Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Literature, Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Group)
Publication Date: February 2009
Hardcover: 784 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel, although draws from the works and lives of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
Why did I read this book: Dan Simmons is an autobuy for me — I love everything the man writes, from horror to science fiction to historical fiction. When we were offered a review copy, I was ecstatic.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens–at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world and perhaps in the history of the world–hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.
Did Dickens begin living a dark double life after the accident? Were his nightly forays into the worst slums of London and his deepening obsession with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens, the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies, and a hidden subterranean London mere research . . . or something more terrifying?
Just as he did in The Terror, Dan Simmons draws impeccably from history to create a gloriously engaging and terrifying narrative. Based on the historical details of Charles Dickens’s life and narrated by Wilkie Collins (Dickens’s friend, frequent collaborator, and Salieri-style secret rival), DROOD explores the still-unsolved mysteries of the famous author’s last years and may provide the key to Dickens’s final, unfinished work: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Chilling, haunting, and utterly original, DROOD is Dan Simmons at his powerful best.
On 9 June 1865, Charles Dickens, his mistress and her mother embark on a high speed train ride to London, only to be involved in a terrible wreck just outside of Staplehurst. As passengers in the first class car, Dickens and his lady companions luckily emerge from the wreckage unscathed, but the majority of the other passengers are not nearly so fortunate. Shaken but eager to help (as is his exuberant nature), Dickens rushes into the chaotic wreckage headlong, attempting to give aid to the many injured and dying. It is during this rush that the sinister Drood enters the tale, a gaunt, deathly apparition in a coat and top hat.
“I am Charles Dickens,” gasped my friend.
“Yesss,” said the pale face, the sibilants sliding out through the tiny teeth. “I know.”
This nonplussed Dickens all the more. “Your name, sir?” he asked as they slid down the embankment of loose stones together.
“Drood,” said the man. At least Dickens thought this is what the man said. The pale figure’s voice was slurred and tinged with what may have been a foreign accent. The word came out sounding more like “Dread.”
While Dickens rushes to help the many unfortunates at the scene, Drood moves as a deathly presence through the wreckage, and all those he has been ‘helping’ suddenly die. When Dickens finally reaches London, he is obsessed with the shadowy Drood and enlists his longtime friend — fellow author and narrator of this tale — Wilkie Collins to find this deathly figure, this master of mesmerism, this nefarious mastermind of crime. In the sweltering heat of a summer night, the effusive Dickens drags Wilkie into his quest for Drood, leading both writers into London’s ‘Great Oven’; the worst, most rancid slums of the city, teeming with raw sewage, cutthroats, and opium dens. Following leads from Old Sal and then King Lazaree, the ancient woman and chinaman running two such opium dens, the duo enter the mysterious Undertown to find a whole city of cannibal boys, hidden rivers and Egyptian gods in Drood’s domain.
From that night forward, a darkness hangs over the friendship between Dickens and Wilkie. Dickens becomes more withdrawn and refuses to speak about his strange allegiance to Drood, and Wilkie’s ever increasing use of laudanum (for treatment of his rheumatic gout) coupled with his feelings of inadequacy as a professional writer drives a wedge between the two friends. Over the next five years, Wilkie and Dickens’s relationship grows increasingly strained as Wilkie is blackmailed into discovering Dickens’s secret pact with Drood by a determined, retired Inspector. The web of lies and mistrust, fueled by professional jealousy and opium use, draws Wilkie deeper towards madness — and all the while Drood’s menacing, all-knowing presence hovers in the background.
At nearly 800 pages, Drood is a bonafide doorstopper of a book, dense and rife with psychological tension and drama. Narrated in the first person by Wilkie Collins, this is not so much a book about Wilkie and his life, but rather about how his life was shaped by the ineffable Charles Dickens. To be perfectly frank, while Dickens is the beloved son of England, an undeniable literary juggernaut, and one of the most renowned figures in modern literature, Wilkie Collins is no slouch either. His Woman In White, which I have just recently had the pleasure of reading, appeals to me far more than Dickens’s work ever has. Wilkie himself says it best in one passage:
To be honest with you, Dear Reader who lives and breathes in such a remote branch of my future that no hint of my candour could possibly get back to anyone who loved Charles Dickens, I am…was…almost certainly always shall be…ten times the architect of plot that Charles Dickens ever was. For Dickens, plot was something that might incidentally grow from his marionette-machinations of bizarre characters; should his weekly sales begin slipping in one of his innumerable serialised tales, he would just march in more silly characters and have them strut and perform for the gullible reader, as easily as he banished poor Martin Chuzzlewit to the United States to ump up his (Dickens’s) readership.
My plots are subtle in ways that Charles Dickens could never fully perceive, much less manage in his own obvious (to any discerning reader) meandering machinations of haphazard plotting and self-indulgent asides.
Though smattering of jealousy and self-importance, I generally agree with Collins’s assessment of Dickens, which strangely endears this truly unreliable narrator to me as a reader. It’s ironic then, that Drood is far more Dickensian in style than a work of Wilkie Collins: there is an over-arching mystery with Drood in the background, but it is not so much a plot-driven mystery novel as it is an exhausting study of the two main characters and their relationship. In true Dickens style, Drood is perhaps a tad over-long and wraps up with a happy coincidence:
I simply could not stop laughing. This story, this plot, was so wonderfully baroque yet somehow so tidily logical. It was so, so…Dickensian.
My feelings exactly, dear Watson. While this ending might rub certain readers the wrong way as Drood is chock full of red herrings and needless twists, in this reader’s opinion it is the perfect conclusion to Mr. Simmons’s heartfelt homage to two very important writers. In this fictional recounting, written by Wilkie on his deathbed to a posthumous audience, Dickens is shown as the unstoppable force of nature the man was — his romantic ideals, his love of exercise and long walks, his passion for the stage, his natural superiority to his peers. And every step of the way Wilkie is there, despising the man as he tries to measure up to Dickens’s long shadow, but still drawn to his friend’s undeniable charisma and extraordinary talent. It is the narration of Wilkie Collins that makes this book, as once again Simmons blends painstaking research with thrilling, beautiful writing. Collins’s slow descent into horror is brilliant and terrifying — Wilkie goes from a few daily doses of laudnum to full blown opium and has hallucinations that devolve ultimately into paranoid delusions.
As a Simmons fan I loved reading the thrilling little bits of his past work in Drood, a montage of images: the actual mention of the ill-fated crew of The Terror; the images of sweltering, festering India from Song of Kali in London’s “Great Oven”; the understanding of literature from the Hyperion cantos. Drood is another beautiful addition to Simmons’s impressive arsenal of work, and a book I highly recommend to all lovers of literature.
Notable Quotes/Parts: One of the most insightful passages to Wilkie Collins’s feelings regarding Charles Dickens. Perfection.
Over Esther’s shoulder, Dickens allows us to catch a glimpse of the harbour. There are many boats there and more appear, as if by magic, as the fog begins to rise. Like Homer in the Iliad, Dickens briefly catalogues the ships becoming visible, including a great and noble Indiaman just back from India. And the author sees this — and makes us see this — just “when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea.”
Silvery pools in the dark sea.
Pools in the sea.
…I have seen the sunlight on the sea thousands of times and have described it in my books and stories scores of times — perhaps hundreds of times. I have used words such as “azure” and “blue” and “sparkling” and “dancing” nd “grey” and “white-topped” and “ominous” and “threatening” and even “ultramarine.”
And I had seen the phenomenon of the sun “making silvery pools in the dark sea” scores or hundreds of times but had never thought to record it in my fiction, with or without that swift and certaina dn slightly blurred sound of the sibilants Dickens had chose for its description.
Then, without pausing even for a breath (and possibly not even to dip his pen), Dickens had gone on having the fog in the harbour lift over Esther’s shoulder by writing, “these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed…,” and I knew in that instant, with my agitated, scarab-driven eyes merely passing over these few words in these short sentences, that I would never — not ever, should I live to be a hundred years of age and retain my faculties until the last moment fo that life and career — that I would never be able to think and write like that.
The book was the style and the style was the man. And the man was — had been –Charles Dickens.
I threw the expensive, personally inscribed, moroccan-leather-bound and gold-leaf-edged copy of Bleak House into the ticking and clicking and crackling and f—-ing fire.
Additional Thoughts: You like or are interested in Drood and want to know what else to read? Besides glomming Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins’s backlist (beginning with The Mystery of Edwin Drood or The Woman in White respectively), you could also read more Dan Simmons. For the horror fans, start with Song of Kali, Summer of Night, or Carrion Comfort. Historical Fiction? Try The Terror. Or, of course, there is the Hugo Award winning Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion for the science fiction enthusiast.
And I could not help but think of the film Young Sherlock Holmes when reading this novel. You know, the film from 1985 with a reimagining of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting as young men in a preparatory school where they try to solve the mystery of deaths around campus. There’s an Egyptian curse (sort of), mesmerism, and some wonderful special effects. Yeah, it’s a bit silly (a bit “Kali maaaaa!”), but I loved this movie as a kid and highly recommend it too.
Verdict: Another winner from Simmons in my book. I highly recommend Drood, which is on my shortlist for one of the best books of 2009 already.
Rating: 8 Excellent
Reading Next: Into the Forest by Jean Hegland