Colette Gale’s Unmasqued is a retelling of the story of The Phantom of the Opera which adds erotic sexual scenes, a good dose of BDSM, and a whole new ending. The dedication reads, “To all the women who thought Christine should have stayed with the Phantom.”
My reaction: this is a seriously dark, kinky, sex-driven story, and while I never read or saw Phantom, I can see how Gale had ample room to play with the themes of forbidden love, sexual tension, and sexual control in the original story. Myself, I don’t like musicals much and when I was 14, most of my teenage friends were obsessed and over the moon about Phantom. I never got into it. I’ve never read the Leroux novel, either, so my reaction to this erotic recasting of the story differs greatly from other reviews online. For some people, this story is a childhood favorite, a romance that is part of a cherished memory, and for that reason, I think, Gale’s retelling upsets people both because of the sexual content AND because the content is placed within a storyline that is held sacred by some readers.
First, I’ll talk about my review, then I have to examine the other reviews as well, because some of them really raised my eyebrows.
In Unmasqued, the setup of the story is nearly identical to the original Phantom. Christine DaaÃ© is a young soprano at the opera who has lost her passion for singing. She finds herself tutored by Erik, the “Phantom” of the opera house, and when the lead singer, Carlotta, cannot go on stage one night, Christine fills in, and astonishes everyone with the purity of her voice. She captures the attention of Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, and he pursues her, even as Erik continues to woo Christine through their tutoring sessions.
The character of Christine is a curious mix of sexual curiosity and insipid innocence. Gale makes an effort to set Christine apart from the other singers and dancers. While they have “protectors” and certainly view sexual commerce as part of their way to make a living, Christine, though not a virgin, does not want a protector, and through her wish to remain sexually independent, a sheen of some purity or nobility is added to her character. Her body is not part of her career, or for commercial gain.
Christine finds herself attracted to both Erik and Raoul, who is also a childhood friend, and has to balance her time between both men. Christine herself is not terribly bright and allows things to happen to her more than she takes any initiative, which leads to some submissive roles for Christine and several almost violent sexual encounters with Raoul, his brother Philippe, and Erik. Make no mistake: this book contains some seriously dark erotic content, and is certain to captivate some readers and send others screaming from the room.
And let us discuss the mad sexxoring. Erik’s tutelage of Christine immediately takes on an erotic theme, as he initiates her through several dark sexual scenarios that contain bondage, pain, and dominant/submissive sexual positions. Gale’s efforts to explore issues of control are fascinating. Erik is in control of much of their bondage play, but Christine holds a growing measure of control over Erik’s feelings for her, as well as over his physical safety as the hidden Phantom of the opera house. But socially, Philippe and Raoul hold more power than either Christine or Erik, and both the Comte and the Vicomte hold a grudge against Erik, ultimately involving Christine as sexual pawn in their revenge.
The use of sex as a marker of good and evil is curious. Erik is sexually demanding and certainly involves Christine in situations she’d never before encountered, but there is a constant undercurrent of desire and almost desperation in his actions toward Christine. He doesn’t like that he’s drawn to her, and his sexual encounters with Christine may involve pain but they also focus on their ultimate pleasure. Erik cares for Christine, though his manner is often a bit twisted and heavy handed.
On the other hand, Philippe is a sadist, first and foremost, and his plans for Christine and for his brother contain no consideration for their feelings or their comfort. The fine difference between Erik’s sex scenes and Philippe’s is used to define their characters and instill some degree of nobility in one and remove it from the other.
This is not the book I’d turn to for a comfort read; it’s dark, thought provoking, and focuses on sexual exploration that certainly skirts the edge of disturbing. It is a curious and brave undertaking by the author to tackle an erotic retelling of a classic story. But it wasn’t the sex that got in the way of my enjoying the novel; it was the writing style. Virtually every character talks with an abundance of ellipses, and the dragging dialogue became less of a stylistic element and more of an annoyance. Christine is prone to over-dramatic angsty dialogue that at times seems completely unnatural and stilted, and other characters employ a similar overblown sense of importance in their speech. While the action is fast-paced and story progresses rapidly, the dialogue is so distractingly cumbersome and overwrought that it trips the story up every other page.
So it’s not the sex that turned me off, it’s the writing style. The sexual elements of the storyline were certainly startling at times, but I wasn’t offended by their presence. It was more the characters speaking that got on my nerves. The narration was more eloquent – and while I usually look for dialogue and skim descriptions, I found myself reading the descriptions and wishing Christine and crew would shut up already.
However, the sex really, really bothered other reviewers, and the tone of the reviews in various locations really surprised me. The story certainly is provoking – like cilantro. You either love it or think it tastes like soap and want it nowhere near your dinner. People either gave the book 5 stars or 1, but few were unaffected by the contents. Both positive and negative reviews on Amazon used the word “haunting,” and said the contents stayed with them long after they finished the book.
Yet, as one Bitchery member noted in an email to me recently, few of the reviews actually talk about the writing, and focus instead on the sex. Christine, make no mistake, has a LOT of sex, and not just with Erik. She has sex with people she doesn’t like much, but she cannot stop herself from being aroused by their actions. Her body and her mind are often at war with one another, and she engages in acts she’s not proud of with people she loathes, but she’s also a captive for part of the time, and moreover, this is “an erotic novel” to quote the cover copy. While there’s a lot that can come under those terms (har har), from BDSM orgy parties to incredibly descriptive depictions of buttsecks between two protagonists, I expect some adventurous and perhaps innovative sexual romping in a book labeled erotic.
The reviews I found on Amazon, however, were not so happy with the sexual content:
“Gale has taken too many liberties with the plot and the characters. The basic tale of the opera ghost and his love for the chorus girl is there, but other than that, this is a risquÃ© sexual journey that will make you cringe…. The overall writing is okay, but the actions and thoughts of the characters are disturbing. “
The writing is okay but the actions of the characters are disturbing… because they had a lot of sex in an erotic novel? The logic here confounds me.
“…wonderful story was tainted and screwed by this horrible so called erotic romance novel by Ms. Gale. I am no prude but this book was such a disappointment and not the romantic erotica I was expecting. It was nothing but BDSM sex, twisting our beloved Phantom into a sex fiend who wanted nothing more to do NON erotic but only hard, cold sexual things to Christine, there was NO love, NO romance…just hard core, not written well, sex, nothing but crude and unrealistic sex. Please take my word as someone who has read possibly every book that has to do with Erik or The Phantom…this book will taint your mind forever….”
The story was screwed! By the erotic novel! Ha!
But the accusation that there’s no love, no romance? Well, it’s an erotic novel, not a romance novel. So I assume the “sex” comes first (HA!). But several times there are admissions of love from Erik and Christine. And ultimately Christine has to choose between a man who is disfigured and kinda nuts, but also the one she loves, and a man who is rich, titled, socially acceptable, but not necessarily the man for her. I’ve read plenty of romances with that type of storyline; was there too much kinky sex such that it got in the way of that reader’s enjoyment of the romantic elements of the plot?
“…this book haunts me! I have never read such a piece of trash in all my life that included my beloved Phantom. I know the word “erotic” is in the title – but, what I had expected was something more Sensual, Romantic, and Love – those are the qualities that the Phantom story possesses. This book merely takes our beloved characters and puts them into scenes of bondage, whips, chains and sex with no feeling. It is sad that the writer felt they had to put someone having sex onto every other page – – the story line itself (excluding the sex) was not that bad – and the writing was okay – but the calousness of the sex throughout the book just ruined it! If you like S & M/Bondage and Animal lusts – then you’ll just love this book.”
Animal lusts? Whoa, nelly! That last sentence reads like a condemnation – if you like this book, there’s something WRONG WITH YOU!
One reviewer, “YA Librarian,” who gave the book four stars, said, “I find it odd that people’s knickers are in a knot when reviewing this book. I’m not sure how this book could have fooled anyone into believing it was a nice wholesome tale about POTO when the title is: Unmasqued: An EROTIC Novel of The Phantom of The Opera. People should know that this book is going to have sex in it; a lot of sex in it and people are having sex with each other in different ways. If you are not a fan of erotica then this may not be the book for you.”
That about sums it up for me. It’s an “erotic novel,” and it flips a love triangle over, chains it to a bed on wheels and leads it to the kinky section of the erotica shelf. As I said, “erotica” can encompass many, many things, but if I pick up a novel labeled with that word I do expect to see “lots of sex in different ways.”
But what really confused me was the AAR review, which focused on the morality of the characters as one of the reasons for the “F” grade:
“There are not many books that I can say have made my stomach turn, but Unmasqued is definitely one of them. If Gale had written a more contained story between Christine and Erik – even if Christine was also involved with Raoul at the same time – I would have been more accepting. I am a fan of erotica in general but this was an unsettling, never-ending sadomasochistic tale filled with amoral characters.”
Amoral? Christine is a stage dancer, and has already had sex with other people, and as such in that time period would be considered a “loose” woman, or at least a woman of dubious reputation. The other dancers have “protectors” and engage in sex as well. So what’s the amorality? There’s definitely an S&M overtone, and while some of the scenes I’ve read didn’t do it for me, I can see why it might turn someone else on, particularly someone who likes S&M scenarios.
But the use of the word “amoral” in the review really puzzles me. Christine doesn’t choose to betray Erik because she’s a cruel, heartless person. She finds herself in situations where she has to submit to the point where it becomes a habit for her, but it’s not out of any loss of morals. The same is true of Erik: he might be socially inept and a wounded hero with visible scars and a chip on his shoulder, but he’s not amoral. So why the accusation based on morality? Is it because Gale based the book on a story that has a primary monogamous protagonist pair, and has introduced other partners into that sanctity? It is erotica, so what’s wrong with multiple partners? Why is sadomasochism “amoral?” The use of the word seems to assign a lot of value to monogamous nonkinky sex, and while I can empathize with readers who prefer monogamous storylines, any time I see the word “erotic” I assume there is a higher chance of multiple partners at the very least.
The reaction is half of what keeps me pondering this book. I’d have a lot more respect the various reviews I found online if they’d said, “I can’t take the twisting of a story I love,” much like people were turned off by the Pride and Prejudice sequels that had Lizzie and Darcy getting down to some raunchy raunchy action. I can understand that and can see why it would squick someone out. But to call her and Erik immoral and to rage against the erotic sexual content seems to focus more on what the readers sees as a degradation of a beloved storyline, which the author owns up to rewriting with erotic tones on the cover and in the dedication. You can’t say you weren’t warned.
It would be easy to rail against the relative prudishness of these reviews, but that’s not my point. If the sex didn’t do it for someone, I understand that. It didn’t always do it for me, either, but I’m not that into BDSM scenarios and I know it. However, I do know that they turn other people on. I also know that I didn’t approach this book with any preconceived notions of the storyline, or any blissful memories of romantic enthrallment with the Webber musical or the Leroux novel. Identifying the flaw fuels these negative reactions confounds me. Are people upset at the corruption of a beloved story, or angry that, despite the book being labeled as “erotic,” there was a lot of kinky sex with multiple partners?
“Erotic” doesn’t just mean, “Avast! Here be buttsecks!” But then, that’s just my interpretation of the word – perhaps the word “erotic” is not sufficient to describe the varying levels of sexual content housed within it, and that’s the real issue at hand.
Just as the novel plays with perceptions of control and sex, the reactions hinge on expectations as well. Those expecting an erotic novel got what they came for (har har) but those focusing on the Phantom part were shocked and appalled by the erotic part, and their disappointed expectations of romance more than sex yielded some very whiny and upset reviews. But then, that’s the danger that Gale faced when revising a much-loved story and adding in a different ending and a whole lot of sex. Either way, people talking about a book means people are talking about a book, and that is always a good thing. Just ask Anna Campbell.