1/8/2010. Contributed by Ewan Angus
pub: Quercus Publishing Plc. 773 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84724-795-7.
check out website: www.quercusbooks.co.uk
Some books have a cast that makes you feel like you are with old friends. Some books have a cast that makes you feel like you don't mind their company. Some books have a cast that make you want to drink absinthe and arsenic whilst drowning in a cold bath. Contrarily, some books have a cast who just downright piss you off. This book however meshes the above. It eschewers any preconceptions of like and dislike. In short, I have no idea what to feel about the characters in this book.
On one hand, that's a good thing as it has kept me thinking since the sigh I let out as I finished the book. Whereas, on the other hand, it has made me feel like this has been a waste of my time and I wish that I had done something more interesting.
'Drood' is a novel of sizeable length that follows Wilkie Collins and the honourable Charles Dickens in their search for the enigmatic and twisted Drood. It takes the reader through the eerie gas-lit streets of Victorian London, through Egyptian cults and through mesmeric magic and the imagination of both writers. Yet I still found myself bored for most of it.
As it is set in Victorian London, it also touches briefly upon the Egyptian cult angle that every single Victorian fantasy book feels compelled to take. It works well elsewhere and it could work here, but it just never really takes off. The plot follows Dickens, who is involved in the Staplehurst rail crash, a vicious railway disaster which took place outside of London in 1865, killing ten and injuring forty. He finds himself helping the injured and, whilst administering aid, comes across a ghostly figure who seems to have no nose or eyelids and wears a top hat. This figure hisses his greetings to Dickens and introduces himself as Drood. Or did he?
Told by an unreliable narrator, the ever wasted Collins, it is filled with paranoid ramblings and the general dislike of being second best to Charles Dickens. Whilst this in itself is a clever angle, it just gets boring after a while.
Then, throughout the majority of the novel, Collins decides Dickens must die. It's a vague thing, brought about through his own insanity caused by his years of excessive drug abuse.
For that is one of the main aspects of the novel, Dickens' seeming obsession with this occult figure and Collins' subsequent addiction and loss of grip on reality merging with the occult delusions of 'A Christmas Carol' author.
Another theme that weighs heavily on the plot is drug abuse. Laudanum, the opiate used for medicinal purposes, may be the main enemy in this as it ensnares Collins and slowly ruptures his sanity. Again, the ambiguous aspects of the novel are added to by the inclusion of the drug. It blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, a difficult thing to distinguish in a novel about two famous authors.
Then there is the inclusion of the social lives of Dickens and Collins. There is an absolute wealth of stuff going on. Collins' two lovers and his brother's suspected homosexuality. The unhappiness of Dickens' children, his failed marriage and affair with Ellen Ternan, a woman twenty-seven years his junior, not to mention the suspected still-born child between Ternan and Dickens AND a whole load about his health. So whilst it never quite reaches the pinnacles of suspense and fantastic that it should, it is clearly a labour of love by the author. One in which that author has contributed a great deal of research and work. For that I applaud Simmons. It is unfortunate, however, that this detracts heavily from the plot involving the mysterious Drood. It's left to your discretion whether or not the character even exists. Is he human, monster or illusion?
The suspense is never really at the fore and, unfortunately, I couldn't find myself caring about Collins. His selfishness, whilst audacious for Victorian Britain, never really gave him much depth as a character. It was the same for Dickens, a character who is absolutely one hundred percent rooting for himself. In fact, everyone in this novel is self-centred.
Although this is seen as a fantasy novel, I would say it sits teetering on the cusp, it's actually more a characterisation piece or a secret history, similar to Tim Powers in that it deals with a fantastic version of real events but without the sweeping prose, the loveable characters and the suspense.
Throughout the novel, I wanted to like it. I did, but I found my attention rarely continued past twenty pages which one would list as a disadvantage in a book of this size. It's a daunting read and one that lacks any real pay-off. You know Dickens and Collins will die, that is a fact, but it just seems that after writing so much Simmons became bored and tried to tie it up as quickly as possible. Guillermo Del Toro has a film adaptation in the pipelines and it will be interesting to see where he goes with it. Will he take it down the fantasy route without the back-story that bogged it down? Will he include the hefty drug abuse? We'll see.
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