I almost never reread books, because I rarely get anything new out of it. All of the characters, plot points, and themes are picked up in the first go-round, if it’s written well. And if it’s not, well, then I don’t finish it. I’m not afraid to drop a book if I’ve gotten a couple hundred pages in and it feels like a slog or the narrative doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
For me, there’s usually little to gain from another reading. But I’m happy to say that I made a rare exception to my rereading rule — inasmuch as it’s a “rule” — with Dan Simmons’ Drood. This is especially surprising given its 700-plus pages.* Maybe it’s because I don’t make my living reviewing books and can read them at my leisure, but I had no problems with Drood‘s length. In fact, I’ve read 300-page novels that seemed a hell of a lot longer than this one. I thought this was a page-turner — even more so the second time around — and never felt like Simmons was wasting words.
So what’s it about? In short, professional competition and jealousy of the “Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus” variety. But it’s much more than that, too. It begins with the personal introduction of the story’s narrator, Wilkie Collins, a gentleman and writer in Victorian Era Britain and a contemporary of Charles Dickens. Collins is close friends with (and a not-so-secret rival of) the literary giant. He’s also a drug addict, due in part to physical ailments, and a cad; he lives in a sort of commonlaw marriage arrangement, and also has a mistress on the side.
His drug addiction, extreme envy, and all-around amoral nature make him into one of my favorite literary devices: the unreliable narrator. (And there’s yet another reason why this is the case that’s revealed much later in the book.) The first account he provides is one that pulled this reader in immediately. Dickens tells Collins about his experience in a horrific train accident in the English countryside that kills several people. (Note: This actually happened to Dickens five years before his death.) While sorting through the carnage and attempting to help the survivors, Dickens comes across a strange, pale man who’s dressed entirely in black and speaks with an ominous hiss. (Something else that supposedly took place in real life.)
Dickens, who learns this mysterious character is called Drood, becomes obsessed with the man. Consequently, he and Collins attempt to track him down in the London underworld with the assistance of a team of private investigators, many of whom were former members of the Metropolitan Police. Along the way, they discover a world of shadowy criminals, surreptitious opium dens, and occult ritual.
Collins, descending further into drug addition, finds himself pulled inexorably into this world as his personal relationships fall apart. Drood attempts to manipulate him for his own nefarious purposes, which involve Egyptian religion and magic, and — in one memorable scene — even inserts a possessed scarab into his brain that acts as a mind-control device/RFID chip.
The problem with all this, though, is that Collins had supernatural visions prior to getting caught up in Drood’s machinations. He believes there’s a hideous female monster in the closet of his home, and that his silent Doppelganger occasionally shows up to intimidate and judge him. So there’s a constant question in the reader’s mind about how much of what’s taking place is “real,” and how much is due to some combination of mental disorder, constant drug use, and manipulation by Dickens.
We also learn some interesting things about how publishing worked in that time. For instance, authors like Dickens and Collins didn’t just write an entire book, then send it off to the printer. They published most of their works in a serialized form, and released them piece by piece in literary magazines. (After the series was done, it became a book.) Also, in Dickens’ case, there was extra income to be made by public readings of those stories that displayed the author’s thespian skills.
These details of the period, and the tale of horror that moves the plot along, are extremely well done. But for me (and, I suspect, for Simmons) the meat of the story is the relationship, characterized as a combination of enmity and admiration, between Collins and Dickens. The former is a quite well-known author, afforded a comfortable life due to his station (this being class-obsessed England, after all) and his professional success. He also wrote The Moonstone, the first mystery novel and a major influence on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. By any measure, he was one of the most successful writers who ever lived up to that point.
Despite all that, Collins (or at least the character Simmons portrays) is unable to enjoy any of it. He’s too preoccupied with Dickens’ innate talent, public acclaim, and undeniable legacy to appreciate his own achievements. No matter what he does, he’ll never top Dickens — and he knows it. His deep resentment and sense of inadequacy at being unable to change any of this drive him to darker depths throughout the story.
It’s this aspect of the book that’s probably most resonant for creative professionals. And, I think, where the real horror for them resides.
* In reading a few reviews of Drood online after completing it the second time, I found critics mainly complained about its length. They felt that it could have been better had it been leaner, and would not have lost much if it had come in at a mere, say, 500 pages.