Friday, August 2, 2013

Interview with a Monster - The Phantom File

(Author's Note) This is the fourth of my ongoing Interview with a Monster series from the June 2013 issue of Suspense Magazine.

Interview with a Monster – The Phantom File
by Thomas Scopel

While I can’t say operatic music is my thing, monsters are, and therefore, I must admit that the Phantom is what truly drew me to beautiful clear voices filled with emotion in the first place. However, the awe when stepping into the Paris Opera House nearly forced me to forget my objective. From the massive and majestic chandelier hanging high in the center, to the heavy, red velvet curtains draping the walls, to the delicate fringed screen hiding the stage, I felt as if I had been transported back in time over a hundred years and began to wonder how horror could possibly have infected something so profound and beautiful. Prior, having researched this phantom quite substantially, there were tale conflictions, with some accusing fire and others blaming chemicals for his disfigurement. I intended to take it straight to the soprano’s mouth and obtain the true answer. Nonetheless, as the lights went down and curtains parted, I nearly lost myself with the exquisite opening voice. So much for not being a fan! Regardless, I managed to regain focus as the evening’s dramatic melodies unfolded, surging both high and low, and made a conscious effort to continually look into the shadows.

From my balcony seat I was able to overlook all the stage and much of the rising catwalks circling the perimeter up to the rafters and there was one instance when, while scrutinizing the small walkway leading to the darkened area directly above the hall’s crystal centerpiece, I thought I had seen a lurking and crouching silhouette. Squinting hard trying to verify what my eyes indicated, I cursed my fine arts ignorance of not stopping in the lobby to rent a pair of those long stemmed binoculars like many others had. Faintly considering going to obtain a pair, I didn’t, assuming that by the time I made it back, he, if in fact it was him, would probably be gone. And besides, etiquette dictated that rising and leaving during a performance would be rude and draw attention. And so, I just kept watch.

The third act began and drawn to the changed set of a lovely meadow with a well-built wishing well at the center, I lost sight of my quest again, but just for a moment. When I realized and peered back at the chandelier, with the set’s lighting change, the shadow now appeared to be nothing of interest and I put it from my mind.

As a soprano contralto duet cascaded upon the audience, I looked about into every dark nook and cranny, seeking anything resembling someone quietly watching from the obscurities. But there was none.

The program ended and I must admit to being more than a little disappointed. It had been my first and I suspected to soon visit again, but only when able to offer complete undivided attention. As the crowd filed away up through the aisles and into the lobby, I remained seated, watching and waiting to implement my strategy.

Previously, I had thought long and hard about where to hide until the place was empty and quiet. At first, considering the obvious, the restroom, but quickly ruled out the notion assuming that ushers was certain to explore the area before turning down the lights. A few days later, while taking in a film, I stumbled upon an enticing potential solution after noticing the walls, or rather, the loose curtains which covered them. Draped from ceiling to floor, nearly perfect for hiding behind, it was probably a better than average assumption that the opera house’s version would be much grander. And, I was correct.

Before long, both the balcony box and the theatre were void of patrons and I was at the wall feeling about seeking a seam to slip behind. The heavy, thick material wasn’t all that forgiving, but it did have some maneuverability and I found what I sought.

Hidden behind, careful to remain still, I moved only on occasion to glance down at my exposed black loafers, watching and waiting for the light reflection to fade. I heard someone moving about through the immediate area and since the lights were still up, could only assume that it was an usher. While positive my forced curtain misshapenness would easily be noticeable to anyone strongly looking, I was hopeful no one would, and obviously, they didn’t.

Mostly holding my breath, not wanting to cause a ripple to flow through the sheeting, only taking little puffs of air when needed, I waited and listened. Twenty minutes went by and with sweat beginning to trickle in a continuous stream down the sides of my face, the echoing click of a power breaker switch being thrown was a relief. Looking down at my feet again, they were in near total darkness.

Out from behind the curtain, the cool air was refreshing and wonderful and I savored the moment to allow the perspiration to begin evaporating. I overlooked the emptiness of the place and was glad to see the chandelier, center aisle walkway and front stage lighting still lit, but set very low.

I went to the double doors leading out of the balcony hoping that the stairwell leading down to the main lobby would be relatively the same, dimly lit, but, it wasn’t. Stepping through and allowing the doors to swing closed behind, I found myself bathed in total darkness and a shiver went down my spine. Fumbling for the penlight flashlight I had had the forethought to bring, its beam brought courage as it aided in my trek down a side of the massive double sided staircase. At the bottom I turned right and found another set of double swinging doors that led into the main seating area and just as I pushed through them I heard it!

Already being familiar with the instrument’s basic sound, I was surprised at how it suddenly affected and chilled me to the bone, causing me to become frozen in my tracks. I listened and realized that it wasn’t the overall sound per se that frightened, it was the dark and intense choice of notes I could only assume came from one musician. Somewhat muffled, the sound came from below but remained authoritative and powerful, reverberating throughout, the hall’s acoustics doing it justice.

With the gloomy tones bellowing I followed the glow of the floor track lighting down the center aisle ramp to the stage. The closer I became, the more the organ’s vibrations flowed into me. By the time I reached the stage, both my feet and lower extremities were tingling with each note.

Now, before entering the building this evening, hope garnered at meeting this so called phantom, but in reality didn’t fully seat. But, now standing at the front of the stage, this concept changed and I became nearly certain a meeting was inevitable if I could somehow follow the sound to him. My concerns quickly turned to whether or not I wanted to risk traversing the channels underneath this two-hundred plus year old building. The thought caused confliction when considering that, for many years, numerous folks considerably more knowledgeable of the catacombs had tried in vain. The thought was deterring, but after swallowing the fear, I started pondering where an entrance might be located.

Assuming backstage was a good place to start I attempted to scale the edge of the stage, which, from my balcony seat, didn’t appear all that high. But, looks are deceiving and it took me a couple of tries before I was finally able to drag myself up onto it.

Clambering to my feet, I turned around and looked back into the arena. While only being able to see into the first ten or so rows, I still could fully imagine the grandeur a performer must have felt in front of a packed house. Shaking off the opulence and turning about face I glanced at both sides of the stage, unsure which route to take, but finally decided to go right.

Taking a single step forward, the organ suddenly stopped and I found myself in the deathly silence. Fear, like none I’ve ever felt before invaded. Without the sound’s lead, all hope was lost and I stood there praying for those demented tones to once again permeate, but they never did. After a few minutes of feeling vulnerable and lost, I decided to abandon the quest and turned back toward the front edge of the stage. A baritone voice from the opposite side of the stage asked, “What is it you seek?”

Thinking it was my final act, I searched for an answer, but the words never came.

“What is it you seek?” the voice asked again, louder than before.

I slide the button of my flashlight on and shined the beam toward the direction the voice came. He stood there silently and dark, peering back from behind a dingy white, half mask.

“I…I…I…you.” Obviously my mouth and tongue weren’t in compatible and I swallowed hard, thinking of something intelligent to say.

“I beckon to know why you have come here?” he asked, stepping off to the side into the shadows and away from my artificial beam.

Still unable to find words, he came toward me, his hard shoe heels clicking evenly against the wooden floor and echoing through the silence.

Standing before me, the soft stage lights reflected off the side of his mask making him appear quite menacing and I was finally able to found my speech and blurted out, “I want to interview you for a monster series I’m writing.”

“Monster series!” he cried out and I was taken aback. “I am no monster, contrary to what is believed or told in the tabloids. Of course, while I don’t deny causing death, I still contend it was for love, not like Jack the Ripper going about slicing up and butchering innocents. Does that make me a monster?”

It was clear he was agitated and I countered with logic. “It’s not for me to judge and I only request an audience to converse.”

His head bowed, as if searching the floor and while he held no weapon that I could see, I was still unsure of his intentions and a combination of both fear and compassion filled me. I was about to reiterate my stance, reinforcing my keeping the mystery surrounding and maintaining confidentiality when he looked up and again spoke.

“Follow me.”

He turned and started off the direction he had come and, hesitant at first, I followed. Off the side of the stage and through a maze of backstage hallways we went before coming to a large, iron grate. With a yank, the hinges squealed and it opened. He offered me entrance. With great leeriness, only after quickly deducing that had he wanted to dispose of me the deed would probably have already been done, I accepted and stepped into the arched stone passage.

He pulled the door closed with a loud clang before squeezing by me and once again taking the lead. After a number of steps, we went down a set of concrete stairs and by the time we reached the bottom the temperature had cooled and a preponderance of dampness, filled with the odor of burnt mold and mildew became profound. Rounding a corner, orange light flickered against the wall ahead making the passageway glimmer, and we continued on around another corner where he stopped at a cradle holding a flaming torch and removed it. The scene was entirely medieval as we continued on into the darkness that lay ahead. Faintly considering using my flashlight again, second thought decided to save what battery was left, just in case it was needed to exit.

Screams of scampering frightened rats filled the air when entering a large, central area with similar looking tunnels jetting off in all directions. To say it appeared daunting would be an understatement and I became acutely aware that had I somehow managed to make it this far, this labyrinth would probably have spelled out calamity, misfortune and doom, and therefore, I was grateful for his assistance.

We splashed through a shallow flowing stream and into another tunnel. After a straight section we scaled ten or twelve heavily worn aged steps of a stone staircase. At the top we entered into a good sized room that appeared to be no more of a bricked or stoned cave, complete with flaming torches donning the perimeter walls. On the opposite side of the room, up on a level plateau above a jagged and worn pathway was the organ, nestled up against a glistening sheer rock wall.

Although it seemed to be leaning slightly, this easily could have been an optical illusion due to the imperfect lighting, but there was no doubt to its majesty. I wondered how such a massive instrument had come to be in such a place and glanced up at the ceiling, questioning how the sound appeared so vibrant when permeating the opera house. Concluding that we must have somehow circled about, coming to finish directly below the grand stage, it all made perfect sense and I viewed the tunnels we had traversed as his version of a blindfold; an attempt to keep his sanctuary a secret.

He may have very well seen my quiet disclosure, but said not a word and confidently scaled the path. Taking a seat at the organ’s bench with his back to me, he began to play and was quite animated doing so, the black cape fluttering about with each movement. A crystal vase of long dead roses stood alongside a flickering, eight tiered candelabra atop the instrument and that, in conjunction with the dark notes he played, gave the overall scene a macabre feel.

I reached in my pocket and flipped on the micro-recorder, only hoping to capture for future conveyance some small shred of the emotion flowing heavily through the room. It beeped and he immediately stopped playing, turned and looked at me. While I couldn’t clearly see his eyes from behind the mask, I did notice that the right one was drooping and odd looking and the gaze caused a chill. Still griping the recorder in my pocket, I flipped the switch to off. It beeped again and like a light switch, he turned and went back to playing. After the impromptu concert for one, he rose and came to me. “Tell me, what is it you seek?”

Now, while my initial thought of wanting to ask him to remove the mask and show what was underneath was certainly morbid, I didn’t stoop to that level and simply asked, “What is your real name?”

He grinned ever so slightly. I could tell you, but it is insignificant. And, since I’ve gained considerably more fame wearing a mask, please, if you will, address me as Phantom.

“There is no doubt that the mask has done just that. Is it an extension of your feelings?”

After looking in a mirror and seeing how burnt and disfigured I was, the mask was the only way to hide my gruesome appearance; make me appear more normal; allow me to look upon myself again. However, people can be rather cruel and it rapidly added an unintended consequence, which I’m sure you are aware. That is when the phantom persona came about.

“Why, I would think that with your expert caliber of playing, any opera house would be proud to have you…even with the mask and murder hanging over your head.”

Fear is what stops them. Believe me, if I could take it all back, I would. I went a little crazy after the accident. Nonetheless, the stigma will now forever reign and therefore, my destiny is to remain hidden down here with the rats and the worms.

“What brought you to this place? How did you find it?”

After the acid was tossed on me, I stumbled blindly into these sewers, continuing downward through the darkness, my palms leading the way and eventually collapsed into a vibrantly flowing trench.” (He pointed to a darkened area of the room and I saw the rippling stream flowing by.) “When I awoke, I was laying in this room…my coffin…my tomb.

My empathy grew and an odd notion of aid compelled as I considered attempting to smuggle this man into the U.S., intent on proudly presenting him before the New York Opera House where I hoped they would overlook past transgressions and accept both him and his skill. However, I dismissed the thought as fast as it came, knowing that would never occur.

How did the organ get to this terribly lonely place?

It was an old discard, left draped and covered in the house’s back room. I learned of it while being part of the production. It dates from the late seventeen hundreds. With my passion sorely missed, night after night and piece by piece was brought here. By day, cleaning and polishing, assure working order and rebuilding. Eventually, my task was complete. Playing that first note was nothing short of exquisite and I found myself giddily. Over time though, a growing sense of seclusion invaded and the songs now reflect.

Just as I was about to ask where he studied, he abruptly turned and went back to the organ, but didn’t sit down. With arms stretched wide, he played four single notes. Not well versed in the art of music tablature, I am unable to tell you whether the notes were an a, b, c, or d, but can add that the first was an extremely low note, followed by an equally opposite high note and then another low and then another high. However, the notation isn’t

He reached up and clutched the candelabra’s base and went to the opening, which didn’t look much different than what we had previously negotiated. With a gentle wave of his hand, he beckoned for me to follow and stepped into the passageway. And, I did.

The path spiraled wide, with a gradual upward sloping and I was gentle with my steps, maintaining assured footing on the damp and slick rock. A number of passages along the way led off into darkness, but being more concerned with keeping up with his long strides and the light he carried, I strode past them with little glance.

At the end we came to a decrepit but sturdy heavy wooden door loaded with webs from long gone spiders. He reached out, clasped the knob, turned and pulled. The door broke free and creaked open in a cloud of dust. A draped cloth covered the opposite side opening and he sat the candelabra on a nearby ledge before reaching toward the cloth. A seam parted and as he held it open for me, I saw beyond and realized exactly where we were.

Stepping through the doorway onto the rear of the opera house’s stage, behind a row of permanent lampposts was a bittersweet relief. Before I was able to turn around and face him, of the corner of my eye, his mask came sliding by on the floor the door slammed shut. I whirled around only to see the red velvet wall covering’s final ripples and was amazed at how inconspicuously hidden this door was.

Bathed in soft glow of stage lighting, I went and picked up the mask, held it to my face and peered out from behind it. A secluded, lonely and trapped feeling overwhelmed and I drew it away, but still clutched it tightly. I looked toward the stage side and saw the bright red letters spelling out E-X-I-T above a door. Offering one last glance around, I stepped toward the door and the organ again began playing. While the dark and dreary tones remained, I couldn’t help but to smile and at the door I listened for a few more minutes before letting myself out into the evening drizzle. Tucking the mask under my jacket, I contently walked away, down the dark alley.

At home, while typing up this piece, compassionate scars of our meeting remained, something I assumed would be lifelong. Of course, in the event of forgetfulness, I need only offer glance to the top shelf of the curio cabinet for reminding.

With my first rewrite completed, I went to the kitchen for a replenishing snack of cheese and crackers. Back at the desk I finished both the snack and the tale. When I pushed away from the desk, the mess of crumbs fell from my lap to the floor below and I went and fetched the broom. Not only did the broom clean the mess, but also forced a preponderance of thought toward the next installment, to a clan of characters that may very well be the most terrifying of all and quite capable of attacking without being near. While I’ve never actually studied witchcraft, I’m going to at least delve and probably start with a trip to Salem.

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Stay Scared,
Thomas