Our Mutual Friend was the last book that Charles Dickens wrote “THE END” to and published. On June 9th, 1865, Dickens was on a train journey with his mistress. A section of track over an upcoming bridge was missing, but the warning to stop the train hadn’t been set far enough away, and at this time for a train to make an emergency stop it was required to pull the emergency break on each car. It was a catastrophic and devastating accident, like that of a horrific plane crash. Most of the cars were destroyed, almost all the passengers killed or horribly injured. The only first class car to make it in one piece was Dickens’ car. He survived, going back into the train that was hanging off a the edge of the bridge to get his coat which contained his latest chapters for Our Mutual Friend. Almost five years later, to the day, Charles Dickens died. It was after this incident, known as the “Staplehurst disaster” – where Dickens could never travel comfortably again, fearing for his life – that the author began his obsession with death, the mysterious, the macabre, and the paranormal. He began the most strenuous and exhausting series of readings of his life, which almost killed him. He also began work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his last book which he never completed, but remains to this day one of the few mysteries which has never been solved.
Wilkie Collins, a fellow writer and good friend to Dickens in the last years of his life, is the unreliable narrator in Drood. On the outside, Collins reveals himself as a caring and dutiful friend to Dickens, but he hides many secrets: his addiction to laudanum, consuming glasses of it each day while others take only drops; as well as to morphine and opium. He suffers from rheumatic gout, which affects most in a specific area, but in Collins’ case he suffers the agony throughout his body and especially in his head, often rendering him helpless with pain. It is through this drug-addled mind that we see Victorian England and the last years of Dickens’ life. Collins has also been visited throughout his life by another version of himself who he communicates with and when unable to write, hands over his pen to this doppelganger; as well as a tusked creature that he fears. Wilkie Collins is clearly not of sound mind.
Then there is the character Drood, dressed in black hat and black opera cape. First seen by Dickens while searching for survivors at the Staplehurst disaster; yet each person that Drood attends to mysteriously dies. He lives within the deepest bowels of London, in the Undertown. Beneath the stench and horrors of Dickensian London exist nightmares never dreamed of, and it is here that Dickens goes to visit Drood, joined by Collins. Simmons doesn’t hold back with the vivid detail of this world, shocking and disgusting the reader, but forcing them to unstoppably turn the page and keep reading.
The story continues, balancing the literary world as Collins writes and publishes his books, while Dickens performs his exhausting readings; then there is the growing mystery of Drood and his recently acquired acolytes who bare the same haunting, macabre visage which terrifies Collins. And yet to satisfy his opium addiction, Collins must travel each week into the Undertown to receive the necessary drug.
Simmons does another incredible job with his new book, after the success of The Terror, creating a complete and detail-filled world as seen through the eyes and addled mind of this unique character. Weighing in at over 777 pages, it is a heavy tome that could continue on and never end. Drood is a special book that will stay long in the mind and thoughts of the reader, long after the last page has been turned, as he or she contemplates the meaning of Drood and what Dickens was really trying to do with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
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Originally written on February 23rd 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.