The Phantom of Paris (2003)
by Gwenith M. Vehlow
There's a certain amount of guilt trying to struggle its way to the surface in reviewing this book, because the author, adorable rosy-cheeked cover photo and all, lets us know right up front that she was only seventeen years old when this went to print. I think many of us can look back fondly into our seventeen-year-old pasts and shudder at prose that should never be discovered by humankind. In some ways, kids have it harder on the embarrassment front there than they did in the past; now that Lulu and Authorhouse and Amazon Digital are out there, kids can release their fiction into the wild and only years later realize the terrible mistake they have made.
(I’m mostly kidding. Chase your dreams, kids. Just be ready to laugh at yourself later if you need to.)
Anyway, this was written by a teenager, but it’s still a book that people have to pay money to read, so I’m here to explain its problems and let you decide if you want to be one of those investors.
The author uses the dedication to express her wish that all the precious Eriks of the world find true joy through the Lord. Not only does that tell us that this is going to be a religious adaptation, but we’re getting another subtle clue in the fact that the fanfiction it was based on was originally entitled “Raoul’s Revenge.” That poor kid cannot catch a break.
Prologue: In Which the Author of This Singular Work Informs the Reader About What's Happened Before
Well, it’s not very singular - almost all of this book could be summed up using tropes from every other similar book out there - but it’s nice to see that she’s using the same convention that Leroux did with the semi-journalistic opening. It’s not like the bar is set very high, considering that the only other people to bother were the two Sherlock Holmes pastiches and Forsyth’s 1999 novel. Unfortunately, it’s not really a journalistic piece in spite of the title; Vehlow just uses it as a chance to tell us her opinions on the original story in all the first-person glory she could wish.
My favorite phrase of the novel comes in here when Vehlow mentions Erik's mastery of the "traditional, everyday aspects of architectonics". This is my favorite thing ever. In case you were wondering, “architectonics” is actually a real word - it’s the scientific study of architecture and other structural arts - but it’s not the one she wanted here. I still love it.
Raoul is referred to here as a "viscomte". I thought this was probably a typo and made a joke about it in my notes, but then it continued on for the entire book. Considering that Vehlow displays some confusion between English and French titles later on, it seems like she accidentally conflated the two ("vicomte" and "viscount") and didn't realize her error.
It's worth noting that Christine is referred to here as a "chorus girl"; while Vehlow takes great pains to base most of her story in Leroux's work, there are moments here and there that let us know that there's more than a little Lloyd Webber influence involved, and this is one of them. Leroux’s Christine had sung in the chorus, but was a soloist by the time of the novel, and it’s Lloyd Webber whose characters refer to her as “chorus girl” all the time.
Chapter 1: He's Gone... Isn't He?
Chapter titles are always such a roll of the dice. Sometimes they're great, sometimes they're even neutral, but sometimes they’re just useless and don’t add anything or even make the reader cringe. Vehlow’s obviously trying to follow Leroux’s example with hers, so… you be the judge of how successful she is, I guess.
On page eight, this is said of Raoul:
"His tenderness reflected that of a woman's."
Ouch. There's nothing I love more than a good sexist implication to kick off my reading experience, where we put a man down by implying he’s like a woman and also imply that being a woman is inherently bad. Great.
More positively, one thing that Vehlow does that I absolutely love is linger on the death of Philippe and its psychological effects on Raoul. Even follow-ups and sequels that are primarily based on Leroux's novel tend to gloss over or even completely forget or remove his death, which is a shame as it's one of the most heart-wrenching of Erik's murders and should have long-ranging consequences, at least on his brother. Sadly, while the spirit is willing, the writing weak; Vehlow uses the incident as a spur for Raoul's behavior but doesn’t really manage to show any actual character growth or change in him as a result of it. So close, and yet so far away.
This novel does a lot of perspective switching; no chapter goes by without at least two, often three different people chiming in with at least a paragraph or two of internal thought or monologue. It's disorienting, and unfortunately highlights the fact that none of them sound at all different.
But, speaking of perspective, the differing points of view from Raoul and Christine when it comes to the opera house are believable and decently presented; Raoul, plagued by memories of his brother's death and his own traumatic near-strangling, wants to leave and travel the world with his fiancee, while Christine wants to stay and pursue her career in the place where she has enjoyed the greatest artistic success. (Yeah, Leroux’s ending where they ran away together has been ditched, but I doubt anyone is surprised.) The relationship between the two is pretty realistically drawn in this first scene, showing Raoul's alternating devotion and frustration and Christine's obvious affection and equally obvious distraction by her memories of past events.
Of course, Christine lets us know that Erik's body was totally not there when she went back to leave his ring with it, so clearly he is still alive (or is he? She seems confused but like, not for any reason). Apparently the idea that people might remove a dead body if they found it doesn’t occur to her. The thing to do about this mystery is apparently to send Raoul home with a promise of a breakfast date in the morning and then bust open the mirror-passage in her dressing room and start intrepidly wandering about in the dark by herself. As you do.
A lot of things don't exactly line up, logically - Christine has been back at the opera house for a while, but she's just now trying the mirror? How does she know how to even get it open? I highly doubt that the daroga told her. But off she goes on her underground sojourn, sans dependable light source, until she discovers Erik's violin lying on the ground next to an underground spring. While I am pleased to see that someone remembers Erik as a violinist, he's a violinist. He is not leaving his violin lying on the ground in the dark next to a water source.
Christine's inner monologue isn't exactly easy on the reader.
"...did? Did she? Love? Him? How?"
Oh, my aching eyes and skipping brain. If that weren't enough to make me want her to stop thinking, she starts spawning massive paragraphs whenever she begins navel-gazing, which is pretty frequently because Vehlow wants us to know how much Christine totally loves Erik and can't believe she left him, even though no compelling development or reason is ever given for her sudden change of attitude. Any development of Christine’s character or motivations could have helped here, but alas.
As I mentioned, a lot of this book is treading ground we've already seen covered, much to my dismay, and two of the most popular points rear their heads here. The first is nicely summed up in this line from page 11:
"His gentle and tender spirit she had witnessed at times had conveyed proof that, though he was known as a wicked and bloodthirsty creature, he was more capable, more willing to love and provide for her than any other."
This is really a double-whammy, because it hits on both the role-reversal that so often happens between the male leads of the original story and the idea of entitlement that will be a seriously heavy hitter in this one. The idea of Erik as a "gentle and tender spirit" is one that really isn't supported by the original text at all; he certainly loves or is infatuated with Christine, but his behavior is forceful, authoritative, and downright violent with no particular examples of gentleness (or, indeed, even understanding that he should be gentle). As we saw in the Meadows novels, many authors, seeking to place the compellingly mysterious Erik in the role of the hero, switch his role with Raoul's, making Erik suddenly a tender, soft-hearted creature while the original Gothic hero inherits his violent and unreasonable tendencies. Vehlow hasn't yet gotten to the Raoul half of the equation, but trust me, it's there in a big way, as is a serious defanging of Erik, who becomes an outright pacifist with no thought but to please his wife. That’s a common fantasy in the romance genre: the dangerous, powerful man is turned gentle and doting by the love of his woman, thereafter never being dangerous or cruel to her again because of the Power of her Love.
The other idea present, which will crop up time and time again in this book, is that Erik, by virtue of loving Christine more (according to Vehlow, anyway), must be the only possible romantic choice for her. Unfortunately, this is demeaning to pretty much all of the characters - to Raoul, who it assumes is not capable of the same depth of love for pretty much no reason other than it isn't convenient, to Christine, who it assumes has no say in her own romantic choice (because God forbid who she likes more come into play here instead of who “deserves” her more, I guess), and to Erik himself, who loses a great deal of the complexity and compelling nuance of his character when he is reduced from a bundle of conflicting social desires and pressures to a guy who just really, really wants this one woman. This will tie in later with even more depressing ideas that basically tell us that Vehlow is not only suggesting that these people are in love, she is telling us that they must be in love, because otherwise they wouldn't be properly performing Rewards for Morality.
Also, Christine is either lying or has a shockingly short memory span, because how she went from the woman who could pity Erik but still could hardly bear his terrifying appearance to someone who can say completely seriously in her internal monologue that she "could not care less about his looks" defies my ability to come up with excuses for the author. By page 12, we have heard "She loved him!" point-blank and verbatim at least five times, which is both annoying and baffling; she hasn't even seen him since escaping with Raoul, and she was very sure about wanting to do that. The problem with basing stories on Leroux's novel instead of on one of the softer
versions that followed it is that you have to do a lot more work to overcome the sheer horribleness of Erik's words, actions, and appearance to make him compellingly “innocent”, and Vehlow isn't bothering.
However, watch me squeal a bit in excitement as I find that this is the first Phantom story sequel ever to mention Leroux's Man in Black (or Shade, in some translations)! It's exciting to see, though he will be mentioned only twice in the book and neither time will actually do anything; since Leroux himself didn't ever bother to develop the character, we can’t really blame Vehlow for following his lead. He’s just an Easter egg for those of us who recognize him. I am, however, curious as to how Christine knows about him, since the only times he appears in Leroux's novel are in Raoul's and the daroga's underground journey. I mean, she’s been down there, too, so she could have encountered him, but… I mean, would it be so much to ask to be shown things instead of guessing?
By the time Christine has made it to Erik's deserted house by herself, I'm pretty much as bored as I can get and still be conscious. The choppy, tell-y prose is not doing anything for me, and while I like seeing the acute accent on "Daaé" and I think that Vehlow's choice of endnotes is kind of boldly academic (though why she wants to mix it up and confuse everyone by also using occasional footnotes I don't know), the entire long scene with Christine just wandering back and forth in the house being epically emo is mind-numbing. She eventually sits down at his organ and starts playing Don Juan Triumphant while weeping, so you decide if this is a neat role reversal which puts her in his shoes after her departure or hilarious when she doesn’t play the organ and ol’ DJT is supposed to be so terrible and complex that she had trouble surviving listening to it, never mind playing it.
Eventually, Christine finds Erik dying of a broken heart (...somewhere… around?) and settles in to nurse him back to health with a lot of crying and protestations of love. We saw this happen in Pettengill's 2002 novel a little while ago and it’s hard to guess whether Vehlow is drawing from that story or if the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the Phantom’s love returning to take care of him is just strong enough to be an instantly repeating pattern. Christine's and Erik's dialogue here is nicely reminiscent of Leroux's style, a refreshing change after the many deeply period-inaccurate pieces we've seen.
By page 15, Raoul has been summarily dumped. Would you like to know why or if something happened? Never fear, the answers are “I don’t know” and “nope.” They were just being all normal literally half a chapter ago. But now Christine is wailing, "Oh, what did I ever see in Raoul?" and they are discussing how he has no appreciation for music (which is why he's a patron of... an opera house?) and only loves "worldly things", which apparently makes him a bad man. Basically, the author wants to get him out of the way in favor of a different romance, so she grabs at the first things that she can say the other guy has - he’s musical and spiritual, sold! - and drops him off a metaphorical cliff.
Which is such a tragic waste when you’re drawing from Leroux’s book! Christine has in her background all the heartfelt conversations she ever had with Raoul, the childhood romance, the secret engagement game, and his repeated willingness to not only risk death in order to save her from her stalker but also risk complete societal disenfranchisement by marrying her. That’s a lot to overcome and an author could make it really poignant and thoughtful doing so, because of course just loving someone once doesn’t mean she’s obligated to love him forever, and someone saving her life doesn’t mean she owes him her love, either. You could do a lot with this setup.
But instead Raoul is an unmusical plebe, Erik never did anything wrong even though he most certainly did, and Erik and Christine have reaffirmed their Endless True Love That Can Never Be Broken while he makes a miraculous recovery after "her words took him back by total surprise", and I'm left pondering that at least this wasn't as bad a turnabout as I've occasionally seen before, which is a bit sad when you think about it. Unfortunately, I don't know what the plot of this book is supposed to be now, since this is still the first chapter.
This book doesn't make much chronological sense most of the time. Why did Christine come to her rehearsal two hours early (was she planning these underground shenanigans all along) so that she could now go to it on time? And seriously, instead of warming up she's been spelunking in dank, moldy, dusty cellars for the past two hours? She is going to sound like sunbaked cow shit and probably feel worse.
Chapter 2: Accept Me
Now that she has found Forever Love, Christine goes out to breakfast with Raoul and dumps him publicly in the middle of a café. It's pretty brutal, especially for the time period. Her spiel about how he should value that she's a "career woman" makes her seriously up on twentieth-century American gender politics slang for nineteenth-century France, while his forlorn response, "I want to share a lifetime with you, not a lifetime of sharing you," is kind of heartbreaking. Nevertheless, she just doesn't love him (why? She just doesn't! It happened!), so she returns his engagement ring to him and then swans off to go hang out with Erik - though not before hinting, like someone who absolutely wants to cause a bad romance novel plot, that she might be dumping him for another dude and then lying badly when he asks her if this is the case. Way to go, Christine.
Of course, she still wants to be friends. Christine's definition of "friends with Raoul" in this book is roughly equivalent to how most of us are friends with our bathroom's resident throne, and she kicks it off by then leaving him crying in the café.
By page 23, she is re-engaged to Erik. Again, I am not sure what the plot is supposed to be here, since there seems to be no actual conflict going on. The language Christine uses in regards to Erik is always very indicative of ownership; she says "I am yours" or "I belong to you" or variations thereof frequently, another clue that her character has lost all personal motivations that don't involve giving Erik what Vehlow believes he deserves.
Could we, by the way, stop calling him the “Angel of Music”? Please? Christine knows he's a mortal man and his deception of her was incredibly devastating in Leroux's novel. Unless you're going to give me a really compelling reason for her to want to keep bringing that up, I'm not getting behind it. This novel was written early in the continuum of Phantom-based lit and it wasn’t quite the cliché then that it is now, but it certainly was a lazy bandaid to try to make Erik sound more positive and draw on trust he established with her that was already destroyed in the original book.
Now we’re going to introduce the plot device of the century: the HOTNESS MASK. Erik apparently has a mask that looks exactly like a human face - a handsome one, in fact! He is indistinguishable from a hot dude when he wears it! See for yourself:
"The mask covered his entire face, but Erik had designed it in such a way that it appeared a natural and handsome face. He was clean-shaven, and his eyebrows were dark and matched his hair and rich caramel-colored eyes... His nose was perfectly formed, and he had used his high cheekbones to mold the cheeks on the mask. Christine could not tell where the openings for his mouth and eyes were, for the seams blended right in. She reached up and felt the mask. It had been made out of very thin but strong material. It showed expression just as any face would."
After the obligatory note that this resembles a much less macabre version of the fleshmask from the 1989 Little Englund film, I'd like to say first of all: bullshit, because it really is not possible to create a mask so convincing that people can't tell it isn't real up close without the use of advanced prosthetics and whatnot that a dude living in a cellar in 1881 does not have access to. You could make a case that Erik is a genius so shut up, he’s invented effects makeup decades ahead of its time, but then we get to point number two: why the hell isn't he wearing the damn thing all the time? If he can be a handsome man under his own power and interact with society however he likes, what the hell is he doing hiding in a basement wearing shitty masks that show off his ugliness? Vehlow attempts to explain this by having Erik tell us that the mask is very "uncomfortable," which is unfortunately an unconvincing look when the Phantom has Lon Chaney, who literally just bled from his face all the time in order to wear his groundbreaking makeup and machines to look like Erik, is like right there in the front of everyone’s minds.
Even if we ignore the gaping logic holes, it's a thematic trainwreck. If Erik can look as handsome as the next man (and he will for the vast majority of this book since he starts just wearing the mask all the time and going everywhere with Christine), where exactly is his tragedy? I mean, yeah, having to wear the mask sucks, but its very existence drops his deformity from "life-altering, insurmountable social obstacle" to "disability he can work to accommodate" (incidentally, while Vehlow mentions that he also has to wear a wig due to lack of hair, nobody ever notices his skeletal frame or grave-like smell or freezing touch, so I have to assume she's just deleted those for the sake of prettifying him).
And again, there could be so much to explore here as a comment on disability, much as Leroux did - if you’re going to have the aids that help Erik interact with others be painful or uncomfortable or difficult to use anyway, lean into it! Explore how that others him! Explore how he feels about having to use them and what ways they do or don’t bridge the gap! If he’s turning his genius intellect toward creating ways to let him overcome his condition, is he working on any more, and why doesn’t he share them with other people who might be like him?
But no, instead he’s going to do nothing for a stupendous number of pages and we’re all going to die of boredom. (I mean, I hope y’all live, but I definitely had to be resuscitated.)
Does Christine never warm up or practice? She just runs straight from her tete-a-tetes with Erik off to rehearse, as if that wouldn't be a terrible idea for her throat, her sound, and her reputation as being on her game. You'd think that a couple who are an opera singer and a musical genius would know better than to keep doing this.
Erik apparently doesn't want to sit in Box 5, which doesn't make much sense to me since Box 5 is by definition where Erik wants to sit. It has too many "bad memories" or something for his brand-new lily-white conscience to handle (okay, like what? no? anyone?). And while we're refusing to explain things that don't make sense, what is up with Christine's assumption that Erik has never seen any of Paris in daylight before? What is up with his apparent agreement with this? He's a shut-in, not a bridge troll. He can in fact brave the sunlight without shriveling or turning to stone, as Christine ought to remember from the Perros-Guirec episode.
Because no one pitied poor, misunderstood Erik enough yet, we have a little aside wherein he goes into a tearful tirade about how his mother didn't even name him and how his father scratched his name out of the family tree when he was only six years old (yes, I know, those two things don't go together). I was going to try to figure out why he would have been disowned at six - I mean, there's usually a spurring incident for someone to disown someone else, or they wouldn't have bothered to feed and clothe this kid for years first - but no, it's just random, senseless cruelty designed to make us feel for Erik all the more without actually bothering with writing in a reason. Yawn.
Hey, there's something we haven't seen in a while: a surname for the Phantom! Vehlow's choice is "Edelmann", which, as he informs Christine, means "nobleman". He informs Christine that he'll start using it again and she can have it when she marries him, even though he's just gone through a massive rant about how he doesn't use it because it's connected to his heartless father.
Goddammit, these people and their musical upkeep routine make no sense. Christine wants a full hour-long voice lesson immediately before singing an opening night performance? It’s Gounod. If you sing a full lesson before your performance, you're going to go fatigue-mute by Act II, which is not going to be good for your career. Now they're also holding the dress rehearsal on the SAME NIGHT as the performance? Is everyone in this theatre high?
Chapter 3: The Opera Ghost's Emergence Into Public Life
The managers become major characters about now, which leads to exciting descriptions like the one below:
"Firmin Richard, the other co-manager of the Opera was a tall, compactly built man. He had some knowledge of music, but also was easily enraged. He was known for his hot temper. This evening it was plainly seen by all that he was in a very good mood."
Flat as a roadkill pancake. Choppy, uninteresting prose. A more textbook example of giving the reader a character’s informed attributes instead of showing them in action has never been scripted.
Another character is introduced here as well: Monique LeBlanc, daughter of Inspector LeBlanc (I thought this was going to lead to tension as Erik tried to keep from being discovered... but, no, that didn't actually happen). She’s Christine's new BFF because there needed to be more extraneous characters running around. Christine apparently knows her through Raoul, although why Raoul is hanging out with a police inspector I have no idea. Her only job is to reinforce how great everything everyone else is doing is and to disappear for several chapters at a time when even Vehlow forgets what she's there for.
Christine cries, "I wish I'd never met Raoul!" Not because he's doing anything, by the way. Because having been recently engaged to him would make it improper to get married so soon to someone else. Will no one think of Christine’s pain? She totally still cares about their childhood bond and wants to be friends, though.
Chapter 4: Music Lessons
Raoul is apparently “La Comte Raoul de Chagny”, which would be a great twist if Vehlow actually realized that she’d used the feminine article for him. (Can you imagine, either a female Raoul or a trans man Raoul who was fighting his society not just to be with the woman he loves but also to be himself? Where’s THAT book?) Sadly, she didn’t. Christine continues to swoon dramatically over what a waste of her life Raoul was and how he never let her be her musical self during <SCENE REDACTED>.
Luckily, she has Erik, who is just so wonderful that he's begun to give private music lessons for all the children and adults at the opera house. Yes, I'm sure he woke up and thought, "You know what I'm missing in my life? Ten thousand renditions a day of 'Frere Jacques'."
Not much else is going on in this chapter, apart from Meg and Jammes playing tag in the corridors (cute!) and the snort-worthy assertion that Erik is in his early thirties, made even more hilarious by later discussion of how he is twenty years older than Christine. I don’t think this is one of those books that WANTS Christine to be twelve, so… this is why timelines are important, y’all.
Chapter 5: The Angel of Music was No Angel
The characters pause extremely briefly to name-drop Christine’s guardian Mama Valerius, who apparently died in her sleep at some point recently. Since barely any time has gone by between the end of Leroux's novel and the beginning of this one, I have to wonder why Christine is so blithely unconcerned about this; she doesn’t mourn or even seem to have noticed. As with the Man in Black, the tragic Madame will never be mentioned again. This is not an optimal way to make sure your book is based on the source material.
If you weren’t with me on being annoyed by everyone calling Erik the “Angel of Music” yet, please consider that Raoul is now also doing it, which doesn’t even make sense.
I lost the rest of this chapter in the spontaneous aneurysm I suffered when Christine "sung for him, and then they sung together," but it's probably all right because I don't think much else actually happened.
Chapter 6: I am the Opera Ghost!
The major action of this chapter centers around our plot-useless friend Monique accidentally walking in on Erik while he is for some reason hanging out in Christine's dressing room without a mask on, not listening for anyone that might be coming. I'm not sure why he's such a dipshit that he didn't agree with her when she thought his face was a mask, and I'm really not sure why she's sobbing, terrified, and yet still telling him that she can see the good in him while he rants. But I am sure that Erik fully intended to kill Madame Giry's replacement with that chandelier, and no amount of Vehlow trying to use this character as her mouthpiece is going to convince me that it was an accident and he somehow thought nobody would get hurt.
Much ado is made, as in Meadows' 2001 Progeny, about how unfair it is that the police would arrest him and try to hang him for murder if they ever found him, just because of his face! Those meanies! Yeah, it’s definitely not because he literally COMMITTED MURDERS and just admitted it out loud, right now. I have no idea why Monique, daughter of the police inspector who was supposed to catch the Phantom, immediately swears that she'll never tell anyone that the opera house music teacher is secretly the master criminal Phantom, but apparently it has something to do with her being “a good person”, unlike those monsters who worry about stalking murderers hanging out near them and their loved ones.
Chapter 7: Has the Ghost Returned?
We’re about to get a HILARIOUS plot device that involves Carlotta, who is passing through Paris on her way back to Spain, being scheduled to sing one performance of the opera. This is my favorite shoehorned-in event ever. I'm sure the managers were like, "Hey, Carlotta, you want to come sing a single performance with a cast and director you've never worked with before? We love paying extra headliners for performances which might go poorly!", and then she was like, “Why, yes, I totally love being treated like a last-minute understudy and I definitely don’t mind all the horrible trauma I suffered at your theater last time I performed there!” Then they probably got cake together!
Naturally, Erik has a hissy fit over the fact that she'll be singing and talks frequently about how awful she is, how he can't stand her, and how he "can't promise" Christine that he won't prank her in spite of her pleading. This is one of the places where it’s more blatantly obvious that this book has a lot of influence from the Lloyd Webber musical, which really popularized the idea of Carlotta as a talentless and temperamental hack; Erik's main complaints about her in the book were that she sang technically perfectly but without adequate emotion, and also that she wasn't Christine.
Vehlow goes so far as to describe Carlotta in the narration as the Phantom's "archenemy and bitter foe", which seems to be giving this poor woman a lot of credit. (Although I would hella read that. Imagine Carlotta in her Maleficent-esque supervillain lair, cackling majestically over how she’s about to ruin her foe’s day.) Erik's whiny flinching and complaints that her voice hurts his ears are tiresome rather than comedic as intended, and the pranks he pulls on her to chase her away seem very juvenile for the maturing character Vehlow's been trying to build, especially since he's not "haunting" the opera house anymore and in fact has a serious stake in everyone thinking that the Phantom is long gone. Seriously, THIS is worth you getting maybe captured and executed? This?!
Christine "wondered why Carlotta had had to come and rekindle the anger of Erik." Yeah. That asshole, performing like she's some kind of performing artist. Erik's apologies to Christine at the end of this chapter for putting them both in jeopardy with his pranks is less than effective. It’s hard to think what would have been effective, considering that he could have spent exactly zero energy on just… not being a giant ass.
Chapter 8: The Phantom is Always There, Watching
Some of these chapters are literally only two pages long. This is why there are twenty-six of them in a book that is only 187 pages long.
A scene in which Carlotta confronts Christine in her dressing room is reminiscent of a similar one in Bischoff's 1976 novel, though I highly doubt Vehlow based any of her story off of that particular interpretation. Predictably (and sadly), Carlotta decides to become an evil schemer bent on sabotaging Christine's career, instead of... I don't know... GOING HOME AND CONTINUING HER OWN VERY SUCCESSFUL CAREER. This is clearly more important!
(Could you write a book about Carlotta as a compelling villain who wants Christine to suffer the way she suffered because of the unfair way that she was terrorized and shoved aside for the younger singer? Sure! Is this that book? Absolutely not!)
Chapter 9: Beneath the Opera House
Honestly, the paragraph of recapped backstory from Leroux's novel was almost indistinguishable from the boredom already happening in the prose all around it. The point of it is of course that everything is cool now because Erik will never kill again, despite a total lack of compelling character growth. He won’t, because the author said so!
Raoul apparently just vanished to England at some point during these proceedings; he writes to Christine faithfully and frequently, which she makes a point of saying is completely "irrelevant" to her. Way to be a shitty friend, Christine. If you didn't want to talk to the man, you could have just said so.
After it's been a few months, it's now safe for Christine and Erik (masquerading as Frederik Edelmann, the music teacher) to announce their engagement publicly! It's cute how they think that's long enough for it not to look scandalous that she jumped right into marrying this guy after Raoul, and even cuter how they apparently think the upper echelon of Paris society gives a flying fuck about the propriety of marriages between people in the performing lower class. Sadly, Raoul will, of course, be returning from England just in time to be there for the engagement announcement. We couldn't let him go out with dignity, after all.
Raoul, who holds season tickets to seats in Box 5, is much abused for going into it between performances and "snooping". Yeah! What a snooper! This would maybe have been valid from the point of view of the original Phantom, who considered it his exclusive domain, but I'm not sure I can extend many of his character traits to the obnoxious whiner that is Vehlow's incarnation of the character. He doesn’t even sit there anymore.
Then this happens:
"It took one second for Christine to see - or feel the change in Raoul. Something had happened to him while he was away. He was not the young and innocent boy he had been before he had left. He definitely had the air of a man a decade older than his mere twenty-three years. His back was ramrod straight. His expression was hard and proud. His eyes were haughty and almost cruel. His presence filled her with uneasiness."
No, there is not in fact any kind of reason given for this blatant 180 of his character. None whatsoever. The closest we get is some half-assery about how he's been hanging out with the dukes in England lately and they must have corrupted him. Basically, Vehlow needs antagonists because she has no plot to speak of, so poor Carlotta and Raoul are being mercilessly forced into the iron maiden of villainhood.
It's interesting that, in most of these stories wherein Erik suddenly grows a well-developed conscience, everyone else seems to instantly lose theirs. We've got Raoul already physically shoving Christine around within a page of his return, and her internal planning monologues, such as "If once she could get Raoul lost in the labyrinth... Raoul would be in Erik's hands. Christine really did not care what Erik did with Raoul as long as he did not kill him," she's not exactly on my list of gracious people to look up to, either (what happened to being friends? Why does she keep saying she wants to be Raoul's friend and then just... not doing that?). I'm not sure if this is subconscious, playing up Erik's newfound ethics by dropping everyone else's in order to make him look better, or intentional, an unselfconscious move to tell the reader just how much the author thinks that people who oppose this angelic, perfect main character must be bad people.
"Suddenly Christine heard a dull thump, and Raoul crumpled to the cold floor. 'Yay!' she cheered."
The only thing I have to look forward to here is that I do like the addition, again, of revenge for Philippe's death as a motivation for Raoul to try to foil the Phantom he's convinced has returned. Unfortunately, the heavy jealousy plot makes much less sense there, especially in light of how Leroux's Raoul handled a stifling amount of jealousy in the original novel without doing all this. Remember when he tried to grab Christine once and she told him he wasn’t the boss of her and he cried?
Chapter 10: Safe in Erik's Arms
Oh, come on, now. What kind of French nobleman expects a lady to climb down ropes in the dark and go spelunking in the pitch black with him? What kind of lady is like “sure, I know how to do that” when he does so? Raoul and Christine, you are not making a hell of a lot of sense.
There's another good example here of the flip-flopping of roles between Erik and Raoul when Christine reflects, "Adores... that is the difference between my two lovers. Raoul's love is stoked by jealousy, Erik's by adoration." Every time this happens, I just stare at it wondering what was going on in the author's brain that this interpretation happened.
Christine up and decides that she needs to know all about Erik's mother right now, for absolutely no reason (seriously, there is not even the thinnest of conversational motives). His long, tear-washed recounting of his childhood is like his story about his father earlier but even more maudlin and unnecessary, and one of the most heavy-handed pity parties I have ever seen used to try to make the reader sympathize with a character. It loses its effect very quickly, not least because the exaggeration is so great that by the time he's talking about how his mother made him sleep outside in the dead of winter when he was seven years old (right. So he's... dead. And missing digits from frostbite. And also dead), I can no longer view it as anything but very tiresome hyperbole. I'm really not even sure what the point of rehashing the "Oh noes Erik was so tragic and misunderstood!" mantra is since he's already become a being of morals and light and no longer needs as many excuses for his past actions AND Vehlow already DID that, but there it is. Just pages and pages of weeping.
Chapter 11: Forget Me
On page 81, "the light darkened". That's... an interesting effect.
Christine is apparently not a very good performer, since she does this entire performance of Faust while singing to Box 5 instead of to the probably-kind-of-pissed-off tenor. Yes, yes, you love him so much your soul is aflame, blah blah blah, but these people paid for these tickets.
I'm not sure why Raoul thinks that "Frederik Edelmann" is a strange combination of first and last name, or why Christine's hurried explanation that he is half Austrian and half German makes it all better. Is Raoul unaware that Austria is adjacent to Germany and that the majority of the two countries share German as their common tongue? why would the very Germanic names "Frederik" and "Edelmann" not sound right together, especially to a Frenchman? Sigh.
Christine protests a few more times in her internal monologue that she wants Raoul to be her friend (if only he weren't suddenly so inexplicably nasty!). As usual, she continues to do nothing to support this assertion.
Despite all the blinding evidence, Raoul only manages to figure out that Erik and Frederik are one and the same when he accidentally folds his newspaper over the "Fred" part of the name on a headline. SHOCKING. Not only does it not actually prove anything, I'm pretty sure that might be one of the most anti-climactic Phantom discoveries ever.
Being the take-action kind of creature that he is, Raoul assumes that Christine is being forced into marriage again (which is reasonable, considering that that just happened a couple of years ago) and plans to go rescue her. She responds to this by telling him to go away. He’s confused because as usual, she doesn’t explain anything usefully.
Chapter 12: Letters, Revelation, and Disappointment
Hmm, what is this book missing? How about direct interjections from the author?
"She decided she would have to make him answer her questions soon. (Just how she was going to go about making Erik do something he did not want to do, the author is not even sure.)"
I know Vehlow is trying to write in Leroux's style, but she really would have had to do this more than once over the course of the entire novel to succeed. As if testing me, someone also has a "guilty conscious" on the next page.
Erik is building a cathedral on commission. Where or for whom he refuses to tell us, but he claims it will be "bigger than Notre Dame". After I was done guffawing, I tried to find out if this was at all valid. Is this supposed to be the Sacre Coeur Basilica? Erik does not seem like much of a Byzantine-and-gold-leaf kind of a guy, but that's the only church built even vaguely in the right time period. I’m going to guess that Vehlow probably didn't bother to hit up Google before she went with this plot point.
More silly than that is the reason for the cathedral... specifically, Erik needs some cash. In fact, he has SO MUCH MONEY from this that he buys a massive house (charmingly named Rosewood Hall) for them to live in, complete with servants, a huge, expensive new wardrobe and jewels, and pretty much everything else Vehlow can think of to put the two of them in the lap of luxury.
Did I miss something somewhere, where these two turned into nobility instead of performers? I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised; several previous versions, most notably the Meadows novels and the Pettengill book, have used aristocratic imagery for the Phantom without, I think, realizing the irony inherent in elevating the representative of the dregs of society to the status of nobleman. Vehlow has already been putting Erik in with the upper class in the box seating and has even given him a name that means "nobleman", so it's the logical next step to suddenly make him fabulously wealthy, even though I doubt highly that the money he'd get for preliminary architectural plans would even approach what he'd need for all the junk he's pulling out of his ass. The real tragedy is not that Vehlow is rejecting Leroux's allegory, but that the book seems completely unaware of it.
I laughed a lot when Christine mentioned that Erik had introduced her to a song called "Caro mio ben", which was oh! so beautiful and tragic! "Caro mio ben" is indeed beautiful, though since it's been a staple of pretty much all opera vocal conservatory repertoire practically since Giordani wrote it over a century before this story is set, I'm not sure how she could have failed to ever hear it before. I don't know why the lyrics are included in the text, or, even worse, why it's a (bad) English translation of them.
I also don't know why their new stable boy, Frank (he's from America!), is written with a lot of colloquial and dialectal dialogue despite the fact that he's speaking French. Exactly what French dialect are you trying to portray with this, author?
Chapter 13: Another Visit to Box 5
The managers think to themselves that Edelmann possesses the same "proud, but polite; firm, but patient" manner as the opera ghost used to. Are these different managers? I don't recall them using any adjectives that approach those for the guy who was terrorizing and tormenting them.
They also refer to the Phantom as "noble". I’m having a lot of fun thinking of these managers meeting the ones going absolutely apeshit trying to figure out the safety-pin thing.
Chapter 14: Raoul's Revenge
Oh, god, here we are.
I was blithely reading along, rolling my eyes at Erik and Christine for moving into the same house together before the wedding but somehow still kidding themselves that they were avoiding scandal, when, amongst a hail of random French words that make no sense because all the dialogue is ostensibly in French, Raoul and a "street gang" of four thugs arrive to beat the cape off of Erol. Erik, because he is now a tragic pacifist with soulful eyes, just stands around and lets them beat him up and break a bunch of his bones. He's being all penitent, or something, which could be cool if it had had any kind of motivation whatsoever in Vehlow's novel.
As if Raoul as a midnight mugger wasn't silly enough, we now embark on several monologues by Christine wherein she shrieks about how Erik is ugly with a good heart and Raoul is pretty with an evil black heart! Yes! "It is you who have turned into the monster!" It is unfortunately obvious that Vehlow believes this to be the thematic climax of her piece, which is depressing because it's another example of the modern tendency to distill all the complex themes about humanity, social stigma, madness and backlash from the original novel down to a painfully simple statement about looking beneath the surface for true beauty. As I've noted before, while elements of this are present in Leroux's work, most notably in Erik's talent for transcendentally beautiful music, it is not actually the point of the novel. Leroux isn't making a statement about looking beyond appearances; he's making a bunch of statements about the social cruelties and sillinesses of French society at the time and about penitence and salvation through love and self-understanding.
A sudden switch to Erik's limping internal monologue is not helping at all with its constant ellipses and broken sentences. I know it's supposed to show how he's having difficulty stringing together coherent thoughts while bleeding on the pavement, but all it really comes off as is choppy, obnoxious, and hard to read.
In case there hadn't yet been enough role reversal, Raoul now goes whole hog and threatens to have his henchmen kill Erik if Christine doesn't agree to marry him, a bizarre move since his own internal thought through most of this scene reveal that he thinks she's spellbound or coerced and will return to him given the chance. If she’s hypnotized or something and still loves you, Raoul, then why are you THREATENING HER?
It doesn’t have to make sense apparently because it also doesn't work, because Raoul is somewhat nonplussed when Christine basically tells him it was okay when Erik made the same threat to her (see, he was mad for love!), but it is not okay now. That’s an impressive gymnastic reach; it’s okay to stalk, terrorize, threaten, and harm your love interest, but only if you love her the most.
The whole scene takes about an eon as continual abuse rains down on a prone Erik while Raoul shoves Christine around and she screams about what a jerk he is. It is very loud, very dramatic, and very confusing, since this is occurring on a public street on a pleasant summer night when Erik and Christine were taking a walk, which leads me to believe that someone would have noticed it by now.
Christine chooses to prove her love by making out with Erik (much ado is made of the fact that they have never kissed lip to lip before, which would have been appropriate in Leroux's novel but doesn't seem to fit well with their long-standing relationship here). They both get very into it with a lot of grabbing and moaning, which is cringeworthy considering that Erik is probably moaning because she's mashing his heinously beaten and broken face around. Also, you are doing this in front of the attacker who is wildly jealous? What is the plan, you two?!
It's only right, I suppose, that the painful thematic climax of the story should also be where all the entitlement issues surrounding Christine's relationship with Erik come to a head. The monologue she screams at Raoul on page 117 is as classic an example of the mindset as you can get:
"Raoul, how could you? Look at yourself. You're handsome, Raoul, you have a sweet face... you could marry almost anyone you want, and yet you choose the one person you cannot have, one already taken. This man, Raoul, doesn't have your good looks, or your friends. He doesn't have all the cute girls of Paris running after him. And you think you have to have the one girl he loves because you're jealous. He has one person, Raoul, one person in this whole world who loves him, one hope in his life. All he asks for is me; I am all he wants. He would be overjoyed and satisfied to have me. You are rich, monsieur, surrounded by a flock of women. This poor man has one precious little lamb, and you are trying to steal it away from him, not wanting to take from your plenty. Why, Raoul, why must you have me? Choose someone else. I am Erik's!"
Sweet fucking grenadine. I almost don't know where to start.
The implication that because Raoul is handsome and popular and wealthy he can't have Christine is distressing because it renders her down to a mere object, making it a question of whether it's fair for Raoul to have one more thing when Erik doesn't have any at all. These are supposed to be relationships between lovers; the question shouldn't be whether Erik deserves to have someone to love him, but whether Christine actually loves him. Christine has been completely removed from the equation; it's not about whether she loves Erik or loves Raoul, but about which one of them deserves to have her as a pretty trinket to brighten his life. Vehlow has taken her choice away (a choice which she made in Leroux's novel) and simply awarded her as a prize to the man she feels more sorry for, which is even more tragic because I doubt she has any idea she's doing it. It couldn't be more blatant; Christine literally says, not that she prefers or loves or wants Erik, but that she belongs to him.
It also completely discounts Raoul as a person with feelings; just because he has "all the cute girls of Paris" running after him does not mean that he is obligated to love them or that there's some cosmic reason for him not to love the person he does simply because someone more unfortunate also loves her. The horrible thing about the twisting of this love triangle is not that Vehlow has ended up somewhere I don't like - if she had done this through character development instead of arbitrarily saying, "Now Christine loves Erik and doesn't love Raoul and Raoul is jealous of Erik!", it could have worked - but that she has turned a strong heroine into a lump of diamond to be passed around, and turned two emotionally resonant characters into a flawless, flat paragon of virtue and an empty suit of stereotypes.
After dragging Erik's wheezing corpse home, Christine proceeds to immediately tell all of the help and a random doctor that Frank knows that her fiance is really the Phantom of the Opera, but that's okay because everyone in the entire universe hearts Erik once they meet him because he is such a pure and kind soul, so nobody turns him in and they all acclimate to his face within nanoseconds. Why nobody cares that they've been living with a murderer is not explained.
The random doctor, by the way, is named Zack. Très français!
Chapter 15: The Real Angel
This chapter consists entirely of Christine wailing about the house and castigating herself for ever having loved Raoul, which dastardly choice led to Erik's current infirmity. It is a dark day for feminism. I'd say that this could be more palatable in a period setting, but since Christine is a modern career woman who uses present-day vernacular speech, I don't think we can extend her that grace.
Chapter 16: Raoul and his Reason
Since he is also not immune to the lure of Erik's perfect lovability, Raoul starts feeling bad about his actions and undergoes a magical regression transformation wherein he "turns back into the old Raoul", the one Christine loved. People are just randomly transforming all over this book. He's still a “viscomte”, sadly, though he also feels bad for being so "viscous and bloodthirsty", so maybe he just really loves that visc- root. (Also, wasn’t he the comte earlier? They’re different titles!)
Chapter 17: Sweet Innocence
Luckily, Erik is still able to magically be filthy rich despite being bedridden for most of the end of this novel, so he can continue buying shit for Christine, including a fancy jeweled necklace. Yawn.
In case there was not yet enough treacle in this book, Erik is now visited by a stream of children (his music students, of course) who all want to kiss him on the cheek, tell him how awesome he is, and make him feel like the universe loves him. Nothing interesting happens while this is going on, so it's just a chapter filled with sticky-sweet fluff that ends up being a lot more annoying than it is uplifting. Erik responds to all of this by embarking on a monster paragraph of emo internal rhapsodizing about how he wants more love than he has even now and how unworthy he feels, all of which is about as subtle in foreshadowing his eventual conversion to Christianity as a brick to the head. If you didn't get there by yourself, Vehlow has thoughtfully included the entire text of the Panis angelicus to help you along.
The second half of the chapter involves a random little girl named Melanie. She came out of nowhere (she's the next-door neighbor, apparently) and has no purpose other than to, again, reinforce to Erik that he is a special, beloved snowflake, telling him how much he reminds her of an angel. It goes on for so long that, were this book a person, I would have told them that my grandmother was on fire and I needed to go.
Chapter 18: The Marriage of Erik Edelmann
I love how it's the marriage of Erik Edelmann, not, you know, Erik AND Christine. We’re not even pretending anymore that we don’t know who the really important person is here.
Much of my good mood was restored by period failure so heavy it was hilarious, when Christine tells Erik that she'd always assumed they'd be married by a "justice of the peace". Justices of the Peace are a fairly recent development, and even if they weren't, the office doesn't even exist in France. But that didn’t stop them as they traipsed off to the "courthouse" (but still in fancy wedding dress and tuxedo, because OBVIOUSLY, and anyone pointing out that tuxedos would absolutely not be standard formal wear in 1880s France is just being a big meanie) and got married by a fictional officer in the world's shortest civil ceremony ever.
The wedding night, however, is conspicuous in its absence. In fact, this is probably the first of the recent self-published versions I've read that has no badonkadonk in it whatsoever.
Chapter 19: Rescue Via the Opera Ghost
Oh, for Pete's sake, aren't we done yet? No, first Christine has to be an utter goldfish and give Erik's score for Don Juan Triumphant to the managers to put up as the next season's opera, despite the implausibility of her doing so without Erik's knowledge and the extreme implausibility of the managers liking the thing. Erik has a rare in-character moment wherein he rants about his creation and how she had no right to give such a piece of work away, but he ruins it by capitulating two paragraphs later and becoming a good little assistant director for the production. (I think the funniest part of that is that he doesn’t even insist on being the director. He’s the assistant director on his life’s work.) But not before the last dress rehearsal, of course, when he can no longer bear how they're butchering it and somehow magically coaches the entire cast so that they will perform it perfectly forever after.
Everyone is very excited by hearing Erik sing in this rehearsal, which he generally refuses to do (bonus silliness: he doesn't have to give the singers notes, since he can just sing it the way he wants it and they instantly know exactly how to do it), but the grandeur/beauty/mystery/power of his voice is so heavily over-exaggerated that it's lost all meaning by halfway through the chapter and just becomes a meaningless and annoying parade of adjectives (you know, like the one I just typed).
How can there possibly be any plot left? Oh, snap, we forgot about Carlotta! Which is understandable because she left for Spain ages ago and we haven't heard a peep about her since the first third of the novel. For some reason known only to Vehlow, she decides to ruin the premiere of the show by tricking Christine into drinking a potion that will ruin her voice (this is borrowed from the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film, though I don't see any influence from it elsewhere in the book), but luckily, like all cardboard villains introduced for the sole purpose of providing flimsy adversity for protagonists to overcome, she gloats about her plans out in the open and Frank, the trustworthy stable boy, overhears. He decides that clearly the thing to do about this is to go run and find Erik, not, you know, warn Christine or tell the authorities or anything, which leads to Erik frantically running through the streets a bit later.
I was going to say that it was odd that Carlotta was doing her own dirty work by poisoning Christine - I mean, surely she could hire someone and not have to be running around with a hood over her head like Snow White's wicked stepmother - but then she just went the full distance and personally whipped out the chloroform on the Swedish singer and I gave up on trying to find a reason for anything else she was doing.
Naturally, Erik saves Christine and everyone has a happy dance, despite the fact that the chloroform is probably not going to contribute to a great performance for poor Christine (who, once again, is running around town right before her performance instead of doing normal things like warming up and getting into costume).
Chapter 20: Maestro and the Persian
Well, Vehlow's dragged every other character Leroux ever mentioned on in, so we couldn't reasonably have expected the daroga to be spared. I really enjoyed that Erik spoke in third-person a lot during his conversation with the Persian, as that was a feature of their conversations in Leroux's novel, but it seems odd and out of place considering that he does not do it anywhere else in the novel. The daroga is briefly concerned that Erik might have somehow forced Christine to give in to him, but she tells him actually she loves him so he goes away again.
Why won't this book end?! The plot is so episodic and disconnected that it is literally impossible not to want to sleep through it.
Chapter 21: The Dream
This entire chapter is just an extended dream sequence in which Erik angsts a lot over his past and the things he's done/things people have done to him while Vehlow cracks all our readerly knuckles with a ruler and sternly forces us to write, "I will pity and idolize the Phantom of the Opera" ten thousand times on the blackboard. It is boring and unnecessary except as a vehicle for random French words and ellipses.
Chapter 22: Don Juan Triumphant
Okay, so YES, I KNEW Erik was going to end up singing the lead in the opera at least once despite his strident protestations that he would not do so, but did it have to be so obvious? Tenor gets injured backstage, Erik steps in and wows the entire universe with the monstrous bestness of his voice, and everyone sighs over the transcendental ecstasy of it all.
Chapter 23: How the Opera Ghost was Saved
Erik is so amazing that even Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States of America, boats his ass over to see him. Considering that we've established that we're now about three years from the end of Leroux's novel and Arthur was in such failing health in 1884 that he could barely make it in to work, this seems unlikely.
Now that Christine is "world-renown" for her singing, Erik has time to cry to himself about how he still doesn't feel loved enough. Monique, that purposeless wonder from early in the book, returns in order to enact her master plan of converting him to Catholicism, which she does with great ease. While this is reminiscent again of the Pettengill novel, which also featured Erik's abrupt turn to religion, it's still problematic… because Erik is fully aware of Catholicism and is, by all accounts in Leroux's novel, already Catholic himself. Modern authors seem to tend to confuse Erik's intentional feud with a God he feels slighted him with ignorance of religion in general. If you want Erik to find God, by all means, but he’s reconnecting with something, not suddenly discovering a religion he knew nothing about.
Chapter 24: The End of Erik's Love Song
Now Erik wants to turn himself in to the police because he's found Jesus. But he can't, because Christine is pregnant (what a shock)! And then, to avoid hard things like decisions that might lead to character-building, he leaps into the street to save a child from being run over by a carriage and is fatally crushed. For bonus points, Vehlow makes sure to let us know that Raoul is also there but that HE doesn't jump into the street in an act of selfless sacrifice, because obviously he's not on Erik's level of awesomeness. Erik's sudden decision to turn into Batman is another thing that seems directly borrowed from Pettengill's novel, as is Christine's angsting about how he'll never be able to play piano again, but in this case his injuries do actually kill him, which is kind of a relief because I did not know only 187 pages could take so damn long.
Oh, hey, good thing he just got shriven by the Catholic church, huh? There is a subtle paragraph-long reminder in case we forgot how salvation-y this all is. Erik manages to gasp out his last words of devotion to Christine, including a confusing suggestion that she remarry that seems mighty suggestive with Raoul sitting like, right there, and then he finally shuffles off his mortal coil.
She does not marry Raoul. Surprise, surprise. Single motherhood is the way to go in nineteenth-century France!
A brief newspaper obituary for Erik is included here, which is both seriously lacking for someone of "international fame" and confusingly silent on things like his terrifying crime career.
Christine gives birth to a son, by the way, because Erik's children are always male children of the royal line, or something. He is named Erik after his father and he can join the ranks of Phantombabies already populated by kids from the Bernadette, Meadows, Kay, Pettengill, and Forsyth versions. At least we only have to endure a small amount of rhapsodizing about how he's a perfect little version of his father but without the deformity. Yeah, you and every other sequel baby, kid.
Hilariously, we end with Christine and wee Erik setting off to go to mass in the mystery cathedral Erik built. And thank god, it is the end!
In the end, I didn't grade this lower because Vehlow, bless her heart, really is trying. The effort to tie things closer to Leroux's style pays off now and then, and while her zany flip-flopped characterizations are terrible, there are glimmers here and there that show she is trying to make them balanced and not merely relying on cliche for simplicity's sake. I would like to see something that she's written later in life, just to compare, though honestly, THIS book is going in the back of the Done and Never Read Again bin.