Tag Archives: Characters

Classics You’ve Never Read, Part 4- So Wrong, They’re Right

Classic: a book people praise and never read.

-Mark Twain

This one took me forever. Not to read, but to figure out. How to classify this classic work?- and yeah, no shot you’ve read it, dear reader, none- that question puzzled me until, to steal the words of The Grinch, my puzzler was sore. The movies clearly ranked it science-fiction: of course, because they wanted to play with the special effects. A horror tale? I really thought so, because the main character is such a threat- but I found myself chuckling so loud and often as I read, I knew it wouldn’t be honest to say so. The  author’s opinion on the flyleaf subtitle calls it “A Grotesque Romance”, but being written in 1897, I knew full well that was only going to confuse people. Back then, neither word meant what it does today. The synopsis definitely doesn’t go “ugly-boy-meets-girl, etc.” In fact, for most of the last half of the book. no one meets the main character at all! Hence the chuckling, amidst which a realization fell on me like a bolt. This story is really all about the crowd– the others, the bit characters and how incredibly wrong they get it (while still being right).

That’s the theme that runs throughout The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a vast trove of unknown lore you need to catch up on by reading this book. The plot would fit on the back of an airmail stamp.

Now you see him...
Now you see him…

Obsessed amoral scientist turns himself invisible, tries to get back to normal, can’t, hurts people and causes chaos, dies. With that title, there’s no whopper of a mystery going on! But that’s where the thread picks up. As with some of his other works, Wells chooses to describe and judge his main character to you through the eyes of everyone else in the story. A mysterious man wrapped from head to toe arrives at a small town inn, and never comes out of his room. So it’s not his thoughts, but those of the tavern-crowd we are treated to. Mrs. Hall the innkeep’s wife is thrilled to have a “gentleman” boarder, but of course insatiably curious, henpecking her indifferent husband to invent excuses for knocking on the door. The regulars at the bar look on, as the guest’s increasingly aberrant behavior comes out onto the landing or is shouted through the walls.

And what do they guess? These sleepy village folk, simple rustics with that classic stolid sense of “what’s right”, do they come close to figuring out what the title character is up to? Not by a country mile: an ‘arful accident, p’raps some nasty disease, that’s what brung him into those wrappings, surely. The story continues- the mystery guest becomes ever more combative and erratic. Windows open and close by themselves, the local prior is robbed, nosy landlords appear to eject themselves from the second-floor guest room. Still no one can make heads or tails of it- you’re screaming “INVISIBLE MAN, IDIOTS!” but it does no good. The crowd continues to bumble and guess wrong- yet somehow, they manage to flush out the IM, brilliant scientist or no. Because

Not this one!
Not this one!

he’s the bad guy- treats people arrogantly, never pays up (“put it on the bill!”), loses his temper. T’isn’t right- and while the full population of the village can’t assemble one clue between them, yet there’s a kind of righteous tide, simple questions pile up and the villain is unmasked, forced from his rooms with some of his criminal intent exposed.

Wells is not faithful to any particular individual in the crowd- your PoV jumps from one stubbornly inane opinion to another, sometimes for the length of one line and never to return. A fair bit of time is spent with an unfortunate hobo, a poor fellow accosted as the IM roamed “naked” through the countryside (what are the odds?) and beaten, petrified into helping him along for a while. In the final third of the story, we settle in the house of IM’s former school-mate, another scientist fortuitously living in the vicinity, to whom he can at last begin to explain his progress.

Here the veil of humor drops away, and I must say the story of his experiments are not appropriate for all audiences. The IM coolly describes how, from his London apartment, he first tried his experimental process on the landlady’s cat- and only later discovered how agonizingly painful it was. “So that was why it meowed so awfully all those hours”- this more than anything coming before or after shows me what a beast he always was. It’s a dreadful scene: perhaps even his fellow scientist is affected by IM’s ruthless, sociopathic attitude. An attempt at betrayal leads to another rampage from the IM, who without clothes always has the advantage (or seems to). The ending is unimportant except for how it reinforces some of the themes I’ve been harping on- the many in the crowd, the entire district roused to action by the threat of an invisible menace who has declared war on mankind, and eventually they get him. In the process, they don’t do much that’s right, and some make horrible mistakes as usual (the laughter is gone from the tale by now- and I STILL don’t know what genre this really should be called). In the end, the IM reappears, which is to say, he dies.

I totally see Kevin Bacon
I totally see Kevin Bacon. You?

Good.

Hollywood seems to have followed the same general idea, both in the 1930s version with Claude Rains and the usual steroid-pumped remake (“The Hollow Man”) with Kevin Bacon. I haven’t seen all of either one, but it seems clear this theme of the common folk is preserved in the first, lost in the second. Without these untrustworthy narrators, without the gaggle of wrong-footed yokels to stare and puzzle and go off on tangents when they theorize, the tale loses a vital something.

This is something you see in epic fantasy all the time- on either side of the village’s only street as the strangers arrive, in battles and at church, and ESPECIALLY of course inside the tavern. They drink, they argue, and most of all they get it comically, horrendously wrong. Through their beloved bigotry and hackneyed catch-phrases I learned a lot about the world, the problems facing the heroes. One tavern scene I chronicled in The Ring and the Flag had so much going on, I visited it again on the same night in Fencing Reputation. {All different material, all still wrong!} And the famous Mark’s Inn of Wanlock sees repeated action in The Plane of Dreams. Some of the greatest heroes the Lands will ever know passed through its door and the regulars hardly noticed, yakking on about adventurers, crime, and the ever popular what’s-wrong-with-the-world-today. They’re totally off about who the heroes and who the villains are, much more often than not. But they get it right in the end. Things ARE going all sideways, and those adventurers (wherever they are), they don’t belong here.InvMan33

More than that; I realized from reading The Invisible Man that Wells was really double-casting the entire process of reading a great adventure. Get this, it’s brilliant. The main character isn’t really there, right? Because he’s YOU. The writer: struggling, trying for genius, losing it- and desperate to keep people from finding out your story until it’s done. And the crowd? The inn-folk, the villagers standing around and apparently too silly to guess what two and two add up to- they’re the readers of your tale. You WANT the reader to be just like them- not catching the whole thread, but very curious and grimly determined to find out more. They press you, they don’t get it, annoying yet persistent. They’re good people. And in the end, both crowds inside and out get it right. That famous saying about how often the customer is not wrong? It applies.

Whenever you hear from the crowd in a fantasy tale, you can see the readers right in their place- it’s a wonderful way to draw them in, make them feel as if they’re standing by the bar, or in the second row. None of them understand your main character, but they’re getting interested in finding out. The Invisible Man teaches a lot about people, the common character of what you might call human nature. And that’s really good news- unless of course you’re a bad person like IM himself, trying to spread chaos and evil with your tale. Then they’ll hunt you down and kill you. But that’s not your problem, unless you’re George R. R. Martin…

Where is the crowd in your story? Are you pulling readers into the book by using the masses?

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.