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The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Book #4 (January 28, 2010): Drood by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons, by my count, must be at least four different authors. He’s a mystery author who writes hardboiled detective novels like Hardcase and Hard Freeze. He’s a science fiction author who writes ambitious sf novels like Hyperion and Endymion. He’s a horror author who writes dark fantasies like Song of Kali and Summer of Night. And he’s an historical novelist who writes historical novels like…well, the one I just read. Even within a genre he writes in many different styles. Song of Kali, for instance, is moody Lovecraftian horror while Summer of Night is brisk pop fantasy with echoes of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. Nobody can accuse Simmons of falling into a rut.

As might be expected from someone who tries as hard as Simmons does to make every book seem as though it were written by a completely different person, Simmons’ novels are of varying quality. None are unreadable, but some are probably better off not read. His science fiction novel The Hollow Man (no relation to the Kevin Bacon film) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both silly and deeply depressing at the same time (and I don’t mean that in a good way). His science fiction take on vampires, Children of Night, misfires almost from the opening chapter and left me with a serious headache by the time I was done. But Song of Kali is as frightening and as beautifully written a horror novel as you could hope to find on a bookstore shelf. And Summer of Night is not only the best Stephen King novel that King never wrote, it’s better than three-quarters of the ones he did. I wholeheartedly recommend either novel to anyone with the slightest interest in horror.

Drood falls somewhere in the middle of the quality scale. At 780+ pages it’s ambitious, impressively researched and often fascinating, but it suffers from Simmons’ refusal to give it an actual story. To the extent that it’s about something, it’s about the friendship and rivalry between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, the latter the author of The Moonstone (frequently cited as the first modern detective story) and The Woman in White, and a frequent collaborator with Dickens on theatrical melodramas. There’s a running subplot about a shadowy Egyptian crime lord named Drood who may or may not live in a vast underground city beneath London and who may or may not be planning to murder Charles Dickens and replace London with a reconstruction of ancient Egypt filled with glass pyramids. There’s also a great deal about mesmerism (AKA hypnotism, or as Dickens calls it “magnetic influence”). This sounds like it might degenerate into the kind of silliness that ruined The Hollow Man, but Simmons keeps things under tight — maybe too tight — control. Unfortunately, while readable, the book never really develops much in the way of narrative momentum and even after finishing it I’d be hard put to tell you what Simmons is actually trying to do here, beyond creating an extremely detailed study of the relationship between the two authors and of the creative process itself. There’s a lot  about how Collins wrote The Moonstone, his drug addiction and his lovers (much of it presumably fictionalized where it goes beyond the known facts), as well as a description (also presumably fictionalized) of how Dickens wrote his unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And, yes, Simmons ties this Drood in with the other one. At some point, though, the story starts getting repetitive. The first time Simmons writes about, say, Dickens’ public readings, the moment is vividly rendered and fascinating to read. The fifth or sixth time, not so much. The scenes set in the underground city are nearly worth the price of admission, in a 19th century penny dreadful sort of way, but the 700 or so pages that surround them eventually turn into a bit of a slog.

This isn’t the only historical novel with fantasy elements that Simmons has written. The Terror is about a real-life Arctic expedition that took place shortly before Drood begins and figures peripherally into Drood’s plot. I haven’t read it yet, but hope to do so later this year. (Like Drood, it’s a long book and I’ll need to clear time in my reading schedule to avoid falling behind on my resolution to read 52 books in 52 weeks.) His new novel, Black Hills, is about Custer’s Last Stand. I’d like to read that somewhere down the line too. In fact, there are so many Simmons novels I haven’t read yet that I could practically devote the rest of my reading year to Simmons’ books alone. But…no.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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