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The Way Home (2005)

     by Anne Riley

          from Nocturne with Variations, 2005


We’re back to comedy in this short story! It's not intentional comedy, of course, but when is it ever?

The first page refers to the "smoldering ruin of the opera house" above Erik's hiding place, so we are clued in that this is based on the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film which so gleefully burned the entire place down in the film's climax (I'm sure many of the nineteenth-century architecture critics who hated the Garnier would have been fine with that, but still, harsh). One thing I have learned about the nineteenth century from Phantom literature is that firefighters apparently did not exist then and nobody ever tries to clean up wreckage, survey damage or check for survivors in the rubble, because that would rob destroyed buildings of their tragic mystique.

Interestingly enough, Erik brandishes a pistol in this initial scene as he is confronted with an unknown assailant. Doing so is extremely rare in Phantom stories - the only one I can think of to have done it before is the bizarre Kindzierski/Manoukian/Roucher comic Le Monstre - and for good reason, as it makes a very solid statement about the Phantom's status as a mortal man who requires sophisticated tools to defend himself. It's hard to be ambiguously supernatural when you are declaring via your actions that you might have a glass jaw.

The assailant in question is a tall, incredibly beautiful, porcelain-pale and flawless man with boundless charisma and a dangerous cat-like grace who easily disarms Erik and demonstrates in no uncertain terms that he could snap him like a twig. I can’t imagine where this is going.

Erik sucks a lot at dealing with this guy, not only by being totally physically helpless in his grip but by also being unable to even mentally cope with him; the unintentional irony of the master ventriloquist frowning in puzzlement and fear as he can't figure out how a voice could have passed him by without him noticing the person moving is probably one of the least reasonable events in Phantom literature ever.

Then, after some limping suspense while Erik takes the mystery guy who almost killed him down to his most secret parlor and they indulge in some typos on page 12, the stranger reveals his name to be Magnus.

Yes, my friends, that’s what’s happening. Welcome to the first crossover between Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera and Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat. Magnus (who will be SHOCKINGLY revealed to be a vampire in a few pages) is the vampiric sire of Lestat, Rice's most popular character and the wet-dream of a million teens and soccer-moms before Twilight's Edward came along to steal his thunder, an incredibly ancient and beautiful and powerful and artistic and blah blah blah vampire. For those keeping score at home, this, by the way, not only retcons Rice's novel (as Magnus killed himself quite decisively in the mid-to-late eighteenth century and the Phantom story takes place over a hundred years later) but also introduces Erik as Lestat's younger "brother", in vampire terms. And before any well-meaning person suggests that Magnus, as possessor of a pretty badass and old-sounding but also generic name, might be an unrelated vampire made up by Riley for her story, Erik will unfortunately later receive instructions from him to go to the Theatre of Vampires on the Boulevard des Capuchines, a major center of action for the vampires of Rice's novels.

But what’s wrong with vampires? Can't people like vampires? What are you, some kind of undead snob? To which I say that yes, of course people can like vampires. I, personally, like them. The problem is not with the concept of vampires itself, but with the horrible execution, which manages to incorporate all the worst tropes and trite clichés to come out of Rice's writing without retaining any kind of interesting originality or even lyrical writing ability. From the moment Magnus was explaining how vampires were noble creatures who live to support the arts and enjoy the beauty of their perfect existence, I knew none of those things were going to be happening. There's no exploration of any of the interesting ideas vampires can represent (dealing with eternity, dealing with a bestial or frightening second nature, being changed or not by the tides of history, representing suppressed sexuality, etc.), just gleeful, glittery humping of Rice's leg.

(As usual, I'd just like to say: don't do this, authors. You know what using other peoples' non-public-domain characters and/or story settings without their permission and then publishing them and charging money for them is? It's the kind of thing that can get you nasty letters from lawyers, that's what it is.)

It's Jason Blackthorn all over again, but with even less justification because it's a decade later. I did not want poorly-executed vampires to turn into a trend I would have to follow in subsequent works, but here we all are.

Theoretically, there might still be some suspense intact for readers who are not familiar with Rice's books, but then again I doubt Riley is writing with them in mind. If you were not already trying to avoid laughing, you are going to be by the time you get through the next few pages, during which Erik feels trapped as if in a "straight jacket", Magnus makes a big deal about requesting dark red wine even though he says he won't be drinking it (because he does not drink... wine), and Erik reflects that Magnus reminds him of this one time in India when he saw the "king of a band of at least twenty-one tigers", which is especially hilarious because that is so much not how tigers work.

Things just continue to get sillier, as Erik runs around unmasked in front of Magnus, Magnus' eyes glow red, and they both spend entirely too much of their wordcount discussing what a mean jerk Christine was to leave with Raoul because he clearly did not love or deserve her as much as Erik and she is going to regret it forever. Nobody bothers to explain why Raoul is such a bad man and is going to dump her at the first opportunity and leave her destitute somewhere after having almost gotten killed to save her. He just is.

It is implied twice that Erik is scarred, not congenitally deformed, which makes me wonder if he is a spiritual inheritor of some of the earlier film versions, especially the 1943 Lubin/Rains, the 1962 Fisher/Lom or the 1983 Markowitz/Schell movies. Of course, nobody will explain and it's about to become a non-issue, but it's interesting to ponder nonetheless.

As if sensing my increasing disbelief, Erik and Magnus get all clinched up, touch each others' lips and all but make out until Magnus starts drinking his blood, in which, naturally, he can literally taste the music of Erik's soul. I'm sorry, guys, but if that was meant to reinvest me in the story, I'm afraid it had the opposite effect.

No, there are no undead sexytimes, though considering the story's tone there probably should be. Instead, "Erik's eyes stung by the room's brightness" and then he has a huge tantrum when, after Magnus turns him into a vampire (why? Because vampires are all undead philanthropists or some shit and he wants him to have eternity to make music, apparently, or possibly it's for the same reason that Raoul is secretly a dick), he discovers he can no longer see his reflection in the mirror. You would think this would be a plus for Erik, considering his lifelong obsession with his hideousness, but instead he's grumpy because Magnus promised him he could become pretty, when he was a vampire and he wants to see it. Weh weh weh, you promised I would be beautiful and I can't see myself, weh weh weh.

In case I haven't yet properly conveyed the drama of the writing style to my home audience, let me excerpt from page 25 for you:

"Shattered glass from the broken skylights spread across the burnt lumber, glimmering in the intermittent light like lost souls in hell."

It's like something I would write in order to mock other people. LIKE LOST SOULS IN HELL.

The story ends with Erik doing a rousing internal cheer after he learns to change his appearance with lightning swiftness in order to elude the police and become SUPER HOT, Y’ALL, realizes that being a vampire has made him no longer have to be in love with Christine (how convenient!), and heads off to Lestat's theater to, I don't know, have more undead makeouts and talk about his new prettiness.

He will, of course, return when the opera house is rebuilt, and thereafter live in it forever. Because ambition, once you've been given eternal life, completely mutable appearance, and the ability to make humans do whatever you want, is ridiculous.

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