The Phantom of the Hollywood Bowl (1999)
by Mark Traversino
You guys might think that, after reading Phantom stories that were thinly-disguised fanfiction homages to things like Disney's Gargoyles or Tomb Raider, that a more ridiculous basis for a Phantom novel could not possibly exist. This book is here to shatter that comfortable assumption.
I had originally listed this as published in 2006, but it turns out that that was a reissue date. Sorry, everybody!
For those not in the know, the Hollywood Bowl is the largest natural amphitheatre in the United States, a prestigious center for performing arts in Los Angeles, California. Traversino’s dedication, “To all musicians who never made it to the Hollywood Bowl,” is sweet but also thought-provoking, while the beginning quote of the book, “Every night is Halloween in Hollywood,” sets the stage for a chiller in good old Phantom style nicely. It’s coming up on Halloween next month as I write this, so I’m excited that I got to enjoy a distinctly Halloweenish Phantom story!
Hmm, a missing comma on the first page, transforming an otherwise wholesome sentence into a dangerous run-on character. Not auspicious. The writing style is factual and its descriptions less than riveting, but this is all scene-setting, so maybe things will improve.
Dude and his much less hilariously-named girlfriend Justine are ushers at the Hollywood Bowl, where they can spend their time hanging out in the aisles when not working, discussing how they want to sign up for the All City High School music competition but are concerned about not having the manpower and practice space to produce something worthy. It’s interesting that we’re starting with them, because a few paragraphs later it becomes apparent that they probably aren’t any of the major players in the usual Phantom story setup; rather, it’s virtuoso violinist Margo Townsend, soon to debut here at the Bowl, who seems like the obvious shoo-in for the Christine role, while the conductor in residence, Gottfried von Stuka, is described as excessively unpleasant and interested in her, making him seem to begin with a Phantomy role with power over her career and a tendency to smile a little too possessively every time she’s onstage.
The writing is beginning to show more issues; words are repeated too often in close proximity to each other (von Stuka’s glances at Margo are described as “lustful” a cluster of times on the same page) and there’s a LOT of perspective hopping, with the narration skipping from Dude’s impressions of von Stuka to von Stuka’s thoughts and behavior to Margo’s history and emotional response and so forth. None of it is too violently difficult to follow, but unfortunately that’s because of another writing flaw: no one sounds any different in voice or description, so the meandering prose comes off as being told by an omniscient narrator standing in the corner with a camcorder, which is not exactly one of the more exciting options out there.
Von Stuka seems to have a lot of public opinion stacked against him; nobody likes him (because he’s pompous, apparently, though we only know this because of the narrator telling us), and he’s extremely Austrian, which means that his Germanic accent and conducting mannerisms remind audiences unpleasantly of Nazism (it’s probably unfortunate that he’s conducting Wagner at the moment, too). Add to that that he’s noted as one of the few left-handed conductors in the world - the devil’s hand, call the priest! - and that everyone has collectively nicknamed him the Vulture, and we have a soup of ominous overtones that seem mostly unfounded but swirl around the character like miasma thanks to Traversino continually reminding us of them.
It appears that Justine is a classical musician who aspires to the Hollywood Bowl someday herself, while Dude is more of a heavy metal rocker guy. This is unfortunate for him, because his music apparently inspires his parents to ban practicing in the house and the neighbors to argue among themselves, which has to be pretty impressive for this day and age.
...unless it doesn’t. It occurs to me that I actually have no idea what day and age it is, and Traversino’s prose isn’t helping me out much. Heavy metal’s an established enough movement for high schoolers to be building bands around it, so it’s got to be at least the 1960s, but all the talk of the conductor reminding patrons of the Great War too much makes me think it must be set earlier, and Dude’s moniker is just muddying the waters. I suspect that it’s actually semi-modern-day - 80s or 90s - but unfortunately this is only a theory until Traversino decides to do something that enlightens me.
Traversino, if you’re going to use hilariously dated words like “copacetic”, at least spell them right. The letter S wants no part of that word.
These are high school kids, so it’s a little bit hard to get mad at them for just being their bad-idea-filled high school selves, but they’re being full of bad ideas a little too easily and conveniently for me to really swallow. Justine’s hobby happens to be local Californian history, particularly what might have happened here before the Bowl was built - imagine that! I’m sure no strange, esoteric wisdom will come of that! And the boys of Dude’s band have just hit upon a masterful plan to solve their lack of practice space by just breaking into the Hollywood Bowl during times it isn’t having concerts and practicing there, because clearly they could never get caught and also school and stuff will accommodate this, and hey, Dude works here and is conveniently friends with the security staff, so it’ll be fine, right? It’s not that this is the worst thing I’ve ever read, but it’s really convenient and unsubtle and I need to see some wacky hijinks or something soon.
Oh, and Margo, the pretty and talented debuting violinist, happens to be Justine’s violin teacher. The plot does indeed thicken, at least a little.
But wait - time shift! It’s now 1769, and I am prepared to forgive everything because, like Justine, I would always rather be reading about awesome historical time periods than modern high school.
There’s a lot of disappointing generalization in this prose still - for example, the Spaniards exploring this area of California come upon “a valley of unbelievable beauty”, and sadly I must consent to not believe in it because Traversino won’t bother to describe what’s so beautiful about it. Much of the action is in straightforward “X happened, then Y happened, then Z went to Q” format. Nobody in this book apparently has any emotional reaction to or involvement in anything that’s happening to or around them; they just tell you about it with all the verve of a high school lit paper.
...the priest is suffering from a scorpion bite? Not a sting? Jeez, scorpion, I think you’re doing it wrong. The other scorpions probably laugh at you.
Ah, there we are, finally describing the valley, and that description is actually rather nice. I’m a bit baffled as to why it happened a few paragraphs after the announcement of the unbelievably beautiful valley, but hey, I’ll take it.
Interesting. There appears to be a theme of European conquerors versus Native American ideals going on here, though it’s clumsily presented; the conquistadors’ conversation about how they must educate the silly savages (following closely a moment when one of them wanted to go on a killing spree because some of the natives, repeatedly referred to by both characters and narrator as Indians, were peeing during prayer time) and their entreaty to God to send them a sign is interrupted by a massive earthquake. The conquistadors see it as a natural disaster and the priests as a challenge from the Devil, while the Native folks believe it is the outrage of their own gods at the invasion of the Europeans.
This is all very interesting, but it’s epically simplified to a point where it becomes disappointing. I have no idea who these Native people are or what nation they come from - they don’t have lines (which is fine up to a point since the narration is from the point of view of people who don’t speak their languages, but you could at least describe them having lines and doing things!), but they aren’t described at all; they’re just “Indians”, so I don’t have anything to go on to try to identify them. The location, only mentioned as “Nopalera, Spanish California”, doesn’t help, either, since that’s just an older name for the area that eventually became Hollywood and there were a few different Native nations in that area before the arrival of the conquistadors. Are these people Kij/Kizh? Chumash? Tataviam? If you want me to get excited about the local gods, could you at least let me know which ones they are?
This is a serious problem that happens in a lot of speculative fiction and horror: us white folks are scared of the “mystical and terrifying old powers” of people that our ancestors conquered or mistreated, but the genres just treat those people as colorful window dressing while appropriating (and usually mangling) their cultural traditions for scare value. No one bothers with explaining which native people (this happens with Native American nations, African cultures and their diasporal descendents, and Australian aboriginal peoples the most often) these are or what these beliefs mean; no, we just want to use a scary monster and blame it on the <insert vaguely racial epithet here> people trying to get revenge on white people, or in works that have slightly more consciousness about them, the Ancient Uncivilized Powers Man Should Not Know not appreciating the intrusion of The Civilized Folk.
It’s always racist, and it’s always terrible, and it’s never ever good writing, and everyone should stop doing it immediately.
ANYWAY, the next day, comfortably installed in a Spanish mansion somewhere nearby, we learn of the existence of Fausto de Macoris, who comes with obvious Faustian (and therefore Phantom-esque) connotations that remind us of the 1976 de Palma/Finley and 1989 Little/Englund films, as well as with a hilarious footnoted pronunciation guide to his name (“Mock-o-reese” - oh, my foreign diction teacher is rolling somewhere even if he’s alive). He, too, is a fantastic violinist, and it is nice to see that this book is all about the violins. The original Erik’s incredible violin-playing was one of the more haunting parts of his character, and while avalanches of later works retain his hypnotic voice and the more showy organ-playing, far too many of them forget to lavish any love on the strings.
But we’re not going to be hearing Fausto play right now, because evidently he is a heretic and thus not allowed at the dinner party. Exactly what form of heresy he practices is unknown, though his uncle refers to him as a “heathen” so I must suppose he subscribes to some religion besides the holy mother Church. (Did he convert to the local Native American religion? Seriously, none of this is connected at all and the lazy “supernatural elements are around” worldbuilding is awful.) His aunt is more forthcoming and puts forth her theory that he is clearly the reincarnation of the Devil and that his hideously scarred face gives her nightmares as a result. Well, man - looks like the violin-playing, ugly-faced Phantom has arrived, at least. Was the conductor at the beginning just a red herring, then?
(So were we trying to say that the locals had confused demonic powers with their native religion, or that the conquistadors are confusing the native powers with the Devil? The first one is racist and falls directly into the gross “Native people were savage and childlike and needed white people to come along and civilize them and teach them logic” tropes. The second one is definitely a thing that frequently happened in history - it was popular to claim that the locals worshiped the Devil and had to be forcibly converted and “saved” from their heathenry, because destroying a peoples’ religion helps destroy their community bonds and prevent them from fighting back socially against invaders - but apparently Traversino just brought up the Native people for a vague sense of spookiness. Which, as noted above, is also racist. Don’t do that.)
I guess we can’t say Traversino isn’t carrying on the long tradition of Hollywood and all associated industries being absolutely garbage in their treatment of Native American peoples, but this is not a legacy we need to uphold, y’all.
Now there’s a technical failure of impressive scope, one I haven’t seen before. I can’t figure out exactly what happened to this paragraph, but let me quote it for you so you can help:
“Vivacious Angelica and out-of-breath General Portola returned to the table. The somber mood changed to gaiety once again as General Portola announced, ‘Señor and Señora Moreno, I formally ask for your beautiful, but also very perceptive. She said that she found me very daughter’s hand in marriage before all of my soldiers do. She is not only intelligence, manly and handsome.’”
That’s... that’s a bit head-twisting. It looks like a copy-paste error, but if so it’s like three copy-paste errors on top of one another, and I can’t even figure out in what scenario that would happen. It does make for some Mad Libs style comedy, though.
Apparently I should stop asking for things lest I be given them, because Traversino finally does identify the people these Spanish folks are so blithely threatening: “They are just the local Cahueng-na Indians and their Gabrieliño-Shoshone cousins from the neighboring village of Yang-na, who live by the river south of here.” And I’m sure that the Spanish landowner here not only knows all that, but is presenting it in totally politically correct form using native words and ethnic terminology not even close to invented yet. Well, at least the author tried.
Of course, Cahuengna is not actually a people; it’s a place, a settlement founded by either the Kizh or Tataviam in the San Fernando Valley and long ago vanished due to Los Angeles being built on top of it. “Gabrieliño” is an exonym applied to the Kizh by the conquistadors, but I don’t know what “Shoshone” is doing there, since I’m pretty sure they’re an Uto-Aztecan people - maybe they’re being confused with the Cahuill or the Monache people, who are Shoshone-speaking Native nations of California? Yangna likewise was a real Kizh settlement, so that sort of tracks, but this all reads a lot like Traversino copied a line out of a California guidebook’s history section from 1975 and called it a day.
But anyway, that really doesn’t matter to the book at all, because the Native people are apparently here for “flavor” and perhaps a sketchy supernatural background for what will happen later, not because their culture matters or will be differentiated from the mass of stereotypes or anything.
At any rate, after a side trip to note that the priest is lucky that the scorpion that bit him wasn’t poisonous (I... okay, I mean, probably not?), Fausto does indeed make his appearance, and he is extremely reminiscent of the Leroux Phantom. He’s described as “tall”, “skeletal”, “emaciated”, “macabre” and “grotesque” all in the space of a single paragraph; his music, which he launches into immediately upon arriving in what is apparently some kind of competition with the local Native peoples’ religious chants, is equally nasty, described as “screeching”, “eerie”, “bizarre”, “spine-tingling”, “unearthly” and “chilling” and, in a moment of crowning dramaticism, as a “satanic cacophony”. Traversino loads us down with so many adjectives to tell us what bad news this guy is that the reader feels like a pack mule by the end of the page.
Who wins in this musical battle (which ends in various natural disasters, including earthquakes and spontaneous wildfires) is not really clear, nor is there any explanation about why Fausto felt the need to turn up and initiate it, and apparently it isn’t very important because nobody’s going to ever bother trying to explain. Instead, we learn that Fausto was buried, along with the house, in a cataclysmic earthquake some years later, and that a large, impressive oak tree was planted over the spot to commemorate him despite his eccentricities.
And here ends our foray into the under-researched world of eighteenth-century California, and so too are we at the end of the most interesting part of the book and back to Dude and his high school heavy metal buddies.
Back in the modern day, we’re introduced to Chadwick, the director of the Hollywood Bowl. He’s an unfortunate attempt at a layered antagonist; while there are interesting points to his character, most notably that he suffers from a Salieri-like lack of musical talent that forced him to go into management instead of performance and that his mother had serious manic episodes and mental health issues that had a great impact on his life, they’re applied over the surface of a stock character with only the thinnest coats of paint. His neuroses, it is suggested, are probably hereditary from his mother - but he’s never going to get any characterization or explanation for why he does the things he does, he’s going to fade into the background now to be only an abusive and occasionally nonsensical guy for the kids to have to avoid, and the explanation that he might be mentally ill is only a single-line justification for him to do weird things later without having to make a lot of sense. Oh, good. What this book was missing was a nice classic ableist demonization of the mentally ill, right?
Oh, but I’m sure the time period’s modern, now, since Dude thinks how odd it is that Chadwick was a hippie in the 1960s. I still don’t know when the hell we are, but I’m going to assume 1990s, since that’s when the book was originally written.
Dude decides he’s totally going to go for the practicing in the amphitheatre plan because clearly there is nowhere else in the entire city of Los Angeles that he could possibly find to practice that would be less likely to land him in the juvenile justice system, and his master plan hinges heavily on a letter he writes to Chadwick, volunteering Justine’s string quartet to play as an opening act at shows. She will then secure a place for her quartet to store their instruments, and he’ll hide his and his band’s instruments along with hers. Bafflingly, Chadwick agrees (also via letter - what the hell?) sight unseen and praises him for his creativity and initiative.
Look, it’s not that I’m not for young people in the arts, but I don’t think there’s a major theatre director in creation who’s going to accept a proposal for kids to play unsolicited before performances, without discussing it in person, without figuring out any details, without hearing them play, and without even talking to the actual kids involved. But alas, logic takes a backseat, because the plot must stagger on.
Because Dude is conveniently both a technological wizard and on the security staff of the Bowl and in charge of repairing their computers, he goes ahead and sneaks in to install a freeze-frame transformer in the security machine, which will basically cause it to show that no one is on the stage regardless of what is actually happening. This is, of course, the kind of stupid idea that a high school kid might have, but even so I’m squirming with the knowledge of how unsafe and poor a plan this is if anything actually goes wrong (which, I assume, it probably will).
The segue into another flashback, this time to 1884 (right around the original Phantom’s time period!), is a particularly graceless one from Dude, but what the hell, here we are.
The chapter actually doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the book at all - it’s just a short imaginary aside to describe how the land’s original developer, Wilcox, happened to end up naming it Hollywood. I guess Traversino is just into Hollywood history, which is reminiscent of the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film.
Heads up, everyone - Chadwick’s gentle neuroses just went full-blown. Not only does he live in a manor that is apparently actually a medieval castle, complete with weaponry on the walls and secret dungeons, but he’s spending most of his time wandering around it in period dress talking to dead composers. Again, the mention of his mother’s late-life mania doesn’t really begin to explain this, nor does his vague assurance to everyone that he didn’t inherit any mental illnesses explain how no one has noticed that he needs help. He’s supposed to be a prominent figure in the performing arts and no one has mentioned him being a recluse or anything. Why is no one helping this dude?
Also, he has his father frozen in a giant block of ice attached to machines in the basement.
And that’s the moment when I and everyone else reading this book realized that we have no idea what’s going on and that apparently almost every character in this book has decided to be the Phantom simultaneously. (Is it appropriate to speculate here about father issues similar to those explored in the 1991 Yeston/Kopit musical? Or will it just turn out that he’s an alien in a few pages and we’ll all have a good laugh at me trying to make sense of this?)
Into another flashback we go, this time to the 1920s, when Chadwick’s father, a violinist in the Bowl orchestra, is having a loud and angry breakup with the director, bringing up shades of the 1941 Waggner/Karloff film. It is also at this time that a violin is found buried somewhere near the old oak tree, pricelessly exquisite and miraculously almost undamaged by being buried for centuries in a non-waterproof case after a natural disaster. I assume that there must be something supernatural about this violin, of course - if the Little/Englund film taught me anything, it’s that Faustian Phantoms are particularly pernicious about their sequel possibilities.
The elder Chadwick’s former lover has moved on with a handsome musician named Antonio Tosca, a name rife with unfortunate connotations thanks to Puccini, and she gifts him the violin (though of course it remains the property of the Bowl in order to ensure that it is still around to ruin everything for Dude and company whenever we get back to them). Chadwick, of course, flips out, since he thinks he’s a better violinist and accurately assesses the gesture as a dual romantic gesture for Tosca and humiliation for himself. Then the lady in question goes on to order that the two men be seated next to one another for future concerts and sets things up to promote Tosca over Chadwick again, and honestly I don’t know what happened in this break-up, but whatever you did, Chadwick, she’s pissed off at you.
I guess this is supposed to be a love triangle sort of like the original Phantom story’s? It’s hard to tell. None of these people are anything but flat caricatures. I don’t even know what half of them look like.
Chadwick the Elder decides that the thing to do here is to murder his rival by injection in front of everyone onstage, as you do. This strategy involves practicing injection on a mannequin with Tosca’s face painted on it. And just when we thought mannequins in Phantom stories couldn’t be creepier.
Ironically, Chadwick fails to kill Tosca because, in lunging after some music that was fluttering away, he dived into Tosca’s space and was accidentally impaled through the eye on his bow. He lost the eye, went to the hospital, and mysteriously disappeared upon release… only to re-emerge, the spitting image of Frankenstein, as an “innovator and specialist in Telepathic-Cryogenic medicine, en route to the South Pole.”
I’ve completely lost the thread of events now. Cryogenic freezing as a scientific avenue of exploration didn’t even begin until the 1950s, decades after this is set, and… and I don’t know what I’m even trying to guess at this point.
Our current Chadwick can communicate with the elder and equally bizarre older Chadwick via the “telepathic voice transmitter-converter” that allows them to hold conversations even though one is frozen solid. We discover through their conversation that the younger Chadwick was actually born at the South Pole during experiments there, which is basically completely impossible but whatever, we’ve apparently invented telepathic cryogenic communication so clearly the laws of the universe no longer apply, and that his father believes that the pole affected his brain somehow and that’s how we’re explaining his mental illness. Although he allows for the possibility that maybe it’s his mother’s influence. I guess it’s sort of endearing that they’re having the conversation at all? Kind of? I don’t know what’s happening anymore.
Oh, by the way, enter the entertainingly-named Doctor Spango, who has apparently just developed a thrilling new way of regenerating tissue and who plans to unfreeze and give life back to Chadwick Sr. Who is Doctor Spango? Where did he come from? How is he so cool about this telepathic cryogenic weird science happening in front of him, and why hasn’t he told the world yet? Alas, Traversino is not going to tell us. Spango is simply the most convenient mad scientist ever to debut in fiction.
But, at any rate, he is trying to resurrect Chadwick Sr., because why not? Chadwick Jr. is kind of uneasy about this, but like everyone else, he’s just here to carry the plot along as one of its myriad millipede legs.
Dude and company are embarking on their plan to practice at the Hollywood Bowl itself. Apparently they have gone from “so loud the neighbors constantly complain” to “can’t possibly be heard over the noise of the generators and nearby freeway”, but this is just one of the many places you’ll have to suspend your disbelief to make it the rest of the way through. They also seem to be relying very heavily on the idea that security will never leave their monitoring room and actually physically check the grounds, which seems like a lousy assumption to make, but of course they’re right because the Hollywood Bowl apparently has the worst security team ever.
But alas, no bad idea can last forever, and their playing apparently upsets the slumbering ghost of Fausto - or so we must assume from the small earthquake that assails the Bowl and the skeletal, bony spectre we are informed rises up from beneath the tree that was planted to commemorate him. I’m not sure why a single heavy-metal band playing a single song has managed to upset someone who could presumably sleep through Wagner. Maybe Dude and his band are just that offensively bad.
Flashbacking again, we learn that the Toscas (now happily married for decades despite Chadwick Sr.’s ill-fated attempt to murder one of them) were opposed to the election of his son to the post of the Bowl’s director, but that they are no longer actively on the board and therefore have no say in the matter. Also, apparently everyone knows the sordid story of their love triangle thanks to a fiction treatment of it by a famous novelist, even though theoretically nobody even knew half of it because Chadwick Sr. didn’t tell anyone about his abortive murder attempt.
Incidentally, the novelist is named “Sinclair Upjohn”, which I have to assume is some kind of weird homage to Upton Sinclair? But I don’t know why it’s an homage to Upton Sinclair, since he didn’t write anything I know of that would be related here? Is it just because he lived in California? I would have said this was a tongue-in-cheek aside to the audience to suggest that the original novel was written about the Toscas, but I don’t even know anymore.
At any rate, while Chadwick Jr. is as nice as can be to the Toscas, he contracts the Beatles to play at the Hollywood Bowl in an intentional move to disenfranchise them since they’ve both sworn to leave the space permanently if it becomes a venue for rock and roll. In fact, he actually succeeds in killing Tosca himself, who has a heart attack at the news. He dies swearing to come back and avenge this sacrilege, and considering the absolutely off-the-charts proliferation of antagonists in this book already, I’m kind of worried his avenging ghost really is about to be part of the proceedings.
At any rate, as probably anyone could have predicted, various people who live near the Bowl have been calling in all day to report hearing rock music from it unreasonably late at night, and there appear to have been several mysterious holes dug around the base of the oak tree. Chadwick responds by sticking his head in the sand and trying to pretend nothing is wrong.
It appears that Fausto has glowing eyes, though no color has been mentioned, which is definitely reminiscent of the original Erik’s glowing golden orbs.
There’s... a law that you can’t play music in the Hollywood Bowl after midnight? And it’s “something to do with Indians”? Wait, come back - you can’t just say something that ridiculous nonchalantly in passing and then move on with the conversation! Wait!
In a cute move I didn’t see coming, it’s actually Dude and his band who are labeled the “Phantom of the Hollywood Bowl”, since they’re the ones making the music that people have been hearing but not seeing late at night. Since there are plenty of more appropriate Phantoms running around, it’s a fun little poke at our expectations, especially once a gossip magazine (not coincidentally run by Madame Tosca’s nephew) begins making a running story out of the Phantom and his nightly concerts.
Unfortunately, its cuteness still doesn’t make this plot element work, because it’s now been weeks of phone calls and complaints to the Bowl, which leads to Chadwick yelling at his security team, which leads to them... still not ever checking the stage late at night, apparently. Seriously, guys, not one of you has thought to go out and check the stage itself one of these nights? You didn’t think that would be a smart move when the complaints kept coming in? These security guards make the police from the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film look competent, and they couldn’t tell the difference between someone who had fallen and hit their head and someone who had been murdered with a morning star.
A minute later we find out that the security guards are patrolling around the area, which I have trouble believing could be blanketed in enough freeway noise to disguise heavy metal, but apparently they’re still oblivious. And the chief of security sometimes does check the stage... but since he only does it some nights instead of putting someone on it every night like a sensible fucking head of security, this is not helping him out.
Are you ready for Charlie Fist, Private Eye? Sure, why not? This book has nowhere to go but into more bizarre territory.
Fist is a ball of Italian cliches given life, from his Jersey origin to his bruiser stature to his hanging pepperoni- and olive-festooned office to his stairwell full of Renaissance paintings to his accordion-playing to his tendency to kiss photographs of family members. He doesn’t really get better from there - he appears to be effortlessly successful and well-connected without bothering to have much of a personality - but at least he has something out of the gate, which is more than most of these characters can say.
He makes his appearance here because Chadwick has hired him to figure out where the music is coming from and who keeps digging holes all over the property. By a staggering cosmic coincidence, Dude happens to frequent Fist’s uncle’s pizzeria (because he’s ITALIAN, capisce?) and happens to be a passing acquaintance so he happens to be there when Fist drops in to talk about his new job to track down the source of the ghostly music. Dude panics (understandably), but decides that clearly they couldn’t just stop doing what they’re doing even though it’s patently an astronomically bad idea at this point, so instead the band decides to plant “a surveillance device” on Fist’s car. What that is, how it works and where they got it and the knowhow to use it are simply mysteries of the universe.
This book is like reading terrible Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure fanfiction, except I would definitely enjoy that more.
Fist and the security team establish that the “glitch” that they see where all the security monitors appear to jump for a second seems to always happen on the same nights they get the complaints about. Nobody finds this in the slightest bit illuminating.
Incidentally, Fausto, wherever he is in the city, has continued to dig holes (and is apparently invisible to security cameras, which I will buy in his case because he is actually a phantom), hang out around musicians’ guilds, and break into liquor stores. The digging seems like an obvious attempt to find his violin, which is on display somewhere after Tosca’s death, but the liquor is a mystery. Ghost’s got a habit, I guess.
Madame Tosca has a fountain with an Inca goddess on it, but again Traversino doesn’t bother telling us which one or decribing it so I can guess, because it’s FlavorTM. It’s present, along with a lot of indigenous Mexican art, because Madame Tosca is living in the hacienda that originally belonged to Don Moreno, Fausto’s disapproving uncle. It seems kind of unfair that every kind of supernatural menace in this book is pointed straight at this ancient (and, to be honest, pretty much innocent of everything but dumping a dude for another dude) lady who has dedicated her life to the advancement of art. Alas.
Madame Tosca finally explains to us the random law about music not being played in the Bowl late at night, which she claims was passed by white lawmakers in order to patronizingly pacify some local Native Americans who claimed the music would “awaken sleeping spirits nearby.” I’m not going to say that’s impossible, but by the 1920s I feel like it’s not likely, and Traversino’s general air of blithe patronizing of Native people and their beliefs is well past getting on my nerves. I’m sure it’s not intentional, but even when the book’s intent seems to be to set the Native Americans as noble or more wise in this area than others, they’re under-described and over-romanticized to the point that they just look like superstitious but good-hearted tree-dwellers - the epitome of the Noble Savage stereotype. It would have really helped this novel, I think, for any of the main characters to be anything other than White Everymen, but with the exception of Dude’s bandmate Aki, who is Hawaiian (seriously, is this not Bill & Ted fanfiction?), everyone is pretty much as European or Euro-descended as white bread.
Fist is developing a crush on Margo, who, if you don’t remember her (it’s okay if you don’t, she has no personality yet, either, nor any speaking lines), is the lead violinist being menaced by von Stuka, that first and until now apparently forgotten Phantom possibility. Not that he’s ever talked to her much, but she sure is pretty, and I don’t think we can hope for a lot more in terms of characterization out of this book.
Much conversation is had about how much everyone hopes that von Stuka is the Phantom so he can be removed because no one likes him. Alas, von Stuka, I doubt we will ever hear your side of the story, but at least the reader knows you’re not the major Phantom figure (I think? seriously, guys, I no longer have any idea what’s happening in this book).
Fist and security head Vinegar (Fist and Vinegar sounds like a good name for a particularly unrepentant rock band, don’t you think?) manage to find a small cave that abuts both the Hollywood Bowl and an ancient Native American graveyard (will wonders never cease?!). They hear crazed laughter and wild violin-playing in it, but decide it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with anything once they discover that the back of the cave is full of fast food wrappers and smells of marijuana. Because that obviously rules out whomever this is being the Phantom, right?
Oh, lord have mercy. Chadwick and von Stuka get into a fight over who gets to lend the magic violin to Margo for her debut, which ends in Chadwick calling von Stuka an amateur magician and a Nazi, and in von Stuka apparently backing this up by actually clicking his heels while he swears to ruin him forever. Never mind, guys, Phantoms 1 through 3 are all still on the table. My poor, poor head.
I... okay. Fist and Vinegar run into Fausto, who is apparently intentionally waking the spirits of dead natives by playing violin music late at night for them to dance to. They try to shoot him, which does nothing because he’s a ghost himself, and then he shoots them back. With EYE LASERS. Apparently this phenomenon is not just confined to the vampiric Phantoms of the Ashely and Cartier novels!
Because even they aren’t quite ridiculous enough to believe they’ve just been eyeball-tasered by a ghost, Fist and Vinegar decide that it must have been von Stuka, who, we now learn, really is an amateur magician who specializes in optical illusions and does stage magic shows, and who also plays the violin. It’s like this book was written specifically as a shell game for those trying to figure out how it relates to the Phantom story; the mystery of the novel itself isn’t mysterious at all (does anybody really think von Stuka is behind the Phantom instead of Fausto?), but oh my god it’s like it was invented specifically to torture me and my very specialized reviewing milieu.
Margo, who is a mean violin practicer in her living room, endures more sexually harrasing calls from von Stuka and Chadwick, both of whom are spectacularly failing at Phantoming thanks to their ability to compliment her ass endlessly but pay no attention to her burgeoning talent. Unfortunately, Traversino’s attempts to heat up the lukewarm promised romance between Margo and Fist are clumsy and annoying here, particularly when she blows off the other two but then bemoans the fact that “in spite of her self-confident, independent facade, she was lonely for a man who could fill the void in her life”. Not that there’s anything wrong with ladies wanting dudes for whatever void-filled purposes make them happy, but the implication that a woman who wants a man is only pretending to be self-confident and independent is depressing. It is entirely possible for ladies to be radly self-confident and awesome and still be interested in romance. They are not exclusive ideas.
I’ve noted before that the prose is far from inspiring, but it sinks to dismal depths of showing instead of telling in this chapter, narrating entire conversations without a single line of dialogue from the characters to break up the monotony. Justine confides Dude’s secret to Margo during a violin lesson, but the whole thing is so snoresome I have no ability to be worried about it (or even get appropriately huffy that Margo isn’t alerting someone to this dangerous and illegal practice that is affecting her place of employment and upcoming professional debut as a soloist).
Justine’s painted her bow lavender with nail polish, making her by far the best person in this book so far.
Through a police report that tries way too hard to be interesting, we learn that Fausto is still knocking around Hollywood, confused and ghoulish, and that he appears to be both solid enough to knock people down and under the impression that he’s trapped in some kind of afterlife (a reasonable assumption - he did die, after all). The idea that nearby modern Californian pedestrians could accurately translate anything said by a native speaker from Spain in the seventeenth century is pretty laughable, but at least Traversino did say they didn’t quite get it all, so maybe he didn’t totally forget about the probable linguistic drift.
In other News of the Weird, Spango has somehow succeeded in separating the elder Chadwick’s spirit from his body, allowing him to run around incorporeally (but solidly enough that he can still pick up and play a violin, apparently). I have no idea why everyone thinks this must mean that his body will be restored soon because frankly it seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with his body?
Ill-advisedly joining her swain Dude on one of his midnight rehearsals, Justine wanders off backstage - a classic Phantom story error! - and is accosted by Fausto, who steals her bow to play haunting music and then sweeps her up to dance with him, something she is apparently too dazed or weak to prevent him from doing. It’s interesting to see, considering that we haven’t ever actually seen Fausto interact with other humans before, and we have certainly had no inkling of romance. She passes out and awakens on the floor, her bow still missing, before fleeing the scene in a panic. A Christine (and now we have three Christines, too - Justine, Margo, and old Mrs. Tosca) who actually plays violin is something I don’t believe I’ve seen before which is surprising considering the instrument’s ubiquity in the story and its offspring.
Apparently ghosts are easily filmable on videotape, or so we learn when Vinegar is able to watch a replay of Fausto stealing his violin from the Bowl museum. Interestingly, the apparition also takes off with a manuscript; there’s been no mention of such a thing before this point, but the obvious parallel to Leroux’s Erik’s Don Juan Triumphant (and the strong resemblance to Englund’s Erik’s opera of the same name) is easy to arrive at. The manuscript, it is revealed later, was an early recording of native Cahuenga (still a place, not a people) music (in manuscript form? I... sure), which again ties Fausto to the Native people without explaining much of why and suggests that the Don Juan Triumphant analogue may have come from some source other than Erik himself. The only other place I’ve seen that idea was in the disastrous Hall short story... and while Traversino’s writing style reminds me tragically of that story, luckily it’s not THAT bad in here.
Of course, the evidence is conveniently destroyed by a random janitor who happens to pass by and pour hot coffee all over the security footage... so this can continue to limp onward with only Fist and Vinegar believing in The Truth.
After a grueling but perfect performance with her quartet, Justine again runs into Fausto’s shade beneath the Bowl and is led by him in a whirling dance until she passes out. Unfortunately, it’s about as thoroughly described as I just managed in that last sentence, so there’s very little in the way of chemistry, terror, or wonder attached to it. Just the boring statements, ma’am.
In another paragraph of stunning oversimplicity, Justine tells her psychiatrist about this and he and her family immediately prescribe medication rather than calling the police or having them check to see if there might actually be a stalker on the loose. Something like a month goes by during this, which is difficult to take seriously because it’s narrated dryly in exactly eleven lines of text.
Clearly, the only person Justine can confide in is Margo. Who is the second awesome person here, because instead of saying that this isn’t her problem and sending her back to her family who aren’t helping, she lets the girl stay with her because she’s terrified.
Apparently Fausto is followed around semi-regularly by a skunk? Does anyone have a guess what that’s about? Are we just trying to find a really weird way to preserve the original Phantom’s olfactory reek?
Margo apparently has to run a veritable gauntlet of lustful dudes, complete with grabbing and threats to her career, just to get into the performance space whenever she works. No wonder she locks herself in her house and plays until midnight. I’m having trouble believing that dudes like von Stuka and Chadwick would be physically accosting her in such public places, let alone yelling about blackmail; these are people with reputations to maintain, but I guess they’ve both crossed the threshold one too many times.
To solve this problem, she does what any rational woman would do: hatches a plot in which she invites both men over to her house at the same time, tells them individually that she’ll be waiting for them in a dark room, and instructs them to rape her without saying anything. A FOOLPROOF PLAN THAT ABSOLUTELY CANNOT GO WRONG.
THANKFULLY, Margo’s terrible plan doesn’t horrifyingly backfire on her and we can all stop shaking, and she takes pictures of them when they realize they’ve just jumped into bed with each other and sells the scoop on their secret love affair to the tabloids. She also takes the opportunity to pose nude for a Penthouse clone magazine and writing a woeful tale of how Chadwick forced her to do so lest he cancel her debut.
I want to be pleased that she’s not taking shit from these lecherous, abusive dudes anymore... but holy shit. There are so many things wrong with this plan, not the least being how illegal it is and how incredibly dangerous to herself (and Justine, who lives here too at the moment!) it was. Furthermore, I don’t even get it - I thought for sure she would use the photograph she took of them as blackmail material to force them to get off her back and not cancel her debut or conduct it poorly, but she immediately sold it to the tabloids rather than actually keep her one piece of leveraging power. Also, can I repeat how dangerous this stunt was? She was there alone taking this picture and then actively personally lording it over them - the two of them could easily have overpowered her and taken the camera away, not to mention anything else they were angry enough to perpetrate.
MARGO, I’M JUST VERY WORRIED ABOUT YOU.
More Hollywood history, but unfortunately Traversino’s given up on trying to make it interesting or fit into the story. In this case, Margo, on her way to driving elsewhere, decides to re-narrate a history report Justine wrote and read to her the other day. Riveting.
I’m not sure why Traversino feels the need to keep telling us that Margo goes braless about town or doesn’t wear shirts when she’s at home, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to develop into a plot point, so I’d be happy to see that repetition end any time now. Alas, other than her braless state and her long dark hair, not much else about her is described other than nebulous phrases like “every man’s dream” that don’t really help formulate a decent picture at all. Yeah, I get it, she’s the personal fantasy Traversino would most like to sleep with. Readers don’t care.
And... now Margo’s meeting with Fist has turned into weird softcore porn, with holes cut in her shirt for her nipples and mysterious Italian music floating through the windows? I don’t even know what’s happening anymore, something I keep having to say. To make sure we don’t miss out on any other weirdness in the other disjointed parts of this book, Traversino also narrates an Amélie-style a pastiche of everyone else’s activities while the two of them are having sex, including Dude’s band being fêted as celebrities, Madame Tosca taking refuge behind earplugs while Fausto raises the dead some more, Spango attempting again to resuscitate the elder Chadwick and von Stuka being whipped by a dominatrix he has apparently hired for the night. That is what’s up, y’al.
Oh, and Chadwick’s staring at Margo’s centerfold and bellowing complaints about how he can’t fire her because it would be discrimination, like he wasn’t already peak terrible. But considering everything else that’s going on, he’s being practically tame for once.
Spango finally succeeds in liberating Chadwick Sr. from his icy prison. It turns out that the missing ingredient in that particular scientific experiment was boobs, and that once they got a hot naked chick to go dance provocatively in front of him, he popped right out. That’s the real science that happened here.
Later, Fist and Vinegar go to one of von Stuka’s magic shows in an attempt to catch him doing something they could complain about and/or try to get him arrested with. They are thwarted when it turns out that violin-playing, sleight-of-hand, and submissive sexual tastes are not actually punishable offences.
“Von Stuka tried to smile, but his personality wouldn’t let him.” Yeah, that’s about how I feel about this book in general now. Most of the charm of its wackiness and its author’s obvious enthusiasm has bled away; now I’m just tired of the overutilized red herrings and plodding pace. Any time now, author.
And speaking of red herrings, it turns out the pot-smoking violin-player in the cave near the Bowl is actually just an old homeless gentleman who has a tape recorder and really likes classical music. Everyone is very disappointed that he isn’t actually an evil Phantom and tells him to leave, spotting a vulnerable demographic they haven’t yet been jerks to to fill out their bingo cards.
In another stunning example of telling instead of showing and thus guaranteeing the death of reader interest, Fist goes “to visit an old Cahuenga Indian medicine man”, “told him about the events at the Hollywood Bowl” and is in turn rewarded when the man “recounted an old legend” for him. Traversino must be allergic to dialogue that doesn’t involve sexy violinists, because this is just NARRATED to us and it is SO BORING. The legend is noteworthy, however, because it’s obviously a much later recounting of the idea of Fausto playing demonic music and being punished by the indigenous gods by being buried in the earthquake (run through a depressing filter of silly “poor, naive natives!” language again because Traversino just can’t fucking help himself, I guess).
And now, important plot developments that happen again as asides that are mentioned but don’t actually happen in the story itself: tabloid reporters break into von Stuka’s and Chadwick’s houses and shock the community with photos and articles about their respective pleasure dungeon and cryogenically frozen father. I’ve concluded that there must not be any more police in Hollywood or that they all went on vacation after their brief appearance at the beginning of the book - certainly nobody’s arresting these clowns for breaking and entering or trespassing, nor is law enforcement at all interested in the frozen corpse in Chadwick’s basement; apparently the local religious leaders call for him to be buried and the DA politely asks for an autopsy, but Chadwick’s mighty powers of Just Saying No stop everyone from meddling with his basement-body, which is of course exactly how law enforcement always works.
Sigh. Chadwick is suing the tabloids for slander. Are these some kind of spoken-word rap-beat tabloids that are always performed in person, then, or is it just that Traversino doesn’t actually know the difference between slander and libel? And while I’m complaining about things, could we stop hammering von Stuka for his “perversions”? I’m totally cool with being mad at him for accosting young ladies and being an all-around creeper, but having a sex dungeon is not actually one of his sins and it’s irritating when it’s the narration itself that is mocking it instead of the characters.
Much more interesting than any of this is the fact that Madame Tosca hears what appears to be the ghost of her husband playing violin beneath her window and then vowing to get even with the Chadwicks for his death (and their shameless engagement of the Beatles, of course). One must assume that Fausto’s energetic messing around with the local spiritual world has succeeded in dragging the old violinist up along with the local Native American spirits, who apparently have to be subjected to white people shenanigans after death as well as in life. Not that Tosca was buried in the Bowl because that would be weird, but since he died there, I guess he counts as a local anyway?
By the way, do you guys remember Dude? Have you noticed that he hasn’t been around much lately? There’s a reason for that, and it’s that Dude is not actually an important character and will only be returning at the climax of the novel for reasons of continuity. It’s like a cruel prank perpetrated on the reader unwittingly as a consequence of the meandering narration and haphazard plotting. Y’all, we all suffered through Dude’s deadly boring narrative voice and obnoxious friends for nothing.
The police tail on von Stuka finally pays off (I guess?) when they discover that he went to Margo’s house in the middle of the night to give her a violin, causing everyone to prevail upon Fist, as her beau, to get in there and look to see if it’s the stolen one. Of course, since the reader knows very well that it isn’t, this is just prolonging a story that really needed to end a few chapters ago, but at least we can appreciate Fist’s moral dilemma. He’s definitely the most well-drawn character in the book - which isn’t saying a lot, but his occasional glimpses of character insight are still a relief compared to life with Dude, Margo, and Chadwick.
Meanwhile, back with the only people successfully doing a Phantom story anymore, Justine is called to the Bowl by a sourceless hypnotic compulsion and once there is once again danced with by Fausto. I honestly enjoy this whenever it happens - from Justine’s terror of the hideous apparition but inability to say no to it to Fausto’s evident and reverent treatment of her, gentle even when being attacked by security and screaming devilishly, they parallel the original story a lot better than many other novels that are technically better but conceptually devoid. Why Fausto has fixated on Justine (and not Margo, who is actually a professional performer?) is an interesting question, especially since he never talks and we have no convenient Persian character to explain his motivations.
Margo does not, of course, have the missing violin. But because she is a weird fucking person, she decides to take this opportunity, while the police are checking her violins, to start crying and begging Fist to promise to visit her in prison. When asked later why on earth she would do that when she knew the violins were legit, she says she wanted to practice her acting lessons.
As if I weren’t tired enough of her yet. Can we get to the part where all the pseudo-Phantoms kill one another, Highlander-style, so that we can cheer the one still standing at the end and all go home?
Finally wrapping the plot up, Fist goes to the nearby mission (why? because for some reason he thinks nuns might help his detective case. Look, just let him do it, I don’t want to be stuck in this book any longer) and, of course, discovers the memoirs of Sister Angelica, Fausto’s cousin. The memoirs also recount some salient facts that had not previously come to light, namely that Fausto was in love with Angelica (ah, Faust in love with the Angel, how did I not see that coming?) but forbidden from courting her by her father, and that the ancient violin’s bow was originally broken when she hit him with it after he drunkenly attacked her in the wine cellar. The following earthquake swallowed him up and then everybody moved away and forgot about it until Dude decided to ruin everything with his shenanigans.
So, it’s now obviously clear enough for everyone to say it with me: Fausto is obsessed with Justine because Justine looks just like Angelica, as evidenced by a painting of her at the mission that Margo happens to pass conveniently by. Again, this book is so much more interesting when it comes to the period happenings of supernatural Spanish California; every time it drags us back to the colorless, poorly-written modern day I feel like I’ve been dunked in tepid water.
But it’s okay, everyone is fine with the sudden smell of supernatural shenanigans, and this convenient priest at the mission is totally qualified to perform exorcisms. Let’s do this thing.
In a much less empowering parallel to the events of Leroux’s story, everyone decides not to tell Justine that they’re using her as bait and just sort of lurk around staring at her all the time, which is understandably unnerving for her. Dude’s encouraging speech to her about how she shouldn’t be nervous before she goes onstage is also reminiscent of previous versions, particularly the Lloyd Webber musical.
And now, for the nonsensical but undeniably big finish, a massive Fausto - half as tall as the Bowl itself! - appears during a musical competition there and starts playing his demonic screechy music while he looks for Justine. This is one of those massive sudden breach of reality events that has hundreds of people suddenly realizing they’re looking at something supernatural, but thanks to the poorly described narrative and plodding prose, everyone sounds remarkably blasé about it.
Luckily, Dude is here with his electric guitar to do his Raoul duty by Justine. Having noticed that loud noise irritates the ghost (one must assume that’s why it woke him up from death itself?), Dude realizes that this is a moment that all dudes everywhere have been waiting for their entire lives, and “aimed his guitar like a rifle and shot excruciating rock’n’roll cadenzas toward Fausto.”
I am 100% completely and totally convinced that this is Bill & Ted fanfiction now, and nothing anyone says can change my mind. Somehow, this book still doesn’t end with a benevolent futuristic utopia created by the power of Dude’s band’s heavy metal rockingness, and I can only say that I find that very disappointing, all things considered.
Despite Fausto’s constant barrage of laser beams (which I am not actually mocking by saying that... Traversino also refers to them as laser beams, because this book is just full of science!), the combined efforts of Dude’s guitar licks and the convenient priest’s exorcism attempts finally succeed in putting Fausto back into the ground. Fausto’s pleas to Justine to come with him, the only words he’s ever said to her, are plaintive enough, but they’re surrounded by so much poorly-described dreck that any emotional impact the scene might have had is lost.
In fact, the only emotional moment that genuinely got me was on the very last page of the book, when Madame Tosca, old, weathered, and half-drunk, was sitting on her balcony waiting for her husband’s spirit to come back to her, unaware that it now never would because of Fausto’s removal. Despite the author’s attempts to characterize her as a selfish two-timer in Chadwick Sr.’s backstory, she was one of the few characters I cared much about, and the tragedy of her having lost Tosca remains and now always will. Alas.
So now the book is over... but, oh, god, so many questions remain. What’s up with Chadwick Sr., who apparently was freed from cryogenic cold-storage but also not, and apparently never mattered to the plot at all in any way? What about von Stuka, who has vanished from the book without a trace after the revelation of his sex dungeon and the realization that he didn’t have the missing violin? Traversino’s attempt at a feel-good ending, involving everyone getting together with their sexy significant others and enjoying a blues concert, unfortunately falls utterly flat from a combination of the readers not caring about any of these cardboard characters and having migraines from the labyrinthine dead ends of plots forgotten.
But that’s too bad, because that’s all he wrote; lights out, case closed, concert over. Except for some song lyrics for “It’s Always Halloween in Hollywood”, which I regret not being able to hear set to whatever music he intended for them.
This book falls into a sad category for me: obviously an A for enthusiasm, maybe even a B for effort, but a dismal rock bottom soup of boredom and bad writing in execution. It might be interesting for those who love Hollywood history, but if I hadn’t been reviewing it, I’d never have forced myself to slog all the way through to the end.