Dan Simmons

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(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky FEB 18, 2009)

"This is how all of us writers give away the days and years and decades of our lives exchange for stacks of paper with scratches and squiggles on them....And what price would we writers pay for that one extra day spent with those we ignored while we were locked away scratching and squggling in our arrogant years of solipsistic isolation? Would we trade those pages for a single hour? Or all of our books for one real minute?"


Drood, by Dan Simmons, is narrated by Wilkie Collins. He was a famous author in his own right as well as a longtime acquaintance of Charles Dickens with whom he collaborated on various literary projects. Collins begins his strange tale in dramatic fashion. He describes a catastrophic train accident that took place on June 9, 1865. The locomotive in which fifty-three year old Charles Dickens and his young mistress, Ellen Ternan, were returning from France encountered an unexpected gap in the rails and six first-class coaches hurtled down to the chasm below. Dickens and his party were fortunate in that their carriage dangled over the side of the bridge but stayed aloft; he, Ternan, and her mother escaped relatively unscathed except for the obvious emotional trauma that they suffered. One of the weirdest anecdotes that Dickens later recounted is that while he did his best to soothe the dying and help the survivors, he encountered a shadowy figure who identified himself as "Drood." This specter was "cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale." Instead of a nose, he had "mere black slits opening into the grub-white face" as well as "small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart..." He had three missing fingers, pale eyes in sunken sockets with no eyelids, and spoke in a spooky and sibilant whisper. Drood, dressed in a heavy black opera cape, made his way among the injured, but what exactly was this malevolent-looking individual up to on that fateful day?

This is one of many mysteries that Simmons explores in this well-researched novel of psychological suspense and horror. Collins is an unreliable narrator, because although he considers himself to be in Dickens's inner circle, he is pathologically jealous of his friend's success and popularity. He gleefully criticizes Dickens's cruel treatment of his wife, Catherine, his arrogance and self-centeredness, and his condescension to those whom he considered to be his inferiors (Collins, among them). Ironically, what Collins fails to do is scrutinize his own less than sterling behavior towards the two women in his life, or try to reduce his ever-increasing dependence on his "medicine" (laudanum) that he take in mega doses to relieve the excruciating pain that he claims stems from "rheumatical gout."

Drood takes the reader down a number of byways, as Simmons explores both the subterranean recesses of the human mind and the possible existence of a supernatural and murderous cult whose members are killing and mutilating people throughout London. Unfortunately, in his more than seven-hundred page tome, the author tries to cover too much ground. He examines every aspect of Charles Dickens's life from his written works, romances, family ties, passion for social reform, and fascination with mesmerism to his famous and lucrative readings before audiences in both England and America. In addition, there is a subplot in which Collins makes a pact with a private enquiry agent named Field who wants him to pass on whatever information he can glean from Dickens about Drood. Field believes that Drood is a criminal mastermind and the agent will do anything to flush him out and destroy him.

Does Drood really exist, and if so, what does he want and how does he plan to achieve his goals? While these and other puzzles linger in the background, Simmons introduces dozens of characters, including actors, physicians, opium sellers, slum dwellers, mistresses, servants, relatives and hangers-on of the "Inimitable" (Dickens), a creepy gravedigger, Wilkie's doppelganger, and even, briefly, Queen Victoria.

Is this a gothic tale of suspense, an imaginative history of Dickens's final days and his unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, an examination of the professional rivalry between two scribes, a look at the pitfalls of male/female relationships, an account of a drug addict's descent into madness, or all of the above? It is difficult to pinpoint what Simmons was aiming for in writing Drood, a narrative in which the line between fiction and reality is deliberately blurred. To the author's credit, he does capture the atmosphere of the Victorian era as well as the desperation that many writers must feel when they realize that they are only as good as their next work. The pressure to produce, to be true to one's vision but also to please one's audience, must be unbearably great. As a thriller, Drood is more bewildering than entertaining. It meanders along to an anticlimactic resolution that fails to reward the tenacious reader. The supernatural elements detract from rather than enhance a story that could have been just as fascinating had it focused on the genuine problems that both Dickens and Collins faced. Both men tried, not always successfully, to deal with troubling difficulties in their personal lives while maintaining their exalted position as first class writers.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 189 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hyperion Cantos:

Illiad Series:

Other Novels:

Joe Kurtz Series:


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About the Author:

Dan SimmonsDan Simmons was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1948 and grew up in various cities and small towns in the Midwest. Dan received a B.A. in English from Wabash College in 1970, winning a national Phi Beta Kappa Award during his senior year for excellence in fiction, journalism and art. Dan received his Masters in Education from Washington University in St. Louis in 1971. He then worked in elementary education for 18 years, the last 14 of which were in Colorado.

Dan has been a full-time writer since 1987. He is one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction . His books are published in 27 foreign counties as well as the U.S. and Canada. Research for his books has taken him to India, Transylvania, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Hawaii and Peoria, Illinois. Hyperion won the Hugo award in 1990. The Rise of Endymion was nominated for the 1998 Hugo.

He lives in Colorado along the front range of the Rockies. When he's not at work writing, he enjoys camping, hiking, reading, art and music.

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