Susan Kay undertakes an unconventional task to narrate an extensively adapted narrative
Susan Kay undertakes an unconventional task to narrate an extensively adapted narrative. In contemporary times where the genera like Fan-Fiction are being explored, Kay’s Phantom serves as a foundation block. Numerous writers have tried to pen down their versions of Phantom in various times and spaces. Phantom has haunted literature and cinema for more than a century, from stage musicals, movies, and television series to animated cartoons. As the author of Muiread Luke Taylor says, A story is only as good as its villain ( ) , and Phantom has proven his worth over the course of a century.
Kay’s Phantom is considered as one of the most influential contributions to the legend of the Opera Ghost due to her empathetic portrayal of Erik, who had been shunned away into the monster section of Gothic literature for far too long. For this heart wrenching masterpiece, she has been presented with the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association in 1991. The award-winning author of Legacy presents a ‘haunting and unforgettable . . . tour de force’ (Publishers Weekly).
The author paints Erik’s past with colors of compassion and empathy. All those allusions of his former life that Leroux had woven in the initial narrative were unraveled. One by one, all those little mentions of Erik’s prior life, his tormented childhood and deformity that had earned him a mother’s ‘fear and loathing'(Webber) to the time he spent in the Persian court as a cold blooded political murderer for Khannum, the mother of Sultan of Persia, were brought into the light. The drug addict, the enigmatic manipulator, the savior, Kay brings it all to the table without wandering far from the original classic. The well researched magnum opus makes this retelling a more “compelling” and “lively invention” Majority of the adaptations and extensions of this classic have been revolving around Freudian ideas such as Oedipus Complex, Electra Complex, Stockholm Syndrome while Kay provides the context to all the incidents and motivations behind the course of action taken by the characters.
Erik’s addiction to various herbs and opium that made him more human since this shows his weakness to stomach all the horrors he was made to put through or more likely expected to resonate with his deformed face. In the famous classic, David Copperfield, Dickens aptly puts this idea stating
…Try not to associate bodily defect with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason… (Dickens pg.)
Kay phenomenally put forwards the idea about how monsters are created not born. She implores the idea of how there is a difference between the man of circumstance versus the man of substance. A man is either a creation of substance or circumstance; circumstances can make or break anyone, no matter how strong willed, exceptionally genius they might be. A hero is forged in the same way a villain is, through the blazing pits of victimization. She made sure that this time around the narrative is deconstructed at a molecular level. Time and space plays a significant role in the creation of both phantasms. According to Nuno Rogue, a Villain is someone who has a past, who is strongly opinionated, fearless, doesn’t get intimated by anything, and went beyond suffering. It’s an empowerment figure . (Rogue)
Villains as a representation of morally corrupt society is a notorious literary device majorly incorporated in the genera of Gothic literature. A symbol used to show the shortcomings of the human race. It illuminates the deep macabre catacombs of hushed voices, travesties, and negligence of that society which walks a hundred miles above them on the road of ignorance. They are the underdogs, the street rats who never stumbled upon a genie lamp or charms to serenade the populous who is the very embodiment of the idea that beauty is skin deep but a firm believer that ugliness is bone deep. A Villain is not a title, one just wakes up and decides to own but is a process of becoming, unlike a stereotypical hero. Erik was not born wicked, he was forced to become for what else he could do to make his already hidden existence heard but to manipulate. One without a face can wear a mask but one without voice is nothing but an expandable inanimate object, an eyesore, a curse and abomination of mighty nature herself. How can the perfect world accept an imperfect man when they hold on the pride that God made man in his own image? How could they accept a deformed God? So they disown, humiliate and force that side of nature into exile to never return to their perfect little world where beauty and perfection is not just their pride but their right to relish. Frantz Fanon in one of his most renowned book, Black Skin, White Masks aptly describes this phenomenon that serves as the very base to the formula in the creation of the “other”. He states
… people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are
presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is
extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it
is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize,
ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.,,,(Fanon n.pg)
Once the subject is identified as the other
There is a secret centuries old formula to cast the perfect villain or monster. The relationship between the physical vileness is relative to the moral disfigurement. The internal conflict of mind is reciprocated by the physical degeneration.
“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sy mpathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.”
? Agnes Repplier
The author induces a phenomenal resolution to show that the true deformity is not the one that meets the eye but is in fact the one that lies behind it. Her penmanship is so powerful that from the very first page the reader, doesn’t matter if acquainted with the Leroux’s story or not, is captivated and is awestruck. According to Publishers Weekly, Kay’s writing style is ‘very engaging’ and the entire book is ‘to be savored’. They further comment that the author excavates the forgotten past in ‘a sensual and often poetic exploration of a man’s internal conflict between good and evil and of a search for love amidst darkness and despair.’
One of the most significant reasons behind the success of her rendition is that, though her inspirations were derived from both, book as well as the 2004 Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name, she did not dwell on the stereotypical romance and even took a risk by altering the ending. She understood the deeper implications of emotions hence the love she explored was more in alignment with psychological traumas experienced by all of the major characters. Publisher Weekly complimented on the ‘risk’ she took stating that ‘she adds a new depth and perspective, moving well beyond the familiar boundaries of the story’. Kay’s retelling of the Opera legend grants Erik a past that had been denied to him by so many, who could not glimpse behind the grotesque and deformed face to see the lost child that once inhabited that mask. Her story focuses on the man behind the mask and how come this deranged genius with a distorted face became a cold blooded murderer or was he truly one? He has been shunned by the world but had inhabited the isolation but that is not how stories start. Leroux’s novel delved into Christine Daee’s past and how come the story of ‘Angel of Music’ was born. Since without it her narrative would have been denied and would be nothing more than a illusion or mental sickness.
Kay took charge of the Angel’s story herself. School Library Journal approves her effort and contribution as part of the Phantom legacy by stating that “Phantom of the Opera fans no longer need to ponder what was in Erik’s past, as Kay has created one for him in this deeply moving, poignant story. . . This sad, but beautiful…’. The novel is divided into seven main narrations; few explore the image of Erik through an eye of an outsider while few are Erik’s own accounts of all the pain and tragedy he went through. Her documentation of Phantom’s forgotten life is utterly ‘haunting and riveting.’ (Rave Reviews)
This re-telling of the story had left its reader to love Erik even more unlike the Leroux’s comment on him being pitied. If pity was what Erik needed then he would have stayed back with his mother or just use it to manipulate this sentiment to get his means as all the stories mention him being part of a freak show. He wanted to be loved for himself and to be awed for his talents or geniuses not his deformed face. Leroux winds up the last image of the Phantom like the Creature from Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein, as wounded animal who is far beyond redemption. The last lines of the novel become more insulting as one realizes Erik’s true talents and potential.
‘…Poor, unhappy Erik! Shall we pity him? Shall we curse him? He asked only to be ‘some one,’ like everybody else. But he was too ugly! And he had to hide his genius or use it to play tricks with, when, with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished of mankind! He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar. Ah, yes, we must need pity the Opera ghost…'(Leroux 277)
What set asides Kay’s chronological addition to the legend is that the sheer pity that had been directed towards Erik was to be transformed into a genuine sentiment of empathy. His deformity had made him very dependable on people who could see the person behind the mask. Not a magician or a freak but a human who understood, even the fraction of the trauma that which the child must have gone through.
Monsters, abominations and deformities have had been used as a mirror to reflect the darker hues of the unforgiving and ruthless world of beauty. Leroux’s phantom has always been shown as the reflection of the shallow society which had rejected a child his innocence and childhood. Society, too, receives a moral critique: it is heavily suggested that the Phantom would not have become a murderer and kidnapper if the world had not been pitted against him from birth. Unlike many previous adaptations of the story (Hall, 2009)
The author’s resolution to incorporate another layer of context has been appreciated by various critics and publishers. Her original flare made the cult classic as ‘a lively invention’ that can ‘turn foe into friend’ (Kirkus) While Kay’s Phantom itself has become a cult classic among the ‘Phans’ the new trending genre of Fan-fiction has also put claims on it. Many known bloggers have labeled the author’s Historical Fiction as a Fan-fiction. Though the idea of her protagonist was borrowed from the classic book and many similarities could be observed from the 2004 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, she did took a turn by letting her imagination run free time to time and substituted various scenes and dialogues. The major shift that was made in the climax of the novel changes the entire legend as Erik is no more the malicious monster. He is finally seen as a human not a cold blooded, obsessive psychopath. Kelsey Kline in her blog Bodies of Film points out the most obvious.
‘The last glimpse we see of him is not of a ghost or a monster, but of a man broken by a ruthless society that has no desire to look beyond the mask of his physical appearance’ (Kline 2013)
In another of her well observed blog entries, Kline though discusses the 2004 screen adaptation of the musical but what is significant is that Masquerade scene which happens in both Leroux’s as well as Kay’s novel. Hence the implication of community’s role and isolation from it no matter how superfluous, can lead any genius into the depths of solitude. From which the only way to survive is some sort of compromise, either moral degeneration or losing sanity. Where, in Kay’s Phantom, Erik has always shown tendencies of aggressiveness but his demands were understandable. He had been imprisoned and isolated since his infancy. Locked and barred in his very own home and did not even know what wrong he did to face such coldness from his only parent. Hence every opportunity that he had, to be a part of a bigger community was very significant. Kline’s argument here is again valid as even at that time of the year he still could not become a part of that society.
‘Social standards allow him to show himself in the outside world on one day and one day only: the New Year’s masquerade ball…they can celebrate the mask because their masks are temporary and unnecessary. Though they rejoice in this night-long isolation and ability to hide, they are nonetheless a community taking part in a social event, and when the party is over, they will gladly shed their masks. For the Phantom, the mask is a symbol of alienation. He wears it because it protects him, but even while wearing the mask, he cannot be truly accepted as a member of the group.(Kline 2013)
Kay does not wander off from the classic, deformed and grotesque Phantom like Webber’s mysteriously half handsome and much younger version played by Gerard Butler. She does not sexualize or eroticizes the Phantom to make him more desirable in any humane way possible. Instead she adds more human traits to him. She adds fear, love, compassion, curiosity, dejection, heart break, loneliness and a pint of dark humor. Both Kay and Leroux allowed the monster to haunt with his corpse like descriptions throughout the book. Gaston Leroux describes the Phantom through the description given by the stage shifter Joseph Bouquet .
‘You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin… is not white, but a nasty yellow …THE ABSENCE of that nose is a horrible thing TO LOOK AT. All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and behind his ears.’ (Leroux 9)
Kay herself validated Leroux’s version over Andrew Lloyd Webber’s. She found it necessary to have Erik himself give the testimony of his deformity as his creator had crafted. When Eic finds Joseph Bouquet’s body dangling in the mirror torture chamber, he remembers crossing paths with the unfortunate soul.
‘We had once had the misfortune to meet on the little staircase … I had not been wearing the mask, the fellow had had a damned good look at me. He had been responsible for one of the few authentic descriptions which now circulated …’ (Kay 129)
Anne. B. Caluwaert, author of Phantom’s Redemption and a prominent contributor to the Phantom legacy reviewed Kay’s Phantom praising its beauty of keeping the essence of the Phantom intact.
‘…this book is heart wrenching, sad, but beautifully crafted. I was continually amazed at the ability of the author to see into each character in the book and put it to paper.
Erik, of course, broke my heart… Kay’s book is special in its specialness of the truth of Erik as portrayed by his creator, Leroux. I found it much harder to deal with that ALW’s Phantom, although both had me in tears.’ (Caluwaert npg.)
Since the early cinematic adaptation in 1925 of the 1910 French novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux ,the man behind the mask have manifested himself as a muse to numerous writers, stirring their imaginations as they build on the artistic enterprise that has germinated the human consciousness for more than a century. The gothic flare of the novel and journalistic make-believe account of the actual historic event of the chandelier accident as well as the disappearance of the French Opera singer had made this fiction more of a legend in its self. Many admirers of the legend of the Opera Ghost have penned down their own variations of the story and Susan Kay is among those who were able to go beyond the surface interpretation of the classic text. Either they changed the ending, time or space to make peace with the fact that, sometimes love does not conquer all, but what if it could?
Phantom, no matter adopted by anyone, has always been a symbol of social degeneration and hypocrisy. A critique onthe social classes and hierarchy was undertaken through the immense use of symbolism. The physical deformity had been used as a symbol of deformed fabric of society. Sulman Rushdie in his book Joseph Anton: A Memoir discusses the universal phenomenon that when a book leaves its author’s desk it changes…, it is irretrievably altered…It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.
Recent researches have focused on the reaction of society towards physical deformity as they have explored the idea of ‘other’ as introduced by Julia Kristiva
Kay explores some of the problems caused by a society that isolates those with physical differences and disallows them sexual or romantic relationships. Journal of Disability and Rehabilitation addresses this in its article Attitudes and Perceptions towards Disability and sexuality, summarizes the general attitude of towards disabled people and their sexuality
‘Sexuality as a form of pleasure and an expression of love is still not recognized for individuals with disabilities… The topic was traditionally considered personal, private, and not a necessary component of one’s rehabilitation and overall health.’ (Esmil et al 2009)
After Christine’s submission to Erik’s threats, he still lets them go and remains as isolated as he was before, pushed back into the life of asexuality and loneliness. As this happens, the reader initially finds him a object of pity as Leroux’s narrator, leading to a paternalistic, “asymmetrical power relationship” (Hays and Black, 2003) between Erik and the reader.
Kay’s novel on the other hand also explored the themes of certain fetishes like bestiality homosexuality and sadism. A child of twelve, who experienced an attempt of rape by the hand of his master, leading to a murder in self-defense can never be able to feel safe with anyone around. Hence the solitude for Eric had become a defense mechanism.
‘…He put one hot hand between my legs and then I understood; I did not know how it would be possible, but deep inside I understood what was going to happen to me .Rape!’ (Kay 48)
Since his own experience with abuse he added another layer of arrogance to his mask. For he knew no one would love him for who he was but only to satisfy their own sexual perversions. Man as he was, could have seduced anyone or accepted the gift from the Shah of Persia of a virgin Concubine from his personal Harem. Lucia’s accidental demise after unmasking Erik had made him staunch in this regard. He understood that his horrid appearance had made people expect him to be willing, let alone capable of such horrendous acts. Instead he refuses his own cravings and cloaks himself under another layer as resistance. Nadir the Persian’s narrative mentions the fetish Khanum had regarding Erik.
‘…Khanum, a woman of intense and urgent passions…the fancy she entertained for his(Erik) presence went far beyond her interest in his magical skills… each time she watched him kill, the intensity of her pleasure bordered on sexual gratification, and I had heard a whisper that she would have invited him to her bed…'(Kay 95)
Before Javert filthy mind corrupted Erik’s innocence and made a murder out of him. He was just a child who was coming of an age. His sexuality was developing like any other young boy that can be seen as he notices the light of his lantern traced the curve of her breast.
‘… a thought came to me that I hastily pushed away in disgust. I did not touch her…That first adolescent stirring of desire was fierce but transient, and I felt curiously triumphant at having mastered it…but I did not love her, so perhaps God had been merciful after all and not made me as other boys; perhaps I would never love anyone. …I did not love her and I no longer felt the need to die of crushing misery. Everything was going to be all right after all.(Kay 47)
After finding himself as a scapegoat for that gypsy girl whom he had just helped. It was made clear that the only way he could ever cater to his natural needs; he must force himself on someone through violent means. He is aware of this fact at a very juvenile age.
‘I had cultivated a reputation for evil out of all proportion to my years. No one now was going to waste any time wondering whether I was too young to rape a pretty girl’ (Kay 47)
Erik’s resistances against such moral corruptions are a striking contrast against the very idea of a monster. His action is more humane and is easy to see how such things disgusted him rather than amusing.
‘”Oh, I see,” he said contemptuously. “Legalized rape is the done thing here, is it? Any man may force himself upon a woman and say it is the custom? … he turned away with…fierce disgust …'(Kay 95)
His sexuality kept on evolving at healthy proportions. He had self inflicted isolation on himself and whatever crumb of innocence was left in him could be salvaged. Kay does mention that though Erik himself had intentionally abstained from any sexual encounters or use of his talents as a magician to lure a women in his life initially his sexuality still seeped through the white mask and black cloak, alluring everyone around him. Nadir observes this cruel irony of fate stating.
‘I was fully aware that he was by no means indifferent to the opposite sex, indeed quite the contrary. A powerful sexuality informed his every gesture. Curbed and leashed, expressed in the enormous sensuality of his hands, this sexuality gripped every audience… To be so corrupted with vice and yet maintain a child’s essential innocence! I felt cold at the thought of what tragedies might ensue if Erik should ever open his eyes and fall in love…’ (Kay 95)
The author made sure that the readers understand that Erik was no saint but his compassion and outrageous anger clashed leading him to darker realms. To have sexual desire is a natural phenomenon and Kay granted him the ultimate gift of seduction. He was offered a virgin as if a God or a deity and he could have consumed her as he desired but he did not want mindless sex but a connection and companionship. This can be seen in the following extract in which he makes offer to Shah’s Concubine.
‘If you resist I shall take you by force and then return you to execution at his hands. But only come to me willingly for this one night and I swear you shall go free at dawn. One night buys you the rest of your life and the means to spend it in honorable comfort. And perhaps, after all, that night will not be so terrible as you fear…’ (Kay 101)
It was the rejection that someone would rather die than to love him, a living corpse. His anger at the girl was in fact directed at his fate that denied him the pleasure of flesh. His anger did not allude his morality hence he would rather take a wound on his masculinity than let someone be scared for life. He took the blame and risked his life to save someone else’s innocence. He knew what being violated felt like and how helplessness can destroy one’s being forever. He’s rather be known as a eunuch who is ‘incapable’ (Kay 101) of performing the act of manliness than to a monster who only cares for his cravings and lust. It was a kindness that left a spark of salvation and hope within him. Erik often talked and remembered his mother’s dear friend Mademoiselle Perrault, who used to be kind towards him instead of pitying him. It was she who taught him that even the repulsive things, such as spiders have a right to live and love.
‘This nervous, anxious, well-meaning lady had taught me to respect all members of the weaker sex. She had dropped one pearl of purity into my soul, and even now, after all these years, it was still there, displacing a little of the dank, disgusting sludge of depravity. I had done many terrible things, but I had never harmed a helpless woman’ (Kay 112)
This is what makes Kay’s Phantom worthy of all the praise it has received during past decades. Erik is not a pitiful creature or a discard of society who finds the aesthetics more cherishable than a beautiful mind, but he is a man who deserves to be loved not pitied. Phantom has been a focal point of research since its initial days of popularity. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux has been considered as a social and moral critique on the society and its discriminating hierarchy. Most of the research is done on this topic has been based on either Historical Criticism, Anthropological Micro and Macrocoms and Eco-Criticism,
Psychoanalysis of Erik’s actions and obsessions has been surfacing in recent researches on deformity and sexual needs of people with deformity. While many researchers have drawn a critique on the feministic interpretation of the text, questioning Christine’s access to free will.
The gap that needs to be addressed in this pantheon of researches is of transformation. The text under study is very symbolic because it talks of transformation. A metamorphosis takes place behind that mask and is left unnoticed by many. Neither Erik nor Christine is a two dimensional character. They are as complex as any human can be hence their emotions evolve through the novel. Love is not mere an attachment based on lust. It encompasses numerous shades of a prism. Tolstoy brilliantly addresses this concept in his classic Anna Karenina that
‘if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.’ (Tolstoy )
In the Author’s note Kay writes about the motivations that acted as a force behind her work. She found that the book opened more questions for than it actually answered.
‘…Why, for instance, did Raoul remain so jealous and uncertain of Christine’s affection, even after he knew the truth about Erik’s hideous disfigurement? Why did Christine insist on returning to Erik, for days at a time, when Raoul was so desperately eager to take her away from danger? Pity and fear hardly seem adequate explanations for her behavior. Was it possible that Raoul was nearer to the truth than he suspected in his angry assertion that Christine’s terror of the Phantom was “love of the most exquisite kind, the kind which people do not admit even to themselves”?'(Kay 185)
Erik and Christine experience numerous forms of love throughout their lives. The reasons behind their certain actions and decisions are much m ore deep rooted than they have been credited for. Kay’s Erik finds Christine to be a splitting image of his dead mother. While Christine is known to show tendencies towards Electra complex where as Erik here had the thread of Oedipus complex running through his unconscious. They both experience their feelings change for each other. From respect then infatuation to lust and then platonic. Undoubtedly, this metamorphosis of emotional and spiritual level needs to be unearthed and identified.