Of the four category books that I have kept over the years – through numerous moves and countless reassessing of whether to keep this book or that – two of them were written by Anne Stuart. Somehow, I lost track of her over the years, so I was thrilled when I discovered the Ice series. I power-housed through those books! Yeah, the heroes are Alpha to a near-sociopathic degree. Yeah, more than one of them have come pretty close to actually killing the heroine before finding themselves overwhelmed with some previously-unknown reluctance, all the while trying desperately not to give in to their driving lust for said-heroine. (Did I mention that I just love these cracktastic books?) So, imagine my excitement when I found a book called Anne Stuart’s Out-of-Print Gems in the Sony Bookstore. It was the very first book I sat down to read on the Sony Reader and Night of the Phantom is the first story in this collection.
Night of the Phantom is the story of Megan Carey, the plucky and loyal daughter of a construction magnate, Reese Carey, and Ethan Winslow, the mysterious and reclusive architect, who is poised to bring Reese down. After working a number of years for her father’s construction company, Megan is about to embark on an extended European tour. She is literally on her way out the door when she discovers her father with a gun to his head, about to commit suicide. Five years earlier, a building of his had collapsed, killing two people and injuring several others. At the time, Reese had pointed the blame at the architectural design and sullied Ethan’s reputation. Now, however, Ethan has the proof that Reese used shoddy materials in the building and he plans to use this proof to destroy him and his company unless Reese comes to speak with Ethan, personally, and gives him a good reason not to. Rumors have circulated for years that Ethan is ill – possibly dying – and deformed, though he never sees anyone, so there is no real confirmation about what exactly is wrong with him. Afraid of facing this “monster”, Reese sends his daughter, instead, and it’s implied that she should use her feminine wiles to plead her father’s case. Megan plans to simply drop in and charm Ethan into leaving her poor father alone before continuing on her merry way to Europe. Once she gets to Ethan’s isolated, ginormous house, however, a variety of reasons keep her from leaving and she discovers that he’s not such a beast (and not ill) and sexual tension ensues. Then a bunch of other weird-ass things happen and the cast of Deliverance shows up. (Stuart’s fans in Arkansas, where this is set, must have been so proud!)
Per the author’s notes, this was one of the Top Ten books for the RWA, though it isn’t clear if that’s “Top Ten Ever” or if it’s “Top Ten for 1991”. It also inspired the short-lived Silhouette Shadows line. Per the comments on the amazon.com page for this book, it is beloved by a veritable multitude of fans.
I couldn’t finish it.
Because this was the first book I read on the Reader and I didn’t learn until later how to skip a title in an anthology, I tried to finish it. And tried. And tried just skimming through, because surely god, it’s got to be nearing the end. And dear god, when is it ever going to end? And oh, lord, how I hate these people and why can’t they just freakin’ DIE?? Finally, I simply gave up and went to a completely different book—Closer, by Jo Leigh.
Closer, a Harlequin Blaze from 2006, is the first book in the In Too Deep series. Due to a relentless stalker, Christie Pratchett has lost her job, her friends, her bank account, and any semblance of a normal life. She’s done everything the cops have told her to do. She’s kept records of when she was contacted and what was said and she has notebooks filled after only five months and still no one has any idea who the guy is or how to stop him. Christie is ready to give up her beloved house and just jump in her car with her dog, running as far as she can on the money she has on her, when she finds the number that her ex-Delta Force brother gave her to call if she were ever in trouble. Boone Ferguson, a good friend of her deceased brother, is the former Delta Force soldier who comes to her aid. He watches over her and trains her in self-defense while setting up various traps to catch whomever is doing this to her. He also fights – pretty unsuccessfully – the overwhelming attraction he feels for her because a) the stalker is even more dangerous than he initially realized and he can’t afford to be distracted; and b) he is living under the radar, on the run from some very dangerous, very connected people, and he doesn’t want to drag her into it.
I loved this book! It’s tightly written, the characters are wonderful, and the tension just ratcheted up with each page. I loved it so much; I went in search of more of Jo Leigh’s books as soon as I finished it. In fact, I loved this book nearly as much as I hated the other. Yet, there are a surprising number of similarities between these two books – much more so than you’d ever suspect, given that Phantom in the Night is a Gothic update of Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera with a sprinkling of the Persephone myth and Closer is a fairly standard romantic suspense.
Both of the heroes of these books fall into the tall, dark, and handsome mold and both are hiding from the world. As part of a paramilitary team working for the CIA, Boone was the radioman for the team when they discovered that they were being used by a rogue group within the Agency to commit crimes. Leigh doesn’t go into a lot of detail about what exactly happened in this first book. All that we’re told, for the most part, is that the team’s last mission was a trap and only a handful of people survived. On the run and living under the radar as much as possible, the survivors use various aliases, work at jobs that don’t require background checks, and pay for everything with cash – all the while using their former skills to try to find enough evidence to prove what happened and that they aren’t deserters and/or enemies of the State. Even with all this going on, when Boone finds out what is happening to his teammate’s sister, he drops everything and goes to help her. Did I mention I love Boone? I love Boone! Then there is Ethan, who has very different reasons for his seclusion.
Ethan has been an object of dread, fear, and ridicule all of his life. Even his own mother, we learn, had a hard time looking at his face. Consequently, he hides out with his manservant, Salvatore, in his impossibly-large mansion, in the basement, usually in near-total darkness, so no one can see him. (However, given that the only other person there – until the heroine shows up, of course – is Salvatore, the whole, “Don’t mind me. I’ll just be down here. In the basement. In the dark.” schtick seems a tad melodramatic.) Ethan has very little contact with the outside world even though his manservant states that if they went back to France, he could “have some semblance of a normal life”. However, he is prevented from leaving by a need to avenge himself on the local town for… well, a few things, but mostly for being mean to him. As for Ethan’s disfigurement, let’s just say that when I learned what it was, finally, I said, “Really? That’s it?? I knew a guy with that and he seemed to be living his life just fine. What a drama queen! And other people “faint in terror” at the sight of him? Really? Way to insult any readers who have this or who have children with it, Anne Stuart!” Anyway, in between bouts of gleefully rubbing his hands together and muttering, “I’ll get you, my pretty!” and skulking through the darkened corridors of Humongo Manor, Ethan has somehow managed to become a world-renown architect and worth a bazillion dollars. He also has the most capable information network ever – one that allows him, within hours of Megan’s unexpected arrival, to learn what kinds of books she reads, the results of her last physical, and the fact that she’s “known for being honorable” – yet it somehow took him years to discover and amass the proof that her father used shoddy materials in one of his designs, leading to its collapse. Huh.
Both of the heroes also have a “Meet Terrify” with the heroines. Boone knew of Christie through conversations with her brother and has seen her picture, but the first time that they meet is when he slips into her house in the dead of night in an attempt to keep her stalker from knowing that he’s there. When Christie, who has never even heard Boone, awakens to find a strange man in her house, she thinks that the stalker has finally come to kill her and has a justifiable freak-out. Even in her panic, however, she’s still trying to go down fighting and it’s not until he completely subdues her that she hyperventilates herself into unconsciousness. Once she wakes up, unscathed, she actually listens to what he has to say (and checks some of her brother’s old photos and finds Boone in them) and decides that if he hasn’t killed her yet, he’s probably not the stalker. The fact that she’s utterly exhausted after months of constantly disrupted sleep and being terrorized plays into why she agrees to go back to bed and talk about it more in the morning.
Megan also meets Ethan for the first time in the dark in the middle of the night. In this case, however, she has spent several days, locked first in the Spartan cell intended for her father and then in a sumptuous bedroom, awaiting his summons. Salvatore wakes her from a deep sleep, so that she is a bit confused, and then leads her yet again through the confusing maze that is Humongo Manor, and then leads her down a long, dark staircase to Ethan’s inner underground lair. Ethan stands in the shadows and tries to scare her more than she already is for a little bit and then she insults him and calls him a monster to show how plucky she is before she gives in and agrees to stay with him in exchange for him not turning her father over to the authorities. (Presumably, in this universe, the authorities are incapable of testing materials for tensile strength and learning on their own exactly what happened?)
So, in both cases, the hero scares the sleep-deprived heroine half to death. The difference is that, while Boone didn’t want to scare Christie and did what he could to mitigate her fear; Ethan wanted Megan as off-balanced and scared as possible. But then, Boone is trying to protect Christie from a stalker and Ethan is Megan’s stalker.
In Closer, the main villain is the stalker that is making Christie’s life a living hell. He is rather omnipotent in his ability to watch her every movement and to destroy her life and even though it’s explained, it is still a bit over the top. That said, the hero of Phantom is strikingly similar to the villain of Closer. Throughout Closer, Boone is trying to get Christie healthy – she’s lost a good deal of weight and hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months – and to give her the ability to defend herself, even as he works to catch the guy tormenting her. Ethan is trying to do just the opposite to Megan. He has Salvatore lock her away. He learns that the only genre she doesn’t read is horror, so Ethan has Salvatore provide only the scariest books he can find so that her only choice is either crushing boredom or books she hates. He has her moved from bedroom to bedroom at random, so she never really gets settled. He has Salvatore take her clothes and buy her the ones that he’d prefer to see on her. Ethan also watches her constantly through hidden cameras and, at night, when she’s sleeping, he slips into whatever room she happens to be in and watches her in person. (Hey! I didn’t know that Edward had a girlfriend before Bella!) He decides that “he need[s] her, he want[s] her, and he [is] going to have her. And no one and nothing [is] going to get her away from him until he [is] ready to release her.” Basically, he is a creepy, obsessed, voyeuristic kidnapper – one who flat-out lied when he said he’d spare her father if she’d stay, by the way. Ironically, the villain that is terrorizing Christie in Closer does all the same things, minus the “gifts” of clothes and books. Apparently even he wasn’t quite that pathetic and petty.
In both books, there are other, greater villains in the background. In Closer, they are the shadowy organization that wants Boone and his team dead. In Phantom in the Night, they are legion and are there mostly to show that Ethan really isn’t such a bad guy for an obsessed kidnapper. First we have her father, who built at least one building that was an accident waiting to happen and then threw his daughter at the guy he framed for it in hopes of buying him off. Then there is the crazy Preacher of some unknown, deep-in-the-holler version of Christianity that wants to “purify” Megan of her association with Ethan by burning her at the stake. Then there is the slimy executive at her father’s company that wants her to come back and marry him. Afterwards, he expects her to give him control of the company (after throwing her father to the wolves) so that he can run things pretty much the way that they have been, criminal building standards and all. Quite honestly, it’s damned near impossible to find any “good” characters in this book, including the heroine.
It is certainly not right that Megan’s father manipulates and lies to her or that Ethan plays petty games while holding her against her will and watching her constantly. She definitely does not deserve to be burned at the stake. That said, it’s impossible to have much sympathy for someone who responds to the news that her father is responsible for the collapse of a building—a collapse that maimed and killed several people—with:
“My father made a mistake. People do that, you know. People who don’t sit in the middle of some crazy mansion passing judgment.”
There’s so much wrong with that statement, I hardly know where to begin. I understand that Stuart is trying to model this along the Beauty and the Beast and, as such, had to provide a modern reason to get Megan trapped in Ethan’s home, but it is beyond repugnant that the deaths of innocent people—people who died because of her father’s greed—are passed off multiple times by the heroine as “a mistake”. A mistake that her father shouldn’t have to answer for and on which Ethan has no right to pass judgment. In contrast, in Closer, Christie has to be talked out of calling the police to deal with a dead body in her living room, even when involving the authorities could be the worst thing possible for her.
In thinking about it, I realize that the reason I hated the Night of the Phantom and loved Closer, despite the similarities, rests entirely on the characters. I simply loved Christie and Boone. They were great characters—strong and conflicted and still moving forward despite everything stacked against them. On the other hand, I loathed Megan and her father and Ethan and his manservant, Salvatore, and every single damned one of the characters except the former mistress. Those people were selfish, petty, and often despicable and I wanted the ginormous house to simply implode and kill them all.
To sum up:
Closer is a fantastic book! Get it and read it now! It’s incredibly well-written and nearly impossible to put down. The climax was simply great and the characters were wonderful. There were some very minor issues—the villain is entirely too omnipotent to be believed and there is a twist that I thought was flat-out cruel. Consequently, I’m giving it an A-.
Night of the Phantom, in my opinion, was not a fantastic book. I can’t give it a grade because I didn’t finish it.