Every Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.
This week I’ve started to get excited in anticipation of the new Dan Simmons novel, The Abominable, coming in the autumn. Simmons’ seems to specialise in unlikely combinations and scenarios that really shouldn’t work and indeed they don’t always (despite some good moments, Black Hills felt like a mess of a novel to me) but when they do work, they do so spectacularly. The Terror (his horror tinged re-imagining of John Franklin’s Arctic Expedition) is one of my all time favourite reads, so I was going to post the review I wrote of that this week, but when I came to it, I realised that what I’m really yearning to do is to to reread that whole novel and review it then afresh. So here instead are my thoughts on what Simmons did next...
Published: 2009 by Quercus
My copy: bought in paperback
First read and reviewed by me: October 2010
Memorable quote: “Had I conceived of him in one of my novels I would not have described him as I met him in reality – too strange, too threatening, too physically grotesque for fiction, my dear Wilkie. But in reality, as you well know, such phantom figures do exist. One passes them on the street. One finds them during nocturnal walks through Whitechapel or other parts of London. And often their stories are stranger than anything a mere novelist could devise.”
OK, let’s be clear, Drood is a completely ridiculous and overwrought piece of faux-Victorian Gothic hokum; it’s also unputdownably gripping, brilliantly plotted and tempers its crazed flights of dark fantasy with some impressively heavyweight literary and historical research. In short, although I freely admit this novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know, I adored it – and sustainedly adored it throughout all its mighty 800 pages. I can also understand how Simmons came to write it. There’s something very satisfying about being able to trace the path of a writer’s interest and research, and that process is most apparent here. In his research for his previous, absorbing novel of doomed polar exploration, The Terror, Simmons undoubtedly consulted The Frozen Deep, a play responding to the unknown fate of the Franklin expedition written by Wilkie Collins under the heavy guidance of Charles Dickens. The fascinating – although often strained – friendship and working relationship between these two writers then became the subject of this, Simmons’ next novel, which also speculates (wildly but enjoyably) on the inspiration behind Dickens’ unfinished final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Narrated by Collins, Drood tells the highly fictionalised story of the twilight years of “the Inimitable” Charles Dickens, from his near death experience at the Staplehurst rail disaster to the end of his days. It is at Staplehurst that Dickens first meets a sinister stranger known as “Drood” and as he pursues this shadowy figure he drags his friend Collins into the darkest parts of London, the Bluegate slums, crypts and opium dens as well as the secret avenues of sewer passages beneath them. The cover’s emblazoned recommendation from Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy and a known Lovecraft aficionado) gives a clear indication of the sort of twisty gaslit menace this novel conjures. It all gets a bit B-movie in places but Simmons writes with such panache that I was more than happy to be suckered in.
This isn’t straightforward historical horror, though, the book also takes time to focus on Collins’ stubbornly unconventional life: his writing career and obvious rivalry with Dickens, as well as his relationships with the two mistresses he maintained but steadfastly refused to marry. For some, I can imagine these sorts of digressions would detract from the pace of the overall novel, but for me they added to it. I am a big fan of Wilkie Collins’s work and love a good slab of troubled nineteenth-century social etiquette. In Drood, I felt Collins’ minute and fussy ruminations on dining out at his club, servant troubles, and his often lukewarm critical reception as a writer provided a brilliant foil to the more fantastic elements of the plot. Ultimately, the device that succeeds in enmeshing these two very different modes of narrative is Collins’ unreliability as a narrator. He is an opium addict and becomes increasingly more dependent on and addled by the drug as the story progresses. So as the fantasy and horror at Drood’s murderous power increases, so too do the reader’s doubts that Wilkie Collins is telling the truth. It works brilliantly.
Simmons mostly captures the tone of the period very well, and both Dickens and Collins emerge as hugely convincing personalities, if neither particularly likeable ones. But as a Victorian Literature geek I should probably add, in the interest of fairness, that I was frustrated in places by a few anachronisms and Americanisms creeping in that I’m amazed no editor picked up. Overall, though, this is incredibly well done. If you like your novels big and your historical fiction darkly packed with murder, mesmerism, ghosts and addiction, then this is absolutely the book to which you should treat yourself in good time for Halloween.