All great literature is well written, but not all that is well written is great literature. In other words, there are many books which are good but not great—and many of these are worth reading for several reasons. Chief among these is that reading is enriching even when it is entertaining, and recreational reading should be stimulating rather than stultifying, for all literature worth reading infuses pulp with some soul.
Enter The Phantom of the Opera.
For most, The Phantom of the Opera is a bombastic Broadway show by Andrew Lloyd Webber. (More’s the pity.) For many, The Phantom of the Opera is Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Universal Studios and Hammer Horror. (There are worse things.) For some, for very few even, The Phantom of the Opera is a 1911 crime novel by Gaston Leroux—a ghost of a story sentenced to the dark dungeons of forgotten literature only to haunt its adaptations with invisible, ironic obscurity, lost in its own legacy, tragic in its triumph. (The book is always better.) But to those civilized readers who with spade and lantern descend to the skeleton-lined catacombs to exhume this voiceless volume from the crypt where popular culture has entombed it, to these are reserved a privilege as mysterious as echoing organ music: the terrific pleasure of a terrible book. The Phantom of the Opera is no masterpiece, but it is magnificent in its raving enthusiasm and pitch-perfect melodrama. It is a delight of horror, with a plot as twisted and deranged as the crazy corridors and secret passages of the Paris Opera House. There is a peculiar beauty belonging to a peculiar category of bad literature that is good, and The Phantom of the Opera is a gruesome gem not to be overlooked.
As a novel, The Phantom of the Opera is an unsung titan of the gothic canon and a worthy brother to Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Dorian Gray, and Dracula. The gothic movement was a largely literary backlash against the Victorian Enlightenment’s reliance upon reason, science, and social progress. The gothic stressed irrationality, obscurity, and criminality to elevate awareness of realities beyond man’s ken or control and that things are not necessarily as they appear. So it is with The Phantom of the Opera.Nothing is as it seems. The Opera Ghost is not a ghost at all. The Opera House is a house of horrors. The golden columns ring hollow. There are eyes and ears, unseen hands, and impossible facts at every turn. There are masks and tricks and devices. There is passion and plotting. All the world’s a stage…
The Phantom of the Opera was brought to life by the adventuresome French newspaper writer Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), who based many of the points of his story upon real architectural oddities connected with the enormous opera and some of the chilling legends that clung to the corners of its rich history. Also, the antics and absurdities of back-stage politics and the drama that drums between managers and prima donnas is factual and highly amusing. Even the famous plummet of the auditorium chandelier mimics a disaster that occurred in 1896 when one of the chandelier’s counter-weights came crashing through the ceiling, leaving a member of the audience dead.
In general, and it may come as the first surprise to those who take this presumably-familiar work up, the novel assumes the tone of a vivid research file bringing the facts forward concerning the outlandish rumors of the opera ghost—though the facts turn out to be no less outlandish. Leroux adopts and adapts the voice of his profession to patch together the story as though it were a romantic piece of investigative journalism. At the same time, Leroux maintains the classic narrative of the detective story, allowing his fictional report to present conundrums and their conclusions in a suspenseful and satisfying sequence. Without a doubt, the novel is far more mystery thriller than supernatural thriller, and Leroux, as an avid admirer of the “whodunit,” paid homage in the pages of The Phantom of the Opera to the twin giants of the genre. Readers cannot fail to recognize Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death at the opera’s grand masked ball, or the shadow of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth in the opera cellars (who, having French heritage and a love for music and the stage, may well have found occupation under the opera management regarding the mystery of the haunted vaults before returning to London in 1881 in search of someone to go halves with him on a suite in Baker Street once the affair of the phantom had been solved—or, at least, resolved). With inexplicable thefts, anonymous threats, perplexing behaviors, vanishing persons, puzzling clues, grisly murders, and a gunpowder plot to rival Guy Fawkes, The Phantom of the Opera delivers the traditional gumshoe fare with a ham-fisted energy that is absolutely charming.
Chief among the delectable grotesqueries of this narrative is the grotesque Opera Ghost himself, and his name is Erik. A sad and sordid history is Erik’s. He was so hideous even as a child that his own mother made him wear a mask until he joined a traveling freak show where he mastered the gypsy arts of magic, illusion, legerdemain, and ventriloquism. After a turbulent and crime-ridden career around the world as an artist, assassin, and architect, Erik came to dwell on the shores of the gloomy subterranean lake far down beneath the great opera house in Paris, where he could indulge in his loneliness, in his ugliness, and in his beloved art form—music—and prey upon the simplicities of the performers and proprietors alike as he designed a network of passages and trap doors throughout the labyrinthine and lavish Second Empire structure. The Phantom of the opera is a perfect villain and as such perfectly delightful. He is the quintessential mad genius or tortured artist, He is a disfigured Daedalus, with a bitter soul, a vengeful streak, a weird humor, and a psychotic temper. What with the skull-faced Phantom’s predilection for chaos and terror as he drifts invisibly and menacingly behind the gorgeous panels of the opera or huddles like a dark angel with Apollo on the windy roof, what more could one ask for? A cemetery chapel walled with human bones, perhaps? A desperate and deadly love triangle? A mindboggling torture chamber? The Phantom of the Opera has something for everyone.
The Phantom of the Opera is not a great book, but it is a great read. Light reading is a priming for heavy reading. It is a refresher, a pleasure. And it is important in order to retain the sense of sheer joy that literature can lend. Light reading material, however, should not be lousy reading material. Let it be well written. Let it be alive with an optimism that is dead. Let it bring happiness to the heart with the age-old appeal of unadulterated drama. Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is a triumph even if it is a trifle, and the only tragedy it can claim in its triumph is that it has been lost in the trash of Hollywood and Broadway.
*Originally published in Crisis Magazine