With his latest effort, DROOD, Dan Simmons has tackled the two-fold task of covering two of literature’s most famous voices: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It is ironic that his prior novel, THE TERROR, dealt with the infamous and tragic Franklin Expedition of 1850, which served as inspiration for several of Dickens’s works of fiction as well as his collaboration with Collins on the play/novel THE FROZEN DEEP. That event changed the lives and sensibilities of 1850s London in the same way that a terrorist attack shocks modern society. Simmons did not follow THE TERROR with DROOD as a natural progression, as he had planned on writing a novel about Dickens for some time.
DROOD is a fictional recreation of the final five years of Dickens’s life. The most significant event that occurs during this time is the Staplehurst train crash on June 9, 1865. Dickens has been traveling with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother when the train plunges off a cast-iron bridge that is under repair to the gorge below. He escapes major injury, but what he experiences afterward may have caused him irreparable psychological damage. In scouring among the fallen railroad cars, he comes across an eerie gentleman clad in a black top hat and cape who appears to be moving amongst the dead and near-dead passengers in a ghoulish manner. He approaches this individual and is met by a tall, gaunt and frightening persona with long, straight teeth and a skeletal grimace. The mysterious character refers to himself as Mr. Drood and immediately begins his mesmerizing of Dickens, whereby his mere presence haunts Dickens to his very core. Succeeding sightings of Drood lead Dickens down a path of near-madness.
The only person with whom Dickens feels comfortable sharing his story and fears of Drood is his protégé and fellow author, Wilkie Collins. Collins had recently become famous in his own right when his novel, THE WOMAN IN WHITE, was met with overwhelming enthusiasm when introduced in serialized form in Dickens’s All the Year Round magazine. He is in the process of following up this success with the release of another serialized novel, THE MOONSTONE, which has been referred to as “the grandfather of the modern crime novel” and features an investigator who is the precursor to literary detectives such as Sherlock Holmes. The relationship Dickens has with Collins at this time can almost be compared to that of Antonio Salieri and the young genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart --- a relationship that ended tragically.
Dickens met Collins in 1851 and took an instant liking to him. They work together and spend holidays at each other’s homes. The Staplehurst incident brings about the first drought period in Dickens’s writing career, and he only completes one novel in the final five years of his life: OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. During this time, Collins’s career and reputation begin to take off. Dickens still is not above suggesting changes to Collins’s work, and DROOD has a particularly humorous scene whereby Dickens’s creative criticism about Collins’s idea that eventually becomes THE MOONSTONE involves a total restructuring of the novel’s plot, characters and title.
Regardless of their changing relationship, Collins becomes highly concerned about his mentor’s mindset following his first meeting with Drood and asks to accompany Dickens to the subterranean lair that houses Drood and other ghoulish characters of the London underground. Dickens insists that he is being mesmerized by