When I’m not reading about robots, I do love a good horror story, so as part of our Creepy Countdown series, I’m going to recommend and discuss a few of my favourite creepy reads in the run up to Hallowe’en.
Author: Dan Simmons
Published: 2009 by Quercus
Now, horror literature is a genre that I think often works best in concentrated doses, ideally suited to short stories or – at a push – novellas, as it can be hard convincingly to sustain terror and suspense for the course of a long novel. Which isn’t to say that long reads can’t be scary, but it’s a different kind of scare: more about creating an atmosphere of mystery and doubt than conjuring jump scares and physical threat. It’s probably significant that most of my favourite 500-pages plus horror reads sit squarely in the genre of Victorian-inspired historical fiction. Why is that? Well, Those triple-decker-penning Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Coillins certainly knew a thing or two about how to pace a marathon read, and even works by modern writers that are set in the nineteenth-century can often get away with being very expansive, as the length feels authentic for this setting rather than just an authorial indulgence. Also, let’s face it, when it comes to creating an atmosphere of spookiness there is something unbeatable about a nineteenth-century milieu, especially an urban one. Perhaps it’s the obscuring smog for which Victorian cities were notorious; perhaps its the darker shadows cast by gaslight, or perhaps it’s the idea of London during this period as a city expanding and mechanising at a prodigious rate, all of which make it a perfect setting for mysteries and secrets.
In Drood, Dan Simmons draws on all of these ideas, as well as re-imagining the lives of two of the era’s foremost writers of spookily atmospheric fiction, the aforementioned Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Dickens’ ghost characters (particularly those from A Christmas Carol) have to be among the most famous of all pop-cultural spooks, while Collins’ The Woman in White and Armadale are classic spooky thrillers that would both feature on my list of all time favourite reads. So it’s a wonderful – if slightly crazed – conceit to follow these two men as they become embroiled in a mystery of their own. Simmons speculates (wildly but enjoyably) on the inspiration behind Dickens’ unfinished final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in a plot which sees the two great authors battling demons of their own – both metaphorical and slightly less so. If that sounds silly, that’s because it is. Let’s be clear, Drood is a completely ridiculous and overwrought piece of faux-Victorian Gothic hokum. But it’s also unputdownably gripping, brilliantly plotted and tempers its crazed flights of dark fantasy with some impressively heavyweight literary and historical research. In short, although I freely admit this novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know, I adored it – and sustainedly adored it throughout all its mighty 800 pages. So this is one of my top picks for a Hallowe’en read. But Drood is a weighty tome indeed so if want to get it ticked off your reading list before the end of the month it’s probably best to start now. Here’s more on why you should…
Narrated in the voice of Wilkie Collins, Drood tells the highly fictionalised story of the twilight years of “the Inimitable” Charles Dickens, from his near death experience at the Staplehurst rail disaster to the end of his days. It is at Staplehurst that Dickens first meets a sinister stranger known only as “Drood” and quickly becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery that surrounds him. As he pursues this shadowy figure, Dickens drags his friend Collins into the darkest parts of London, the Bluegate slums, crypts and opium dens, and the secret avenues of sewer passages beneath them.
Had I conceived of him in one of my novels I would not have described him as I met him in reality – too strange, too threatening, too physically grotesque for fiction, my dear Wilkie. But in reality, as you well know, such phantom figures do exist. One passes them on the street. One finds them during nocturnal walks through Whitechapel or other parts of London. And often their stories are stranger than anything a mere novelist could devise.
The cover’s emblazoned recommendation from director Guillermo del Toro (a well-known Lovecraft aficionado) gives a clear indication of the sort of twisty gaslit menace this novel conjures. Indeed, a Drood movie is yet another project that Del Toro has been slated to direct but which will almost certainly never happen. And that’s a shame because I can’t think of another director how would do better justice to shadowy Gothic atmosphere of this book. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll sit down to a cinematic quadruple bill of Drood, Hellboy 3, At The Mountains of Madness and Pacific Rim 2. Stranger things have happened, perhaps not in the real world, but there are certainly strange happenings aplenty in this novel. Indeed, it all gets a bit B-movie in places but who doesn’t love a good B-movie anyway? And Simmons writes with such panache that I was more than happy to be suckered in.
This isn’t straightforward historical horror, though. The book also takes time to focus on Collins’ stubbornly unconventional life: his writing career and obvious rivalry with Dickens, as well as his relationships with the two mistresses he maintained but – controversially for the time – steadfastly refused to marry. For some readers, I can imagine these sorts of digressions might detract from the pace of the overall novel, but for me they added to it, balancing out the scares and helping to sustain tension over the course of the book’s lengthy word count. I am a big fan of Wilkie Collins’s work and love a good slab of troubled nineteenth-century social etiquette. In Drood, I felt Collins’ minute and fussy ruminations on dining out at his club, his servant troubles, and his disappointment with his often lukewarm critical reception as a writer provided a brilliant foil to the more fantastic elements of the plot. Ultimately, the device that succeeds in enmeshing these two very different narrative modes is Collins’ unreliability as a narrator. He is an opium addict and becomes increasingly more dependent on and addled by the drug as the story progresses. So as the fantasy and horror of Drood’s influence and his murderous power increases, so too does the reader’s doubt that Wilkie Collins is telling the truth. To say much more than that would be to risk ruining the story, but suffice to say it works brilliantly.
Simmons mostly captures the tone of the period very well, and both Dickens and Collins emerge as hugely convincing personalities, if neither particularly likeable ones. But as a bit of a Victorian Literature geek I should probably add, in the interest of fairness, that I was frustrated in places by a few anachronisms and Americanisms creeping in to the text that I’m amazed no editor picked up.
Overall, though, this is incredibly well done. If you like your novels big and your historical fiction darkly packed with murder, mesmerism, ghosts and addiction, then this is absolutely the book to which you should treat yourself in good time for Hallowe’en.
Disclaimer: this post is an edited version of one originally published on Roxploration, R’s old Book Review Blog which is still live but no longer maintained.