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Book Review – Drood by Dan Simmons

Drood Drood by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Drood by Dan Simmons

My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognize my name. Some say that I am a gambling man and those that say so are correct, so my wager with you, Dear Reader, would be that you have neither read nor heard of any of my books or plays. Perhaps you British or American peoples a hundred and twenty-five or so years in my future do not speak English at all. Perhaps you dress like Hottentots, live in gas-lighted caves, travel around in balloons, and communicate by telegraphed thoughts unhindered by any spoken or written language.
Even so, I would wager my current fortune, such as it is, and all future royalties from my plays and novels, such as they may be, on the fact that you do remember the name and books and plays and invented characters of my friend and former collaborator, a certain Charles Dickens.

So this true story shall be about my friend (or at least about the man who was once my friend) Charles Dickens and about the Staplehurst accident that took away his peace of mind, his health, and, some might whisper, his sanity. This true story will be about Charles Dickens’s final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—if man he was—named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called “my Babylon” or “the Great Oven.” In this manuscript (which, as I have explained—for legal reasons as well as for reasons of honour—I intend to seal away from all eyes for more than one hundred years after his death and my own), I shall answer the question which perhaps no one else alive in our time knew to ask—“Did the famous and loveable and honourable Charles Dickens plot to murder an innocent person and dissolve away his flesh in a pit of caustic lime and secretly inter what was left of him, mere bones and a skull, in the crypt of an ancient cathedral that was an important part of Dickens’s own childhood? And did Dickens then scheme to scatter the poor victim’s spectacles, rings, stickpins, shirt studs, and pocket watch in the River Thames? And if so, or even if Dickens only dreamed he did these things, what part did a very real phantom named Drood have in the onset of such madness?”

And thus begins the novel, Drood. Of course many of you will know that Wilkie Collins is not forgotten in our own time. Collins is most famous and is best known as the author of The Moonstone and The Women in White. He was also a close friend and collaborator with the venerable Charles Dickens. Wilkie Collins was called a “sensational novelist” in his day. His most famous novel, The Moonstone, is often cited as the first private detective mystery. Collins was afflicted with a painful arthritic condition that was called “rheumatic gout” in his day. To reduce his pains he used great quantities of laudanum that was a popular medicinal drug that is derived from opium. And in this book he uses great quantities of opium.

Drood is a dark, sensational Victorian novel, purportedly written this year by Dan Simmons. But you’d be excused in thinking that this is a mere pretense of the publisher. Because in the reading of the novel , the verisimilitude in the telling of the bizarre events, the use of quirky characters, the language and verbosity of the book, and the authors asides to the reader, all ring true with the Victorian Age.

The book is a little hard to classify to my mind beyond calling it a historical novel. It’s similar in type to the movie Amadeus. All the outlying historical facts are known and presented accurately in the story. But the fictional tale built around what presumable the historians never knew. A plausible, if sensational tale, that is only slightly more fantastic (which is pretty fantastic) than Charles Dickens’s own biography.

The story proper starts with Charles Dickens’ experience with a horrendous train accident infamously known as “the Staplehurst Rail Crash”. A train carrying the aged Dickens with his young and secret mistress, Ellen Ternan, crashes while traveling over a bridge. There are many casualties and Dickens help the many injured as best he could until more help arrived. These are the sensational but known biographical details that make the story so rich.

Dickens recounts the story to Collins. But he tells of a mysterious stranger named Drood, who was also aboard the train. Drood is dressed in an opera cape and has a mutilated visage. Drood is running to the accident victims to help, but to Dickens’s eyes is acting more like some kind of psychic vampire than as a rescuer. Dickens recruits Collins to find Drood and explore the mystery surrounding him. Much laudanum and opium is taken by Collins throughout the book, the reader is left traveling a path of ambiguity of what is reality and what is drug-induced.

At times the character of Wilkie Collins is sympathetic, and I found myself hoping that he would win out against his fears and addictions. Other times I found him to be deliciously despicable. That’s all part of the fun. Listening to the voice of this unreliable character and trying to decide what is true and was is his paranoid drug-induced fantasy. And the book kept me guessing to the end.

I listened to the unabridged 30 hour version of this audiobook read by John Lee. The only way to read a Victorian novel is with a great reader like John Lee. He gives rich performance. Lee dialects covers the gamut of the different strata of London’s 19th century society. Highly recommended.

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