Book Review: Drood, by Dan Simmons

Drood. Dan Simmons. 2009. Hatchette Book Group. Hardback. $9

I’ve been wanting to read a Dan Simmons tome – and I do mean tome – for years. Originally, I had anticipated reading his Hyperion Cantos series first. This collection of four novels has become a science fiction classic around which science fiction enthusiasts have developed an almost religious reverence. A few months ago I ordered the collection so I could see for myself the fuss.

I acquired “Drood” when my local bookstore collapsed and shuttered under the weight of local corruption, malfeasance, and poor management. I would rather the bookstore remain open than to have been able to purchase “Drood” at a fire-sale price. But, alas and alack, if wishes were fishes, all men would be fisherman. Count my good fortune and move on.

To read “Drood,” I would recommend you, Dear Reader, take inventory of your accounts and sensibilities concerning the prose you deign to subject yourself to, the literary mesmerism to which you can abide, and to those which you cannot. In other words, if you didn’t like “The Tale of Two Cities,” “Bleak House,” or “Great Expectations,” you probably won’t bear this novel well. Mr. Simmons certainly channels the great writers of Victorian England, no doubt.

If you can abide the literary style of Victorian writers then “Drood” will fit nicely within your library.

“Drood” is a meandering fictional journal of almost 1,000 pages relating the last few years of Dickens’ life as witnessed by his inconvenient friend, accomplice, contemporary, and competitor, William “Wilkie” Collins. Collins is a drug addict, a chronic abuser of liquid opium, laudanum, and a frequent imbiber of brandy. As we get deeper in the bowels of the novel, Collins addiction provides as much controversial fodder as the novel’s eponymous character.

I found the idea of Dickens and Collins setting out to solve what appears to be horrific crimes of a serial killer an interesting premise. Dickens, among few uninjured after a train derailment, assists the many who did suffer injury. While ministering the injured and dying, Charles crosses paths with what can only be described as a Spectre, a harbinger of Death. “Drood” is the name this officer of Hades gives himself, teasing Dickens with a challenge to find him again, in the depths of London’s Underworld.

Dickens, described as a man with a child’s inquisitive nature, could muster little resistance to such a challenge, and together with Wilkie, sets of with a large private detective to investigate the treacherous London Underworld.

The London of Dickens time was swollen like sun-baked corpse, over-populated, ridden with disease, filth, open sewers, and the general stank of a million fetid and unwashed souls. And those are the good areas. The London Underworld is not precisely underground; more so the journey of Dickens and Collins takes them into the slums, and the slums of the slums, and the dilapidated rat-infested, drug dens of areas near the Thames. Together, White Chapel, Wapping, Shadwell, and Bluegate Fields, are collectively known as “the Great Oven.” The place where men disappeared to find things, or literally disappeared, churning up later, face-up or face-down, some reach down the filthy Thames.

Drood is found, but only by Dickens; Wilkie was disallowed entry into the furthest reaches of the Underworld. As Wilkies descent into what I can only assume to be an opium-induced madness grows deeper, Wilkie begins to believe Dickens either conspired with Drood to keep him out, or worse yet, Dickens himself is the serial killer, having contrived an elaborate episode to cover his nefarious killings.

We learn Drood may have origins in Egypt, a member of the cults of the sun, or moon, or even the dead. At one time, Drood may have been human. Over time, the man who was Drood metamorphosed into something else, a victim of the indiscretion of his parents, of his mentors, and later exposure to the Dark Arts of life and death. Over the course of the book, I’m left with the sensation Drood may have more compassion and empathy for people than our narrator, though, as our narrator goes about his “business,” and we learn more about Drood.

Remember, “Drood” is a journal, a narrative of events as told from William Collins perspective. Other reviewers seem to forget this. Simmons book has been oft criticized for meandering, hyperbole, and details of no consequence. So, I would ask these reviewers, “Are your diaries, your journals always so poignant, direct, and targeted?” I doubt so. Thus, one should not really expect a direct storytelling in the pages of “Drood.” You are, essentially, reading a diary of Collins which covers a portion of his life, and the last portion of Dickens. He writes about his mother, problems with his live-in girlfriend, her daughter, problems with his mistress, problems with his rheumatic gout (rheumatoid arthritis), and with his own personal demons. I imagine most of us who maintain journals as a regular pursuit probably have a few diversions penned within our own musings.

As “Drood” wears on, Wilkie is haunted, perhaps truly. He sees visions. A green-faced woman who taunts him. A “Other Wilkie” who sits besides him at his writing table, and who writes better. Are these real manifestations, or do they arise from his opium and brandy cocktail fueled delusions? I suspect (since I still lack about 90 pages) these visions are merely the results of drinking enough laudanum on a daily basis to kill a normal man, as his doctor points out at one session.

As I wrap up “Drood” I’m left feeling the book has nothing really to do with the odd fellow Dickens encounters that one fateful day of the train accident. No, this book is more about the collision of opium with fear, greed, and narcissism, and the opium-driven descent into madness of one of Dickens’ peers, William Collins. Drood and Dickens provided the catalyst which ignited one man’s transformation from mere author, albeit a popular author, into a man more monstrous than perhaps even Drood himself is made to be.

Mr. Simmons does not write short novels. By short, I mean 400-500 pages. A brief survey of Dan’s work results in works which evidently run in excess of 800+ pages. When I mentioned “tome” earlier, I really meant “tome.” When I am in public reading “Drood,” people wonder if I’m reading a dictionary. I have the hardback version, and it does resemble a Webster’s dictionary. “No,” I reply. “I’m reading a book about Magnetic Influences and Mesmerism.” Both of these topics feature prominently in “Drood.” The power to cloud men’s minds, so to speak, like the Shadow/Lamont Cranston.

Honestly, my interest in “Drood” waxed and waned. The sections concerning the drama surrounding Collins’ relationship I sort of skimmed but some parts were very telling. His opium addiction certainly ruled his life, and certainly ruined parts. The chapters concerning Drood, Inspector Field, Detective Hatchery, and Dickens kept my attention, and Collins growing dementia were immensely captivating.

I would recommend “Drood” to those who first, find Victorian-flavored writing appealing, and second, remember they are reading a journal, an account of lives, a historical record, albeit a fictional record. “Drood” is now a “bargain book” at most online bookslingers.

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