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Book: Drood

February 17, 2011

Under the dictionary entry for “frenemies,” there should be a photo of Charles Dickens and of Wilkie Collins. Boys, boys, boys! As Dan Simmons tells it, this was a rivalry of epic proportions. And this is all to our benefit. What a fantastic book! And it had better be, for the investment of time it took to get through it on audio!

(I am apparently on a mini-roll with good books lately! What a relief)

I think it took me over two months to listen to this. Possibly longer? Good lord it took me forever. But it was TWENTY-FOUR DISCS. That is a lot of audio. I listened to it almost every morning and almost every evening on my commute, and then also on the weekends if I had driving to do. However, I often wished I had a hard copy of this as well since at times I would have liked to have just kept on with the story well into the night.

If you haven’t yet heard about Drood, here’s the (extremely) short version of the plot: Longtime friends and rivals Charles Dickens and fellow author Wilkie Collins are at first brought closer together and then, farther apart — murderously apart — by an evil man/demon/specter named Drood, whom Charles Dickens may or may not have encountered at the disastrous trainwreck at Staplehurst in 1865. Soon, the evil Egyptian mesmerist master Drood has total control over Dickens and, soon after, Collins. What follows is almost 800 pages of Victorian excess, in every sense of the word. And worth every one.

Written in the wordy style of the period (which I loved — I do love a long descriptive passage), this book includes: evil spirits and apparitions, murderous rivalries, great ambitions, mesmerism, opium dens, putrid London streets, underground cities and Egyptian temples, mind-control using scarab beetles, betrayals, endless Victorian dinners, and of course, the endless collaboration and sparring of two of Victorian England’s best and most well-known authors.

Written from the point of view of Wilkie Collins, this is more a story of friendship, enmity, creative genius, betrayal and madness than of the cloaked-in-shadow character of Drood, but the book was so fantastic that I didn’t mind the tiny itty-bitty spark of disappointment once I realized that. Very quickly I got over it and was swept away into Victoriana.

My favorite parts were either of course the scary Undertown bits (a hidden city under London proper, which also reminded me of London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), where Dickens and Collins explore opium dens, crypts, underground rivers, and Wild Boys; or the delightfully endless descriptions of Victorian London life. I really loved the long passages about Wilkie’s dinners, outings, social calls, house-hunting, management of mistresses, etc. He was such an engaging narrator (although unreliable and possibly going mad) that I didn’t mind the bits that other reviewers have criticized. I enjoyed it all.

It was fun to have read The Moonstone in the middle of this, since of course there are so many overlaps. It was sometimes hard to remind myself that it was not actually Wilkie (let’s call him Wilkie, since, as he points out, everyone else does) writing this book. For instance: the messenger boy Gooseberry shows up in both books, and I wanted to yell, “Aha! I know where he came from!” But then I had to think — did Gooseberry exist first in The Moonstone and then Dan Simmons pulled him for Drood, or did he exist first in the real Wilkie Collins’ life… but then I have to remember, many of the events in Drood did not actually happen. The research was fairly seamlessly inserted into the lengthy book, so it became very easy to just accept it all rather than try to ferret out what was fact and what was fiction.

And clearly Dan Simmons did a mountain of research before writing this. Some passages perhaps were a bit too instructive, but I was really enjoying learning so much about London in the 1860s that I didn’t mind at all. I thoroughly enjoyed the overlaps of The Terror (Dickens and Collins wrote a play about the doomed Franklin expedition, and this play was featured in Drood), The Moonstone, and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. The spinning hypnotic world of Collins’ opium-laced hallucinations and possible madness was, well, mesmerizing. By the end of the book, a more bitter and spiteful narrator you could not imagine, but I laughed out loud at several parts towards the end (and throughout, actually).

Since it took me so long to listen to all of it, I’m sure I’m missing some sort of essential critical points and details, but really I think this book would be most fun to discuss among people who have already read it. If you have, please email me! I would love to discuss.

I don’t have many criticisms, honestly. It was long, but I like that. It was wordy, but I like that too. Wilkie was flat-out crazy sometimes, but what fun to read about. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but I didn’t mind that either since that was a thread throughout the entire book — what is real, and what is not?

Anyway. If you are a fan of Dickens, Collins, Victorian novels or times, or just like a big fat dark novel, you won’t be disappointed with Drood. I loved it. Since I also completely adored The Terror, also by Dan Simmons, I think I have to go back and read some of his other books. Has anyone read Carrion Comfort? I think I want to read that one for RIP this year.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 1:12 am

    I am going to have to get hold of a copy of this. I know I’m going to love it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I would really have liked to include it in a summer school I’m running on biographical fiction this August because it clearly has a lot to discuss in terms of how you approach and blend fact and fiction in this genre, but at 800+ pages it’s too long. I have to ask the people involved to read three books in a week and this simply wouldn’t work. Nevertheless it sounds ideal for the wider reading list.

    • February 18, 2011 7:11 am

      Thanks for commenting! Yeah, it’s too huge for a class, but would be excellent supplemental reading, or for excerpts.

  2. February 18, 2011 3:50 am

    I’m glad you hear you enjoyed this book, I have to admit I had a hard time putting it down and when I did it wasn’t for long! I surely didn’t think I’d come out of it such a fan of Wilke and Dickens but I certainly have.. I am just finishing up a biography of Dickens, and have learned the only bio’s on Wilke are in England..oh well.. I certainly will read Drood again sometime. (I read it about 1 1/2 yrs ago)

    • February 18, 2011 7:14 am

      If I had had it in book form, I”m sure I would have read it extremely quickly and straight through! I loved it. I think Ana at Things Mean A Lot had a Wilkie bio — are they not available here in the US?

      • February 19, 2011 4:00 am

        not that I know of ..i’ve done quite a bit of searching and can’t find any, yet I have heard that there is one or two in England..just not in the US

  3. February 20, 2011 12:10 pm

    This reminds me that I should read some Wilkie Collins! It’s a big hole in my reading experience.

  4. February 24, 2011 4:32 pm

    I see you are a reader like me.I am glad to have found your blog.

    • February 24, 2011 4:58 pm

      Yes! And welcome! I will come check out your blog…

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