Book Review: “The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux

You might notice that this book isn’t on my TBR bookcase. There’s a couple reasons for that. One is that I have this as an E-book, and the other is that I finished it before the dread of my impending deadline kicked in. While I’m hurrying to read all my books I’ll sprinkle in reviews of things not in the bookcase. It’ll be a fun surprise.

There are certain stories, especially classics, that become so ingrained in pop culture that it’s hard to avoid knowing anything about them. That’s how I am with The Phantom of the Opera. I’ve never seen the movie or the musical and didn’t until recently read the book. Yet I knew some songs and some of the plot points.

I knew that there’s an underground lake and a singing woman who is lured away by a masked man, who underneath the mask is not the most conventionally attractive man. I also knew it was a book that fell for some reason or another on the occasional suggestion for horror Halloween reads. Maybe because it’s a masked man terrorizing people in an opera house?

The Phantom of the Opera is a love story. I think it’s very similar to Dracula. (Another E-book classic I’ve recently read) You have a man and a woman in love and then some “monstrous creature” come between them for the woman. It’s a classic trope. These stories however are old enough that they might be what set that trope into motion. The difference in Dracula is that the man is friends with Dracula first. While in The Phantom of the Opera they are not friends at all. More like two rivals trying for the same ladies hand, or a love triangle.

Generally when I think of classics I think that they’re going to be difficult to read, like I’m bogged down in flowery language and run on sentences that spin me around until I’m lost and confused as to what’s happening. I tend to think of reading them as the equivalent of eating my vegetables. But sometimes they’re not like that and often these old romantic horror stories tend to be much more interesting and easy to follow then I expect. And it’s so much easier if you’re hooked on a mystery.

You can tell as you read that Gaston Leroux tended to specialize in detective novels. Everything surrounding the Phantom, the angel of music, or Erik is a mystery. Mysteries flood the Opera house from every corner, from bizarre deaths, to balls of light, to voices in places where no one is, to ghosts. It even leads with a warning of a character death by odd circumstance hanging over the readers head that one must read on to solve. It has all the trappings of a fun mystery set in a weird place.

A lot of the book and some of it’s weirdness may have been inspired from his work as a journalist with one of his jobs being the Paris Opera/ Paris Ballet whose basement had been a prison cell with prisoners of the Paris Commune. Or the fact there is a “lake” in the Paris Opera house.  And some things from the story actually happened, like in May 20, 1896 the chandelier came crashing down and crushed a member of the audience.  The book itself plays as a behind the scenes tour of the Paris Opera, talking about the statues on the roof and following actors behind the scenes to changing rooms and to the props department as well as the famous boxes and to the owners office.

The book has made me add another to-do on my dream France trip. (Did you know the opera house has an immersive escape mystery game in the spirit of Gaston Leroux’s love of mystery and the Phantom of the Opera?! You have to follow in the books footsteps to solve riddles to free the phantom’s soul. It sounds like fun!)

Anyway, aside from actual reality, the book at it’s very core is a love story meets spooky mystery. We have a Viscount Raoul de Cagny, a noble in the navy. He is in love with Christine Daaé, his childhood friend who is a singer in the opera and whom he hasn’t seen in awhile but has loved every since they were young, even though she isn’t of the proper social standing to be approved of by his family. He is vying for her affection against the Angel of Music, a stunning disembodied voice that is giving Christine music lessons in her dressing room.

Raoul’s opinion of the Phantom of the Opera (aka Erik) is best summarized from the book in this quote:

“As I would not let go of the cloak, the shadow turned round and beneath the hood I saw a terrifying skull, whose staring eyes burned with the fire of Hell. I thought I was face to face with Satan himself. It was like a vision from beyond the grave.”

He hates him, which he says often. And cannot fathom Christine’s soft spot for him.

“Oh, how I hate him!” cried Raoul. “And you, Christine, tell me: do you hate him too? I need to know so that I can listen to the rest of your extraordinary tale with some peace of mind.”

“No, I do not hate him,” said Christine simply.

The Phantom of the Opera, known by a very select few as Erik is an absolute mystery. While reading I knew he was a popular tragic character who was in love with Christine from that pop culture knowledge. And for some reason I figured people thought Christine should’ve ended up with Erik, after all I didn’t know anything about Raoul before reading the book. I thought this was a Beauty and the Beast style story, but after reading the book and how he treats her when he doesn’t get his way, or even just assumes he might not…and the way he treated others before like his friend who saved his life, and how he just flat out murders anyone who tries to visit him or does something he dislikes makes me second guess that sentiment of him as a tragic romance character. He fits quite well in the horror genre. Like if The Phantom of the Opera hadn’t been made into a semi-spooky romantic musical I could see Erik as the bad guy in a slasher film. He is known as the “Master of Traps” and not in a old spooky house kind of way but in a literally murdering people with interesting new traps kind of way. Pop culture let me down. Though one could argue that he’s a mass murderer just looking for love.

“I don’t express myself like other people. I don’t do anything like other people. But I am very tired of it! Tired of having a forest and a torture chamber in my home! Sick of living like a mountebank, in a house full of tricks! Yes, I am sick and tired of it all! I want a nice, quiet apartment like everyone else, with ordinary doors and windows, and a proper wife.”

And yes, maybe there’s a nugget of romantic ideas in that, but it feels toxic, more so then I expected pop culture to romanticize. Though Raoul isn’t perfect either. He placed Christine on a pedestal and when she happened to be a regular women who he thought was having a tryst with Erik, rather than trust her,  he swung from furious hatred and jealously fast.

“His heart was cold, frozen solid: he had loved an angel and now he despised a woman.

Overall I really enjoyed it. I like these multi-genre classics and if you add some mystery into a story there’s a good chance my childhood detective is very happy. Now I have a musical I have to watch and compare. Guess what’s currently playing in Seoul?

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Are there any classics that pop culture made you think were totally different then they actually were? Have you read The Phantom of the Opera, what did you think?

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