Written by: Daniel W Cheely
Gothic cathedrals, dazzling palaces, cemeteries of artistic design; there are certain places so big and boldly intricate that they are beyond words. And yet, the urge among writers to capture their visual essences in words is strong, perhaps irresistible. Its as if these sights dare authors to pen a story that matches their sightful beauty. These sights know with confidence that one can unfold the lengthy net of an entire saga and wrap it around their scenery and still fail to capture their beauty. This fact, this challenge, eggs the writer on even more.
This spring I visited Paris. The writer in me encountered the situations I have described in the preceding paragraph. After visiting the famous Pere Lechaise cemetery, I felt the urgency for a chilling tale that captures the ethereal brilliance of the statuesque graves.
Not necessarily crafted by me, but someone. Upon seeing the sculptures of the Parisian cathedrals, I wanted them to come alive in a finely written macabre story. Then there was the Palais Garnier – The Paris Opera House. Such a beautiful place it is! There’s the grand staircase of white marble with breathtaking views over the balcony balustrade. There are towering pillars with ornate carvings. There are corridors that seem to stretch beyond infinity. Life-like statues haunt their corners. Thankfully, there is an author who succeeds in matching these wonders of the eye with the marvels of storytelling. His name is Gaston Leroux. His novel – The Phantom of the Opera.
How was he able to do this? He accomplishes this feat in several ways.
One of the jobs of a writer is to capture what the eye cannot see. The writer must go underneath the surface and probe the innards of things and see what makes them tick. This is exactly what Leroux does. He writes about the world that exists behind and beneath the splendor of the exterior. This is the backstage world of dressing rooms and still more corridors and balconies. It is the beneath-stage world of machinery and tunnels, of sewers and underground lakes. According to his story, much of what goes on in the opera doings of the 1890s is overseen and, to a certain extent, controlled by a hidden force – the opera ghost. Most of us already know from various mediums that the opera ghost is really a deformed musician that lives underneath the Opera House. He is “The Phantom of the Opera.”
By focusing in on the opera underworld, Leroux teaches us how to approach the daunting challenge when writing about a place that enchants us with its beauty. The Palais Garnier, in its entire splendor, inspired Leroux, that is for sure. He uses its beauty for inspiration but does not seek to rival it with words. Instead, he allows the beauty to translate into “wonder”, and it is the “wonder” that he writes about – wondering what goes on behind the beauty, wondering what is behind the walls and underneath the floors. Who are the singers and actresses, what are their stories? Who are the players behind the scenes?
Before he was an author, Leroux was a journalist. As a journalist, he wrote about the Opera House on several occasions. He covered the story of the 1896 disaster where a falling chandelier killed a patron. He learned of a skeleton that had been found underneath the Opera House. Also, he was able to acquire architectural plans of the building that showed underground tunnels and a subterranean lake. All of these stories and bits of information became plot devices in his novel. By using these real life accounts, Leroux shares yet another trick for writing about the unfathomable. If there exists a place that is grand, historic, and a whole bunch of other adjectives, chances are it already has its stories. The best stories are authorless. They arise from factual events. It is up to the author to work with the truth and then create the legends. In Leroux’s novel, The Phantom causes the chandelier to fall. The Phantom navigates the underground tunnels and steers boats across the subterranean lake. As for the skeleton, read the book and discover the identity of the poor soul that was eventually reduced to a collection of bones!
Like the Opera House itself, The Phantom of the Opera is many things. The Palais Garnier has held countless performances of operas and ballet. It is a wonder of architecture; eclectic in style and design. It houses a library/museum exhibiting costumes of yore and housing over 600,000 documents (books, letters, scores, etc.). Likewise, Leroux’s novel is an unraveling mystery told from a journalistic perspective. It is also ghost story that details many haunting events; disembodied voices, curses, and inexplicable kidnappings and deaths. Moreover, it is a romance with a dark love triangle. Finally it is a tragedy about a doomed genius; a master of the arts that lives inside a monster.
Gaston Leroux shows us how to write about a setting that is beyond words. He reminds us that:
- The best stories are authorless
- These stories arise from the truth and the self-created legends that follow in the truth’s wake
- The awesome scenery can be used as an inspirational diving board to plunge beyond the scope of the eye.
Based on research, Leroux envisioned a dark world underneath the sparkling glamour of the opera. He imagined a mad artist who displays feats of genius that rival the musicianship of the main stage. Underneath his brilliance, underneath his mask there is the face of a monster, the face of ugliness. But who determines what is ugly and what is beautiful? At the book’s end, this is the sad message.
Something so outwardly magnificent can inspire something very internally dark. But that darkness can be magnificent too. The dark things within may look completely different than what dazzles us on the outside, but this does not make them inferior to their external counterparts. Just different. So if you are a writer who is having a difficult time capturing a site’s external beauty with words, just bypass that beauty and look underneath it. Underneath there may be darkness or there might be something equally radiant to the things above. Underneath there is another world and the things of this world are waiting for you to tell their story.
About Daniel W Cheely
Daniel is an author of several books. He has a special interest for the haunted houses of film and literature and he loves to write on this topic. To learn more, please visit TheBooksofDaniel.com