The Phantom of the Opera

Written by Gaston Leroux

Bobs-Merill Company, 1911, English Translation

There was one group that was gathered around an individual whose disguise and way of walking, as well as his macabre appearance, were causing a sensation. This person, dressed all in scarlet, had a death's head over which he wore an immense feathered hat. Ah, what a remarkable imitation of a death's-head that was. The young art students around him fussed over him. They complimented him and asked him who his master was, and in what studio, frequented by Pluto, he had had such a beautiful skull designed and painted.

~description of Erik at Masquerade

A Bittersweet Mystery of the Macabre
To be such a relatively short simple novel that was almost lost to relative obscurity, this story has inspired (the last time I counted) at least four supplementary novels, three sequel novels, eight musicals, two comic books, ten movies, and countless pieces of "Phan Phiction." This is quite an accomplishment. At first glimpse, this phenomenon may appear as mysterious as Le Fantôme himself. Then at least one of the reasons began staring at me square in the face.

There are quite a few "gaps" in the story. There is no real complete disclosure. Point of view is everything when Leroux as the news reporter tries to investigate mysterious circumstances at the Palais Garnier. The story is almost over-loaded with allusions including images of ancient Greek mythology, the legends of Faust and Don Juan, the horror of Bluebeard, religious elements (Christian and pagan), and - of course - The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe. Comments, narratives, and testimonials sometimes seem to contradict one another, further adding to the mystery, romance, and blatant confusion. Erik himself, for all practical purposes, is treated as a minor character in a story centered around him. For the inquisitive and the creative-minded, the ever-mysterious Erik is a dream come true.

During the 1990's, I watched the TV series The X-Files faithfully. The spirit of this novel, I believe, lies somewhere in between three of my favorite episodes, "The Post-Modern Prometheus," "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space,'" and "Bad Blood.")

Contrary to the silent movie of 1925, none of the characters fit into the hackneyed formulas of damsel-in-distress waiting to be rescued by blonde soldier-hero from evil villainous demon. After just a few seconds' worth of thinking, it becomes clear that quite the opposite is the case. Christine can hardly be considered weak. Raoul is too inexperienced to be a hero. Erik is not any kind of a "true villain." Our "damsel in distress" may be emotionally vulnerable at the moment. She grew up on the road as a Swedish peasant, struggling to survive the dog-eat-dog world of the Paris Opera, only to lose one of the only people to whom she felt any closeness. Raoul has the nice uniform, the pretty blonde hair, youth, and a good heart, but he can barely do anything for the young damsel no matter how hard he tries. Even when armed and accompanied by the former chief of the Persian police, it is he who ironically has to be rescued quite a few times. That is not intended as inflammatory; I just consider this whole experience as part of Raoul's "right of passage." Our "villain" turns out to be a widely accomplished prodigy and "criminal hero," struggling to survive in a world filled with hatred against "freaks," weary of the world's blatantly cruel exploitations of his genius, and longing to simply be loved for himself.

Leroux's added touch of insisting Erik actually existed has created a movement that is, for lack of a better word, almost like a spiritual quest. Whether or not one believes Erik actually existed, exploring the possibility that a man like Erik COULD exist is, in and of itself, an irresistible puzzle worth exploring for many phans. The interesting historical factoids that inspired the story (or is it just a story?) further encourage the phantomania. Exploring the metaphorical aspects of Erik's character is still another interesting project.

Although it is primarily a mystery novel, it also has some romance, horror, and culture/fine arts. It even has very amusing moments and some elements of the occult. According to what I've read about Leroux, he always tried to anchor his stories into somethng "real," no matter how extreme or bizarre a character or situation may be. Science fiction was still in its infancy; it was published during the same era as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In any case, I also think this novel has some elements of early science fiction as well.

There seems to be a little something for everyone here, unless you are the type who likes to have everything spelled out in the end. If you like variety, and don't mind (or even welcome) closure, this is the book for you.

Leroux | Kay | Meyer | Siciliano | D'Arcy | Forsyth

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