just lost his entire family to him in order to make poor, tragic Erik feel better and get the unconditional love he always should have had from Christine (who was a mean jerk who unjustly rejected him and has now been slain for it). It’s a bunch of horseshit.
Not that it’s the worst sin on display, but there’s also an enormous plot hole here: a big deal was made earlier of how this particular reporter telling the story doesn't speak French, which was demonstrated when he was helping the French messenger try to deliver Madame Giry's letter, but we’re also told that Raoul doesn't speak a word of English, so either the entirety of the dialogue is being conducted in French, meaning the reporter wouldn't understand any of it to tell us about it later, or else Raoul has magically learned English in the last half hour and these French people have all decided to have their dramatic death scene in English in order to help him practice.
The harping on about how Pierre's love has redeemed his father here is what really gets me. For one thing, Forsyth has - and I know I've already said so - completely trashed Erik's redemption from the original ending by plunking him back down where he was, removing his single noble act in favor of reams and reams of pointless angst. But even worse than that, for me, is the fact that Forsyth himself isn't providing Erik with any redemption THIS time around, either. Erik is not redeemed from anything. Christine dies, he takes his kid, and they build a business empire together. Forsyth's not letting him achieve redemption; he's giving him a reward (in the form of Pierre, who's acting as a proxy for his heartless mother who refused to do this years ago) for his suffering instead, and while that's an understandable motive that a lot of writers experiment with, it doesn't have a thing to do with redemption and no amount of the priest talking about it will change my mind. Redemption can't be given to a character through another character's actions or emotions; the character must themselves take action that shows that they have matured or turned over a new leaf. Pierre's love can no more redeem Erik than Christine's could have. It wasn't the fact that she loved him that redeemed him in the original novel, but the fact that he chose to let her leave with her lover and be happy rather than forcing her to bend to his own desires. Her love and sympathy made that choice possible for him, yes, but she didn't do it for him.
This Erik - a murderer who insists it’s not his fault and a rapist who never acknowledges that his actions were wrong - doesn't even acknowledge the need to stop being such a selfish, horrible prick, much less do anything about it. Forsyth can talk about redemption all he wants, but he hasn't applied it to his characters.
Pierre helps take over his new daddy's business. Forsyth leaves us with this statement about the two of them: "During the first World War, both men changed their name from Mulheim to another, still widely known and respected in America to this day."
It's THOUGHT-PROVOKING, right? Right? Phantom descendents running around, right?
This book took everything that’s worst in derivative literature - complete reworking of characters without justification, ridiculous contrivances to push extremely heavy-handed morality, lazy assumption of reader familiarity to excuse shorthand - and magnified it a thousand times while adding truly unfathomable feats of awfulness in plotting. In this case, the book’s terrible reputation among fans is completely founded. It’s terrible and no one should read it.