Masque is a richly gothic retelling of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Centre stage is would-be opera singer Christine, who, despite being devoted to her art, attracts the attention of both the Phantom, and rich theatre owner Raoul. The resulting mix of love, rage, art and murderous intent, is explosive.
This extract begins on p.11 of the novel and is our first introduction to The Phantom – Erik – a deformed and complex character, both monstrous and kind. Unlike Leroux’s original The Phantom of the Opera story, Masque is told from the perspective of the three main characters, so we see directly into the mind of the much-maligned Phantom, and can judge him as we see fit…
My father was a master mason. I never met the man but I
spent the first decade of my life inside the house he built
and so I feel I know him. The lathes of the attic communicated
with me as much through their shape (he was
exacting when he laid out the angles of the eaves) as did
the notations he left in pencil on the undersides of the
unfinished, unpainted struts which supported the ceiling. I
inherited the crabbed handwriting he used to mark out his
measurements, though I am far more articulate than he ever
was in artistry, architecture, or print.
Although he was skilled with the trowel and could lay
travertine so tightly that its texture was more like marble
than limestone, he was more renowned for the beauty of
his person that the skill of his hands. He won my mother
with his looks and he left her a sad ghost of the gay girl he
married, haunting the house that he built on Rue Rouge.
I learned about him through the letters he left to my
mother, retained by her in memory of their apparently passionate
courtship.They were bound by a blue ribbon, an
appropriate memento of an innocent girl. One envelope
contained a bright lock of hair that must have been his,
since mother’s was as dark as a sewer rat’s. The letters were
naïve, almost innocently crude. They were full of phrases
about the things that he wished that he could do to her
body and peppered with prayers for many years of marital
bliss. They were written in the kind of cheap ink that an
uneducated man would favour. He did not expect them to
last, or be held on to.The sepia was grainy and badly mixed,
this combined with his handwriting in such a way that it
seemed as though his words were written out by a sexually
precocious child with a fondness for experimenting with
matchsticks. As I said, my handwriting is no better, but at
least the ink I use is superior.
I always thought that writing was a bit like the telepathy
those spiritualists in the paper are always talking about. It
makes sense, if you think about it; one mind communicates
to another through a series of black blotches which transmit
thoughts directly into another’s brain. You, reading this,
whoever you are, can hear my voice (a sweet, trained tenor)
without ever having to worry about viewing the flesh that
produces it.This is lucky for you: all my gifts are internal.
In any case, my current habitations remind me of my
childhood home. These damp vaults are rather like the basement
where my mother moved my crib once the
neighbours complained that my cries disrupted their business.
The house my father built was tall and narrow, the
walls of dark grey granite, polished to the high shine of
gravestones. He meant his home to be a living monument
to his skill and a permanent advertisement for his services.
The roof was tiled with slabs of greenish slate, and the
windows were small and imperfectly glassed. When I was
older, I replaced them as a gift for my mother. I spent a
whole afternoon removing the warped and watery panes,
replacing them with sheets I’d poured myself. I learned the
art of glazing, sneaking every night to the factory down the
street. When the time came that I had spent enough hours
watching the midnight production shift pouring the sheets
of reddish molten sand into the mould, I tried my hand at
it myself. I waited until the Michaelmas holiday and stole
the machinery (I provided my own materials, lugging bags
of silicone that I’d found in the cellars among the unopened
bottles of wine and the skeletons of rodents). I love the look
of glass as it is being poured. It is honest, then, about itself.
Cooled, it only seems a solid. It never fully hardens. Over
centuries, window glass will melt.
There is no such thing as stasis.
In any case, my mother loved the finished product; windows
that let the light in without warping what she saw on
the street. She was so thrilled she squeezed my upper arm
through the thick fabric of my jacket. I swear she almost
hugged me. In any case, for once she did not shudder at my
smell or flinch away from the feel of my corpselike body.
The houses on either side of ours were dedicated, in their
own way, to music. Dancing girls and cabaret, absinthe and
cheap champagne that the likes of those poets who styled
themselves ‘Romantic’ drank themselves to death in. My
widowed mother hired men to refurbish the attic into a
series of rooms that she furnished with sticks she’d bought
from brothels, closed in raids by the province governor the
previous summer. She did not sleep on them and rarely
bothered to change the sheets, so she didn’t have to worry
about bedbugs. She made a good living, I must say, giving
the drunks who seethed from her neighbours in the early
morning a bed off of the streets.
For my fifth birthday she made me my first (and for a
long time only) birthday present; a mask cut from a length
of chamois that she bought from a glover. It was more like
a loose sack with holes cut for eyes than a proper garment
but it did its job well. The sight of me ceased bothering her.
As I grew older, she let me come up more frequently –
although once she had a steady stream of lodgers I never
had the run of the attic again – my father’s writing was long
since buried behind plaster. I wore the mask without complaint
– it was far from uncomfortable and it had a nice smell,
as did the sachets of mint and violet that she sewed into my
clothing. If she almost never touched me, she did love me as
best as she was able, being young and easily frightened.
After a few years of proving my capacity with panes of
glass and basic home repairs, she hired a blind tutor to teach
me letters, music, mathematics. He would come and sit for
hours in my basement room, complaining of the effect of the
chill on his bones and making me memorise many disparate
packets of learning. When I surpassed his ability to teach, as
I soon did, I had many books close at hand and I turned to
them to expand my knowledge. I read everything from
Archimedes to fairy stories. As I recall, I had a special affection
for La Belle et la Bête. My mother bought me as many books
as she could afford through mail-order – often secondhand.
She resold them after I had squeezed them of their nutrients,
though I demanded permission to keep the fairy tales. They
were a balm to me, with their stories of transformation. They
provided me with a sharp and dangerous hope.
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