Unease sets in at the beginning of Dan Simmons’s Drood when Wilkie Collins, novelist and narrator, remembers his friend Charles Dickens caterwauling for paper while sh*tting in a doorless privy, his pants around his ankles. You know then this will not be a story about a careworn friendship about to be born into new life, but one with sharp undertones of jealousy and possible insanity. And because Collins epitomizes the role of the unreliable narrator, you won’t be sure how much you should believe. Collins spends the novel plagued by his doppelganger The Other Wilkie, a green woman with yellow tusks, professional and personal jealousy of Dickens—and Inspector Field and his men, who shadow him constantly. Complicating Collins’s grip on reality is his laudanum habit, which he drinks by the gallon to control the pain of his gout. This is not a stable man.
We come upon Dickens and Collins in 1865, when their friendship is still very much intact, though Collins is already seething with resentment toward Dickens. They have assuaged their parallel lust for years by visiting prostitutes in the shadier parts of London (Drood does not flatter either Dickens or Collins as men). This is eclipsed when Dickens experiences a deadly train accident (“the Staplehurst accident”) and meets Drood, a half-Egyptian, half-Englishman with lidless eyes and filed teeth and ssssspeaks like thisssssss. Dickens’s curiosity is piqued, and he drags Collins far lower than Collins ever expected to go, into Undertown (as I remember, that's what it was called)—the London beneath London. There, the dregs of society smoke opium and talk about the figure named Drood, who is rumored to have died a Rasputin-like death long before the Staplehurst accident ever took place.
Yet Dickens is positive Drood is alive, and this seems to be confirmed by the appearance of Inspector Fields, who insists that not only is Drood alive and well, but is responsible for more than 300 murders in the London area.
Almost more interesting than the horror themes of the novel are the themes of jealousy and betrayal, which Simmons explores skillfully, not only letting them flow underneath the supernaturalness of Drood like the waves of a rising tide—dark and constant and increasingly threatening—but letting them rise the boat until they wash over it in the climax.
My only worry now is that this book will act as a virus and cast its shadow over every Dickens and Collins book I read. We sssssshalll sssssee.
I would love to see this made into a movie and/or a graphic novel.