Sunday, March 29, 2009

Drood by Dan Simmons

Despite being nearly 800 pages in length this Victorian tale of horror and professional jealousy entertains and enthralls from the first page to the last. The narrator of this strange and twisted tale is novelist Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, etc.) a vain, conceited, and peevish man caught in the stranglehold of laudanum and morphine addiction and perpetually tangled financial, professional, and amorous affairs (he maintains two different households with two mistresses). But the primary focus of the story is acclaimed and beloved novelist Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol etc.) with whom Collins has a Mozart and Salieri type relationship that is at once a friendship and a rivalry despite many instances of professional collaboration on various literary and theatrical projects.
In 1865 while traveling with his mistress (actress Ellen Ternan) and her mother, Dickens' train derails at Staplehurt. While attending to the wounded and dying, Dickens encounters a ghoulish, cadaverous man of mystery known only as Drood who will eventually provide the inspiration for Dickens' last and uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Throughout this lengthy novel one continuously wonders whether Drood is indeed real or a figment of the imagination or, even more sinister, mesmerism being such a dominant theme in the novel, a figure implanted in the mind by hypnotic suggestion. As the novel progresses we learn Drood's history, he is the half-caste son of an Egyptian mother and an English nobleman, brought up in Egypt before he emigrates to London, deeply imbued with the magic and religious beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians, including worship of Osiris and the many animal-headed gods and goddesses, a master occultist, mesmerist, and a criminal mastermind who rules over a Victorian underworld that makes the Whitechapel of Jack the Ripper seem tame, with thousands of vile and violent underlings and minions to do his bidding. He is even said, by a Drood-obsessed former police inspector, to be responsible for more than 300 murders.
As the story unfolds over the course of five years, we watch the two principal characters, Dickens and Collins, deteroriate and sink deeper into madness, jealousy, and ill-health under the quagmire of their own personal failings, vanities, addictions, career pressures, and their joint obsession with the mysterious Drood. On the whole, it is a fascinating tale and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the subject matter who is not intimidated by thick novels.