At the end of his introduction to this translation David Coward points out that "Erik has joined the likes of the Lady of the Camellias, Tarzan, and James Bond in the ranks of iconic heroes of popular culture who have escaped the limits of fiction and embedded themselves in the collective psyche. The Phantom of The Opera is no longer a French possession: it has become part of the world's cultural heritage." I'm not entirely sure about his choice of iconic heroes - I had to look up the Lady of the Camellias to be sure I had the right character in mind (I did), nor am I sure if Tarzan is still the icon he was. For me The Phantom is up there with Dracula and Frankenstein, particularly Frankenstein, but either way he has a life far beyond the covers of his book.
I went to see the Lloyd Webber take on 'The Phantom of the Opera' back in the 80's - we had to get tickets 6 months in advance and it was amazing (I was quite young and it was an entirely new experience) so since then my idea of The Phantom has been of a tortured soul more sinned against than sinning. Really a read of the book was long overdue and neither Leroux or David Coward disappointed.
The best thing about reading classics is getting all of a story that you think you already know (and by you I mostly mean me) and reading it in your own way. It surprised me how much humour there is in 'The Phantom of the Opera' - just when the tension is really piling up Leroux throws in something to lighten the mood and deflate the melodrama. Like The Phantom he's a master of misdirection and manipulation.
The story is ostensibly narrated by GL but skips between the 'memoirs' of different characters all of whom see The Phantom in a different light. There is GL who seems to be broadly sympathetic, the opera managers who think he's a practical joke, the Persian who knew him as Erik, and knows more of his past than anybody else. Christine the singer he teaches and loves imagines at first that he's the Angel of Music, later a monster, and eventually perhaps a man, Raoul who also loves Christine sees a rival and a monster, Madam Giry the box attendant knows a generous patron, and who knows what some of the other mysterious inhabitants of the opera think... The reader has to decide for themselves what they think.
It's certain that there is a 'Phantom' and that he's a man rather than a ghost; he has fallen for Christine and abducts her in an attempt to force her to marry him - if she doesn't he will blow up the opera house but everything else is hazy. Once there is a rumour of a ghost everything is attributed to him and his legend grows. Leroux delights in describing some terrifying seemingly supernatural episode and then revealing the perfectly logical explanation for it - sometimes he just states that there is a rational explanation without going to the trouble of thinking of one, and when Raoul and the Persian descend into the lower depths to try and rescue Christine some very odd, and very frightening, things happen that have nothing to do with Erik.
In the end it's the opera house that takes centre stage - it never reveals all it's secrets, and never will. It's a constant brooding presence. Massive and labyrinthine it's virtually a city in itself as well as a prison. The drama of the stage spills into all it's corners making anything seem probable even when we know it's all smoke and mirrors. It's a terrific read.