Drood: A Novel
by Dan Simmons
Little Brown, 2009
[reviewed by Sandy Rainey]
Warning: Dan Simmons' Drood is a heavy lift, in every sense of the term. It comes in at 771 pages, more than a hundred pages longer than Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian; it is definitely not the book to tote to the beach, unless you plan to do arm curls with it between chapters. By turns hard to put down and hard to pick up, it will teach you more about Victorian literary stars William Wilkie Collins and the incomparable Charles Dickens than you ever wanted to know. It will thrill you, disgust you, and toy with your loyalties more than you might like. It will challenge your powers of endurance and interpretation, and it will sometimes try your patience. Ultimately, though, Drood is a journey worth taking, and readers with a taste for the macabre who count Dickens among their interests should not miss it.
William Wilkie Collins narrates our odyssey through the last five years of Dickens' life. Actually, the book spans many more years than that; Collins first befriended Dickens in 1851 and collaborated with him frequently until Dickens' death in 1870, and our narrator moves dizzyingly backward and forward through time, mixing his present and his past to enrich (and complicate) his tale with much foreshadowing and backfill. More disconcerting still: Collins was an insatiable opium and laudanum addict; there is no knowing—ever—what in his account is reality and what is a product of his severely drug-addled brain. Yet another twist is added in that Collins is utterly consumed with jealousy of the enormously talented and much-beloved Dickens, whom he calls "the Inimitable"; he is the Salieri to Dickens' Mozart. He is one of the most contemptible and unreliable narrators you will ever encounter, a vain,weak, whiny, self-absorbed, delusional, defensive loser. Yet at times you may find yourself rooting for him or pitying him, only to be reminded a few pages later of why you have spent the rest of the book despising him. It gives nothing away to note that everything he says should be viewed with suspicion.
The book opens on June 9, 1865, when Dickens was involved in a horrific railway accident at Staplehurst. He had been riding in the only car whose passengers escaped harm. The accident affected him profoundly for the rest of his life. Always interested in mesmerism and spiritualism, he became more and more obsessed with cemeteries and London's Undertown, an appalling city-below-the-city where the poor huddled and the criminal element lurked, selling opiates and striking above-ground when possible. Drood is Simmons' fictionalized account of what happens to Dickens (and to Collins) after the derailment. Dickens tells Collins that he encountered a bizarre, hissing creature named Drood flitting among the maimed and dying after the crash, showing particular interest in the fatally injured. Drood had slyly hinted to Dickens, who was attempting to help the victims, that he could be found in Undertown, thus assuring that Dickens would seek him out—a reluctant Collins in tow—as soon as possible.
It's a wild ride from there. There are an Egyptian cult, a stomach-turning rite involving a scarab beetle, an omnipresent and malignant Collins doppelganger who writes better than our narrator and may or may not be visible to others, a monstrous woman with green skin and tusks, several brutal murders, a haunted back staircase, an obsessive retired policeman who has made the capture of Drood his only object, three mistresses (for Victorians, these guys could swing), and literary and theatrical projects galore. June 9 becomes a pivotal date, with some plot-twisting event occurring each year on that day. Simmons blends fiction and fact so skillfully that you will feel the urge to do some research on your own in order to determine where the line between reality and invention lies. No knowledge of the time period is necessary, but the more you know about Dickens, the more satisfying you will find Simmons' exhaustive attention to detail.
Channeling the Victorian fictional voice—the Collins fictional voice—with consummate skill, Simmons has crafted a fiendishly intricate and clever narrative that places great demands upon the reader. The ending appears to settle most questions in ways you may or may not have seen coming. Even so, upon further reflection, you will realize that Drood—like Dickens' unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood—has left some issues open to eternal, delicious speculation.
[reviewed for Patricia's Vampire Notes by Sandy Rainey]