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Dickens’ backstabbing best friend explores London’s underworld

Drood by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown & Company, 2009. 775 pages.

I must admit, I’ve never been much of a Charles Dickens fan. Other than watching those wonderful film adaptations (“Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”), I have only read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. All of that melodrama and sentimentality threatens my diabetes. Nevertheless, Wikipedia tells me that in addition to being the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, Dickens remains one of the most popular writers in the English language. His 15 most notable works have never gone out of print. Perhaps I should at least add Bleak House and David Copperfield to my “to read” list.

However, thanks to novels like Isabel Zuber’s Salt and Jeff Rackam’s The Rag and Bone Shop, I have developed something of an obsession with Dickens’ private life. His divorce, his marriage to his wife’s sister and his life-long affair with the actress Ellen Ternan shocked many of his peers, but had no effect on his popularity as a writer, playwright and actor. I have always been fascinated by Dickens’ life-long friendship with William Wilkie Collins, one of the most bizarre “personalities” of the Victorian period — a mentally unstable laudanum addict (many Victorians were addicted since doctors readily prescribed the drug for migraines and rheumatism). Wilkie Collins frequently corroborated with Dickens on numerous highly successful publications and theatrical productions. Unfortunately, Wilkie also suffered from a massive case of envy. One of his biographers noted that “in the great constellations of 19th century literature, Dickens’ shone like the sun;” by comparison, poor Collins, a writer of supernatural tales and detective fiction, “glimmered like a pale and distant star.” The accolades and honors bestowed on Dickens were a lifelong thorn in poor Wilkie’s side, and eventually, the minor writer began to resent and finally, to hate his best friend.

What does all of this have to do with Dan Simmons, who is noted for epic treks into the realms of horror (The Terror, Olympus, Summer Night)? The link is Dickens’ unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This strange, fragmented tale has fascinated writers and playwrights for over a century. Since Dickens’ death, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to complete it (including a recent musical). Simmons’ Drood not only delves into the mystery behind Dickens’ last work (and his private life) — it also uncovers a fanciful abyss of evil that once thrived in the “lower depths” of London. Perhaps it still does.

In the opening of the novel, Simmons’ narrator, William Wilkie Collins, announces that although he has written the manuscript, Drood, which he claims to have completed in 1889, he has postponed its publication for 120 years — until 2009. This “precaution,” says Wilkie, means that all of the novel’s hapless characters will not be harmed by (or held accountable for) the author’s revelations.

However, before the reader progresses very far in this “Grand Guignol” of a tale, it becomes evident that the narrator of Drood is not a trustworthy reporter. Wilkie not only lies frequently, he has difficulty in perceiving the difference between fantasy and reality. In addition to being bitter, devious, sensual, arrogant and cowardly, he suffers from lurid and terrifying hallucinations. (He is also an oddly appealing character.)

Did he and Charles Dickens really find an entrance to a place called “Undertown,” where legions of thieves, drug addicts and homeless children exist in unimaginable squalor? Somewhere in those labyrinthine depths, did they really meet a near-supernatural creature named Drood, an Egyptian magician and mesmerist who has legions of fanatical followers and plans to establish a dark kingdom on Earth (with the unwitting assistance of Dickens and Wilkie)? And finally, is it possible that Wilkie’s terrifying descent into a Victorian Inferno complete with putrid rivers, murderous oriental thugs and cannibalistic children is either an opium dream or a hypnotic trance ... or both?

Drood is a cunningly constructed tale that has been “surgically implanted” into Victorian London like an alien heart. Historic personages, as well as colorful characters from Dickens’ novels move effortlessly from a vibrantly “real” London into Simmons’ fabricated land of darkness and terror. It is difficult to find a clearly marked boundary between the two worlds since the interface appears to be seamless.

The most exciting sections of Drood evoke a wondrous era in which the arts thrived. Thousands of patrons packed lecture halls in English (and American) cities to hear Dickens lecture, act or read from his own works. In the 19th century, the English theater enjoyed a kind of Renaissance in which actors and writers became outrageously wealthy and powerful (Several Victorian playwrights actually “rewrote” Shakespeare’s tragedies as comedies!). The privileged classes ate, drank and reveled in sumptuous decadence. (One of Dickens’ admirers actually purchased a Swiss chalet and had it transported and reassembled on Dickens’ property – a birthday present). And yet, according to Wilkie, just beneath those cobbled streets or under the hundreds of London’s evil-smelling cemeteries, the legions of darkness were waiting.

I have simplified Drood’s plot out of necessity. Wilkie Collins’ character is much too complex to discuss here. Suffice it to say that I will never forget his “doppelganger” that visits him at night; or the green-skinned woman with yellow tusks who sometimes attacks him as he goes up the stairs to his bedroom; or the unspeakable horror that shuffles up and down a dark, locked stairway in his home. Space limitations make it impossible to talk about a host of bizarre characters that become Collins’ companions in his quest for Drood. Finally, I haven’t mentioned Collins’ plans to murder his best friend, Charles Dickens ... or his Faustian pact with Drood.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to mention a link between Simmons’ previous work The Terror and his new novel, Drood. The latter opens with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins celebrating the success of their latest play, “The Frozen Deep,” which is a dramatic account of a lost expedition to Antarctica. Yes, their play is a dramatic enactment of The Terror’s doomed “Franklin crew” — the expedition that allegedly perished due to cannibalism and starvation, just a few years prior to the play’s premiere.

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