The following is an essay/review of The Runways’ Red Death, based on Mireille Ribière’s translation of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantome de l’Opéra [The Phantom of the Opera]. This is the first original publication on bdavidzarley.com.
A Personal Horror
La Carlotta, words can hardly describe, Carlotta, she is rising, inflating, red shifting for us, gathering to unfurl—la diva! la chanteuse divine de l’Opéra de Paris!—in lepidopteran flights, dizzying climbs, sweeping lows, cascades and facades and winking sidereal nebulae, that with which she communes with existence, her magnificent, thrilling, make-Gods-and-murderers-weep voice, and as the cream and bone of her dress and chest rises like the moon—la grande cantatrice does not look too well today, she looks ashen, pallid, still beautiful in an alabastrine way, make no mistake, but too fair in face and hair and features, lacking her healthy Iberian glow—and her rose-petal lips slowly part, the tension of anticipation rises, boils up and off of the audience and rises so high it seems caught in the stage lights, where it reflects in her eyes, and finally the lips open wide for us, and what comes out … what comes out! …. what comes out is something of fragile, creeping beauty, like glass spiders. It is as if all that gathering, that heaving pull, the thoracic expansion, the diaphragm distention, all these machinations operating inside her were, if not for naught, per se, than certainly a tad hyperbolic, what with the lithesome trepidation that has been born of their labors, and a sense of curious unease rises—what it is, really, is disassociation, discord, an unsettling deviation between what we have seen, what we hear, and what we have expected to hear—and lifts itself until it has what it desires, has its wishes granted in the most terrible manner possible, with a sickening croak.
Such a sound truly emanates from Carlotta, and she halts, the petals snapping shut, and her eyes wander, search the shadows, the seats, the anticipatory brume. Then she is rising, inflating, red shifting again, and again the action does not match the effort, and again she is run up against, rousted by, impaled upon a jagged little croak. Her great apparatus batters against the music and the audience and the horror again and again, as if a pale sea, and she is dashed upon the croakings, dashed and reformed, until she rises one last time, and her wandering eyes find … something, something in the shadows, and they widen, they expatiate whatever terror they have found lurking out there, and for one awful, frozen moment, la grande cantatrice, la chanteuse divine, is silent, a silence which finally gives way to a scream, a scream of the dead, the damned, a scream of lungs and vocal chords and mind and body and heart and soul soaked, drenched, drowned in abject fear, a scream which penetrates the audience—like a lancet in the Eustachian tube, as much pressure and feeling as sound—and takes seven times the solitteraneous long route before shattering a tumbler glass in a Parisian inspector’s parlor.
A paroxysm of fear leaps through my ribs.
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There is little fear to be found in the Gothic anymore; gothic horror carries with it connotations of the melodramatic and the jejune, its once-formidable mien shanghaied for sports uniforms and fonts, applied to dissatisfied youths in too-black hair yoked with color-tipped asymmetry, onyx spears in a Sherwin Williams. To be labeled goth or gothic is practically derogatory, in the same way as it is to be deemed romantic or dramatic, short hand for dress in black, a classic case of a taxon turning itself inside out before birthing a farcical diaspora.
Perhaps it is the scenery that is to blame; what fears can looming castles and hollow mansions provide a society already inhabiting, in ever growing numbers and hours, a Potemkin cathedral of ghosts and voices? Or maybe it is the content; what of melodrama when one’s own life can easily be amplified and projected, laced with towering mawkishness, which has the dual devious affect of preventing one from understanding the genre’s self-debasing tendencies (after all, if our own lives have become melodramas …). Or maybe it is the impetus; what does one have to fear, anymore, from one man or monster or spirit, when we have long since discovered, paradoxically, both that the ghouls are real and that things are far better off than we thought?
What the problem really, is, though—and whether or not one believes this to be working in conjunction with the above, w/r/t gothic horror’s decay, and/or to what extent it assumes blame for the ruin is, as with the aforementioned, subjective—is scale; we are talking here of a genre of high, pointedly arched architecture and eyebrows, the precursor to our modern sensibilities so close as to saturate us and far enough away to be viewed with bemused detachment, a big, sweeping, literary genre—with all of the burdens a big, sweeping, literary genre must carry, with the important—and heavy—addition of being seminal in a roundly popular form—which can be impossible to relate too.
In short, one can laugh at Shelley and Stroker, can regard them as heralds of Phobos and bubblegum both, because gothic fiction is the foundation of much of our modern horror. The singular monster, the romantic setting, the carefully plotted, oft intricate plights of the protagonists; all have sprung from gothic fiction, a black cloud of flying buttresses.
It is a good thing, then, that Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantome de l’Opéra) is far enough removed as to be considered tertiary to the genre. Published in 1910, it is considered a work of the de-castellated urban gothic, sharing more in common with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray than Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto; it is blood-and-thunder, histrionic, but it is a chic histrionic, set in the cultural capital of the world, a loci far removed from the Cimmerian wilds of Transylvania. So far removed is Leroux from the genre’s mausoleum that it would not be considered shocking to learn that many did not know that the Phantom originated in print; one could hardly blame another for believing the Angel of Music having been spawned on Broadway.
And what of the Phantom himself? His half-cloaked face is iconic, yes, but as a shorthand for a kind of impotent, emasculated horror; he has all the sexual cunning and bizarre, wickedly lustful appeal of a Dracula, but is pusillanimous rather than predatory, begging, pleading, threatening to get what he wants, rather than taking, which is the true essence of a monster. Is it any wonder his most famous incarnation is a gaudy musical? Even his most diabolical act, the loosing of le grand lustre upon the audience, despite maiming many, kills but one, and could easily be considered among the most flamboyant of disasters to ever have been put to paper and the popular consciousness, a grand act of aesthetic eclipsing, the Phantom himself lost in the golden baroque tendrils and crystalline shower; one could hardly imagine the great Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster or Mr. Hyde losing one’s self for a set piece.
~ ~ ~
All of which is to say that a Phantom bearing but a soupçon of menace would be an achievement; here is a creature whose ipseity is more pinning than pine boxes, a romantic beast wandering the Romantic’s graves. His is a popular, perhaps even wonderful, story, but a story best suited for dates and debutantes and musical numbers, the horror residing primarily in hyperbolic copy.
That Red Death manages to unsettle, then, is no small feat. Both the title and the Phantom’s design harken back to Leroux and Leroux’s inspiration, the eponymous, ebola-esque specter of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. The Runaways play is a fairly faithful recreation of Leroux’s book, based on Mireille Ribière’s Penguin translation, and one imagines it is much closer to what old Gaston had envisioned, whence he first grabbed la plume, than the Great White Way’s gaudy rendition. Told, as was the novel, in the haunted ratiocinatings of a Parisian inspector, Red Death’s tale is told via floating vignettes and ghostly sets, an entire opera house consisting of dangling lightbulbs and mirrors and one, solitary chair; the pace is quickened—one can draw the analog to the quickening of the pulse, if one desires; this is a gothic tale, after all, such bromides are welcome here—and the story dismantled, stripped down only to its welling, bleeding heart, so that the melodrama—rather than grating—acts as a coagulant; it is a brutal melange, like Leroux and Burroughs and True Detective and Andrew Lloyd Weber in post-coital pillow talk.
Red Death, in its costumery, its masquerade intermission, its faux-French accents and luxe basement setting and drama, both subverts, and genuflects to, the gothic; the motions and artifice are there, but reduced, minimized, not in trepidation but reverence. The architecture is removed, the scale discarded as if on the way to Damascus, the towering drama the bastille now.
Stripped of much of the genre’s baggage, Red Death can avail itself to the canonical strength of The Runaways, intimacy; see the chandelier scene, the climax, the sound and fury, the Phantom’s single most famous action, rendered only in Carlotta’s eyes and scream and the shattering of a solitary glass. Even the Phantom himself is reclaimed, made fearful by being made personal; he first appears stalking amongst the audience, a skeletal gait and a brushing of fur against flesh, is primarily, for much of the play, a powerful voice tinged with the fear of the deeply awkward and a briefly glimpsed visage of plasticine death.
Terror is read by faces, and there is no singing beyond the ephemeral; characters and entire scenes materialize out of the shadows, spin pirouettes in the periphery, everything moving like an ornate centipede from corner to corner. The audience is trusted to make deducible leaps, the debridement of exposition leaving room for nuance; my Red Death was shot through by lambent spears from the suspended bulbs, caused by my astigmatism, a truly gothic experience, beauty via deformity.
Removed from his grande scene, the Phantom becomes once again something to fear, ghoulish, unrequited love made manifest; the melodrama becomes of that special kind which can fill a room, be it abattoir or boudoir, and what has long ago been degraded into spectacle—lacquered, primed, Halazone and a dozen long-stemmed red roses—augers in, more serpent than plane, to the depths and dark recesses within which the gothic was meant originally to dwell.
This is the new gothic, an intimate, modern gothic; a personal horror.