Thursday, July 02, 2009


You know it's been a while since I wrote a post that pretty much no one who frequents this thing would have any interest in. I think it's about time I put up one of those.

In other words, time for a book post. This time I'll be blathering about Dan Simmons' latest horror novel, "Drood", the follow-up to his popular horror novel "The Terror."

One thing "The Terror" and "Drood" have in common is that they both had the good fortune to be published by Little, Brown and Company, who have in their employ one of the best inside dust-jacket-flap copy writers I've encountered. For those of you who've read and enjoyed a scary book, I defy you to read this copy, and not instantly want to read page one of "Drood". I'd almost rather read a book by this guy/gal than the book her/her flap-writing goaded me into reading.

Well I picked "Drood" off the circular bestseller table at B&N, read the inside flap, promptly laid that 780 pg mother down on the counter, plunked down my Chase card and took it home. It was a while before I finished it as I was at the time deeply in the throes of torturing myself with a modern classic, and knew if I started something fun I'd never pick up the classic again. But as soon as I got done with that, I got right into "Drood" and finished it middle of last month. I'm sad to say I was left baffled and disappointed by the book.

The story is set in the mid-late 1800's, when Charles Dickens has already published his most famous works and is at the peak of his fame and creative powers. His friend, novelist Wilkie Collins, is the narrator of this tale, and it starts with Wilkie relating to the reader the details, as told to him by Dickens, of the train crash (referred to throughout the novel as "the Staplehurst disaster") that very nearly killed Dickens. It is in the gruesome aftermath of this accident that Dickens first meets the mysterious Drood, a pale, scarred, eyelid-less ghoul in a top hat who seems to glide rather than walk. Dickens relates how Drood seemed to attend to those still dying from their injuries, but all who were visited by him, died minutes later. Once home in London and ostensibly safe, Dickens enlists friend Wilkie to track down Drood and get a better sense of the creature.

This first section of the novel is gripping. Here Simmons is able to conjure a pervasive feeling of dread while grossly magnifying the excesses of the Victorian era into a hellscape worthy of Bosch. We visit London slums so dangerous only an armed policeman can lead a person safely through. Once through, however, we discover an even more dangerous slum beyond where even armed policemen won't dare go. This is good stuff. Opium dens, wild children, Egyptian fiends all abound in a place called Undertown, and so long as Drood remains the focus of the book, Simmons can't miss.

Unfortunately, Simmons isn't so interested in Drood as that darn flap copy might lead you to believe. Once the hunt for Drood (at least the hunt as we understand it) ends with the narrator alone in the lightless sewers, no wiser than he was when he'd first descended, stumbling blind looking for the surface, the novel enters a more psychological phase. Here Simmons asks the reader to kindly forget about that mysterious and frightening Drood fellow, whose name doubles as the title of the doorstop you're holding, and let us take a few hundred pages to see what makes this laudanum-addicted narrator/novelist Wilkie Collins tick.

This new mystery isn't quite so compelling.

Though Wilkie Collins is interesting enough as a character, he is an addict, and if anyone reading's ever seen an episode of "Intervention," you know how strong the urge can be to reach through the screen and slap an addict. The character of Wilkie Collins often provokes a similar reaction. Self-interested, self-involved, rarely bothered by his conscience (which, while weak, does exist) and worn down to not much at all by his jealousy of Dicken's professional success, Wilkie's an unpleasant person. As the novel progresses there are Drood interludes which are effective and bring the book back on track, but none can be entirely believed, experienced as they are by a man perpetually high on opium. As time passes, Wilkie's bad traits seem to get worse, which may or may not be a sign of an infernal interference in Wilkie's mind, though Simmons does not answer this question with any certainty. And even more than putting the reader in the hands of an increasingly loathesome (and unreliable) narrator, it is this unresolved quality of the book that may be its primary flaw.

Throughout "Drood", Simmons devises a series of hair-raising mysteries. What exactly IS the thing in the servants' stairwell in Wilkie's estate? Who is this creepy doppelganger Wilkie dubs "the Other Wilkie" that haunts him and sometimes writes whole pages of his novels for him? And though the answers may reside somewhere in the novel's 750 pages, the meandering writing and almost compulsively repetitive prose stylings (certain phrases, like "the Staplehurst disaster" for example, occur again and again and again -- referring to it often, he never calls that key incident anything else), don't indicate a literary depth best plumbed by multiple readings. And worst of all, the key mysteries of this novel are, if this reader's accurately comprehended the text, essentially dashed aside in a shocking, unsatisfactory confession that serves as the story's climax without firmly tying up the biggest loose end of the whole story. The denouement only serves to leave other, lesser mysteries similarly unresolved.

A book critic wrote of "Drood" that an excellent thriller lived somewhere inside of it; 3 or 400 pages cut out and reworked could result in something more worthy. Though I know that by this he means that if Simmons had focused on Drood and Dickens and Wilkie's hunt for him through the "Great Oven" of London, "Drood" would have been much improved. But given the tone-deaf third act of this book, I'm not at all confident that even if Little, Brown had handed the two-shoebox manuscript back to Simmons with the direction to whittle mercilessly, he wouldn't have found a different way to underwhelm with the ending. First half = good times. Second half = not worth the time. Which is too bad, as the premise for this book is killer and should have produced a much sharper thriller.


Moorhead said...

I can't say you necessarily saved me from reading this, though I remember wanting to read The Terror after you wrote about it a while back.

Thank you for blazing the trail for us, Dr. Crane.

blankfist said...