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 Drood into dropping all his other work and writing Drood’s own story. Thus, we have the supposed impetus for Dickens’s final and unfinished work, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. DROOD introduces several characters whose personae are used within the haunting THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, a novel that is unlike anything Dickens has ever written.
Collins himself begins to obsess about the Drood character, and it starts invading his dreams and waking thoughts. Where Dickens battled his own addiction to opium, Collins has similar dependency issues involving an abuse of laudanum to battle chronic pain from his rheumatic gout. At times Collins believes that he has a “double” that provides ideas for his stories and often has awoken to find pages of work written in a hand unlike his own. Collins’s own obsession causes him to seek out treatment for his chronic pain in the very underground that houses Drood. It is inevitable that Drood will meet up with Collins and task him to complete the work about his life that he fears Dickens will not live to finish himself. Collins’s behavior changes radically as he has strong feelings of inferiority to Dickens and demands that he be treated as his equal. He even begins to detest Dickens and his lifestyle and secretly plots his demise in a lime pit and hidden tomb.
Was Dickens’s own mesmeric power, which he himself referred to as “parlor tricks,” strong enough to be causing all of Collins’s fears and hallucinations? Collins himself considers Dickens a “vampire who needed public occasions and audiences from which to drain the energy he needed to stagger on another day.” Or were Dickens and Collins both equally mesmerized by the dark Mr. Drood into becoming his pawns and unwilling biographers? DROOD provides thrills at every turn, and you never quite know what is real and what is not. All that is truly known is that Dickens did indeed die five years from the very date of the Staplehurst train crash and his alleged first meeting with the ghoulish Drood.
Dan Simmons noted that an author can’t win by writing historical fiction because of all the scholars and content experts who will scrutinize the work. However, he feels that the opportunity to reconnect readers with classic literature is a bonus. THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD was never completed, even though several literary scholars have attempted to forecast how the novel would end. Wilkie Collins died in 1889 but never achieved success at the level of his works written under the influence of his mentor, Charles Dickens. With DROOD, Simmons has presented a voluminous work at nearly 800 pages --- but it reads fast and furious and never fails to engage and excite the reader with its utterly original content. Bravo!
Reviewed by Ray Palen on February 9, 2009