Category Archives: Thought-Poke Thursday

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

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.

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Classics You’ve Never Read: Only Human

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

-Mark Twain

Welcome back to the series for the half-honest cheaters among us, those who always say “oh yeah, great story” whenever the classics are mentioned, but have only experienced them in front of the TV set. Few have called me out to date, so I dare to continue by looking at the classic book which most directly confronts a central fantasy theme, the question of humanity in a genre filled with other races, extraordinary beings, monsters, creatures and life in all its forms. Writers of epic and heroic fantasy have choices. What makes a being human? Why do we sympathize with a character of a different race? What defines us as humans?

Incoming
Incoming

This is a theme that’s almost the exclusive preserve of fantasy and science fiction (not counting those soap operas where someone cries out metaphorically “you’re an inhuman monster!”). A big advantage of epic fantasy is you can have a race that’s incorrigibly, irreversibly evil- Orcs, Trolls, shades, zombies, however you see it the heroes don’t have to exercise restraint. Just rear back and wail on them: they aren’t “human”.

By the same token, you can have people three feet tall destined to live 150 years hobnobbing with a race twice their height of immortal stature. Yet, we get it- they’re on the right side and we can see the story through their eyes. But what is it that makes them this way? Where is that line drawn? Here’s your guide book: The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Everybody’s Heard or Seen It, But…

drmoreaucover2Probably the least read of H.G. Wells’s “Big Four” masterworks, the theme of unspeakable experiments on animals to create a race of Beast-Men (in the holy name of science) is about as widely penetrated an idea as modern culture holds. Written in 1896, an age when vivisection on animals was still widely practiced, the tale lays out a near-reality story of animals put through excruciating, constant pain and awarded straighter backs, voice boxes, crude hands and more. They walk erect, they speak and appear to reason, and though they fall far short of the good doctor’s hopes still they follow The Law… for a while…

I can’t speak highly enough of this book. But I warn you not to read it. Well, I mean don’t unless you’re feeling up to some gritty, ugly and effective prose. This is no Time Machine, with suit-wearing scientists debating physics over brandy and cigars. Our main character is marooned, isolated, immediately placed under the highest emotional and physical pressure you could have in a real-world setting… and THEN the evidence of Moreau’s experiments begins. Wells wrote this book early in his science-fiction career, but it’s plain he knows exactly what he’s doing. His were the originals from which so many copies were made, not just in his themes- like time travel, utopian society, forbidden experiments and more- but in prose that sets the tone for so many cliched phrases to come after it. Here’s a sample, from the protagonist’s early emaciated state:

… my eye caught my hand, so thin that it looked like a dirty skin-purse full of loose bones… (p. 4)

A Tale Without Heroes: The Love of Not-Liking

Throughout the work, he uses just enough words to scrape your nerves raw. And he leaves you nowhere to turn sympathetically, because this piece has no heroes in it. The main character Prendick (a simply awful name, maybe Wells’ only misstep) is vacillating and fearful, the assistant Montgomery is an undisciplined, vulgar drunk, and Moreau… Wells really broke through here, with a character who perfectly embodies the sterile, driven, uber-rational and ultimately INhuman scientist. Moreau bitterly regrets the lost hour spent  saving Prendick’s life when he is marooned, shows not one scrap of sympathy for anyone or anything, yet has no real anger, no passion and of course not a drop of love in him.drmoreaucover

I re-read the conversation between Moreau and Prendick when it finally comes to light what the doctor is doing to animals; there’s a heat-wave in my state right now, and I tell you it was better than air conditioning. I have seldom felt such a chill, to read of a man so dispassionately determined to inflict agony on his victims, brushing aside any objection based on mercy, or decency, in order to get one hour further into his personal understanding of the morphing of animal forms to something closer to “human”- as if there was a scrap of real humanity in him to start with. Moreau stabs his own leg with a penknife to demonstrate that he has severed all the pain-endings in his own body. I couldn’t read through it fast enough.

Next thing you know, the MC is among the Beast-Men, and now the creepiness really begins. The tale assumes that the essential intelligence and rationality of a human being are largely locked up inside every kind of animal- Moreau makes a passing reference to changes in the brain that he’s able to add- so they all talk and understand. There’s a constant pull in them, though, back to their beastly natures- they live in a ravine and endlessly recite The Law to keep themselves on track. “Not to walk on all fours- that is The Law” one chants, and the rest respond “Are we not Men?” The parallel to religion is both unmistakable and pretty depressing- as Wells himself called the tale, “youthful blasphemy” indeed. islandofdrmoreau7704

But you can’t help thinking, what is it anyway? Some of the Beast-Men are awful by nature, some more friendly to the MC but not admirable, and a few- the doomed puma-man, for example- want so fiercely to be free you can’t help but sympathize. So, not being human is the closest we can get to being human?  Moreau himself, the Lawgiver, stands in the place of a horrible deity, inflicting pain for sin and trying to uplift the sinners (though hardly meaning to save them). The main character is haunted during his time on the island by the parallels he recalls to  his former society:

I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway. (p. 67)

The Ending You Get, With This Beginning

The boats wrecked, the guns low on bullets, Prendick lives among the Beast-Men as just a less hairy, somewhat more upright and high-talking animal. The Law slowly dissolves and his life is surely forfeit, but Providence intervenes and his journal survives for us to read. Maybe Prendick survives too- I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Time for a true confession from me- I have only seen clips of the movie-versions for this ghastly tale. The 1977 issue with Burt Lancaster and Michael York is as dated as you might expect, and what little I saw of the Marlon Brando-doctor almost made me nostalgic for Jor-El. But here’s a good clip that demonstrates the horror our protagonist (played by York) is supposed to feel, and giving a pretty good sense of the power of The Law.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kONqJoTMlk&w=420&h=315]

But, But, Gotta’ Have a MOVIE!

Now stretch your mind and try to imagine what major plot element is missing from the original book but which Hollywood producers saw fit to include in both movies. Are you thinking hard? Are you seeing a hot babe and a romantic angle? Yeah, me too. Doctor Moreau has a daughter, of shall we say questionable genetic background but certainly urging you to judge her book by its cover in both flicks. Fairuze Balk played Aissa in the Brando version- trust me, she’s dynamite. Here’s Barbara Carrera as Josephine Moreau with Michael York:

Stirring animal passions- as if the original tale wasn't enough?
Stirring animal passions- as if the original tale wasn’t enough?

By the way, York’s character is Andrew Braddock, a massive improvement over the name Edward Prendick. And Burt Lancaster’s Moreau has some ethics, a noble goal. The original is horribly amoral, makes C.S. Lewis’s Dr. Weston look like the Salvation Army. One nice bit of trivia- in Well’s original story, Prendick spends a fair amount of time suspecting that Moreau is transforming people into animals, rather than the other way around. In the movies, and some other versions seen around pop culture- I think of cartoon episodes like Thundarr the Barbarian and Batman– this is explored. But they only have twenty minutes, so I don’t see that they come to much of a different conclusion than Wells did. It’s better to be dead than a Beast-Man: and it’s better to be a dead Beast-Man than Dr. Moreau.

I downloaded the book from Kindle’s free classics (reference below) and I must say, it’s a steal at that price. You clip along at a race-car pace and my progress was all the faster since I have it on my phone as well as the PC- and they sync whenever I switch from one to the other. I’ve already praised the dictionary feature- “Apia?” one click and now you know what the capital of Samoa is. Some formatting issues and the old habit of not putting new quote marks at the start of each paragraph sometimes confused me as to who was speaking, or whether we had reverted to internal narration. But Wells’ words must be read to fully appreciate his mastery- you can say the same of all the sci-fi classics he’s responsible for, and their constant translation into movies, TV episodes, and other genres testifies to his genius.

Humanity in the Stars?

I don’t see where Wells gives us a clear distinction of what makes a being a human being- he focuses more on the many ways we can be dishonorable and unworthy of the title. The Beast-Men speak, think, laugh, marry… he sets no standard as to what crosses that important line. As the Beast-Men lose their way, they revert to all-fours and their speech becomes horribly softened and slower; but Prendick still sees in their eyes the fear of what is slipping away, and the knowledge they still have locked up inside their mute mouths.

The best Wells can do at the end is urge us to back up, and look up- see the whole picture instead of each person:

There is–though I do not know how there is or why there is–a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live. (p.108)lawsayer

The Greeks would have agreed, saying that man is different from the world’s animals because they look down toward the ground, but we look up at the stars.

In the Lands of Hope some remnants of irredeemably evil, inhuman races exist, garruk and undead and others in the distant corners of the kingdoms. Created by Despair’s Lieges, they seek only to destroy and can be resisted with every effort of body and mind: no one believes they have souls, least of all themselves (though some are rational and have speech). Rare indeed would be the sage to argue that a garruk or a grinaki were human.

Then too the Lands once were ruled by evil men and elves, the Children of Despair (centuries earlier, when they occupied the world), who outwardly look like the Land’s Hopeful inhabitants. They were literally born to Despair, raised to believe that the powerful deserve to prosper while the weak suffer, and sought in those days with every breath and plan to put half-beastthemselves above others and receive that comfort or at least inflict that pain. They would not hesitate to experiment as Moreau did- and I can assure you, had Wells’ suppositions been proven out by science, there would have been no shortage of mid-20th century doctors to do so either. But in the more recent history of the Lands  there are others, born to Hope who have turned to evil, albeit on a much more mundane level. Criminals and conspirators, a few- the Law deals with them, following procedure and restraint in recognition of their humanity. Do the Children of Despair give second chances? Do they believe in a soul, or redemption even by their own twisted guides? None have said, at least not to me. But I doubt it. To my mind it is in the ability to forgive, to accord a second chance, that humans can distinguish their efforts from those of the beasts. Animals can show affection, but seldom if ever mercy.

And if I err in this judgment, I hope I may be forgiven by you dear reader. Like Wells, I hope or I could not live. As for my mistakes- I’m only human.

-Wells, H. G. (Herbert George) (2004-10-14). The Island of Doctor Moreau . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.