Drood by Dan Simmons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
“My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess… is that you do not recognize my name…my wager with you, Dear Reader, would be that you have neither read nor heard of any of my books or plays…” So begins the alternately falsely modest and egomaniacal narrator, a fellow author, collaborator, and friend of Charles Dickens. To begin, the fictitious Wilkie summoned up by Dan Simmons is wrong on two counts so far—I recognized his name, and I have heard of a couple of his novels, although I had to look it up to be positive they were written by him, as I haven’t read them; he was right about that much. Yet, a book marketed as a revelation of Dickens’ final years and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, manages to be so much about Wilkie Collins that it is only right that I consider how he is portrayed in this novel, despite my never having read anything about or by him.
The first thing I noticed about this fictionalized first person narrator is that he is extremely redundant. The circumstances of Dickens’ daughter, Kate, marrying Wilkie Collins’ brother were reiterated in five places, with some of exactly the same information presented as though it were new information every time: “[Dickens] had opposed the marriage, had felt that his favourite daughter had married… just to spite him, and obviously had convinced himself that my brother was dying” (25); “Dickens somehow had convinced himself that my brother, Charles, was dying…Katey’s marriage…had upset the author” (144); “the thought of my brother married to his daughter [was] a union of which he never approved” (168); “Dickens did not hide his disapproval of the match” (198). In addition, he goes into further particulars about the circumstances and motivation of Katey on pages 557-58, using the somewhat self-aware phrase, “I may have mentioned previously” (558), to wrap up his completely gratuitous comments. Neither is this the only occurrence of such redundancy; he tells the same anecdote about Coleridge twice with negligible difference, or relevance, on pages 44 and 191; after mentioning that Dickens and Thackeray had a falling out out on page 8, he says that the event “is another story,” and then proceeds to give it without determinable relevance, including two near identical paragraphs, on pages 58 and 197, the latter of which is included in one of the summaries detailing Katey’s disapproved-of marriage to Collins’ brother. There are other instances of more minor repetition, such as providing introductory information twice or three times at subsequent appearances for a character who has already been introduced; but, given the amount of characters mentioned, those extra reminders don’t always go amiss, so I’ll overlook them. I was inclined to attribute this to Dan Simmons’ writing, but then I came across one of Dickens’ critiques of Collins’ writing, stating that he must “always contest [Collins’] disposition to give an audience credit for nothing, which necessarily involves the forcing of points on their attention” (56). So, if Collins’ style is somewhat on-the-nose, that might be why Simmons included so much repetition and telling instead of showing. At one point, Collins’ speaks of having “a strange surge of déjà vu” (565); I had the same feeling reading this entire book.
However, I can’t comfortably chalk all of the repetition up to an attempt at imitating Collins’ style; I think part of it was indeed a subconscious way of Simmons conveying to the reader that he did his homework, particularly some passages detailing the history and state of London and its sewer system on pages 64-65 and 94-95. The latter of these two passages reiterates the former, as well as reading like an encyclopædia entry, complete with dates and figures for completely peripheral, if not irrelevant, information on different burial acts, parliamentary motions, religious burial reform, and London’s population size. In addition, it is clear that Simmons did an inordinate amount of research into Wilkie Collins’ life and habits, not only in order to attempt to imitate Collins’ voice, but in order to delve deep into the man’s personal affairs, fears, addictions, and mental instability. These details are spelled out with greatest care, whether directly pertaining to the plot or not, which gives the lie to the Chapter One claim that this book “shall be about my friend… Charles Dickens and about the Staplehurst accident…about Charles Dickens’ final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—if man he was—named Drood” (3). The book is, in fact, without giving too much away, almost the exact opposite of that. It becomes more and more about Collins, which, while fine as far as it goes, is not what I came to this book for. Collins, in his moments of lucidity as a narrator, says repeatedly on pages 761, 766-67, and 771 that he knows the reader is there for Dickens, not him. But by close to 800 pages, it’s too late to tell the reader that, after spending the huge majority of the preceding hundreds of pages in dwelling on Collins’ personal life and investment in the Drood mystery. Because the Drood mystery—spoiler ahead—turns out to be less connected to Dickens’ trauma after the railway accident than it is to Collins’ opium dependency.
Throughout the novel, there are at least three mentions of Iago, the subordinate of Othello in Shakespeare’s play who pretends to be the faithful friend all while jealously plotting his downfall. (Unfortunately, a quotation from Julius Cæsar, “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” is misapplied as a reference to Iago from Othello, on page 58). By page 124, it becomes painfully obvious that Wilkie Collins sees himself filling the Iago role to Dickens’ Othello, as he considers shooting him dead and leaving the body without any provocation besides a feeling of having his pride hurt and being inconvenienced by Dickens. He states comically late in the narrative that he “now wished [Dickens] dead” (560, emphasis added) as if it were a new development and he hadn’t been considering it over 400 pages ago. There is also a mention of Cain and Abel, with the addition of uncertainty of which one Collins is: “have I been Cain or Abel? I once thought of Charles Dickens as my brother” (768). The story is trying to be one of betrayal in which, instead of Collins’ slowly being driven to betray Dickens, it ends up with Dickens betraying Collins. But how do you actually betray someone who hates you? Because, it is clear, Collins grows to hate Dickens; we got the unprovocated consideration of murder as early as page 124, and then more declarations of hatred going forward: “I hated him” (209) and “I hated the man without reservation” (561). Doesn’t it have to be someone who considers you an ally or friend in order to be a betrayal? Simmons tries to fix this by stating on the second to last page, that Collins loved Dickens. Loved. Loved like he didn’t love either of his longtime mistresses, his children, or the books he had written. Which might have worked, if we had known about it or even gotten an unspoken inkling of it in any of the seven hundred (700) preceding pages. But instead, when I read on page 770, “But, God help me, I loved Dickens,” my immediate reaction was one of violent disagreement and no little degree of scoffing. Throwing that in at the end as some sort of heartbroken admission of a long-denied platonic passion was more than I could take. The revelation fell flat, and deflated the already thin last third of the book even more. What had started as a thrilling supernatural mystery turned into a drawn out exploration of drug induced delusion and growing jealousy and resentment between former friends, so it was clear what the ending revelations about the Collins/Dickens relationship were supposed to be—shocking, devastating, tragic. But it couldn’t play on the tension established by the preceding narrative, because there was absolutely no tension left by the time this bloated, lurching tale limped to its final scenes. Give me Othello any day. Or chapter four of the book of Genesis, while we’re at it.
And what was the thrilling mystery at the beginning that after the half to two-thirds point disintegrated into an obsessive delusion fixating on Dickens? The entire Drood plot steadily falls apart throughout the narrative, after a particularly incredible beginning with a mysterious, supernatural man described as a mix of the Phantom of the Opera, Voldemort, and Gollum appearing to Dickens in the aftermath of the railway wreck: “a tall, thin man wearing a heavy black cape far more appropriate for a night at the opera… shockingly pale, and stared…from dark-shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp. A few strands of greying hair leapt out from the sides of his skull-like visage…the man’s foreshortened nose—‘mere black slits opening into the grub-white face’…small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart” (13). He is even called capital P “Phantom” at one point (49). This spectre haunts Dickens, Wilkie, and a bland Inspector Fields throughout the first half of the book, but by page 275-277, a short passage pretty well undoes all the credibility of Drood actually existing as such. Perhaps the ridiculous description of the principle antagonist “Drood” didn’t convey it clearly enough. (Seriously, how many times is the adjective “pale” used to describe him in only the few lines quoted in the block above? Like the fact of his brow being pale wouldn’t naturally imply that his scalp was pale too without having to repeat the word “pale”? Or calling his face skull-like doesn’t impart visions of paleness? And the excellent visual simile of his being “grub-like” in colour—doesn’t that get it across with so much more power, minus the weak repetition? Again, with the repetition. Now he’s got me repeating myself.) The thrilling scenario laid before us is that of a powerful, half-Egyptian mesmerist and religious fanatic who has discovered the secret of immortality and uses the London underground to spread his ancient Egyptian religion. Drood, leader of a cult, travels to London in a coffin, seeking to spread his insidious mesmerism and convert people. (Is this sounding a bit like a Dracula allusion, too?) The Egyptian cult is—underwhelming. There is a delightfully horrific account of Collins going through the experience of having a live scarab crawl inside him through an open wound and dig into his brain, but that’s the worst it gets. Honestly, it seems he’s felt that bad already just with his rheumatic gout. Mainly, it’s increasingly dull and unnecessarily specific lists of Egyptian gods, their names, occupations, and what-not, with page long chants and paragraph incantations (491-93, 523). It all seems a little “The Egypt Game,” and in the end, none of it means anything. It’s just exoticism. Pure and simple.
Simmons, speaking as Collins, is right when he modestly says something was “as if we were…on the trail of a murderer in a second-rate sensationalist novel. And perhaps we were” (238). Yes, I would definitely rate this book as a “second-rate sensationalist novel.”
View all my reviews
Minor quibbles: the story is a veritable who’s-who of writers from the nineteenth century that would have known or been known of by Dickens and Collins, including William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Hans Christian Anderson, and others, many thrown in for seemingly no other reason than, again, to show off Simmons’ research. Yet there is an author who gets no mention at all, conspicuously absent—Elizabeth Gaskell, admired by Dickens and sometimes contributor to the magazine Household Words, which publication features prominently in Drood. Collins repeatedly speaks about Dickens’ role as editor of the magazine, various technical aspects, deadlines, etc., which would have been an apt time to mention how Dickens got frustrated with Gaskell’s inability to work with a deadline or within a word count. Also, several times the Arabian Nights tales are brought up as a comparison of how fantastic the whole Drood story sounds, which would have been the perfect time to mention how, in real life, Dickens once addressed a letter to Gaskell calling her “Dear Scheherazade” after the supposed narrator of the tales. These two tidbits popped up for me in the first page of a Google search. (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-29442552) How can Simmons’ extensive research have missed her? Or is it supposedly Collins’ omission? I wonder why Simmons didn’t include it, while he was at including every other little biographical reference to other authors he possibly could without them having any pertinence to the plot. Mention of Elizabeth Gaskell is unnecessary to this story, but Poe’s mention was completely superfluous, as was William Blake’s and Hans Christian Anderson’s. So my judgement is, if you’re going to add unnecessary name drops, you might as well do it thoroughly, or leave them all out.
Second minor quibble: I have had little trouble avoiding (what I would consider) major spoilers of the plot and character development in this novel (read: there is no character development), but the same cannot be said for the supposed narrator Wilkie Collins. He summarizes all the acts and characters of his and Dickens’ play, The Frozen Deep, both the plots of his major works, The Woman in White and The Moonstone are various times gone into in great detail, to the point of spoiling the entirety of The Moonstone’s mystery, and the entire plot of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. I don’t honestly care about The Frozen Deep, although it was interesting to know that Dickens’ was involved with writing plays and acting in them, which I was unaware of. And I understand the novel’s events are taking place during Collins’ writing of The Moonstone; but must we get a play-by-play just to reinforce the supposed similarities between it, the novel Drood’s events, and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood? And, most egregious of all, to my mind, do the triumphs of Dickens’ Mutual Friend have to be spelled out down to the most insignificant characters? We get that Collins thinks it’s great, and it is a key moment in the realisation of his obsessive jealousy, but must every point be laboured over so specifically? Spoilers. As one of only three Dickens’ books that I have not yet read, Our Mutual Friend being spoiled for about five straight pages, spanning from 207-212, was an unnecessary insult, added to the injury I already received by being subjected to this dreadful (or should I say “droodful”?) narrative. I confess I skipped the last three pages of that plot summary and analysis, skimming to where I could see they ended. And I hope that The Moonstone isn’t completely spoiled for me, because I’ve been wanting to read it.
A few concessions: several times over the course of the narrative, Collins voices an opinion or review of a particular work of Dickens, and a few of them I low-key agreed with: namely, his opinion of Great Expectations being “a disappointment of a book” (637), and Little Dorrit being a “plotting disaster” (639). I admit to being somewhat disappointed with Great Expectations when I first read it, though I plan to read it again to review my first impression of it. And Little Dorrit was rather convoluted, no denying, and definitely is one of my least favourite Dickens books (so far). So, some points to Collins for not being a complete wash-out as a relatable narrator.
As much as I complained about certain passages reading like encyclopædia entries, and being swamped with proof of Simmons’ good researching skills just for the sake of showing he’d done his research, there are admittedly merits to the obtrusively “historical” elements of the novel. I did appreciate, like I said, the insight into Dickens’ stage career, his reading tours, and some of his personal and family life. But it was barely there, peeking through the megalomaniac narrator’s perceptions, all while he’s claiming, “This was about Dickens and Drood” not “your modest and unworthy narrator” (761). To which I say, “If only that were true.”