by Dan Simmons
Dickens -- The Dark Years
A review by Doug Brown
On June 9, 1865, Charles Dickens, along with his mistress and her mother, survived a famous railway disaster at Staplehurst, England. He was deeply affected by the experience, even mentioning the disaster in a postscript to Our Mutual Friend, the novel he was writing at the time, and the last novel he ever completed. Near the end of his life he was working on a serialized murder mystery called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he died before finishing the work -- exactly five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash. Dickens had a friend and collaborator in Wilkie Collins, a fellow successful author (The Moonstone, The Woman in White). Collins was an opium addict due to pain from gout, suffered from hallucinations, and became convinced that he had a doppelganger that he referred to as "Ghost Wilkie." These are the facts. With Drood, Dan Simmons, in the great tradition of historical speculative fiction, has woven a story with these facts that begins with the crash and ends on the day of Dickens's death.
Drood is told from the point of view of Collins, who is thought to have created the detective genre in his serialized novel The Moonstone, the writing of which is also included in Drood. Simmons takes elements of both writers' works and creates a world in which the two were writing thinly fictionalized accounts of real events. Mesmerism, opium addiction, ancient Egyptian cults, criminal undergrounds, and more are to be found. Dickens tells Collins about a spectral figure named Drood that he saw in the wreckage of the crash, moving from person to person, seemingly taking their lives. Is Dickens under Drood's influence? Is Collins being controlled by Drood via a scarab in his brain? Does Drood simply want his autobiography written, or does he have a darker purpose? Is Collins imagining things due to his opium intake? Does Drood even exist?
Simmons is one of the few writers who can move comfortably between genres; his science fiction books Hyperion and the sequel The Fall of Hyperion are highly recommended. His first horror book, Summer of Night, was praised by Stephen King, and contains many of the lost-youth themes found in King's work. Drood is more thriller than horror, as we don't find out until the end what is real and what isn't. Simmons clearly immersed himself in the works of both Dickens and Collins, as well as the social history of their time. The result is a richly envisioned world where both writers are real people with faults and gifts. Drood is a good psychological thriller inside a densely researched work of historical fiction, with a bitter dark-chocolate horror frosting. Bon appétit.