Reviewing Simmons’ Drood

Dear Charlie,



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.


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.


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,


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!


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.

    The only other statues of you are in Philadelphia and Sydney, both looking deep in thought.


    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.


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).

penguin edition

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,


Of serendipity and television

Dear Charlie,

prompt copy

The NYPL houses the only prompt copy of “A Christmas Carol.”

Happy New Year, my friend! I hope you had a lovely Christmas, ate too much Christmas pudding, and had a chance to eavesdrop on some performances and readings of A Christmas Carol. I hear Neil Gaiman’s reading in New York in mid-December was pretty amazing. He used the original prompt copy you used when performing your readings of the work (and he dressed up as you as well, because Neil Gaiman is awesome).And just as I was beginning to feel all left out, I was reminded that I do, in fact, live in the 21st century and not the 19th, which means that about a gazillion people put it online and that through the wonders of technology I can listen to the performance as many times as I want to! Huzzah!

But that’s not all.

secretmuseumIn an extra-weird Christmas-y burst of serendipity, this Brain Pickings article goes into more detail about that prompt copy and performance, which is housed in the New York Public Library. This august institution also houses your cat’s paw letter opener I mentioned in an earlier letter to you. Well it turns  out that poor old Bob’s preserved foot is featured in a book called The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield, which, oddly enough, I got for Christmas. And Molly Oldfield introduced Gaiman at that reading. Is your brain hurting as much as mine? Is it just because I spent a year reading your works that I’m now hyper aware of your influence? Or has everything always pointed back to you in some weird six-degrees-of-Charles-Dickens kind of way? You’re sneaky, Charlie, very sneaky. I like it.


Even old Mr. Turveydrop, master of deportment, makes an appearance.

But as odd as all that is, that’s not why I’m writing to you, since my Christmas was unusually Christmas Carol free. I did, however, start watching the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House. I just passed the half way point and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I was surprised and pleased to find so many of your wonderful secondary characters included, like Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop, albeit too briefly. It made me realize just how many characters there are in the story, how many are absolutely essential to the plot, and how much fantastic detail you put into even the minor ones that can never be conveyed in an adaptation unless it was two or three times as long.On the other hand, there are things that a TV adaptation can do that make up for the necessary omissions. There’s so much fabulous non-verbal acting going on here that conveys paragraphs of subtext. When Esther is talking to Mr. Jarndyce in the Growlery, for instance, the dialogue may be lifted straight from the page, but you can see in a single glance that Jarndyce feels more than paternal affection for Esther (a fact that thickheaded me didn’t pick up on until much later in the book). Skimpole comes across as sketchy right from the outset, which is interesting. Gillian Anderson’s Lady Deadlock, too, conveys buckets of information in the twitch of an eyebrow or pursing of the lips. And Charles Dance is an inspired choice for Tulkinghorn.


Gillian Anderson plays a wonderfully constrained Lady Deadlock.

And there’s some great stuff that’s been added, too. Guppy, here, is way more stalker-y than he seemed to be in the book, lurking on the sidewalk outside Esther’s home like a creepy lost puppy. It makes his dogged determination to find the letters more believable. And the scenes showing Mr. George carefully priming and aiming various firearms is a wonderful piece of visual misdirection.


Dear BBC, I’m sorry, but not casting Brian Blessed as Boythorn was a HUGE miss.

Should I confess here, Charlie, that as I made my way through your books I often referred to to “cast” the characters before I started reading? I don’t usually do that, but you do have so many characters and it helped to keep them all straight. I did make a few substitutions, however. For instance, I couldn’t help but cast Brian Blessed as Mr. Boythorn (complete with canary, of course) – I mean, how could you not? The TV adaptation doesn’t make him nearly the booming and boisterous presence he’s supposed to be, which is a shame.But overall it’s great stuff, and now that the action is picking up speed, I can’t wait to see everything unfolds. I’m sure I shall write to you again soon, once I’ve finished watching.

Until then my friend, I remain,

Affectionately yours,


Of sons and swords

Dear Charlie,

Families are interesting animals, aren’t they? It’s all very well when children embrace their parents’ values and interests, and proudly follow in their footsteps. But they often have a tendency to do the exact opposite. Your third son, Francis, for instance, must’ve been a bit of a disappointment to a father who saw his own hard work and determination pay off in spectacular fashion.


Daaaaad, stop calling me Chickenstalker. I don’t like it.

After dropping out of pre-med studies in Germany, you try to help him out by getting him a respectable job working alongside you at your magazine. And how does he repay you? By waltzing off to India to join the Bengal Mounted Police. I don’t think he could’ve sent a clearer message about personal space.

I dunno, maybe you should’ve picked a more flattering nickname for your son than “Chickenstalker.” Just sayin’.

I wouldn’t normally drag these awkward family skeletons into the light, but it turns out that good ol’ Chickenstalker and I had a close encounter of the historical kind this week, and I thought you might be interested to hear about it.

This recent article registered on my radar of All Things Dickensian, and I discovered that your much maligned son is actually really interesting. After returning to England after your death and burning through his inheritance, he got a commission as a Sub-Inspector in the Northwest Mounted Police, forerunner of today’s RCMP (it helps when one of your aunt’s friends is Canada’s Governor General).

So Chickenstalker, now “Frank” spends over a decade traipsing doggedly (if not always effectively) around various forts on the Canadian prairies, my very own back yard. But it was the last line of the article that caught my attention.

Frank’s sword is in the collections of the Glenbow Museum.


Well, I had to see it for myself.

Several weeks and emails later, I arranged to meet with one of the Glenbow’s curators, the lovely Aimee Benoit, and spent a very happy hour up in the museum’s collections. The historian in me had a little moment of ecstasy as I looked at the shelves filled with helmets, armour, plane models, statues, and cupboards filled with drawer upon drawer of artifacts, each one with its own story. I could’ve spent hours there.


This is what Heaven looks like to historians.


Drawer o’ swords. And whatever that thing with the pom-poms is…

Aimee found the proper drawer and brought Francis’ sword into the light.


You can see the initials “FJD” engraved on the blade, as well as “VR” further down the blade. So. Frickin’. Cool.


Frances Jeffrey Dickens. No Chickenstalkers here.

Turns out, this isn’t his NWMP sword, which lives in the RCMP Heritage Centre in Saskatchewan. This sword is likely from his days in the Bengal Mounted Police. Still, suddenly Frank is more than a grainy photograph or paragraph in a book, but a guy with a rock star dad, just looking for his own place in the world, who held the very item I’m looking at.


Unfortunately, the piece arrived in the collection in the days where having an airtight provenance was less of an issue, so it’s unclear where the sword’s donor acquired it or how it came to Calgary. But I like to imagine Francis packing for Canada in a tiny room in London, his Bengal Police sword sitting in a corner. After filling his trunk with extra socks, long underwear and digestive biscuits, he thinks to himself, “you know, maybe an extra sword couldn’t hurt” and reopening everything at the last minute to stuff it in.


Frank is second from the left. “I have a wicked beard and TWO swords, suckas.”

You, Charlie, may have gone on a field trip to see “a prairie” during your trip to North America, but Frank, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, absolutely trumped you, and certainly saw far more of Canada than you would have dreamed of. The photos of Frank in his prairie setting show a guy who looks pretty comfortable in the rugged setting (probably because he’s thinking that he has two swords, while all these other chumps only have one).

There’s been a lot of trash talked about him, but personally I don’t think you get promoted to Inspector and work for over a decade at a job if you absolutely suck at it (insert a government employee joke here). In any case, Charlie, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I also feel sorry for the guy. Just as he was going to start following in your footsteps at last and undertake a speaking tour in the States, he drops dead of a heart attack.


Francis’ grave in Moline, Illinois

Note to Dickens’ decendants out there: speaking tours and Dickenses don’t seem to get along.

I hope, Charlie, that Francis’ adventures in my neck of the woods earned him at least a little respect in his father’s heart.







Dickens’ Chamber of Horrors, Part 2

Dear Charlie,

After unearthing some truly disturbing likenesses of your characters last month, I felt it only fair to see what kind of shiver-inducing articles I could dig up out there that bear your own likeness. Being the beloved cultural icon that you are, this wasn’t difficult.

Interestingly, everyone seems to love you with a beard, even though you didn’t sport one until relatively late in your literary career. Turns out in your younger years you were quite the trendsetter.

Before we trot out these monstrosities, I think it behooves us to remind ourselves of your very UN-horrific face:


Hello there, handsome.

And now to the terrible, terrible things that (probably) well-meaning people have done to you.

I apologize in advance to anyone who owns or created these things, but mostly I apologize to you, Charlie, for being depicted in such unflattering ways.

Let’s start with something festive. And what could be more festive than a Charles Dickens nutcracker:


Because nothing says “Charles Dickens” like a grizzled, bespectacled old man dressed like Colin Baker’s Doctor, who’s about to trip over his shopping while balancing the world’s largest quill pen on a tray (I’m sure you often went shopping with paper and an enormous feather pen, just in case you had a flash of inspiration). Oh! And there’s an extra book slung around its poor neck, just in case there was any doubt that this nutcracker is an author.

Wait, perhaps this is supposed to be you if you’d lived another 30 years and gone a bit senile… the ghost of Dickens yet to come?

Moving from nutcrackers to porcelain now. I hate to pick on Royal Doulton (I have, after all, started collecting their set of Dickens characters), but this jug gives me the willies:


It isn’t so much your features I object to, which are actually quite nice. Serene. It’s the goitre-like protrusions erupting from your neck. If I squint, it looks like you’re wearing an Elizabethan ruff, or are doing skinny jazz hands around your face. Mostly, though, it looks like you’re undergoing some sort of alien reproduction-through-budding process, and that’s just not right.

Coins, you might think, would be a safer bet.

Well you’d be wrong.

In this coin, Charles Dickens is very, very angry at something or someone in the middle distance. Probably the coin’s artist.


Seriously. Tell me you could see this and not feel you’ve done something deeply offensive to literature. Whatever it was, Charlie, I’m very, very sorry.


And now for the truly terrifying.

I present to you Charles Dickens, the dead-eyed, vampire dwarf:


And if that wasn’t disturbing enough to keep you up at night. His head comes off.


Yeah, you can keep your certificates of authenticity and your registration cards. This is just messed up.

After all of these terrible sights, I need a scotch.

Wait a second, that random old guy on the ad is supposed to be you? Uh huh. I think the artist asked what you looked like and was told, “look I don’t have time to find a picture. Just draw a dude with a beard.”


But who knows, maybe after a few glasses all of these things will look exactly like you.

Join me, my friend. After seeing this post you probably need it more than I do…

Affectionately and apologetically,