Saturday, February 1, 2014

2014 Blogger Challenge #3: Once upon a time...

Welcome to the third edition of the 2014 Blogger Challenge! This time the prompt was to write about a book we either love or hate. I've always been a big reader, so it was a hard choice...

Trudy obligingly agreed to pose with one of my favorite books: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1911). Nearly everyone is aware of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but not everyone knows that it was based on a century-old French novel! You can see how beat-up my copy is--I've had it since probably elementary school, and I still like to go back to it now and then.

If you've been in an opera house basement all your life and don't know the basic plot (which is the same in the book and the musical), here it is. The Phantom, horribly disfigured from birth, lives in the labyrinthine cellars below the Paris Opera House. He is a genius, a great singer, composer, inventor and magician, and he uses his talents to control and terrorize the employees of the Opera. He is also completely emotionally warped, since he's had no compassion from anyone in his life thanks to his terrifying appearance. He falls in love with a young singer named Christine Daae, and starts giving her singing lessons as a disembodied "Angel". Christine, still traumatized by the death of her father, is easily ensnared by this heavenly voice. Then her childhood sweetheart Raoul turns up, and things start to turn ugly...(I won't spoil the rest for you.)

The book differs from the musical in some important ways that I think make it a more powerful story. First, in terms of looks, the Phantom is definitely more of a Lon Chaney than a Gerard Butler (who manages to look sexy even with his mask off):

Like this...                                                               not this.

The Phantom looks like a living skeleton and smells like a grave. He is not a sexy guy. So, while in the musical we want Christine and the Phantom to get together because hey, if he kept his mask on I would totally hit the book we understand Christine's horror of him, and her compassion is even more extraordinary for it. The Phantom is more a truly tragic figure than a romantic antihero.

Another thing I like about the book is that the characterizations and drama are ramped up compared to the musical: the Phantom is more dangerous, more terrifying and at the same time more pathetic; Christine is more fragile and naive; and the stakes in the final showdown are even higher. There is also a lot of humor in the book in the form of the two Opera managers and Madame Giry, the batty old box attendant, who are exaggerated almost to the point of satire.

The author, Gaston Leroux, was originally a journalist who switched to writing mystery novels (and was pretty famous for them in France at the time), and both these careers influenced the novel. It's written as an account of real events, as the narrator starts by talking about some documents he found relating to the Phantom affair, and parts of the book are in the form of interviews. Leroux also invented some crazy ingenious devices the Phantom used to get around the Opera House and fight off any intruders, and they're a lot of fun to read about (some play a big part in the plot).

I'll finish up with a quote from the scene where Christine sees the Phantom's face for the first time:
'...But imagine, if you can, Red Death's mask suddenly coming to life in order to express, with the four black holes of its eyes, its nose and its mouth, the extreme anger, the mighty fury of a demon; and not a ray of light from the sockets, for, as I learnt later, you cannot see his blazing eyes except in the dark...I fell back against the wall and he came up to me, grinding his teeth hideously, and, as I fell upon my knees, he hissed mad, incoherent words and curses at me. Leaning over me, he cried, "Look! You want to see? See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness! Look at Erik's face! Now you know the face of the voice!"...And, when I turned away my head and begged for mercy, he drew my head back to him, brutally, twisting his dead fingers into my hair.'

The Screamsheet has a much better review of the novel, plus comparisons with the various film and musical versions. If you like Gothic-style stories and tragic romance, pick up this book!

Don't forget to like the 2014 Blogger Challenge Facebook page or follow the hashtag #2014BloggerChallenge on Twitter to see everyone's posts!


  1. I have seen the musical of this live, but I didn't even know it was a book! I usually get really annoyed when people say this, but I am a reader and I am disappointed in myself for not knowing. The shame -,- You made it sound really good though! A potential to read on my list :D

    Check out my review of the kite runner here:

  2. I love the musical, didn't know about it being a novel. Thanks for sharing this ;)