The Original Phantom
The original French novel by Gaston Leroux began in serialized form over the course of four months starting in the fall of 1909, prior to its publication as a complete novel in March 1910. Although not great as literature, the story combines classic elements that contribute to its enduring appeal. At heart, it is a sorrowful love story in which we partly identify with the Phantom’s pain. Its Gothic horror involves ghosts and monstrous deformity. The novel is framed as a mystery novel, presented by a detective who pieces together elements of the story. Lastly, music plays a role in the story, not only as plot and setting, but as coded foreshadowing and symbolism.
For those who don’t know the plot, a ghostly, masked figure haunts the Paris Opera House in the 1880s. Known simply as the Phantom, he adopts a protégé, the little-known soprano Christine Daaé, and coaches her singing. He uses murderous means to force the opera house to give her the lead role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Naturally, he falls in love with her, but when curiosity compels Christine to yank off his mask, his skeletal face terrifies her. Eventually, she runs off with her beloved childhood friend, a handsome count, leaving the Phantom lovelorn. But not before extracting a kiss and a promise she’ll return before his death.
Film and Stage Adaptations
The first adaptation came in 1925 with the silent film starring Lon Chaney. A still of the unmasked phantom in a movie book so terrified me as a child that I could not bear to look at it. Bad remakes followed in 1943 by Universal and in 1962 by Hammer studios. Brian de Palma directed the rock opera Phantom of the Paradise in 1974. And 1989 saw the release of a weird adaptation with the equally strange name, Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge. Also in 1989, a version that mixed the present and “time travel” to the past came out, following in the footsteps of other bad remakes. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart created a highly successful stage musical in 1986. In 2004, Joel Schumacher directed a film version of the musical. For a more complete list of film adaptations, see Fandom.
Angels of Music
The number of film and stage versions pales compared to the retellings and reimaginings in book form, however. Goodreads lists 141! I have read only one of the books on this list: Angels of Music. But the novel impressed me enough to write about it. Newman uses the story’s background as a jumping off point, and creates a Victorian version of Charlie’s Angels. Erik the Phantom (the never-seen Charlie) runs the Opera Ghost Agency, a clandestine detective firm specializing in bizarre crimes. Over the course of four decades, he supervises different trios of lovely young “angels” who possess unusual and sometimes deadly skills as they investigate Parisian mysteries.
Although each chapter introduces a new cast of characters—which some readers may find disappointing—the plot and writing remain lively and inventive. Some of the characters return in the climactic fifth “act,” which satisfyingly ties up the novel’s threads. Amusingly old-fashioned words and the flavor of nineteenth century literature suffuse the writing. Detailed references to Parisian history—the Paris Commune, the deluge of 1911, Grand Guignol, attitudes toward the Eiffel Tower, authentic fictional characters such as Fantômas—bring the story to life.
Even if you haven’t read the original story on which Angels of Music is based, you can still enjoy this excursion into Gothic Parisian culture. Newman offers a delicious cauldron of vampires, living dolls, Grand Guignol, witchery, and bloodthirsty villains.