Drood - Dan Simmons image
Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my GIFTS AND GUILTY list.

Regardless of how many books are already queued patiently on my reading list, unexpected gifts and guilt-trips will always see unplanned additions muscling their way in at the front.

Dan Simmons is a man of many styles. His most acclaimed works, and the books I adore, are big, complex sci-fi epics with classic literary references entwined throughout. See the Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympus. These are my very favouritest type of books and Ilium in particular inspired me to start my reading list quests, and to share that experience on Goodreads. So thank-you for your awesomeness Mr Simmons!

But Dan-the-man also writes psychologically tense little modern-era horror stories, such as Song of Kali and The Hollow Man – indeed, it was with this kind of novel that he launched his career and won his first awards. These are good books, very much worth reading, but they don’t quite hit the sweet spot for me in the same way as his sci-fi.

Then we come to the third category, into which this book falls – a kind of merging of the two above: big, detailed, historical, creeping-gothic-horror tales, with just a dash of fantasy elements. Our examples here are The Terror and Drood. The Terror was my least-favourite Simmons novel so far – not to say it’s a bad book, just a bit bloated for me, but that’s a different review – but it meant that I came to Drood with some hesitancy. I was looking to be convinced.

I wasn’t disappointed. Whereas The Terror was kinda slow-going, Drood kicks off with a bang. Charles Dickens is in a rail crash! Several carriages jump the rails on a bridge and drop, smashing into the ravine below. Dickens’ carriage is left swinging over the drop, but like the badass hero he is, Charlie D climbs out of his carriage, rescues the ladies within, then climbs down into the ravine to aid the survivors of the crash. Amidst this carnage we meet the title character, Drood – a noseless creep with pointy teeth who wears a black cloak. This guy is like an escapee from a Hammer horror movie, but here he is in broad daylight being creepy as heck.

The story is narrated by Wilkie Collins – Dickins’ friend/collaborator/rival. I’m not normally a fan of the unreliable narrator device because I don’t like trying to double-guess a tale – but here Simmons does it so boldly that I couldn’t help but smile. Wilkie drinks laudanum (opium tincture) by the glass. We’re not talking about a few drops in his wine to help him get to sleep – we’re talking a good, regular slurping. Laudenum can bring on hallucinations, and Collins accepts the reality of a girl with green skin and tusks instead of teeth haunting his servants' stairway. So – to put it in modern parlance – our narrator is tripping-balls. Which puts something of a slant on his story.

The story itself is... difficult to describe succinctly. It’s about the relationship between Collins and Dickens. It’s also about Dicken’s relationship with the underworld-hypnoist-criminal-mastermind, Drood. It’s also about Collins’ descent into madness. It’s got some very gothic overtones (but good gothic, tense and cryptic – not hyperbolic gothic, like Lovecraft, which I find grating).

It’s not a perfect book – like The Terror, I felt it could lose a couple of hundred pages without significant detriment – but for all that, I never felt bored. I always wanted to get back to my book, and whenever anyone asked if it was good, I never hesitated to say yes. But it’s a difficult, awkward, antagonistic style of storytelling and it’s a long way from comfort/popcorn reading. It’s weird, but it’s also kind of wonderful and enthralling.

Even the ending – which at one point I thought was going to be a kind of ‘it was all just a dream’ cop-out – didn’t disappoint. It frustrated, sure, but that’s par for the course.

In case anyone feels you need to have read Dickens and/or Collins work to get the references within Drood, I’m sure it would add an extra level of resonance, but I haven’t read any of either, and I enjoyed this tale plenty without them.

One final point – for anyone who was a big fan of The Terror, there’s a nice tie-in towards the beginning of this book where Dickens and Collins write and perform a play based on the disappearance of HMS Terror.

All-in-all, Drood is a fascinating and enthralling read - a solid 4-star recommendation.

After this I read: The Wee Free Men