Drood by Dan Simmons

I don’t think I like Dan Simmons very much right now. I’ve wasted 6 months+ trying to read this mega novel and while I could see its attraction – the last days of Charles Dickens and his obsession with a character named Drood, narrated from the perspective of his laudanum-ridden friend and enemy Wilkie Collins, I felt no love for any of the characters or felt any plot lines developing to a satisfying end.


The Story

2962842594_cc0b089378_z.jpgOn June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens–at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world and perhaps in the history of the world–hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.  Dickens begins living a dark double life after the accident, tainted by the touch of Drood. He stopped going by train, he took long walks into the London Undergrounds and he started obsessing about corpses and the undead.

The police are also interested in this mysterious character, Drood, who is believed to be Egyptian and who has hundreds, if not thousands, of underlings in the catacombs of London among the poor and the discards of society.

Based on the historical details of Charles Dickens’s life and narrated by Wilkie Collins (Dickens’s friend, frequent collaborator, and Salieri-style secret rival), Drood explores the still-unsolved mysteries of the famous author’s last years and may provide the key to Dickens’s final, unfinished work: The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This book is narrated by Wilkie Collins, who, by his own admission, is a drug addict and even though he says he’s reliable as a narrator, is anything but. He suffers from hallucinations, withdrawal symptoms and is so heavily sedated that he sometimes loses entire days in a haze in bed.

Something I should confess immediately is that I use laudanum and opium regularly as treatment for my physical ailments. In fact, I tend to swig the laudanum like spring water on a hot day, and while I was initially a bit frightened by the opium dens, I soon found them quite inviting. Oh, and my physician was also giving me regular doses of morphine. I admit to using the medicines freely so that the readers will know that I’m still a reliable narrator

No, he’s not. There is a real problem for authors who create unreliable narrators and give them the starring role in a first-person narrative. If everything is filtered through the eyes of a drug addict afflicted by paranoid delusions, then the world the novel presents must be distorted. That means any and all historical infodumps become very problematic. (source)

He’s also jealous of Charles Dickens who is like a “rockstar” in those days – of his family, of his talent, of his money. Charles Dickens is probably aware of Wilkie’s not-so-hidden jealousy but he keeps him around as some of the ideas that he comes up with are good and he can use them himself when writing a book. Besides plagiarism, Dickens sometimes appropriates a story (from Wilkins Eyes of the Serpent which he renames Moonstone) or wants to appear as co-author as he influenced it so much when the original author was writing it.

He’s also suspected of killing a young and innocent man who looked up to him but the assumption was never proved.

drood.jpgOn writing this book, Simmons seems to have fallen victim to that common affliction, the desire of contemporary novelists setting their work in an earlier time to want to drop in every factoid of information, every nugget of gossip they gleaned while researching.  This nearly doubled the book in size (to nearly 700 pages) making me think that if those factoids were taken out, this might have transformed this book into a palatable historical thriller.

Time and again the novel comes to a halt while characters have awkward conversations which amount to info-dumps, or we learn more about London’s sewers, Victorian publishing, and exactly who was at Dickens’s house at any given time than we really need to know. The revelation at the end of the book, when it came, was a disappointment.

Part biography, part literary criticism, part Victorian mystery, and part psychological thriller, Dan Simmons’s epic novel “Drood” is a drudging hellhole of writing and not at all wonderful and amazing.  It’s mediocre at best.

“…speaking as a novelist myself, I know that members of our profession live in our imaginations as much or more as we inhabit what people call ‘the real world’…”

Why I hated this book

  • Hundreds of pages of exposition
  • Male characters are absolute dicks.
    • Charles Dickens was a dick. He threw out the mother of his ten children (along with most of the children) and had a young mistress
    • Wilkie was an ass as well – he had one widowed woman whom he lived with but refused to marry citing his mother’s sensibilities and when pressed – he marries her off to her plumber literally throwing her out of her house on the same day
    • Wilkie was probably suffering from syphilis and gout as well as a strong addiction to opioids.
    • Wilkie also had a second mistress who lived under a fake “married” name for respectability whom he visited when he tired of his main one.
  • There’s classism and racism – but hey – this was the 1880’s and this was allowed.

Why I liked this book

  • It’s a good doorstop
  • It shows how the life of a great author in the 1800’s was like
  • This book is truly about the power of storytelling, and how any story is only as good as its reader
  • There never was any Drood, just as there was never any “Other Wilkie”. There was nothing supernatural in this book, unless you consider hypnosis to be supernatural. Wilkie’s mind had been weakened and damaged over the years due to constantly imbibing of laudanum, and then morphine, and then both (plus the STD) so he might have gone mad towards the end.


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