Friday, 20 February 2009

Simmons On Dickens

The words "fiction" and "history" both appeared for my previous review. Wha...?

I could not - at the time - comment on this book under my real name; I'd written about Simmon's other book, the similarly brick-like The Terror. So no comparisons with this latest offering, which I thought was a bit better. Only a bit.

Fiction and history

first published in The Star, 20 February 2009

Did you know that Charles Dickens worked as a law office clerk and journalist before writing the stories that made him a household name? It explains works like Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Bleak House – as a clerk, he saw just how hard it was for the poor in Victorian England to seek justice. These stories highlighted the conditions the poor had to endure during those times.

Old Charlie's life deserves novelisation as well: he had a hard early life, a rocky road to fame, and a tragic decline following a train accident.

The train crash occurred at Staplehurst in Kent, England, on June 9, 1865. Ten passengers were killed and 40 injured. Dickens, who was not injured, was commended for his efforts to help his fellow passengers. It was rumoured, however, that the author didn't want to testify about the crash because his alleged mistress, Ellen Ternan, was travelling with him. He was never the same after the crash, and died five years to the day after the accident. (Some information sourced from Wikipedia.)

When he died on June 9, 1870, he left behind an unfinished murder mystery, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some authors have attempted to provide their own endings for the story, and it was even made into a film several times (in 1909, 1914, 1935, and 1993).

Dan Simmon's approach to Edwin Drood is quite unique: it is Dickens who's under the spotlight in this mystery/sci-fi thriller called, simply, Drood.

The story begins with the events prior to the Staplehurst crash and is narrated by real-life English playwright and novelist William Wilkie Collins, generally considered as Dickens' friend and collaborator, and author of works such as The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

In Drood, however, Simmons casts Collins as Dickens' "Salieri-type rival" (Antonio Salieri was an 18th century Italian composer who envied the more-talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). In a similar way, Simmons' Collins feels that his own achievements were eclipsed by Dickens' genius.

After returning from Staplehurst, Dickens tells Collins what transpired: his attempts to rescue and care for the survivors, and his encounter with a cloaked apparition who called himself "Drood". From this point the tale veers towards the supernatural, as Collins begins his investigation into this Drood character.

I suspect that it's more about digging up dirt on Dickens rather than any expression of concern for Dicken's personal well-being. Collins also begins questioning his friend's mental health after learning about his mentor's interest in mesmerism (or hypnotism) and corpse disposal techniques.

Is the mysterious Drood just a figment of Dicken's disturbed psyche or is he real – and dangerous? As he has done before, Simmons weaves fiction and history together by including the characters in Dicken's unfinished Edwin Drood (such as John Jasper and Princess Puffer) and real-life figures from Dickens' era, in Drood.

But the novel doesn't completely answer one question: whether Drood himself was real, or if Collins had made it all up, producing a fantastic tale of ancient Egyptian death cults in Victorian London out of his addiction to laudanum, an opium-based drug (the historical Collins suffered from a kind of arthritis that hurt so badly, he took laudanum for it). In certain passages he sounds rather ... high. And low.

There's quite a bit in Drood that reminds me of Simmons' previous work, The Terror, a historical fiction based on the British expedition to find the North-West Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean. There is a nod to this in Drood: Dickens also wrote plays, and one of them, The Frozen Deep, is about this expedition. Ellen Ternan supposedly starred in a version of this play. Drood also mentions Dickens' other jobs: publisher, editor, and contributor to journals Household Words and All The Year Round. History and literature buffs (and maybe Simmons fans) may appreciate the inclusions of these little details.

Simmons is good with atmosphere, backdrops, and such, but like his previous works, he also likes going back and forth between the past and the present. Novels that use this device demand your focus and attention – blink and you'll miss the connections.

The narration is believable – to me it sounded like Collins talking. When one considers that The Moonstone was seen as the precursor to the English detective novel, it makes perfect sense to have Collins narrate the story. This portrayal of Collins is a bit unsettling, though; the resentment he feels for Dickens in Drood drips from the pages.

Still, I feel Drood would be just fine as an olde English mystery and thriller without all that mythological hocus-pocus. Simmons may have a reputation as an award-winning sci-fi author (with one Hugo Award, three Locus Awards, and a World Fantasy Award under his belt), but I'm sure it wouldn't it kill him to write something less sci-fi once in a while.

Dan Simmons
773 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-03685-6


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