Yes, The Phantom of the Opera. The one with the singing and the mask and the sick electric guitar sting. That Phantom, the little French story from the early 20th Century that most people know through its countless, way more popular adaptations. But before Andrew Lloyd Webber was trapping tourists on Broadway, before Lon Chaney was hamming it up on the silent screen, before the internet was flooded with Erik/Raoul fanfiction, an author named Gaston Leroux sat down to write a mystery novel about a shattered chandelier.
Leroux was inspired by the rumors that swirled around the old Paris Opera: there were tales of an enormous lake hidden under the building's foundation (it was really a covered water tank), of a ballet dancer's skeleton being used as set dressing, and of a hidden stash of phonographic recordings deep in the cellar. There was also the true story of the time that the grand chandelier's counterweight fell through the ceiling, killing a construction worker. So Leroux cooked up an Opera Ghost responsible for all this weirdness, and turned it into a serialized novel, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra. And, to be honest, it's a pretty schlocky Gothic romance.
I mean, don't get me wrong, The Phantom of the Opera is a ton of fun, especially if you love dark and brooding monster boyfriends (which I do). It's still one of my shameful, secret favorite books. It's also a toxic mess of gender and race stereotypes and unhealthy romantic tropes, as so many "classic" love stories are. And if you're looking for cheesy synth music, or a true masterpiece of horror, or groundbreaking storytelling, then you should look to one of the many, many Phantom adaptions.
But if you're looking for an odd little book that surprisingly defies its own time and place in its discussion of male violence and entitlement, then maybe give Leroux a chance.
You probably know the basics of the story already. A sweet young ingénue, Christine Daaé, is called upon to sing when the Opera's leading soprano falls ill. She's a tremendous success, and her old childhood playmate, Raoul, realizes that he now has the hots for her. But Christine is being all weird and vague about her new music teacher, who she claims is the Angel of Music. Plus, some mysterious Phantom is threatening the Opera's managers, demanding money and a promotion for Christine. He's murdered one stagehand already.
Naturally, Christine's Angel is revealed to be none other than the Phantom himself, a musical genius named Erik, who lives deep in the bowels of the opera house. Leroux's Phantom wears a full face mask to hide his face, which Christine describes as looking like a skull or a "death's head" (his costume was changed to a half-mask for the musical so that the actor could actually use his mouth for singing). Erik is also obsessed with rope tricks, weird mirrors, and ventriloquism, since I guess turning his back on human society has left him with a lot of time on his hands.
The managers refuse to pay up, so Erik drops that famous chandelier, killing a member of the audience. Erik also kidnaps Christine to his underground lair, where she hangs for a bit before she yanks off his mask. Erik immediately freaks out and demands to keep Christine forever as his bride now that she's seen him unmasked. He wants her love to make up for all the hatred he's endured. "If I am the phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so," he says. "If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me."
Erik agrees to give her two weeks to get her life together before she moves into his creepy basement apartment, so long as Christine promises to come back and marry him and deliver him from his sad, lonely life. He says:
'Now I want to live like everybody else. I want to have a wife like everybody else and to take her out on Sundays. I have invented a mask that makes me look like anybody. People will not even turn round in the streets. You will be the happiest of women. And we will sing, all by ourselves, till we swoon away with delight. You are crying! You are afraid of me! And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself. If you loved me I should be as gentle as a lamb; and you could do anything with me that you pleased.'
While above ground, Christine finally tells Raoul what's been going on with her. She and Raoul decide to run away together, since Raoul is handsome, rich, and not a murderer.
But of course she wants to sing one last song at the opera, Erik kidnaps her again, and it's up to pretty-boy Raoul to rescue her with the help of a mysterious Persian man who seems to be Erik's one friend (he's cut from most adaptations, leaving Erik with exactly no friends). They get caught in one of Erik's secret escape-the-room games, though, and Erik reveals that he has rigged the opera with explosives, and if Christine doesn't marry him he will blow the whole place to hell.
Christine accepts his terms rather than let everyone die. But then... Erik starts ugly crying. And then Christine starts ugly crying. And then Erik finally realizes that if he actually loves this woman, he should stop freaking kidnapping her and threatening her and let her make her own choices. So he lets her go. He tells her that she is free to marry Raoul if she wants to, because he doesn't want to keep making her cry:
"I know you love the boy... don't cry any more!'
Then I made her understand that, where she was concerned, I was only a poor dog, ready to die for her... but that she could marry the young man when she pleased."
Christine kisses him on his forehead in gratitude. And Erik finally understands that the only way to win people's love is to be kind and not kidnap them and respect their decisions.
There is an element of that old beauty-and-the-beast, toxic man redeemed by pretty lady trope, to be sure. And that's... not great. But Erik does not "get the girl" in the end. No amount of love makes up for the fact that he's kidnapped her and threatened mass violence. It's only once he sees how miserable he's made Christine that he puts aside his self-pity for empathy. His actions are not actually excused by the fact that he's a sad lonely man who lives underground. Leroux and Christine are both sympathetic to Erik's plight; it's clear that he deserved better than a lifetime of abuse and fear. But, he's still not entitled to a girlfriend.
His face doesn't make him a monster. His actions do.
Phantom is old and dramatic and more than a little silly. It's a fun read for the Gothic heroine in us all. But it's also a vital read for all the basement-dwelling men out there who feel blind rage towards the girls who "won't date them." After all, if Erik had approached Christine in a normal way, instead of kidnapping her and then screaming at her about how he's too ugly to be loved, she might have actually liked him. Her real problem is not that he's nose-less, it's that he thinks blowing up an opera house is a reasonable response to getting turned down by his crush. It is definitively not.
And in the end, even Erik knows that.