Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
Let me start out by first saying that I’m a big, big fan of the novels by Dan Simmons and have been for over a decade. I think his book, The Terror, was one of the finest horror/historical novels ever written, and I was hoping for more of the same with Drood. Unfortunately for me, Drood proved to be somewhat boring during the last half. It’s nearly eight hundred pages long, and the blasted thing took me a solid month to read. I almost stopped several times during the course of those four weeks. The Terror, on the other hand, is nearly a thousand pages in length; yet, I read it in eight days, which pretty much says it all.
Drood deals with the last five years of Charles Dickens’ life as told by his one-time friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins, the author of Moonstone. In 1865, Dickens was in a terrible train accident that left dozens of people dead or injured. As the great English author was helping those still alive, he encountered another passenger named Edwin Drood, whose appearance would be enough to give children nightmares for the rest of their lives. While Dickens is attempting to give comfort to other passengers, Drood appears to be sucking the life right out of the individuals he comes into contact with and brings about their deaths.
The actions and strange physical appearance of Drood begins to haunt the author’s mind after he returns to London and his life of writing, public readings, his family and mistress, and to his close friends in the literary community. In time, Dickens attempts to discover more about Mr. Drood and eventually learns the man is an outcast from Egypt and lives in the catacombs of underground London.
Dickens’ trip through the catacombs with his friend, Wilkie Collins, is one of the most suspenseful and terrifying journeys he has ever traveled and it leaves a definite mark on Wilkie’s psyche. Still, in many ways, this is only the beginning as Dickens makes contact with Drood and then quickly finds himself bound to this unusual person for the last few years of his life. The rest of the story pretty much deals with Collins and how his relationship with Dickens slowly deteriorates over time and how he, too, becomes a victim of Drood’s mesmerizing powers.
Now, that brief synopsis makes the book sound rather interesting, doesn’t it? Yet, the book completely fails to deliver in my opinion. I will say the novel offers a great deal of information on the lives of both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and some readers will certainly that.
I found the descriptions of eighteenth century London and the life of Dickens to be interesting for the first couple of hundred pages, but after passing the halfway mark, the story began to drag, and I was like a kid being led to the dentist’s office every time I had to pick the book up. Why? The main reason is that though Edwin Drood is discussed throughout the book, he only makes a short number of actual appearances, covering less than forty pages of this massive tomb. Also, though Drood is the most intriguing and scary character in the story, the tale seems to center around Wilkie Collins and his growing jealousy of Dickens’ success.
I wanted more of Edwin Drood.
After all, the novel is named Drood, not Wilkie Collins. Instead, what happens is that the reader gets a series of long dissertations on how Charles Dickens spent the last five years of his life doing public readings in England and America, working on his magazine, arguing with Collins over trivial matters, divorcing his wife, visiting his mistress, complaining about his son-in-law, who happens to be Wilkie’s brother, etc., etc., etc. You also have the same experiences being discussed by Wilkie Collins about his own life, but at least they hold your interest for longer periods of time and are occasionally inter-mixed with information about Edwin Drood.
Dan Simmons is one of the best writers today in the field of horror, and when he writes a descriptive horror scene, it will stay in your mind for weeks to come. He does this with about five scenes in the novel: the train wreck at the beginning, the journey of Dickens and Collins through the underground catacombs, the hunt for Drood in the catacombs by Detective Field and his team of a hundred men, the journey through the top floors of several buildings by Collins and Detective Barris, and when Collins goes up the employee’s staircase in his new house and encounters a dangerous ghost.
If there had been more scenes like this in Drood, the novel would’ve reached the excellence of The Terror because Simmons knows to create atmosphere and dread and danger lurking in the dark shadows. This is when the novel flows with an energy that captures you within its solid grasp, holding you prisoner until the scene has ended, lost in a world where death is anxiously awaiting only a few feet away. I couldn’t put the book down during these magnificently written scenes, and Drood is one heavy novel to hold.
I should also note that Mr. Simmons creates many fabulous characters in Drood such as the tough police officer, Hatchery, and private investigators, Field & Barris (though Field may be based on an actual individual), plus the student from the train wreck, Edmond Dickerson, who’s befriended by the famous writer. There’s also King Laazaree, who controls the opium den in the underground part of London; and, of course, the infamous Edwin Drood.
Still, all of these positives weren’t enough to win me over, especially when I finally reached the ending. The final pages of Drood leave the reader hanging out on a limb and not knowing what to believe. Dickens says one thing about Edwin Drood, while Collins believes the opposite. At this point, the real question would probably be–Who cares?
Maybe I was expecting too much from Drood. I don’t know. I certainly wanted to enjoy the entire book and have kept it in my library with the other novels by Mr. Simmons. Let me once again state that whenever Edwin Drood appears within the novel, the books comes alive in the most frightening ways, demonstrating the author’s unique skills at writing horror. I only the whole book had been about Edwin Drood.
Now, if you want to read a truly horrifying story that will leave you awake at night and shivering beneath the bed covers, I would recommend The Terror by Dan Simmons. This is indeed the author at his best!