Reviewed by Bob Hussey
On June 9, 1865, Charles Dickens was returning from a trip to Paris, traveling by train from Folkestone to London. As the train approached the river Beult near Staplehurst, the rail viaduct spanning the river collapsed. Incredibly, the engine was able to jump the 45-foot gap between the rails, but six of seven private passenger cars fell to the swampy riverbed below. Dickens was seated in the one private car that was spared. Descending to the crash victims, the great English writer witnessed scenes of death and carnage that would haunt him for the remaining five years of his life.
What happened to Dickens after Staplehurst is the subject of Dan Simmons's new novel, Drood, a work that is equal parts historical fiction, horror, and mystery. Simmons has never felt bound to any particular genre, publishing award-winning works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime fiction, and literary fiction over the last two decades. He is perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed four-volume space opera Hyperion Cantos, the first volume of which won the prestigious Hugo Award, science fiction's equivalent of the Pulitzer. More recently, Simmons has been drawn to historical fiction, with added elements of horror. In 2007's The Terror, for example, he recounts the struggles of the doomed Franklin expedition, which was lost attempting to force the Northwest Passage in 1845. Though the fate of the crew was never determined, Simmons imagines the sailors being devoured by a mysterious beast straight from the pages of Inuit mythology.
Simmons's inspiration for Drood is an unfinished manuscript, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that Dickens was unable to complete before his death on June 9, 1870 -- exactly five years to the day after the Staplehurst incident. Simmons traces the manuscript's origins back to the rail accident, imagining Dickens encountering a ghostly specter named Drood, a tall, thin man in a black cape gliding among the dead and dying in the train's wreckage. After recovering from the accident, Dickens becomes obsessed with learning the true identity of Drood and drags his close friend and sometimes collaborator, Wilkie Collins, down into London's Undertown, Drood's supposed hideout.
Though a novel, Drood reads at times like a confessional memoir written by Collins, who really did collaborate with Dickens on several works and achieved some fame as a writer during his lifetime. Collins proves an unreliable narrator because of a severe opium addiction, as well as the jealousy and envy he harbors towards the more celebrated Dickens. As Collins's addiction grows worse, the reader is knocked off balance, never sure until the end of the story whether Drood is real, a figment of Dickens's imagination, or a hallucination brought on by the narrator's opium use.
Through the voice of Collins, Simmons has managed to write a 19th-century novel for the 21st-century reader, avoiding the formal prose or tedious digressions that characterize so many works of that era. He accurately evokes Victorian England, placing the reader in the audience for one of Dickens's famous readings, walking London's putrid back alleys during a hot July day, or exploring the city's underground maze of sewers, opium dens, and Roman crypts that constitute Drood's lair. Though the story runs long, more than 770 pages, and slows up in spots, particularly when Dickens is away on a reading tour in America, a twist ending awaits the reader who successfully navigates the mysterious labyrinth of Drood.
Books mentioned in this post