Monday, August 10, 2015

Drood by Dan Simmons

Triumphant tour de force

    I’ve wanted to read Dan Simmons’ Drood (2009) since it was first published, but I was intimidated by its length (771 pages in hardback) because I’m a slow reader.  When I finally got around to reading it, Martha asked me, “How long will it take you to read that?”  I replied, “Probably a month if I make time to do it.”  Actually, it took four weeks, but part of that was due to a plane flight.

Dickens with Daughter Katy (right)
     Simmons focuses on the friendship between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  It’s Collins who narrates the book, addressed to a Dear Readers sometime in the future (around 2008 or so).  The relationship between Dickens- the Inimitable and acknowledged as Britain’s greatest living writer at that time – and Collins – originator of the suspense and detective novels works complexly on a number of levels:  friends, collaborators, relations by marriage (Dickens’ daughter Katy was married to Collins’ brother Charley, who was Dickens’ illustrator), mentor and protégé (Dickens was always willing to give avuncular advice, though not so willing to take it), and most tellingly, bitter rivals.

Wilkie Collins
     The rivalry, however, was on Wilkie Collins’ side.  Dickens may or may not have been aware of it.  There are allusions to Iago, and they’re accurate, though Wilkie feels both justified and disgusted by his feelings and actions.  The daily domestic details of their two lives as they relate to Victorian England (and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.) in the 1860s are both fascinating and pretty awe-inspiring.  Simmons lists his research in the end acknowledgements and it’s on the level of a graduate thesis (or dissertation).

Staplehurst Railway Accident
     However, what pulled me through hundreds of pages was the horrific mystery Simmons sets up with the Staplehurst railway crash disaster in 1865.  Dickens was traveling with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother and the three miraculously survived the crash.  In the aftermath, while assisting others, Dickens encountered Drood, a spectral figure that might be a master criminal or the leader of a cult or a demon.  Dickens tells Wilkie about this and it becomes his obsession.

     During this period, Collins wrote his masterpiece The Moonstone, while Dickens finished Our Mutual Friend, conducted a number of exhausting reading tours, and began yet failed to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  It’s fascinating to realize that magazine serialization and dramatic adaptation were the primary sources of fiction writers’ income, rather than book publications and sales.

     Like one of those serialized Victorian novels, Simmons takes the reader on a tour of England – primarily London – that examines all social classes, the city and the country, the rules for men and women in legal and clandestine relationships, and the official versus the literal underground economy.  Simmons tackles big subjects while enticing the reader through suspense in the manner of the great 19th century British novelists.  He does so without ever losing sight of the action’s main through line. 

The Dickens Family
     The intriguing aspect that ramps up the horror comes out of Dickens’ interest in mesmerism (we’d call it mind reading or mind control nowadays) and it’s eventual connection with Wilkie’s laudanum (the primary ingredient being opium) addiction.  A drug addict as first person narrator calls into question reliability, which Simmons uses as a way for the reader to analyze the plot, especially everything involving Drood.  Even as Wilkie does horrible and eventually monstrous acts, I kept wondering if he was worse than Drood.  Simons pulls a surprising twist at the end, which leads back to the primary relationship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  It made me go back to check out earlier conversations between the two to see how he’d set things up.

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