All posts by trekelny

About trekelny

It's really Will Hahn, the chronicler of the Lands of Hope tales.

Classics You’ve Never Read, Part Three- A Whole New World

Re-publication of a post originally written for the Independent Bookworm website.

Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.

-Mark Twain

It’s not what you think.

"Not another post about WORLD-BUILDING!!"
“Not another post about WORLD-BUILDING!!”

True, we’ve hit on this theme before in many places. Hey, sue me, this is what we do in fantasy. But don’t forget the series title, dear reader- this is about the classics, and I don’t mean Tolkein. Once again, you’ve never read it (be honest); a name as famous as Justin Bieber (now THERE’s another world for you). Everyone “knows” it, but not on paper. Hollywood and Broadway each took a swipe at this incredible tale: you ask me, they both missed by a mile. It’s not a horror story. It’s not merely a drama or a mystery and it sure as shooting is not just a romance.

No, Gaston Leroux built a world for you when he wrote… The Phantom of the Opera.

Shirley, You Jest?

Never mind that condescending “sure, it’s all semantics” nod you’re making. Fantasy has to build a world for the reader, not just point at it. You can’t bluff world-building- so you wouldn’t normally expect a tale set in the Alleged Real World to need it. But as authors of historical fiction know, today’s readers are a spacy race, and anything before the assassination of Kennedy is formally classified as ancient history. Maybe before Lennon. Even so, you can assume gravity, taxes, the nuclear family- billions of “normal” things in many tales. And plenty of other instances, like the calendar of days, don’t need explanation even if they’re not important-  the author can just write “on Tuesday” and everyone’s fine. Think about what it means to have Conar’s Day (your Sunday) instead- when do you stop to explain that?

Phantom_soapOK, I’m off the soap box now.

But this is the genius of what Mr. Leroux did. His tale is set in Paris, late 1800s. He draws on a wealth of worldly knowledge you already have- the gentleman caste, police procedure, what an opera is- but even so, he takes you into an entirely different world.

Where? Inside the Opera House itself!

The Craft of the Tale

I don’t want to spoil this pleasure for you, so at the top I say- read the book, it’s marvelous. And since you haven’t done so before, take note of a couple of things I’ll point to here and illustrate with examples:

Where it (practically) all happens.
Where it (practically) all happens.
  • Leroux dovetails history into fantasy with seamless precision. The Opera House really was that big, the cellars truly were that many, and the fantastical underground lake is rooted in the constant pumping the builders had to undertake to drive the foundations of this massive edifice so deep. I’m not talking about the author’s mind- this is what really happened. When he “creates” an account from newspapers speaking to these facts in the building of the place- he’s practically plagiarizing! The world is almost completely there to begin with: just add Ghost.
  • Leroux compounds the believability of this tale with numerous “accounts”- which is a classic device of the period, you see it in Dracula and Frankenstein. A set of “facts” gains credibility because the author doesn’t rely on omniscient third person, but uses a character’s diary, or a policeman’s report to “back up” the story. He adds another layer- of complexity admittedly, but also of interest- with the terribly confused goings-on during that climactic night when the Ghost’s plans come to fruition and ruination at the same time. Folks in the Opera House are all pursuing their own mysteries, and colliding with, not understanding each other- it’s a meticulous description of bedlam. One person’s “account” takes you away from the story thread you were just reading, and into another. You may be vexed for a second- but this new tale generates its own interest. Meanwhile behind your back, the suspension of disbelief goes from strong to impregnable. It’s genius.Phantom_chandelier
  • Finally, Leroux achieves painless world-building through a wonderful vehicle, one I have had occasion to adopt myself: the ignorant narrator.

As the story opens, the Opera sees the arrival of two new managers- nice enough guys, who like the arts and love the idea of being managers. But they know diddly about how the place actually runs. So you get a box seat on the action, as everyone steps into the office to whine about something that’s gone mysteriously wrong- and in the process, fills them in on how the Opera works. At one point, the Ghost (Erik, the Phantom- you know, HIM) steals a white horse so he can carry off the lovely soprano Christine to his palace in the underworld. How do we find out? When the stable-chief goes to the bosses to complain. I want you to fire all these dishonest stable-hands, he shouts. The managers blink and respond- wait, we have a stable? Oh yes, twelve horses… and now you’re hearing about grooms, and the different operas this matched pair and that black horse get used in, the chariot… None of that directly informs the plot- but you begin to sense how incredibly LARGE this operation is.

How large? I’ve already told you- it’s an entire world.

There are 2,531 doors and 7,593 keys; 14 furnaces and grates heat the house; the gaspipes if connected would form a pipe almost 16 miles long; 9 reservoirs, and two tanks hold 22,222 gallons of water… 538 persons have places assigned wherein to change their attire. The musicians have a foyer with 100 closets for their instruments.

How the Story Changed

I look awful in the mornings! And the rest of the time, yes...
I look awful in the mornings! And the rest of the time, yes…

Look at what Hollywood has done with this epic- pumped the horror.  See Lon Chaney wrestling with his organ, and the poor girl fainting dead away? Great imagery: Beauty and the Beast, minus the happy ending. But a trip to Erik’s underground palace is usually given short shrift on film. The underground lake, so Stygian and remote, is a great element: people die there. But that’s below FIVE cellars- where do you see those? The second level, where those horses are housed; the third, where the poor scene-setter supposedly hung himself, his life forfeit to hide the existence of its secret trap door; the fourth, where the rat-catcher evokes a scene from Hades itself- THAT was spooky! But you can’t see it on film, evidently- because there is no world there.

Love Never Dies- at Least not Until Phantom 3
Love Never Dies- at Least not Until Phantom 3

What did Broadway aim for? Duh- romance of course. Christine is beloved of the rash young Viscount de Chagny, but the Opera Ghost poses as her Angel of Music- let the tug of war begin. This is also fine- but in the book, Christine and Raoul flee to every corner of the Opera for a few whispered speeches. She suspects Erik is listening in wherever they go. Finally, they ascend up above the vaulted ceiling into the rafters of the roof where stands an enormous golden statue of Apollo, until she finally feels safe enough to tell her lover the truth. But even there, a shadow flits between the god and heaven… from the sky to the underdark, the Opera House of Paris is a colossal setting that launches the reader into an Phantom_roofexperience so complex and far-flung as to need tons of explanation. Is Erik a charlatan, a mystic, a sorceror, a monster? You can’t decide- because YOU’RE NOT IN THE REAL WORLD ANYMORE. This setting was too vast even for film or the stage, so its directors cut away nearly everything to do with that other world and focused on just one aspect of the tale. Only in the book can you get the full picture: mystery, farce, the supernatural, all of it.

Reading The Book

Phantom_ApolloThe free Kindle version of Phantom had a few glitches- the author uses footnotes to reinforce that “real-world” feel which is great, but Kindle doesn’t distinguish the break between the end of the note and the resumption of narrative. I’m also pretty sure there are issues with translation here (as Steve Martin pointed out, “it’s like, those French have a different word for everything!”). No way I’m learning French- but there may be a better translation out there worth paying for. And of course the two-page drawings were sadly absent. I’ve substituted some in this article, providing dramatic proof that there’s no accounting for taste.

I could tell you this story has terrific characters and I wouldn’t be lying. It’s pretty rare for me to feel any empathy for the villain- usually I see that the heroes, though admirable, have flaws that can make me angry with them. And Phantom has all this- Erik is horrifying and pitiable, Christine can evince the pity but cannot insist on her own happiness; Raoul is impulsive, the Persian shrinks from what’s needful. But hold on- the most true thing I can tell you, going back to my theme, is that these characters come to life in a fully-realized, beautifully described and completely believable WORLD. Ninety percent of what happens takes place inside the same building, and you’re never done exploring it, meeting its denizens and understanding its culture. This is a kingdom of its own, where old stage crewmen are pensioned with the job of just walking about and shutting doors (to keep out drafts that could harm the singers); where Box Fido believe in spooksve holds its secrets through all manner of frenzied searches, and the gas-man needs two assistants just to keep the furnace going. I’m telling you, read about the encounter with the rat-catcher, and you WILL believe in spooks.

Lessons Learned

Writing epic and heroic fantasy means you catch hell from all sides about world-building: like a flu shot, your readers have to have it, but they complain whenever they detect the smallest pinch. We amuse them with a distracting joke, promise it won’t hurt, and try to get it over quickly. Your book is better for it- but don’t hold your breath waiting for appreciation. Gaston Leroux brilliantly points the way to building a world within a world; this is the most highly recommended of the classics I’ve reviewed so far. In Judgement’s Tale I make use of an ignorant narrator of sorts, in fact two. The sage Cedrith is determined to befriend the taciturn, driven orphan Solemn Judgement despite the shock and embarrassment his company entails. He knows nothing of the boy’s mind and tries to tease it out. By the same token, Judgement- like the reader- knows nothing of the Lands of Hope and Cedrith squires him from church to library and theater in an effort to educate him. How well it works I don’t yet dare allow the public to decide- but I’m mindful that a world can be as small as one person’s soul, and the story of it takes you through straight fantasy to mystery, horror, whimsy, erotica, in short, all the genres of literature.

All the writing in the world, because in the end you are writing about an entire world. A little spooky, truth be known.

Leroux, Gaston (1994-10-01). The Phantom of the Opera . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

The Worst Game Ever Played, Part Two- The Why NOT

You very well might regret this. But a promise is a promise.

Last week I laid out some of the reasons we play games so much (though likely not as much as we’d want). This train of thought left the station when I received a package from my best friend Bill Michaels.

{William Louis Michaels, truth be known. Born less than two weeks and closer than six miles away from me, to a family that my folks were already friends with. They SAY they did not consult on the first or middle name… seems kind of karmic to me. So sure, we’ve been best friends since ever.}

So Bill Michaels and I played these games in a box, with friends and without, maybe a dronkzillion hours, maybe more. We two were pretty well matched overall– he was more patient, I sometimes took a risk that worked. Remember back then, no PC games, no internet. You sent in money for a wargame and you waited 6-8 weeks, which is like four years in teenager time, and then you ripped it open and played until you couldn’t see whether it was still light out.

These were some of my fondest memories. Then three weeks ago, my best friend Bill Michaels sent me this in the mail. And now it’s quite possible our friendship is over.

Scrimmage: The Football Wargame (?)

The name of the game was Scrimmage. I have not been so profoundly disappointed and revolted since the last time I ate Brussels Sprouts. {My dad made me eat Brussels Sprouts because Grampy was still living with us and we didn’t want to make him feel bad. I ate them last, and then went to throw up immediately.}

But my best friend, all my friends together plus my dad couldn’t make me play Scrimmage again.

That’s how bad.

They Were Trying. (Very Trying)

I get the idea though. In the mid-70s two things in my life were taking off in popularity: professional football and simulation wargames. The former, perhaps you already know? All the guys at school followed their pro teams, but my high school wasn’t rich enough to field one. And the nerd-geek group (which included a couple athletic guys rolling dice with us, on the down-low) was just discovering these incredibly complex, involved wargames that you could send away for in the mail, or even subscribe to. People were starting to play these simulations of famous battles like Crecy, Borodino, Midway; or even replay entire wars or the course of an empire’s conquests. The scale could be that big; four hundred die-cut counters stacked up in rows, each turn might represent a year or fifty, the stakes were maybe the survival of the Roman Empire. We ate that stuff up with a spoon.

And someone got the idea that the nation’s fast-becoming-most-popular sport and this nice new niche hobby would be like chocolate and peanut butter. So they put them together.

And it was a disaster.

I KNOW You Didn’t Play It!

I told you that before, remember? So my challenge on this blog was to convince you that a game you never tried was in fact the worst one ever made. Let’s review those reasons and how Scrimmage so perfectly does not fit them.

Because You Might Win

Behold the rules. You cannot read them. Seriously, I forbid it.

Nobody wins in Scrimmage. I mean it. Bill Michaels and I tried  to play it twice, and he may have convinced someone else to try with him. We got nowhere, because the game-play in this simulation is beyond-words complicated and mushy. At the snap of the ball, all the offensive linemen try to lay a hit on the defender nearest them, you know. But Scrimmage made you parse out each Movement Point, the penalty for trying to turn when a defender is adjacent, etc. and so forth to drive you utterly mad. You rolled probably two or three times to determine if, in fact, your left tackle had made some kind of contact (two more rolls to figure out if the defender was, in fact, stunned by this and to what degree). And then the left guard tries to hit his guy, and so on down the line. Nothing, absolutely nothing happened automatically or could be skipped or collapsed into another step for the sake of time.

I am not kidding you, thirty die rolls and at least ten minutes before I could proceed to the part where the QB tries to hand off the ball to the RB.

Scrimmage turned 1970s high school boys crazy about football into 1970s high school girls, who not only had no idea who won, but almost universally did not care. Think about that- this game made high school boys not care about football.

Because You Are Getting Better

The incredible lack of enjoyment bled over into any hope for improvement here. We knew immediately, this was never going to be the next chess, or Risk, Diplomacy etc. So first off– how could you get any better without an enormous investment of time? And it was time-out-of-time for us because the scale was reversed. If you spend a half-hour moving pieces around and rolling dice, you want that one turn to represent the movement, risk and possible death of thousands of people over the course of a year, or maybe twenty. We spent a half hour of our young lives to simulate the first maybe seven seconds of a single play. You can’t improve when you start out so far behind; nobody can hope to get less-far behind.

Because You Learn Something

Here’s where the game, pardon the pun, really fumbled. This wasn’t like an historical wargame, where you absorbed the rules and took the setup and take-down time on your back because you might see something about the factors that led to victory in ancient days. Those games taught us that (I know it wasn’t for everyone, but trust me)– we delighted in learning together that yeah, missile fire can be important but dude, you can’t leave those guys uncovered they have NO DEFENSE up close. You celebrated when the leader’s morale roll got ten thousand men to turn around and rally back. You enjoyed how your opponent rushed into the canyon where your artillery could really make him pay.

Because you weren’t insane enough to want to ACTUALLY do any of those things. We all WANTED to be generals of the armchair variety.

Leaves you feeling a little… flat?

But football we wanted to PLAY. And we could watch the real thing every weekend. We longed to be better at THAT; or failing that, we wanted to be more knowledgeable fans of the game. But what does turning your square-cut counter to the right facing in a six-sided hex teach you? Luck plays a part in a lot of games, but it’s no substitute for the gladiatorial quality of football. How does rolling a die actually blast open a hole for your QB to scramble upfield?

So this was a non-starter from the jump– nobody wanted to get better at moving football counters across a hex map, full stop.

Because Something Hilarious Could Happen

Dude, the magnetic  football game with the vibrating board was ten times more fun.

Make a quick list of “outrageous things in football”. {People who hate the sport, you’re all excused, save your snark for the next political rant on FB.} The rest of you, consider:

-Touchdown celebrations

The Scrimmage map doesn’t even have end-zones on it. The rules say there was a problem at the printer, and there an end. So when you score, you literally leave the field.

-Hard count or roughing the passer gives you a first down

There are no penalties in Scrimmage. No rules for them whatsoever. All the players behave themselves perfectly. As I think on it this was a dramatic flaw- you’re already rolling the die a billion times, why not have some kind of panic-roll to simulate a flag on the play? But that’s bailing the Titanic with a slotted spoon.

-Field Goal try whacks the upright

Again, no rules about Field Goals. In fact there is no kicking of any kind in the game. Did they miss the part about the foot, in FOOTBALL?

-Trick play results in score

This is one thing they DID allow for in the rules, and some of the counters have words on them like “Lat Pass Left”. Again, a flea-flicker would require at least thirty-five minutes and eighty-seven die rolls to run. Who’s tricked, your opponent? I’m thinking “no” on that one.

The game with the folded-paper triangle that you knocked with your fingers was a heart-attack thriller compared to Scrimmage. I have watched the Giants lose by thirty points and had more fun.

So, Thanks Bill Michaels FOR NOTHING!

Seriously, I really enjoyed thinking back about just how dreadfully bad this game was, and it all started when my best friend couldn’t even get a dollar for it at the local yard sale. So he decided to send it to me, probably the only other guy in the multiverse able to appreciate just what a white elephant it was. Priceless, in that sense.

Thanks Bill. Play on!

I have played games ever since. Role-played for decades, planting the seed for a writing vocation that’s counting down to a million words in print. I have designed simulations for my history classes about the Boston Massacre Trial, the war of ideas during the French Revolution, life and death in a small English village during the Bubonic Plague, Romans versus Christians in the early centuries AD, and many more. My high school and college friends bathed in games, and it’s become a big part of me. Another close friend just put me onto Hearthstone last week.

Always, always games.

And that one was the worst.