Little Brown (976 pages, $9.99, January 2011 mmp (originally February 2009))
Reviewed by Sue Granquist
In National Lampoon’s Vacation, a family goes on a cross-country road trip, enduring hardship and danger, seeing cheesy landmarks and ultimately arriving at an amusement park that was closed for construction. In other words, a long and harrowing journey with no pay off, but still a lot of fun to watch.
Sort of how I feel about Dan Simmons’ latest suspense thriller, Drood. Weighing in at a hefty 784 pages in hardback (976 in mass market paperback!), I was somewhat reluctant to devote the time to this behemoth of a novel. However, enticed by the premise and my somewhat love / hate relationship with Simmons, I picked up a copy and got help from a stock guy with carrying it to the car. And I must say, the premise is genius.
The last, and unfinished work of Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was published in 1870 and became famous in its time, largely for being a mystery with no ending. The serialized work was intended to unfold over twelve installments, however Dickens died after completing only six. Now before you go having high-school-literature-class flash backs, hear me out. You don’t have to be at all familiar with The Mystery of Edwin Drood in order to read Simmons’ book; I sure wasn’t, though I did look into it out of curiosity.
No, the genius of Drood is not simply in its construction, but in how the story meshes perfectly with both Dickens’ actual work of fiction and the factual events of the last few years of Dickens’ life. Meaning that this horror / mystery story is set against a perfectly painted backdrop of Victorian England complete with its sexual double standards, horrible conditions and affluent opulence. This alone would be enough of a reason to read Drood but it’s a ripping good story as well.
Drood is narrated Billy “Wilkie” Collins, Dickens’ friend and nemesis in equal measure. Wilkie is a wealthy Victorian gentleman and famous author in his own right, whose works include The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Wilkie’s imagination and creativity are fueled by laudanum, a socially acceptable iteration of another famous opiate, cocaine. The laudanum is prescribed by Wilkie’s doctor to treat his gout, which is apparently a socially acceptable euphemism for syphilis. Needless to say, being told a story by an imaginative drug addict whose brain may or may not be rotting away from a sexually transmitted disease would be entertaining in nearly any circumstances, but the situation at hand is both intriguing and horrifying.
Dickens is very nearly a casualty in a disastrous train wreck which kills most of his fellow passengers. As Dickens is moving through the debris attempting to help the wounded (and here we get a look at just how primitive Victorian medicine was) he meets Mr. Drood, a hideous and hooded figure that brings to mind the specter of Death. As Dickens moves to locate the living in the wreckage, Drood appears to be moving purposely amongst the dead. During their brief conversation, Dickens learns that Drood was en route to a particularly nasty section of London when their trip was interrupted, and after Drood vanishes into the carnage of the crash, Dickens becomes obsessed with pursing him into what is literally the London underworld.
The horror that becomes Dickens’, and by persuasion and finally coercion, Wilkie’s pursuit of Drood takes the reader on not only a journey through the paradoxes of Victorian England but also through the various forms of mysticisms the Victorians were obsessed with. The occults of ancient Egypt, hypnosis and séances add to a spine-tingling story that builds though the copious chapters with a heart-pounding momentum that only occasionally lets you take a breath by providing glimpses into the equally terrible living conditions that existed in London at the time.
And now, about the payoff; I don’t feel guilty recommending Drood and then telling you I was disappointed in the last few chapters because the journey there is such a fun ride. Then again, you might actually love the outcome and feel it ties up all the loose ends in a satisfactory way. In my view, the ends do indeed get tied up, but it’s the definition of “satisfactory” that’s really in question here.
Read Drood if you’re a fan of Dickens, a fan of Dan Simmons, a devotee of horror stories, or a voyeur. Read it if you’re not easily grossed-out, if you have a long attention span, or if you always wondered what perversions extremely wealthy people get up to. Or read it if you are any combination of these. Just don’t slip a disc taking it out to your car.
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Black Gate Magazine #14