Dan Simmons, a guy best known for his respected sci-fi stuff like the four-book “Hyperion Cantos”, has now produced a horror novel so big and heavy it could knock your head off, if flung. It’s called Drood, and it weighs in at 771 pages.
This is a good thing, of course, if you like reading and want to withdraw from the world for three or four days. And who doesn’t?
Simmons’ set-up is lurid and fantastic. We’re looking at the last crazy, roiling years of writer Charles Dickens’ life. That’s when the world-famous enshriner of hearth-and-home in a parade of bestselling books from Oliver Twist to Our Mutual Friend risked his reputation by booting out his long-suffering wife and publicly blaming her for their separation while he took up with a teenaged mistress discreetly housed in France.
Then Dickens, the mistress, and the mistress’ dear old mom were traveling in a train that got smashed to splinters in the Staplehurst railway calamity—train derailed going over a chasm, most of the cars fell in, kablooey, gruesome death all over the place. The Dickens car was miraculously spared and it all made the news in a big way, which wasn’t ideal for a world-famous author with a secret mistress. All that’s pretty much true, so far.
What Simmons makes up is Dickens’ encounter amid the railway carnage with a ghoulish figure named Drood, who subsequently obsesses Dickens. He tracks Drood through all the favorite, forbidden Victorian fleshpots, the reeking “dens of iniquity” where Mr. Hyde and Dorian Grey and Jack the Ripper generally hang out. What does Dickens want with Drood? That’s the mystery, and whaddaya know, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the actual title of Dickens’ last, unfinished novel, which features lots of opium dens and suggestions of limitless depravity.
Okay, you might say, so far, so formula. It’s that Seven Percent Solution kind of story, Sigmund Freud meets Sherlock Holmes, historical figures meet fictional characters, research data mixes with novelistic cleverness and lots of sheer name-dropping wankery. Good fun in its way—ecstasy for former English majors—but what’s the kicker this time around?
The kicker’s the narrator, Wilkie Collins who, in what we laughingly call “real life,” was a laudanum-addicted, free-love advocating, second-rate 19th-century novelist who counted Charles Dickens as his mentor and best friend. Simmons has him writing an expose of the Drood affair that Collins considers so shocking it’s to be kept sealed for a hundred and twenty-some years after his own death. In short, till now.
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