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Charles Dickens and the Man with No Scalp

By Miscellaneous | Books | June 17, 2009 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | June 17, 2009 |

Let me get something out of the way. Drood is long. REALLY long. The narrator has a tendency to ramble, and many think the story would benefit from losing a few hundred pages. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved every bit of this big behemoth.

For those unfamiliar with Dan Simmons, he is perhaps best known for The Terror, which recounts the doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. (Quick sidenote: I can’t recommend The Terror enough. The Terror is downright amazing and utterly impossible to put down. Simmons’ meticulous research is clear, and while he injects a supernatural element to the tale, I was equally fascinated by the life of the crew as they fought to survive while frozen in the pack ice for three years.)

As soon as I learned of his latest novel, Drood, I knew I was in for a similar treat. This time, Simmons turns his well-researched eye to those famous frenemies, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Mr. Billy Wilkie Collins (author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone) is our esteemed narrator, and a more entertaining narrator — if not a more reliable one — couldn’t be found. Unfortunately for Collins, he suffers from a variety of ailments, not the least of them being his addiction to opium.

Just as in The Terror, Drood centers on a real-life event that Simmons then meticulously explores, adding a supernatural twist along the way. The event in question is the Staplehurst rail crash of June 1865, which Dickens survived. On this day, the first seven carriages of the Staplehurst train plunged off a bridge — only the carriage in which Dickens was riding was safe. Dickens, who aided the wounded and dying immediately after the accident, was never the same and would suffer debilitating anxiety attacks as a result of witnessing such suffering. In Drood, Simmons describes how “Dickens watched a man stagger towards him, arms outstretched as if for a welcoming hug. The top of the man’s skull had been torn off rather the way one would crack an eggshell with a spoon in preparation for breakfast.”

Simmons uses the Staplehurst accident as the backbone of Drood, injecting the spectral figure of Drood himself into the wreckage of the crash. Who — or what — is this Drood? What does he want? I could tell you, Dear Reader, but you’ll have much more fun if you find out for yourself.

Intertwined with the ghastly Drood who first appears to Dickens during the Staplehurst carnage is The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens final (and unfinished) novel. In Simmons’ world, much of Edwin Drood is influenced by the aftershocks of the Staplehurst crash. Dickens and Collins, seeking to understand the true nature of Drood, descend into the depths of London, combing the sewers and catacombs beneath the city. Of course, they find much more than they bargained for, as a subterranean world of both natural and supernatural horrors await them. But which horrors are real, and which are imagined? Which are the product of Collins’ opium delirium? How many affected by memory? (Collins narrates these events many years after they’ve happened.) Simmons forces his readers to consider what is real and what is illusion just as he entertains them with thrills and chills galore.

Much like the underground explored by Dickens and Collins, the plot of Drood is labyrinthine and multi-layered. As in The Terror, Simmons has clearly researched his subjects, and this research shows in every scene. While some found such information heavy and unnecessary, I found this information captivating and enjoyed these digressions.

Still, I acknowledge that Collins can be a frustrating narrator at times, even if I found him entertaining. He exaggerates, he digresses, he repeats himself, he recounts information that is not necessary to the matter at hand. Despite these qualities, I finished the 784th page feeling as though I’d only read half that amount. While many scenes may not be necessary to understanding the mystery that is Drood, I found every single page worth reading. is an unforgettable, spellbinding experience.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

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