Drood by Dan Simmons

As he travels home to England, Charles Dickens is caught in a terrible train accident, in which his is the only carriage that makes it to safety. While he attempts to help the dying and wounded, he makes the acquaintance of the mysterious and horribly disfigured Drood. So begins an obsession that occupies the remaining few years of Dickens’ life. Who or what is Drood? Throw in the idea that this story is narrated by Wilkie Collins, sometime participant, sometime bystander in Dickens’ adventure, and the book was very tempting.

And alas, so far, is very disappointing. Bit of a drawback having Collins as your narrator if you aren’t nearly as good a writer as Collins. Fair enough trying to get around that by skipping the whole Victorian pastiche angle. But then, you can’t have it both ways and have your faux Collins addressing ‘Dear Reader’ with repeated mention of the fact that the reader is 100 or so years in the future, plus heavy-handed attempts at wondering what life will be like then.

Also, can we assume that a reader interested in a book titled Drood is going to have a passing knowledge of at least Dickens, and therefore Victorian London, and we all know about the rivers of sewage, the Great Stink, and other ‘Top 10 facts everyone should know about Victorian London.’ All right, all right, you’ve done your research, can we get on with the plot already? No? Ok, I’d love another para on Bazalgette.

You may have gathered I’m not enjoying this book. Here’s why:

“The catacombs,” said Dickens. “The ancient underground spaces of a monastery crypt. The Roman loculi before that, even deeper here, almost certainly beneath the Christian catacombs. 

I did not choose to ask what “loculi’ meant. I had the sense that I would learn its dark etymology soon enough.

Excellent, Dan, thanks for defining ‘catacombs’ for me. Thank the gods I won’t be kept in too much suspense about the meaning of ‘loculi’.

 

“…Do you remember the fate of Lord Lucan?”

I stopped by a lamp post and tapped the paving stones with my stick. “Lord Lucan? The Radical M.P. who was found murdered years ago?”

“Horribly murdered,” agreed Inspector Field. “His heart ripped out of his chest as he was staying alone at his estate – Wisetone, it was called – in Hertfordshire, near Stevenage. This was in 1846. Lord Lucan was a friend of your literary acquaintance and Mr Dickens’s old friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lord Lytton, and Lord Lucan’s estate lay only three miles from  Lord Lytton’s own Knebworth Castle.”

Well, blow me down, look at the all info crammed into that little exchange. Research, you know, it can’t go to waste. So tell me, Dan, what was Lord Lucan’s shoe size, and the name of his mother’s childhood pet? 

Dolby was an energetic and skilful talker, despite a stammer that disappeared only when he was imitating other people (which he did frequently). His stories centred on theatrical gossip and, except for the slight stammer when he was speaking of himself, were told with almost perfect theatrical emphasis and timing…

I don’t know about you but I think I’ve gathered from the subtext that this guy has a stammer when talking about himself.

Collins’ role in the book, as well as that of narrator, is to be very stupid so that the brighter bulbs can explain the bloody obvious to him.

“Didn’t you see the candle flame flicker, Wilkie?”

If I had, it hadn’t registered…

… “Did you think them dead, Wilkie?” the author whispered.

“Are they not?”

“Did you not see the opium pipes?” he asked softly.

I had not. I did now.


“Did you not smell the opium?”

I had not but I did now. 

And he takes a lot of laudanum, which he goes on about endlessly. Just in case we’re in any doubt, though:

Please understand, Dear Reader of my posthumous future, that everyone in my day uses laudanum. Or almost everyone. … I remember the poet Coleridge, a close friend of my parents, weeping at our home because of his dependency on opium… But also, as I have reminded the few friends who had the bad manners to become censorious about my own dependency on this important medication, Sir Walter Scott used great quantities of laudanum while writing The Bride of Lammermoor, while such contemporaries of Dickens’s and mine as our close friends Bulwer-Lytton and De Quincy use far greater quantities than I.

The above passage actually precedes the one in which Collins is informed that Bulwer-Lytton’s home is Knebworth. Perhaps in his laudanum-addled state he had forgotten. Good of him to drop in that Coleridge was a poet, though, just in case I get him confused with, um, that other Coleridge who isn’t a poet?

Anyway. This book is 771 pages very long. I’m on page 259. Do I really have to read the rest? Does anyone else want it? I’ll send it.