February 2010

Simmons imagines the story behind Dickens’ lost work

By Dan Simmons
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If you’re making lists of classic science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery and historical fiction, works by Ray Bradbury and Dan Simmons must appear on every one. Only these two authors have had the skill and the nerve to excel in every one of these genres. But there is more to the Bradbury-Simmons connection than mere range. What binds them together most poignantly is their fierce love and explicit regard for the literary tradition. For instance, Charles Dickens often haunts Bradbury’s works. Now it is Simmons’ turn to raise the ghost of the creator of Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist and, of course, Edwin Drood.

In Drood, Dickens is ironically overshadowed by his close friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins, the brilliant but lesser-known mystery novelist. Collins narrates a detailed, “revisionist” account of Dickens’ final years after his near-fatal railway accident in 1865. Through the voice of Dickens’ jealous friend, Simmons manages to fuse all his genres, and then some. Drood is at once an intimate view of the amours of two beloved Victorian writers, an extensive and meticulously researched piece of English historical fiction, a fantasy of doppelgangers and Egyptian rites, a quaint exercise in 19th-century science fiction (including mesmeric trances and the technology of London sewage), a dark and bloody detective story, a novel of purest horror (with brain-eating beetles and walking Undead), and the latest in a long line of impossible efforts to finish Dickens’ last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Simmons’ splendid pastiche is all the more engaging because we can never really know why Dickens was inspired to make such a radical departure in his final work, let alone how he would have completed it had he lived.  Drood will shock and delight readers as a plausible Amadeus fable: the mediocre artist (Collins/Salieri) spirals into a murderous rage against his nemesis, the Inimitable Genius (Dickens/Mozart), whose greatness only he is close enough to fully understand and articulate. There’s only one flaw in the Amadeus model, and it’s a decisive one: in real life, both Salieri and Collins produced genuinely beautiful work. Simmons’ self-evident hope for his wildly macabre Drood is that it will lead a new flock of readers to Collins’ wonderful Woman in White and Moonstone.

Michael Alec Rose is a composer and Vanderbilt University music professor who owes his lifelong love of literature to Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

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By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316007023

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