Reviewing Simmons’ Drood

Dear Charlie,

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Drood

I recently finished reading Dan Simmon’s behemoth of a book, Drood, and I’ve been putting off telling you about it, myfriend, because it’s been very difficult to put my feelings into sentences that don’t end in hmmngfhhhh (that’s the closest I can come to depicting a conflicted sigh). It was at the same time extremely satisfying and extremely distressing, and I closed the book with mingled relief and regret.

The narrator of the story is none other than your friend Wilkie Collins, and occurs in the five years between the train accident at Staplehurst that you were involved in and your death. I’m sorry to bring up such painful subjects so early in this letter, but the contents of the book will likely make you even more uncomfortable. So if you’d like to toss this letter in the fireplace immediately, I’ll understand. Also, there be spoilers ahead, so if you’d like to read the book unencumbered by my questionable opinions, again, this would be a good time to go and visit the afterlife’s version of Facebook.

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Our absolutely unreliable narrator, Mr. Wilkie Collins

The book opens dramatically with Wilkie claiming that you’re a psychopath and possible murderer (I told you this would make you uncomfortable) and proceeds to describe in grisly detail the train disaster that he believes brought about this shift in your character. And as if the carnage of that event wasn’t vivid enough, we’re introduced to a mysterious and menacing figure named Drood, whose presence and motives are unclear but who is damned unsettling.

I gotta say, it’s one of the most instantly gripping, dramatic and intense opening couple of chapters I’ve read in recent memory.

There are a lot of excellent things going for the rest of the book. Simmons has clearly researched ALL THE THINGS pertaining to your final five years and creates a picture of you through Collins’ eyes that’s incredibly believable. Dinners at Gad’s Hill, your long walks, even your secret affair are all captured in loving detail. There’s a scene where Simmons describes your first dramatic reading of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, and I swear to god I felt like I was there in the audience. Simmons does a brilliant job of capturing your manic energy and your charm, as well as your self-importance and odd (and sort of cruel) sense of humour. This is a dark book, but Simmons makes you its glowing center. The best part of the book, I think, is the very real sense that I spent some time with you.

I also love the way Simmons creates intimate conversations between Collins and you. The two of you casually discuss the plots of both your works and continually criticize and compliment each other’s plot choices and styles with the same fervor that today’s readers discuss the relationships in Harry Potter. It gives your works a freshness an immediacy that warm the cockles of my heart. And I love how the setting, characters and plot points from The Mystery of Edwin Drood are woven into the narrative and suggest ways in which that book might have developed.

All this brilliance aside, there are things here that made the book difficult to get through. One of my pet peeves is when a book gets so bogged down in its research that it feels like you’re reading a textbook and not a work of fiction. And although the Dickens fan in me was reveling in the details of your daily life, there are a LOT of details here that, although accurate, aren’t incredibly pertinent to the plot. I appreciate being told that Kate’s husband is Wilkie’s brother, or that Collins calls his mistress’ daughter  Carrie even though her name is really Harriet – I don’t appreciate it so much the 15th time I read it. Although long, this book is not serialized, but the author clearly doesn’t trust his readers enough to remember the pertinent players.

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No, Mr. Simmons, I do not believe I shall require smelling salts, thank you.

And can we talk about the plot for a second? Because I would have been quite happy if this had remained some kind of continuation of The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. Instead, the über creepy opening chapters diffuse into a general and pervasive sense of darkness and unease punctuated with brief interludes of horror. And I use horror in the Victorian ‘this-is-rather-unusual-and-where-are-my-smelling-salts’ kind of way and not the 21st century ‘I-watched-Paranormal-Activity-and-slept-like-a-baby-immediately-afterwards’ kind of way. Wilkie Collins, bless his bespectacled heart, becomes the Salieri to your Mozart rather than the Watson to your Holmes, fueled by mesmerism, jealousy and enough opium and laudanum to fell a rhinocerous. So even the tension of the ‘scariest’ bits (being tied down naked to the clichéd heathen cult’s altar, for example) is dissipated by the nagging suspicion – a suspicion that gets stronger and stronger as the novel comes to a close – that none of what you’re reading is actually happening.

The result is that not only do I not trust any of the crazy-ass shite that Wilkie is telling me (which is lucky for you, because he says quite a lot of not nice things about you or your writing, and actively plots to kill you), but by the end of the novel I don’t really care, either. I’m just once again sad that you died so young.

I’m also left with the feeling that I want to give Wilkie a smack upside the head, a good psychologist, an appointment with a 21st century doctor, and into rehab, not necessarily in that order.

Thanks for helping to put my thoughts into words. And if you made it this far in the letter, Charlie, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

A birthday statue

Dear Charlie,

Happy slightly belated 202nd birthday, my friend! I didn’t get you a gift, but in case you missed it, Portsmouth got you a statue!

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Happy birthday, Charlie!

And before you start protesting that you didn’t want a statue, that it’s expressly in your will that you didn’t want to be memorialized, and that bronze really isn’t your colour, I would like to remind you gently of three things.

  1. You’ve already been buried in Westminster Abbey, also expressly against your dying wishes, so it’s not like this is the first time items in your will have been ignored in favour of a bit of public recognition. (The up side of your grave’s location is that, unlike being buried in some quiet churchyard, you have some illustrious company to discuss things with. I imagine you and Kipling and Sheridan strolling around the Abbey in the dark. Actually, check that. You’d probably be walking in brisk laps around the interior while they looked on in amazement from some cozy alcove.)
  2. This isn’t even your first life-sized statue (although it’s the first in the UK). Those upstart Americans and badass Australians both said to heck with your will and made statues of you in the 19th century. Frankly, I’m amazed at the restraint shown in the UK that it’s taken this long for them to join the Charles Dickens Statue Club.
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    The only other statues of you are in Philadelphia and Sydney, both looking deep in thought.

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    Martin Jennings creating Charles Dickens, who at the moment looks like something out of War of the Worlds.

  3. It’s quite a nice statue. Unlike its 19th century counterparts, you are not looking deep in thought here. I imagine you’d quite like the successful, relaxed, slightly theatrical depiction. It looks like you’re about to give a reading to a small group of friends. And it’s at eye level, not on a huge plinth like the other two, which makes you part of the crowd and not some inaccessible icon towering above the throng.I also think you would find the pictures of the work in progress very funny, with your lack of face and impossibly spindly legs.It looks so alien I think it’s only a matter of time until the Ancient Aliens guys get a hold of you.

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Statues aside, I don’t think I need remind you of the many smaller than life representations of you. I’ve already frightened you with those. Seriously, you should have been worried less about statues and added a clause in your will expressly forbidding “tiny, nightmare-inducing toys, dolls and medallions.” Your new statue is so not frightening that if I went to Portsmouth I could literally go and sit on your knee (which I won’t do, because that would then be a bit creepy on my part).

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Penguin’s latest Dickens’ collection is a thing of beauty.

I know you wanted your “claims to the remembrance of [your] Country upon [your] published works,” but honestly, Charlie, I don’t think you need fear that your statue will somehow usurp the place of your books. Sure, maybe Dombey & Son isn’t as well known today as it was when you wrote it (although it deserves to be), but I could walk into any Calgary bookstore right now and find Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers taking up more than what you would think would be their fair share of precious shelf space. And Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without seeing A Christmas Carol on TV or in a theatre.

Trust me, my friend, the thirty-six volumes I read last year that are sitting in my library are infinitely more precious to me than any hunk of bronze with your face on it. Statues or no statues, your literary legacy is as strong as ever.

So try not to fret about this generation’s lack of regard for your dying wishes and do what everyone who has ever received a birthday present they weren’t quite enamoured with does: smile graciously and accept the damn thing.

I suspect that smile will be genuine as you walk around the Abbey tonight.

Affectionately yours,

Melissa