Phantom by Susan Kay, 1990

The year was 1990.  My fascination with classic monsters, especially the old black and white Universal Studios version, had been in full swing for years.  My appreciation of silent films had begun to manifest, and I rediscovered Lon Chaney, Sr.  The Phantom of the Opera was not a film that found its way to my weekend Double Shock Theater movie viewings due to the nature of silent film.  Thinking back on it, virtually none of the other versions of this film made it on TV back then.  But the Phantom had returned to the public consciousness at this time.  In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber had hit big with his musical adaptation.  In ’89, Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger) got the role in his big screen version, which didn’t really hit big.  And in ’90, a TV version featuring Charles Dance (Game of Throne‘s Tywin Lannister) behind the mask found an audience, though certainly not a big one.  Even among monster enthusiasts, The Phantom of the Opera has always had a kind of a niche audience.  The musical version, however, created a whole new kind of enthusiast: superfans became known as “phans.”  Not having dipped my toes much into the musical waters, I was virtually unaware of its impact.  I lived in the country, and this was a pre-internet era.  All I knew of the musical was the occasional TV commercial with the mask and rose logo and that now-infamous organ fanfare.  Most everything else I knew of the character was from a few books I had lying around.  One fateful day in 1990, I resolved to fix this oversight.

At the time, the go-to store in the area was Hastings, which was one of my favorite haunts at that point, especially since this was the year I turned 16, got a job, and earned my driver’s license.  Freedom and a little funding… what more could any teen want?  First I hit the video department, picking up a VHS copy of Lon Chaney’s silent classic.  Then a sweep through of the music section led me to find the original London cast soundtrack recording of the musical.  Little did I know this would someday lead me to my own Phantom-esque fascination with Sarah Brightman’s voice.  And then I hit the books section because I can’t not do that.  I had no Phantom objectives at that point, however.  I was looking for Star Trek novels, being the sci-fi fix that filled the void in those Dark Times of no Star Wars.  That’s when I accidentally found… this:

As with the musical, I hesitated to buy it at first.  At least the silent film, a 16-year-old, red-blooded country boy could justify something like that on some level.  A soundtrack for a stage musical?  Not so much, but I couldn’t get that organ theme out of my head, so I just had to hear the rest of it.  I had to know.  And this book was decidedly in the romance section, so the odds were stacked against it immediately upon recognition of that fact.  It just happened to be up front, at eye level, which is why I saw it at all, en route to the back wall where my sci-fi quarry was stashed.  I picked it up briefly out of curiosity, then put it back.  A few minutes later, I’d circled back around to pick it up, still hesitant.  I put it back again.  $6 on minimum wage salary at that time was a serious investment, I told myself, ignoring the fact that the CDs cost considerably more than that, plus the VHS.  And the book kept calling to me.  So I finally picked it up, bought it, and took it home.

To this day, I consider that as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  The first time I read this book, I did so slowly, one chapter a night by candlelight.  The second reading commenced immediately upon finishing, and it took only a weekend.  It remains to this day one of the top books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and certainly the best book ever written about its title character.  All others, including Gaston Leroux’s original, pale in comparison.  Susan Kay’s Phantom is an immersive experience from cover to cover, so much so that I ended up with three copies in as many months to replace loaner copies that I never got back, each of which I read in turn because I had to keep returning to the story.  I had to.  And then my third copy (which I still own) eventually started falling apart, so I went to replace it… and couldn’t.  The book was suddenly out of print.  You couldn’t even find it in secondhand book stores.  When the internet finally became available, paperback copies that looked like they’d been dragged behind a moving truck down a gravel road were still going for as much as $700 as long as you could read them.  Following the 2004 big screen adaptation of the musical, interest in all things Phantom surged.  Phan-fic was ubiquitous.  Professional Phan-fic was even more obnoxious, each one inconceivably worse than the last.  It’s as though everyone out there suddenly couldn’t get enough of the story and had to tell their own version of what “really” happened.  Ironically, the one book that didn’t sell that well was the original.  Probably by that point, everyone interested the story either already had it or couldn’t be bothered with that version because it was “old.”  (*rolls eyes*)  The musical had set the new standard.  Be that as it may, the publishers recognized a market when they saw one, and this novel finally, at long last, saw reprint.  I immediately jumped on a new hardcover version and an ebook version just because I could.  But in all these years, it’s been silently waiting on me to revisit the story I’d come to know so very well.  My only two regrets are that it’s taken my this long to do so, and that there still isn’t an audiobook version.

Phantom is a book that, for all the right reasons, is legendary in the Phan community.  The story begins in 1831, told in the first person from the point of view of a new mother giving birth.

There was a great bursting, tearing sensation and then peace… and silence; the breathless hush of stunned disbelief.  I opened my eyes to see the midwife’s face — rosy with exertion only moments before — slowly draining of color; and my housemaid, Simonette, backing away from the bed, with one hand pressed against her mouth.

I remember thinking: It must be dead.  But sensing even in that confused split second before I knew the truth that it was worse than that… much worse.

Struggling to sit up against the pillow, I looked down at the bloody sheets beneath me and saw what they had seen.

I did not scream; none of us screamed.  The sight of the thing that lay upon the sheet was so unbelievable that it denied all power of movement to the vocal chords.  We only stared, the three of us, as though we expected our combined dumbstruck horror to melt this harrowing abomination back into the realm of nightmare where it surely belonged.

* * *

Fearfully, with a trembling hand, I parted the shawl that covered the child’s face.  I had seen deformities before — who has not? — but nothing like this.  The entire skull was exposed beneath a thin, transparent membrane grotesquely riddled with little blue pulsing veins.  Sunken, mismatched eyes and grossly malformed lips, a horrible gaping hole where the nose should have been.

My body, like some imperfectly working potter’s wheel, had thrown out this pitiable creature.  He looked like something that had been dead a long time.  All I wanted to do was bury him and run.

Dimly, through my revulsion and terror, I became aware that he was watching me.  The misallied eyes, fixed intently and wonderingly upon mine, were curiously sentient and seemed to study me with pity, almost as though he knew and understood my horror.  I had never seen such awareness, such powerful consciousness, in the eyes of any newborn and found myself returning his stare, grimly fascinated, like a victim mesmerized by a rattlesnake.

From there, the story unfolds.  Where the events of Leroux’s classic novel told only the last six months of so of the life of Erik, this one (as you can see from the above excerpt) covers birth, death, and all points in between.  All of the torture and torment, all of the strange encounters, all of the music, all of the heartbreak, and in the end, all of the soul-crushing splendor that could be brought to a story like this, Susan Kay brings it and more.  From a little village outside of Rouen, to a traveling freak show, to the courts of the Persian Shah, and finally to the underground tunnels beneath the Opera, which Erik himself helped design, this novel blends impeccable history with near-perfect dramatic storytelling to bring the Phantom to life in a way that has, to my mind, never been achieved before or since with any other classic monster.  I do not make such a claim lightly.   Each chapter is told in the first person from the perspective of different characters, and each character voice is not only unique, they are spot-on.  You see what they see.  You feel what they feel.  And in the time you spend in their heads, they will get inside yours.

There are story points within that differ slightly from Leroux’s account, which can be easily explained that the original is a journalist’s account, where this might be the story of what “really” happened.  Ideas and characters only alluded to in the original version are expanded upon in detail here, especially the character of the Persian, who in this version is named Javert after Victor Hugo’s character in Les Miserables.  There are elements of it that specifically call back to the stage musical, and there are elements in the musical that have since been adapted to call back to this novel.

On the whole, this tale is completely unflinching in its look at how a monster is created by a world who sees only what’s on the surface.  For those who continue the journey to the end, it will grab you by the head and push your nose into the anger and sadness.  It will hold you there, relentless in its bid to make you understand.  Without hyperbole, it’s safe for me to say it’s the one book that has ripped out my heart more times than I can count.  As much as I respect and admire Lon Chaney, this book is the primary reason I’m as dedicated to the Phantom of the Opera as I am.  This is the book that gave the character the winning edge for me over Dracula and Frankenstein.

After all these years, I’m beyond pleased to say the effect of Phantom has never been diminished, nor has it been blown out of proportion by nostalgia.  It simply is just that good.  The power of the music of the night runs far deeper — and is far more dangerous — than anything you might experience on stage.  This is one of my gold standards by which historical fiction novels are compared.  This is most certainly the platinum standard by which all other monster tales are judged, regardless of medium.  It is, in my humble opinion, the very best of the best of that genre, bar none.  No matter how you approach this book, if there is an interest in the character at all, there’s an in-road for pretty much everyone, regardless of taste.  Something in this book will compel you, assuming it doesn’t just reach out and force you into submission to the story.  I will unapologetically say so to absolutely anyone who’ll listen to me.  This is the kind of real and mortal horror that will linger a lifetime and make you believe that Leroux was right when he said, “The Opera Ghost really existed!”

5 stars

4 thoughts on “Phantom by Susan Kay, 1990

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