You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Drood is an historical novel by Dan Simmons that builds on the last few years of the life of Charles Dickens and a terrible accident he survived in 1865 in a train wreck. Dickens part of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before he died, and Simmons draws from the same elements of opium, dark underworlds and mesmerism.

The narrator is Wilkie Collins, a writer and sometimes collaborator with Dickens who is a little younger than the esteemed author. Collins is clearly in awe of Dickens and yet full of jealousy. He also suffers from gout and is a liberal user of laudanum (liquid opium) to help his pain. After the train accident, Dickens tells Collins about his encounter at the scene with a mysterious man named Drood. The two of them enlist the help of private detectives to lead them to the underworld beneath London's catacombs. There they find a hidden Chinese opium den that Collins begins to frequent. And Dickens is taken away by two mysterious men to visit Drood alone.

Collins plays cat and mouse with Dickens for a long time on the subject of Drood. He is hesitant to bring it up directly for fear that Dickens will dismiss the subject as mere fantasy, the ramblings of writers inventing creative plots. Collins has his own demons to deal with, including a mysterious green woman who terrorizes him. He also has a double, "the other Wilkie", who appears to him at times. In a central scene in the middle of the book, Drood kidnaps Collins, plants a scarab in his brain, and orders him to write Drood's biography. The other Wilkie begins to write down Collins's text, and Collins discovers that what he's writing is not his own invention but fabulous tales of the Egyptian occult. The interaction of Collins with his double is one of the more fascinating parts of the narrative, giving it a good Gothic ghost story feel. It also strengthens the theory that Collins's narrative is all a part of his delusion.

Collins is a terrible misanthrope, not only visiting a mistress but also kicking out his kept woman after he comes to believe she's interested in another man. He ignores her letters of the abuse she suffers until the final passages of the book. He comes to believe that Dickens has murdered a young man named Dickinson in order to free himself of Drood's scarab, but then he sees Dickinson as part of Drood's cabal. As his mind starts to deteriorate, he takes more and more laudanum, and the value of his take on events becomes more and more questionable.

Simmons does a good job weaving a tale of the occult and mesmerism and making it ambiguous. The story could be an eerie ghost story or a tale of a man's descent into addition and insanity. Collins's jealousy becomes the background for mysterious happenings, all centered around Dickens.

I thought that much of the novel was a little slow and felt like a travelogue. The description of Collins watching one of Dickens's public readings and discovering Drood standing in his place is fascinating, but we don't really need more extensive descriptions of the readings. Simmons goes into much detail about Collins's daily life and how he tracks Dickens, but eventually it gets to be a bit tedious. The best parts are Collins's interactions with Drood or the private detectives. I think the passage where Collins and Dickens discuss the plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and argue over the best ending is one of the best parts of the novel. Despite the slow parts, the story is both exciting and at times unnerving. B+

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