music sheet partially covering piano keys Photo by Pixabay:

Phantom is an astonishingly inventive and captivating piece of fanfiction. Based off of the character Erik from the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, Phantom tells the story of a child born with a facial disfigurement and genius level intellect; who, after being shunned and confined due to his otherness, becomes driven by power and perfectionism. Erik matures into a masked spectre that demands respect and who kills indiscriminately.

It is a heartbreaking tragedy, and a unfortunate allegory of the many ways that love can be withheld, manipulated, and misunderstood.

It is not a love story.

I’ve been obsessed with the Phantom of the Opera since I saw the 1943 film of the same name when I was around ten years old. In the years following, I have seen every film adaptation, I’ve been to the musical theatre production twice, and in 2001, when I was 17, I happened across this book at a yard sale.

I didn’t read the blurb. I bought it on an impulse because of the mask on the cover. It cost two dollars.

I read this book so many times, that it fell apart.

Susan Kay's Phantom - 1994 cover with mask and roses
I miss this cover!
phantom by susan kay cover of mask with gaping mouth and tears
The cover I wish I had
phantom by susan kay red curtain, mask, candle, and music score cover
Edition I have now

The story is told in segments from different perspectives:

  • Madeleine 1831-1840
  • Eric 1840-1843
  • Giovanni 1844 – 1846
  • Nadir 1850-1853
  • Eric 1856-1881
  • Eric and Christine 1881
  • Raoul 1897

It begins with the birth of Erik (the baby who will become the titular Phantom) as told from his mother, Madeleine’s perspective. Her midwife sends for a priest because the baby is deformed; he has no nose and later the skin around his eyes and upper lip are described as thin, making his features seem skeletal or lacking in life. Madeleine considers letting the baby starve to death, but Father Mansart informs her that would be a sin.

Madeleine alternates between despising Erik and showing him fleeting affection. She makes lace masks for him to wear, but neglects to provide larger ones as he grows, and is abusive when he refuses to wear them. Erik calls her “mama” and she speculates that she did not teach him this word. She mentions a husband who supported her but he never returns home, and Erik’s facial deformity is similar to ones caused by congenital syphilis.

Together, Madeleine and Father Mansart home school Erik. Father Mansart teaches him about religion and language. Madeleine teaches him to play violin and piano, and he shows a natural talent in music from a very young age, to the extent that she is jealous of his aptitude and it becomes another thing she resents him for. Through this affinity for music, Erik explores composition, and learns how to manipulate Madeleine’s mood via song.

Erik experiments with pieces of glass, making visual illusions from forced perspective and reflections, and he uses thread to make objects appear to move without being touched. He uses these tricks to make Madeleine believe their house is haunted, and to drive a wedge between her and Étienne, a man who increasingly pressures Madeleine to place Erik in an institution (which seems to be the obstacle preventing him from marrying her).

In a manner similar to ventriloquism, Erik projects his singing voice into a doll. The first time he tries, Madeleine understands immediately and slaps him, but as time progresses she begins to nurture and care for the doll in a maternalistic way that she never did with Erik. She sinks into a self-indulgent fantasy where she has two children, and one is a beautiful baby.

When she finds her way back to the truth, it’s too late. Erik is gone.

I had only one child. One child, whose mind I had warped and twisted, whose affection I had spurned, and whose heart I had repeatedly broken. But I did not want him dead, and I did not want him shut away.

I did not want these things because I loved him.

Erik leaves home before they can reconcile and have a healthy relationship. Even though Madeleine realizes how badly she wronged Erik, and desires to correct her mistakes, I don’t think there would have been much of a difference if he stayed.

The other sections include his time locked in a cage as an attraction in a roadside freak-show, his years spent making mechanical inventions in Persia, and his dark period as the Opera Ghost. Each section is alluring and contributes believably to Erik’s character and history, and serves as a stepping stone to his ultimate downfall. When Erik meets Christine, he becomes obsessed with her because of her striking resemblance to his mother, and their subsequent “love” affair takes on similar tones of abuse, control, and manipulation.

However, it’s his formative years, with Madeleine and Father Mansart, that draw me back to this novel again and again. The only time Erik is truly vulnerable is when he was a young child. He learns that mistakes are punished, and has to accept his brilliance as its own reward, because there are no accolades for his merits. He never becomes part of the community surrounding his home, and carries that separateness with him for the rest of his life. His early education and interactions colour every aspect of how he evolves and progresses, both intellectually and interpersonally.

Each account is detailed, but Madeleine’s is my favourite.

This book is a perfect storm of genius versus madness, and my only complaint is the time gaps between narratives. There is a four-year lapse between Giovanni and Nadir, and three missing years between Nadir and Erik. The six years before Raoul’s closing section makes sense, so I try not to let that time lapse bother me, but I would have loved to have more insight from the title character.

Phantom has all of my guilty pleasures: tragic backstory, toxic relationships, questionable applications for intelligence (why settle for genius when you can be an evil genius, right?), murder, music, intrigue, and costumes!

Most of the story is told from the perspectives of those closest to Erik, and I wrestle with the idea that this separateness was intentional. Erik is the unfortunate product of his circumstances. He possesses stone cold intellect, and murders without remorse. I agree that when Erik is filtered through these sympathetic characters, it’s easier to empathize with him. However, I am drawn to the Phantom regardless of his psychotic tendencies, and long for a version that is brutal and relentless.

Read it! Everyone prefers to use the term “re-imagining” these days, but this is fanfiction, and it’s brilliant. Still my favourite book, 20 years and counting.

Rating: 5 out of 5.