A dozen tumultuous years after the dramatic events at the Paris Opera House Raoul, Comte de Chagny is still haunted by the mysterious Opera Ghost – the creature of legend who held staff at the Opera House under his thrall, kidnapped Raoul’s lover and murdered his brother. In Raoul’s troubled imagination the ghosts of the past are everywhere, and a strange and powerful music still calls in his dreams.
Madness, obsession and the legacy of the past weave their spell in this short, tragic tale based on the Phantom of the Opera.
Approx 8000 words.
Winner of the NN Light Reviewer Award for Fantasy 2019.
The Angel of Death stalked the De Chagny’s so the whispers said. Maybe it was true. For once the Angel of Death had been a man. A masked man of magic, of music and of murder. The Angel had many names, and many guises; Raoul had once laughed scornfully at Christine’s infatuation with the Angel of Music. But now he understood the terrible bewitchment, for it was his now to bear. This man, this ‘Phantom’, who at once was angel, ghost, maestro, architect, and magician had held them all in his not insubstantial power. Erik – so he called himself – had almost brought the mighty Paris opera house to its knees. Erik’s opera house, so Christine had told him. And in those desperate nights, at least, it had been true.
Raoul pulled out the hidden drawer beneath one of the shelves and read the newspaper – now yellow and faded – as he had every night for three years like a consuming obsession. First the accounts of the ‘accidents’ at the opera: the terrible night the chandelier had fallen killing an employee, the apparent suicide of a stage hand and the murder of one of the foremost tenors. Wild stories abounded about an ‘Opera Ghost’ who’d managed to fool the managers into parting with a fortune, terrified the corps de ballet and whose face was so terrible to behold that any who saw it would die, but who sang with an angel’s voice. The truth was not something that bothered the Paris Tribune too much, but the truth could be strange beyond reason. And the Surete could hardly believe the wild stories of masked men and angry ghosts. They’d searched and asked questions, and considered a cuckolded husband or an angry father, but no perpetrator had been found. The case dwindled into obscurity. Months and years went by and other cases took prominence and now few remembered one death in a city where murder was common and adultery more so. Peering at the faded print in the bad light Raoul found the part he sought in the letters of the city’s more reputable rag.
“Erik is dead,” Raoul said it aloud. Three words. Three words which had haunted him these twelve years.
Madame Giry finds herself embroiled in the tragedy unfolding at the Opera house; mystery and murder stalk the corridors and, it is said, a ghost haunts the place. Giry knows the truth, for she recalls the caged man she met so many years ago. This is her story, their story.
When murder and mystery begin at the Opera House one woman knows who is behind it, and what really lies beneath the mask. Secrets, lies and tragedy sing a powerful song in this ‘might have been’ tale.
Winner of the NN Light Book Heaven short story award 2020.
Part 1 – The Palais Garnier -1890s
Madame Lise Giry unlaced her shabby black boots and stretched her aching feet onto a threadbare footstool. Her room was cold, the stone walls leeched heat and the hangings did not compensate much. Lise felt cold within – this was the cold of deadly knowledge and sadness. It ate at the soul, and the heart but Lise remained within these walls. She had a duty to do so, but it was not so simple. She had a promise to keep.
The last opera of the season was always the most exhausting; so many expectations, trepidations and often mistakes. Already highly-strung artistes were at breaking point. Even the soloists were not on top form, with Babette tripping during her dance and her partner straining a muscle trying to compensate. The corps de ballet was flighty and nervous, and Lise couldn’t blame them for that. Recent events had brought kidnap, murder and extortion. Lise thought it was like a gothic novel or one of the increasingly popular crime fictions. Yet this was dreadfully real. Terrifying. Tragic. Shaking her grey tinged head Lise let a tear fall now she was alone. She hoped next season would be more settled, at least as far as such things could be in the volatile world of theatre, with its gossip, its affairs, and its micro-world where only those within really understood. Sometimes she’d pondered on retiring and having a ‘normal’ life- whatever that might be, but deep down Lise knew this life and more importantly, this place was in her blood and soul. And there was her gentleman….
“It’s certainly been a more eventful season than usual,” she muttered to the reflection in the looking glass of her room. Madam Giry should not, perhaps, have had this room with its ebony wood and faded silken chaise; the artwork, elderly and rather faded as it was, and the mirror. Yes, the mirror! Rumours abounded about haunted mirrors, and some said they captured the soul. Lise could believe that from all that had happened these last few months. In the charged corridors of the Opera House, it was said Christine’s mirror sang and she had once disappeared through it to a beautiful subterranean palace. Dancers and theatre folk held many superstitions and strange beliefs, but not all were simply foolish tales. Even myth can have a basis in fact.
Lise wiped her eyes. Tragedy walked the passages and stairways of the Opera House. The Angel of Death dwelled here. Lise herself was not a superstitious woman; she’d seen enough to warrant a belief in ghosts, strange goings-on and mystery but knew most often there was a rational explanation. Most often but not always. She’d been raised a Catholic, but these days no answer came from above or her Bible. Once she’d been told there was no redemption. The rosary now hung on a nail behind her favourite chair, but faith is often tested. Lise had met an angel – she was sure of it but if anything, that had rocked her faith more than anything else. Angels could be damned – of that she was certain. And the angel had a name.
“Poor Erik.” The sound rose in her throat before she even realised. But it was ritual now – she spoke those words every night. Lise did not recall when those two words had replaced her nightly prayer, but they had and now she seldom bothered God.
Lise rose and felt around in the drawer of the old wooden cabinet. The note was faded, brown and barely readable but she knew each word.
A token of regard and thanks for what you have done. The Opera House requires a seamstress. Your application will be accepted.
Any sensible person would have questioned such a mysterious offer, and Lise did but desperation and curiosity got the better of caution and she duly presented herself at L’Opera De Paris. The interview with M. Debiene had been strange, in hindsight. He’d been rather nervous and looked around him as though expecting someone to appear. No one else had joined them. No one else obvious Lise had later realised. And so she had become a seamstress and assistant chaperone. The previous incumbent had walked out, refusing to ‘work in such ungodly conditions’, and the junior seamstress had fled the following night, crying about a face in the wall. All this Lise found out quickly after she had accepted the position. Lise was desperate enough to put fear aside and so she kept herself to herself as much as her position allowed. There was no cause for reprimand, and Lise worked hard and seldom complained. It was not easy, but she’d learned, life seldom was. The salary was fair but not generous, but debts needed to be paid, and so extravagance was beyond the widow’s reach.
In the years which passed, she saw or thought she saw him, the Opera Ghost, as she went about her business. A voice echoed in her head, and a song ached her heart raw, but she could not bring herself to leave, as many others had. That song she’d heard before and found she needed it. That voice had filled her dreams. It was like a narcotic, – enchanting, addictive and potentially deadly. More than once Lise questioned what she’d seen and heard, and the gossip which filled the dressing rooms, the flies and understage.
Madam Giry had found the answer when she’d ventured deep in the bowels of Garnier’s masterpiece – the Opera House – for costumes unused for many years. Beyond substage was a lake, for the cellars went deep below the streets and pumping the water out was costly. On that day Lise had heard the song and been drawn down deeper than she’d ever been, deeper than most here knew existed. Then she’d seen him again, the pale, gaunt figure with the angel’s voice, the devil’s face and the tragic soul. That had been her answer and her curse. she knew the truth hiding beyond the lie. In those days truth wore a mask.
The man had stopped, for the ghost was a man, and looked at her with eyes that burned with a deep sadness in the pale mask which covered his ravaged face. Courage and remembrance had loosened her tongue and in that trembling darkness she’d simply said, “Erik.”
“Lise Giry. I trust you are enjoying your new role in my opera house.” His voice was soft, yet powerful; a voice which could and did ensnare souls. Yet here he was gentle but sure of himself and, it seemed, the master of this domain. His words were a statement not a question and his amber eyes burned into her soul.
“So it’s you?” She swept her hand upwards. “All this?”
“If I cannot be a man of flesh I will be a ghost. Even I cannot live entirely in seclusion.”
His eyes burned in the light of the lantern, full of hate, of resignation, full of sadness. Lise shivered, he was intense, like an animal about to strike.
“You might be surprised,” she replied, although knew neither of them would believe it.
“Fear is a powerful tool, that I know more than anything. Maybe even more powerful than love, and more enduring. If I cannot have one I can own the other. Now I command the fear and am no longer its creature. I shall rule this place with rumour and superstition and if I cannot be loved then I will be feared. Oderint dum metuant, said Atreus, and he was correct.”
Slowly she looked around, her lamplight glittered on the black water, like jewels on velvet. Lise tried to assess him –a head taller than her and shrouded in darkness. He kept to the edge of the circle of light. Erik moved like a cat, silent and deadly and she knew that thin frame held a strength and purpose which was unwaning. And Lise shivered. “You are not that person, you have good in you. I have seen it.” Her voice trembled and his laugh filled her with terror.
“I know what I am, madam. I know what the world has made me, let it rue its creation. But I am keeping you from your business.” Erik turned away from her and continued quietly, “What you seek is in the storeroom above this staircase. Do not come this far again, for it is guarded by a siren. Keep to the upper levels and you’ll be safe enough. Keep my secrets and you’ll never be hungry again. I repay my debts.”
So on that afternoon in the subterranean catacombs of the mighty Opera House the widow nodded, held out a hand in friendship and the Opera Ghost bowed his head then was gone. Her heart pounded, and her soul rejoiced, then plunged into despair. There had been murders, apparently suicides and the cursed operas. It was, so one of the managers said, good for business. The public liked gossip and there was gossip aplenty, but his co-manager, M. Debiene held the view they would be ruined. Lise held her opinions to herself.
Lise knew she should have reported what she had discovered but she could not, would not. This man had been caged once before and that sight had haunted Lise for many years. She’d promised never to let him be caged again.
Even so many years later when the bodies began to pile up Madam Giry held her tongue. She told herself it was through fear, but deep within knew that was not entirely true. She was afraid, but for herself as well as Erik. His voice held her captive, as it would many others, but she had seen his soul and could not endure the thought of it being captured again. Some souls were wild and free, the morals and laws of men failed to tame them; such souls were fearsome and beautiful, and to cage them was a crime beyond any other.
Shortly after that particular encounter, Lise had been promoted to box keeper, specifically for Box Five – the Ghost’s box – and her salary increased, and a small dressing room and chamber put aside for her use should she wish it. It was a step up from her former life, not wealthy but certainly more comfortable.
Erik was true to his word – her belly was never empty, and although her salary was not large she was not hungry or as desperate as once she had been. Her step-children had ensured she received nothing from the early death of her husband save a few trinkets and her daughter Meg, a child barely acknowledge by her siblings. Her stepson had even voiced suspicions about the captain’s death, for he’d been a hearty man and his demise had been swift and unexpected. Lise had nothing to hide, but the gendarmes asked awkward questions, and young M.Giry held some influence and so reluctantly Lise had packed what little she’d been allowed and left. But debts had a way of following and growing.
Lise knew other woman, widows and ex-mistresses often fell to earning their keep in more physical ways. Paris was rife with prostitutes of all kinds and in years past Lise had almost been desperate enough to join their ranks to feed herself; she’d survived those dark years by taking in sewing, washing, and mending, selling paper flowers and making lace. Her life was not what she’d imagined it would be, she had hoped to make a happy marriage, continue her husband’s line and live content and cherished. Lise’s mother had said she had a hopelessly romantic soul. It was true, Lise reflected. Then there was him. The angel, the ghost. She would not betray him. Could not.
British-born A. L. Butcher is an avid reader and creator of worlds, a poet, and a dreamer, a lover of science, natural history, history, and monkeys. Her prose has been described as ‘dark and gritty’ and her poetry as ‘evocative’. She writes with a sure and sometimes erotic sensibility of things that might have been, never were, but could be.
Alex is the author of the Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles and the Tales of Erana lyrical fantasy series. She also has several short stories in the fantasy, fantasy romance genres with occasional forays into gothic style horror, including the Legacy of the Mask series. With a background in politics, classical studies, ancient history and myth, her affinities bring an eclectic and unique flavour in her work, mixing reality and dream in alchemical proportions that bring her characters and worlds to life.
She also curates speculative fiction themed book bundles on BundleRabbit – for the most part the Here Be Series
Alex is also proud to be a writer for Perseid Press where her work features in Heroika: Dragon Eaters, Heroika Skirmishers – where she was editor and cover designer as well as writer; and Lovers in Hell – part of the acclaimed Heroes in Hell series. http://www.theperseidpress.com/
Awards: Outside the Walls, co-written with Diana L. Wicker received a Chill with a Book Reader’s Award in 2017.