In the deep and cold days of winter, when daylight is fleeting and the night seems to stretch on endlessly, the books to which I turn are always those of horror and mystery. From Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories like “The Cask of Amontillado” to H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, I am inexorably drawn to stories fraught with danger, darkness and the machinations of the twisted minds of ingenious villains. This winter, having exhausted my supply of old favorites, I turned to Dan Simmons’ enigmatically entitled work, Drood. I was pleasantly surprised to find the work a beautifully nightmarish combination of slowly building tension and hallucinatory imagery. If you are in search of a long and slow descent into the underbelly of 19th century London with a laudanum-fueled narrator who is swiftly losing his sanity, look no further than Drood.
Drood is a gothic tale of horror and suspense set in mid-19th century England, as the narrator, Dickens’ confidant, colleague and “Salieri-esque rival,” Wilkie Collins, describes the truth behind the final five years of the life of Charles Dickens. The story begins with Dickens’ experience of the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash, an event that both in the story as in reality would change his life forever. As he explains to Collins, it is at the scene of this crash that Dickens meets the ghoulish titular character, Drood. A fascinating and sinister individual, Drood quickly captures the imagination and attention of the protagonists. For the next five years, Dickens and Collins follow Drood into slums and the vast subterranean city below London, watching his dark adventures and striving to discover who or what Drood is. As the reader accompanies the authors on their travels, it becomes clear that Drood is far more devious and dangerous than either man had originally believed, and that neither will escape the story unscathed.
Simmons’ work benefits from his complex and three-dimensional characters, his exhaustive research into the history of both authors and his ability to eliminate the barrier between reality and hallucination. He writes in a style that is a near-perfect imitation of Dickensian literature, and includes brilliant passing references to other compatriots and contemporaries of Dickens and Collins, all of whom are impeccably described. The result is an incredibly rich and detailed setting that truly transports the reader to the very tunnels and pubs that the protagonists frequent.
It is in the creation of his protagonists, however, that Simmons truly shines. Through the character of Collins, Simmons has created the paradigm of the unreliable narrator; Collins’ sanity is constantly warped by his increasing dependency on laudanum and the stress that accompanies his perilous situation. Throughout the story, his feelings of adoration and jealousy for Dickens become increasingly clear, even as his stream of consciousness becomes progressively twisted and strange. Dickens is also a very well-written character, full of pride, creativity and a burning sense of curiosity that condemns him even as it gives him new life.
Though I loved Drood, it was not without faults. First and foremost, the book is too long. The gothic style lends itself to florid and long-winded text, but even by these standards, Simmons is verbose. The plot would be much more well-suited to a work that was far shorter than its current 941-page length.
In sum, Drood is a thoroughly well-crafted work of terrifying fiction. From its gripping beginning to its strange and terrible climax, Collins holds the readers in a suspense that is supplemented by the growing feeling of impending doom and his own growing madness. As Simmons puts it, “This is every writer’s nightmare–the sudden breakdown of meaning in the language that sustains and supports us…”