The Portal (1995)
by Carrie Hernandez
from Angel of Music: Tales of the Phantom of the Opera, 2005
This isn’t a bad little story, but it’s also not blowing anyone’s socks off.
Unlike the other two stories in Hernandez’s collection, which were prequels, this one is a sequel and opens with Christine as the Countess de Chagny, married to Raoul, who has acceded to the title after Philippe's death at the end of Leroux's novel. It's a bit of a jerk to the brain, since so much of Hernandez's work has adhered so closely to Leroux's, that she has chosen not to keep his ending, which involves Raoul and Christine fleeing the country and living together in obscurity far away from the bad memories of Paris; instead, Raoul marries Christine and they move right into the family home, and, predictably, the rest of his aristocratic family is not thrilled.
This is the foundation of the story, and unfortunately it's less than impressive: the de Chagnys are not amused that Raoul has married a guttersnipe (especially, one assumes, since Philippe is dead and won't be begetting any more suitable heirs to the title), so they're snippy to her. And that's it. The basic crux of the problem is that the de Chagnys don't like Christine, so they're subtly dismissive of her and she can tell they think she's provincial. When she confronts Raoul about it, he says kindly (but also pretty naïvely) that she just hasn't gotten used to high society manners yet, and that once she does she'll fit in just fine. This causes her to immediately leave in high dudgeon and never return.
I have to ask: what, exactly, did she think was going to happen? She lives in a class-bounded society, and whether or not she's somewhat oblivious she can't have failed, by adulthood, to know what his class tends to think of hers. It's possible that she's just so naïve that she believed love would conquer all, but that leads me to the second question: where's the love? What happened to her love for Raoul? His family treats her like a country cousin, and in return she leaves him forever? And he, who risked his life to rescue her on multiple occasions, just lets her go and makes no attempt to find her? What happened to the lovers who risked death for one another, but apparently now didn’t think they’d ever have to risk someone not talking to them over dinner?
It's a thin excuse for Christine to leave Raoul and return to Erik, and no matter how the author tries to dress it up, it’s just not very palatable. Hernandez writes the trope with more flair than most - in particular, the scene in which Christine succumbs to a wailing, flailing fit and claws at the walls of the opera house is very gripping - but the basic idea is still overly convenient and hard to find believable. There's no compelling explanation of what's happened to Raoul's and Christine's relationship to make them so suddenly and easily split, nor is there any good reason offered for why Christine would immediately return to the opera house and start begging Erik to take her back. It just happens, because the plot to come demands it to happen and Hernandez is less concerned with setup than she is with the later story. As a result, the whole thing feels shoddy and shoehorned and negatively impacts the reader’s ability to believe in the emotions of the characters. I've seen this done a lot in bad sequels (the Bernadette book, for example, or the first Russell story, or the Vehlow novel, or any other number of unfortunate examples), and the problem is always wanting to split the couple but not put in any work to actually write them splitting up.
In keeping with her previous works, however, Christine names her daughter Lotte, which is bittersweet and poignant, especially if we consider this to be a follow up to "Phantoms of the Mind" and "Little Lotte".
Lotte, of course, is Christine's daughter with the Phantom, not with poor Raoul, who did not have a lot of time to get her pregnant, it seems (as with most Phantom children, this is taken for granted). She's interesting in that she's female; most sequels that give the Phantom a child tend to make him male, probably in an effort to create a younger version of him to carry on the torch. The only previous female children we've ever seen were the miscarried girl from the Pettengill novel and the twin girls from the Russell short story, neither of which were in any way developed or relevant since they barely existed. Lotte, despite her sex, is actually fulfilling most of the roles usually assigned to Erik's sons anyway including being a little hellion copy of him, apparently as soon as she emerged from the womb.
Lotte is mischievous, vengeful, selfish, and generally an unpleasant little being. The selfishness and mischief are understandable since she's only eight years old - most children exhibit those traits at that age, though it's worth noting that Christine herself didn't according to Hernandez's previous story - but the desire to alarm, hurt, and/or sow discord in other people for the sheer joy of it, combined with a seriously hardcore need for revenge, is hard to put down to mere youthful high spirits. Her personality is intended to remind us of Erik's and draw a parallel between the two of them, but since he is not in any way involved in her upbringing and she spends most of her time torturing people who are nothing but kind to her, up to and including her mother, mostly it just makes her look like an evil little child. Erik's personality is not exactly something to aspire to, and while pasting it onto the kid does drive home that she's his daughter (who magically inherited his personality in her genes, or something), it also has the unfortunate side effect of making me want to put her in a bag and leave her at the local Humane Society.
This is another one of those places where fleshing the story out could have fixed this; if the idea is that Lotte has some sort of personality disorder and did genetically inherit it from her father, you could instead look at the inter-generational issues and mental health stigma in society, and that would be neat. But you would have to acknowledge those things and go through the work of presenting them to the reader, and again Hernandez assumes we’ve made all these assumptions on our own and fails to account for readers who haven’t.
Exemplary of Lotte’s generally reprehensible behavior is the prank she plays on her mother near the beginning of the story, when, angry that Christine has not paid enough attention to her, she sneaks into her closet and replaces one of the doves on her Sunday finery hat with the stinking corpse of a rat, carefully coiling it together so that it becomes part of the chapeau. The rotted rat with its tail wrapped around the other still-pristine dove is meant to be symbolic of Erik and Christine, of course, but since Lotte doesn't know that Erik exists at this point and has no exposure to anything more dichotomous and frightening than the country house in which they live, her sudden reverie in which she is incredibly moved by the contrast doesn't make any sense. Again, elements feel shoehorned into this story without much justification, and the end result is annoying.
(It is amusing to see Erik represented as a rat, though. The obvious influence is the 1998 Argento/Sands film.)
When Lotte's stunt with the rat causes Christine to faint and nearly injure herself, we get the absolute wrong response to an eight-year-old acting out, which is some child abuse. Lotte wakes up the next night unsure of what’s happening, but the reader is able to easily figure out that Erik has tied her up and covered her in toads, which slither all over her for the rest of the night until he returns her to her bed in the morning. The toads are a bit odd, since the Phantom doesn't really have any affiliation with toads outside of his ventriloquist heckling of Carlotta, but then again they are a very classically repugnant creature to torture a child with.
And he is torturing her, despite her obvious fear and discomfort, and that's worth noting: Erik has no compunctions about torturing a child, who happens to be his own daughter, in order to discourage her from harming or upsetting Christine. That he would threaten even his own flesh and blood for Christine is an appropriate idea considering the relentless scope of his obsession with her, and it's always nice to see a version of the Phantom for whom fatherhood does not immediately and magically cure him of all dangerous personality traits or mental illnesses. Erik and Lotte are very similar, the story would like us to know, and therefore they treat their family members similarly - with controlling behavior and malicious pranks, often without either an understanding of or any compassion for how that affects others.
The grave-stink scent of Erik has been brought over from Leroux's novel; he is so deathly-smelling, in fact, that Lotte has difficulty not retching around him until she gets used to it. It's a good choice to underline his separation from humanity and general hideousness; too often writers completely ignore the dimension of scent, and there's an immediacy to a horrible smell that can't be brushed aside as easily as a more subjective physical appearance might. Hernandez will also use it later in the novel for more concrete reasons, and it’s interesting that it seems his smell may actually have gotten worse over time, perhaps as a result of a degenerative physical condition.
Erik's mastery of his own vocalism is ably presented throughout the story, from the ghostly singing that haunts the house occasionally to impressive mimicry and ventriloquism.
Hernandez's Erik is, like Leroux’s original character, clearly unhinged; enjoying pranks is one thing, but he's also distinctly evil about it, obviously reveling in the confusion, fear and hurt of others, and his interest in Lotte clearly comes more than a little bit from a desire to see her follow in his footsteps. It's a difficult choice to bring across well - you have to fight Leroux's Erik's self-loathing against his skewed value system to figure out what he'd want to do - but Hernandez does a decent enough job of it.
Erik, who has begun visiting Lotte once a month, always has Christine put her down with a paralyzing drug first, so that she can't move or speak while he's in the room with her. I want to know what the drug is, for one thing, though I suspect we're meant to assume that it's something created by Erik out of his own genius mind. More importantly, though, I want to know why he's bothering; why doesn't he just approach the same way he did with Christine? There are a few possibilities, but it's most likely a result of Lotte's own nature, which is far less easily manipulated than Christine’s. I'm still unsure about his preference for actually entering the room and hanging out with her; he obviously knows she's terrified and disgusted, and I'm not sure I've seen enough growth out of him to think he's no longer worried about a creature he cares about rejecting him.
Lotte, it turns out, is a career servant-torturer, because of course she is. Erik likes to tell her, on his visits, about all the consternation and anger and fear she causes with her pranks below stairs, since he can see the aftermath and she usually can't. And then they bond over their shared asshattery, or something. I see what Hernandez is trying to do, drawing an ability between them to have a bond even though they’re dangerous and unpleasant, but it's all so banal; Erik is proud of her for putting paint in peoples' shoes? Give me a break.
The tendency to make any child of the Phantom's an amazing prodigious unbelievable superlative musical prodigy is also rearing its ugly head, and it's annoying. I's not as bad as in some versions, but when Lotte's narrating lines like, "Since the laws of acoustics were the same no matter which instrument I played, it was only a matter of understanding the mechanics of the particular instrument in question before being able to produce any melody with which I was already familiar," mostly I just want to roll my eyes and go find something else to do. No, you're probably right, kid. All instruments are basically the same since they all use, you know, sound.
Lotte is also taking vocal lessons, which she is a hugely quick study at. In fact, she's such a quick study that, as soon as she masters various folk lieder, she decides she wants to sing "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte next, and gets very disgruntled when her vocal teacher basically tells her that’s a terrible idea and refuses. Well, no shit, you can't sing that, Lotte. You're eight years old! Eight! That's one of the hardest, if not the hardest, arias Mozart ever wrote, which is saying something considering that he thought that G6 was a reasonable note to ask of his sopranos. Your teacher is being responsible and not letting you try to sing something that would almost certainly damage your still-growing vocal apparatus, never mind actually sound good. Nevertheless, she spends plenty of internal narration telling us what a buffoon her teacher is.
Another major theme that obviously comes to us from Leroux’s novel is the quest for motherly love. Lotte is completely desperate to win Christine's approval and affection and seldom succeeds, mostly because Christine lives in a world of her own and isn’t responsive most of the time; most other people believe her to be addled from the trauma of her life, which would have made sense after the events of Leroux's novel but which is weirdly out of place since she seemed fine when she was busily storming out of Raoul's chateau. It's a mirror of Erik's need for a mother's love, expressed both in his mournful sadness over his own mother's rejection and his need for Christine to fulfill that role as a surrogate. Christine obviously isn't rejecting her daughter the way Erik was rejected by his own mother, but her apparent indifference is injurious in a different way and helps tie Lotte closer to her father's image.
It's been hinted at before, but Erik, seeking to explain to Lotte why she never gets much out of Christine, says that she "listens regularly to the conversation of angels", not only an allusion to his own control over her but also a strong implication that she's suffering from a mental illness. Again, she seemed mostly fine when she returned to the opera house, which is frustrating because it makes Christine’s illness feel like a plot convenience rather than a compelling part of the character. Hernandez will offer an explanation later, but it’s unfortunately less than satisfying.
Erik and Lotte both think of Christine as "part spirit", an interesting idea that may hearken back to her Christ role in Leroux's novel or may just be an unwitting inversion of the original story's themes. There's a weird change that occurs in modern versions of or follow-ups to the Phantom story when it comes to Christine and the pedestal Erik puts her on; where Leroux's character idolized her as a representative of humanity and all that was good in it (and to which he aspired, though his self-loathing and unstable violence never allowed him to achieve it until the very end), modern writers seem to always want to put her higher yet, elevating her to a supernatural being (an angel, fairy, mystic, etc.) in his eyes. This always strikes me as missing the point somewhat; Erik's not looking for something he can't ever hope to achieve, but rather something that he can eventually attain and shake in the face of a world that rejected him. It's Christine's very humanity that makes her so attractive to him (and to the reader); making her an angel removes much of her character and totally changes the dynamic of Erik's wants and motivations.
I'm not sure why Lotte thinks of the villagers - of the village she herself lives in, no less - as all being "stupid bumpkins", considering that she's never lived (or even been) anywhere else and that, again, she's eight. I know it's another attempt to make her personality match Erik's, but it doesn't succeed in a believable way. Disdain really isn't congenital.
There's a poisoned creek near the edge of town, which often has dead animals strewn about it. It's a focal point a bit later in the story when everyone is blaming Erik (the mysterious ghost of the house on the hill) for their deaths, but there's no particular explanation offered by Hernandez for it, which irked me. It was paid so much attention to, particularly its reek, that I thought it was a plot point, either something Erik was doing or something he wasn't doing but was going to be blamed for. Neither emerged; it was just a mysteriously poisoned creek and a great example of a red herring that is annoying rather than clever.
In the turning point of the story for Lotte, she accompanies some of the village children to see a circus in town, and while there enters the sideshow and sees the Crocodile Man, a sideshow performer with a congenital skin and bone condition that the carnival markets as him being half-animal. Like Erik, the Crocodile Man smells horrible, and Lotte faints when she sees his deformities, registers the familiar stench and realizes that the smelly angel she's still never seen is probably monstrous-looking. Again, I like the inclusion of scent as a powerful motivator of horror; smell is a sense we react to instinctively, and extremely disfiguring conditions (there are many options for what could be afflicting the Crocodile Man/Erik, but porphyria, Proteus syndrome or a ton of other thyroid, metabolic, or organic conditions are all candidates) often come with accompanying olfactory symptoms.
The circus performers, who are apparently all very nurturing and kind, carry her out of the tent, nurse her awake again, and then talk about what a sweet girl she is as she stumbles home.
Lotte, seeking to impress and frighten the local children, tells them a very elaborate, involved and embellished ghost story about the spectre that haunts her house. Their fear and the reactions of their parents when they are told is a very obvious setup for a witch-hunt or house-burning, which is strongly reminiscent of Kay's 1990 novel and the burning of young Erik's house because he lived in it. To be perfectly honest, based on how unpleasant and prone to enjoying mayhem Hernandez's version of Erik is here, I expected that he probably was killing some of their animals or making their lives harder as they suspected, but apparently this was not the case. I'm not going to say that you can never have Erik not be the villain - doing so is sometimes the best possible choice - but I will say that I'm kind of tired of the trope of Ignorant French People Assume Persecuted Erik is the Source of All Ills Because They Are Unenlightened. If the Phantom is an innocent who never does anything that hurts anyone else, the complexity of the questions of where the line has to be drawn between suffering and harm and what it means for someone dangerous to have been made that way through societal cruelty and/or neglect is lost.
It's interesting that Lotte is much less upset by the revelation of Erik's mortal nature than Christine was. True, she's less of an innocence- and purity-focused character, but she's also much younger and more prone to fear and reaction. That she so calmly handles the idea that there's a scary, smelly man who comes in to pet her comatose, paralyzed body instead of the cherished notion of an angel is a bit of a stretch, but given that children often manage to take things that would scare adults out of their pants in stride, mostly because as children they already live in a world where things often happen without any apparent reason and they have no control over them.
Readers familiar with the Phantom story probably automatically assume that ghostly singing floating around the house is probably coming from Erik, but in reality the crystalline song that Lotte so often tries to follow is coming from Christine, singing for Erik down below the house. It’s implied that she was the “siren” in Leroux’s novel, which gives us the deliciously fraught implication that Christine might have helped lure others, including Philippe, to their deaths with her beautiful voice, either intentionally as she tried to protect her mentor or against her will due to hypnosis or coercion (or simply didn’t know that her singing when she worked with Erik drew people into the water). The story doesn’t commit one way or the other, leaving the reader to decide.
And then the eight-year-old is spontaneously bursting into the Jewel Song from Faust while wandering around underground. Oh my god, seriously, NOBODY DOES THAT. People who are actual singers DON'T DO THAT, especially un-warmed-up and in a dank cake-like environment. You are probably SHREDDING your cords.
Yves, a local boy who pesters Lotte for details about the ghost all the time, turns up dead in their cellar, hung by the neck. Of course, everyone immediately blames the ghost, which is valid because, well, it's pretty obvious that he did it. Lotte's somewhat traumatized by seeing the corpse of her friend, but gets over it at the speed of light in order to sympathize with Erik, a graceless and gratuitous treatment that takes away any particular depth she might have had.
The biggest problem with Lotte is that she has the emotional depth of an eight-year-old (which is interesting but often flat and still not capable of a lot of moral nuance), but she talks and thinks like an adult, and the result is that the reader is constantly either annoyed that she sounds like a wise adult when she shouldn’t, or annoyed that she sounds like an ignorant child after she’s just been sounding like an adult.
Once the police inspector shows up, Christine predictably breaks down, first going catatonic from stress and then talking in a fugue-like state that she doesn't remember later. During this time, she mumbles that the killer was Lotte's father... and like ten tons of rock, the hammer of the law slams down on poor, absent Raoul. Christine does finally come to her senses enough to convince the inspector not to go off to Monte Carlo looking for her estranged (why? we never get to find out!) husband, but that leaves her a mess again, and Lotte ends up locked in a house, under house arrest with a sobbing wreck of a woman. Christine, obviously severely upset, begins crying, "Who's going to take care of me now?" at the idea of Erik having to leave to evade the police, and the whole thing is very sad, as well as drawing a compelling picture of Christine’s emotional state (if not explaining really how she got into it).
There's a lot of the typical excuse-making you see in derivative stories that idolize the Phantom a bit, explaining why it's not Erik's fault that he kills people because he's been ostracized and now they'll drive him away from his home, boo hoo hoo. It's more palatable than usual, seeing as how it's coming from an obviously mentally ill person and an eight-year-old who couldn't understand what was going on, but that’s not saying much.
So what did happen to Christine? How did she go from the headstrong decision-maker of Leroux’s novel to the woman who stormed out of Raoul’s house when his family wouldn’t treat her well to someone who is incapable of handling even the idea of adversity? The answer finally comes out here, and it's sadly really icky and shaky: it seems that Erik over-hypnotized Christine, and over time she started to descend into dream-fugues all on her own without him doing anything (to use a questionable Men in Black metaphor, he flashy-thingied her too much). There isn't much explanation for this, nor of why she's been getting progressively worse over the years or why this didn't start occurring until after she left Raoul. One interesting idea would be that the reality of living with the Phantom isn't what she wanted it to be, and so she keeps retreating further and further into fantasy now that she's burned her bridge - Raoul - to the rest of the world; another might even be that she’s still with Raoul, but that her shaky grasp on reality doesn’t allow her to realize it very often, or else that the family had her committed to an institution and she has little understanding of that reality, either. None of these are explored, of course, which is a shame; Christine’s mental illness is largely used to sympathize the Phantom, who feels very bad for causing it, and is not explored much in terms of how it actually impacts her.
Erik's tearful remembrances and heartfelt pouring out of his feelings as he prepares to leave forever go on too long, and they're painfully maudlin. We learn that the fear of passing his deformity on to children, a familiar idea presented in the Vale Allen and Binkley novels, is the reason that Lotte is an only child, since after accidentally knocking Christine up he vowed never to do it again and hasn't slept with her in nearly a decade.
In the end, it's a little bit too pat. Erik runs from the law and leaves Christine and Lotte abandoned in the house (there is much wailing about how they can't go with him and he can't stay, even though he seems to have evaded police capture last time without any problems), and it's another case of re-redeeming the Phantom, who lets them go so that they can live normal lives. It's too little too late, though, and it ends up feeling like a syrupy chapter full of squishy feelings without enough character development meat to be savory. I get the sense that this Erik learned something from his initial redemption when he let Christine go, but I don't know what it is and there hasn't been enough work done on his character to convince me that he would go so gently into that good night now.
And really, once you’ve caused irreparable damage to Christine’s psyche and tortured and encouraged her young daughter toward violence, “I’m leaving so you can have a normal life” doesn’t have the oomph it used to have. I mean, by all means, leave, but just be aware that the fact that you didn’t leave because they needed you to but rather because you didn’t want to be executed for your murder of a child is not a mark in favor of your selflessness.
And then, in a moment of utter weirdness, Lotte ends the story - which, by the way, she's telling to her children as a bedtime story - by relating how it turned out that all the policemen keeping them under house arrest were dead the next morning, their throats brutally crushed. She then follows that up with a bright, "Okay, sleep well and maybe you'll dream of the Angel, too!" and then flounces off, apparently completely unaware of the fact that her kids are probably never going to sleep again now, lest they star in A Nightmare on Elm Street: Nineteenth Century Horror.
Again, the story isn’t really bad, but it isn’t good, either. It’s a soup of half-formed ideas over-reliant on canon to make sense, and doesn’t pursue any of its interesting themes past a surface level.