VJ Books Blog

(The Seattle Times, Feb. 15, Mary Ann Gwinn)

Say “Charles Dickens,” and most 21st-century citizens think of a benevolent bearded fellow with a holly wreath around his neck. The famous English author helped invent today’s Christmas by publishing “A Christmas Carol,” a fable so universally popular that Tiny Tim’s turkey banished roast goose as the English Christmas meal.

More serious students of Dickens know he had a darker side. He wandered the dismal working-class precincts of 19th-century London for research; he had an enormous ego; he practiced mesmerism (now called hypnotism). His account of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in “Oliver Twist” ranks as one of the most chilling scenes in English literature.

Now novelist Dan Simmons has written “Drood,” (Little,Brown,775pp.), based on the troubled last years of Dickens’ life. The author’s health was failing. He had banished his wife and mother of his 10 children from the household and was entangled in a likely affair with a young actress.

And he was composing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the darkest and most death-obsessed of his books. Dickens died before he finished it.

Simmons takes this material and creates a creepy, baroque and often hilariously tongue-in-cheek portrait of Dickens and his “frenemy,” the mystery writer Wilkie Collins.

Collins narrates “Drood.” His jealousy of Dickens swells and seethes as he becomes ever more detached from reality, courtesy of a kill-an-ox opium habit; he keeps company with a green-skinned woman and his own doppleganger, The Other Wilkie. As for the “Drood” character himself — he’s a sinister, eyelid-less fellow in a black cloak who may or may not be a figment of Dickens’ and/or Collins’ imagination.

In a recent phone interview Collins discussed how he spun a horror tale from the life of one of our most beloved writers:

Q. Is it a good thing to know a lot about Charles Dickens before you start this book, or a not-so-good thing? What was your introduction to Dickens?

A. Until recently, I was a lifelong anti-Dickens fan. I was a pretty serious reader pretty young, and then some high-school teacher crammed “Great Expectations” down my throat. So I had this prejudice against Dickens.

Then in the 1990s, I started reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, which dealt with the mysterious last years of Dickens’ life. Then I read through the Oxford complete works of Dickens … I admit that my opinion changed. I’ve realized that Dickens was the author who created the modern image of authors — the serious professional writer. He was not a gentleman, just writing on the side.

Q. You portray Dickens as suffering a lot of torment in his last years, both physically and mentally. The more fantastic aspects of “Drood” aside, is that a realistic look at the man?

A. That’s the way a lot of biographers portrayed him. But others talked about his constant sense of joy; he was a lot of fun to be around. In the novel Drood is entirely fictional, but he’s the personification of a lot of the fears Dickens had for the last few years.

Mortality was creeping up on him — he loved the idea of youth to the point that he refused to allow his grandchildren to call him grandfather. He wrote about death constantly. When he was doing that famous piece of performance art (in his public readings), the murder of Nancy, he would have to leave town the night of his performances, as if he really had committed murder.

Q. Talk about Wilkie Collins and his relationship with Dickens. Wilkie brings new meaning to the term “unreliable narrator” (the narrator of a book whose version of events the reader can’t trust). What got you interested in using him?

A. I knew about “The Moonstone” (Collins’ mystery, one of the first books in the mystery genre). There’s a little squeaky noise novelists make when they find the perfect unreliable narrator — and Wilkie was it. A doctor once told Wilkie he was taking enough laudanum to kill every man at the table — 20 people. I wanted a Solieri to Dickens’ Mozart, who knew in his heart he was a mediocre writer and that his friend was the genius.

Q. What are the advantages and disadvantages of modeling a novel on real-life and well-known characters?

A. That’s the challenge. I don’t know the real person — even the biographers don’t really know the real person. You have a certain freedom, but you don’t want to abuse that freedom.

I think of it as playing the old (Robert) Frost thing, when he said writing poetry without a rhyme is like playing tennis without a net. I like to play tennis with the net all the way up. Every aspect of their personal life, everything they say has been documented. Once you play by those rules you can get into the motivations, the secrets and silences, that every human being keeps.

Q. Talk about some of the creepier settings in “Drood,” such as “Undertown,” the underground network of sewers and crypts where much of the horrific action unfolds.

A. They didn’t live in the sewers in the way that I described, but a lot of people were driven underground. Poverty does that to people. There was a network of cellars — you could go from cellar to cellar, sometimes for miles — and this whole series of crypts and burial places. And then there were older sewers, going back to the Romans.

Q. When you write horror, how do you judge when enough (gore) becomes too much?

A. I don’t think much about my readers, imagined or otherwise. They have very little in common other than that they’re fanatical readers.

If there’s anything close to unique about me, it’s that I’ve written in every genre there is. I don’t like icky things either. I hate modern horror films, splatter films. It was a very bad day when movies turned away from the point of view of the person trying to survive to the person who’s the killer. It started with a guy in a hockey mask staring at a teenaged girl undressing; now it’s universal. I’ll be damned if I’ll do the equivalent.

Q. Why does our culture retain such a fascination for the Victorians?

A. There’s something icky about the Victorian era that I don’t like too much. We identify with it very strongly, in that we’ve tried to become the opposite of the Victorians, and the roots of a lot of our neuroses are in the Victorian era.

The Victorians had more energy, dynamism, hangups and life spirit than any era since then. The icky part? When you begin to scratch the surface. Dickens was the ultimate family man, the symbol of the English happy family — and then he threw his wife out of the house. So much was underground, then, literally.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

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