Charles Dickens' notoriously unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) has inspired any number of attempts to solve the murder . The reader who picks up Dan Simmons' Drood looking for a continuation of Dickens' novel, however, will be in for a shock--because Drood doesn't attempt to finish Dickens' novel so much as to turn it inside out. Like Simmons' last neo-Victorian novel, The Terror, Drood joins a straightforward historical novel in the classical realist mode to a Gothic tale; in this case, Wilkie Collins' vexed relationship with Dickens (and with his own writing) runs alongside a threatened invasion of England by an Egyptian cult, headed by none other than the title character. Needless to say, this is not the solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Perhaps more unexpectedly, the narrator is not Dickens but Collins. And dear Wilkie may not be the most reliable of narrators...
Given that our narrator is a novelist obsessed with another novelist, it should come as no surprise that the nature and effect of Dickens' storytelling itself forms part of the plot. Collins plays a narrative trick on the reader right from the beginning: in the first chapter, he retells Dickens' account of his first meeting with the horrific and mysterious Drood in the aftermath of the Staplehurst railway crash; in the second, he actually describes the conditions under which Dickens told him the story. As it happens, what Collins delays telling us is that Dickens first tried to mesmerize him, but failed--because, as Collins sternly announces, "My will is too strong" (29). Or did Dickens fail? Hmmm. In any event, Collins initially refuses to believe in Drood's existence, especially once Dickens cheerfully announces that "cannibalism" is involved:
...It was true that during his narration of the accident, I'd held serious doubts about the description and even the actual existence of this "Drood"--the man seemed more a character out of a sensationalist novel than any human reality that could be encountered on the tidal train from Folkestone--but I had ascribed that possibility of hallucination to the same sense of shock and disorientation that had robbed Dickens of his voice. But if Dickens were imagining cannibalism, it was quite possible that the accident had robbed him of his reason as well as his voice. (31)
This amusingly metafictional passage sums up the narrative challenges facing both Dickens (when dealing with Collins) and Collins (when dealing with us). Collins interprets "Drood" as a monster of the mind, shaped suspiciously like a creature from a genre novel; he initially finds this product of a shocked imagination far less interesting than Dickens' realist account of the accident's many horrors. This conjunction of and conflict between realism and the Gothic miniaturizes the novel's own two-way plot. Dickens, though, wishes to make the fantastic seem just as "real" as the material horrors of the accident, and Collins fails to see that while his friend/rival has lost his physical voice, he has not lost his creative voice. Dickens does his best to make Collins believe in the reality of Drood and Drood's evil plot against England, taking him on an eerie adventure through the London sewers (some readers may be reminded of Clare Clark's The Great Stink) and insisting that Drood has been staring through the window. Still, Collins resists, even though Inspector Charles Field, who has fallen on somewhat hard times, believe that something is afoot.
Nearly three hundred pages in, though, Collins has a horrific vision during one of Dickens' public readings, in which he sees Dickens as Drood--a proof that Drood really is a "figment of the writer's imagination," which Dickens has invented for "[a] mischievous sense of power over others" (285). Dickens' novelistic power over his audience morphs into a different kind of narrative skill, in which the great novelist wickedly "plots" in such a way as to trap his friends and foes into living out a novel; as Collins tells Field, "[w]e are now involved, you and I, in Charles Dickens' Game of Drood" (287). But Dickens himself pushes the point further, for he tells Collins that Drood has singled Dickens out on account of his authorship (385); to make matters worse, Drood soon proceeds to chain Collins to his writing desk, as it were, by inserting a scarab beetle into his brain.
Er, what, you ask?
Collins struggles with writer's block throughout the novel, and sometimes believes that his mysterious double, the "other Wilkie," is writing for him. (The real Collins reported hallucinating a doppelganger.) Drood transforms both writing and audience reception into a matter of Gothic magic and horror, simultaneously inexplicable by purely rational methods, frighteningly powerful, and often deeply agonizing. (I suppose you could read this novel as a descendant of Stephen King's The Shining.) When Collins undergoes an Egyptian ("Egyptian") ritual during one of his opium dreams--or thinks he does, anyway--the terrors of the scarab echo the more mundane terrors of writing for pay, "a pain of pressure on top of the pressure of pain crawling and digging its way through my screaming brain and body" (481). Despite Collins' frequent turns to literary criticism, his experiences with Dickens and Drood suggest that the inspired writer is a possessed writer--a horror-novel update of a very old trope. And the enthralled audience, in turn, may be a possessed audience. Lurking behind Collins' very Trollopean interests in pages produced and cash received, then, is a much more dangerous history of the Victorian novel, one that threatens the last remnants of both the writer's and the reader's control...
Drood's reworking of The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins, in fact, with this heavy injection of Gothic horror. Turning Drood into an evil, cannibalistic death-monger almost comically inverts the original: Dickens' Drood exemplifies twerpitude in action, to put it mildly (the closest equivalent in this novel is young Edmond Dickenson, who comes equipped with a significant name); his trip to Egypt obviously never comes off. British activities in Egypt here become faux-Egyptian activities in Britain, in a neo-Victorian take on imperial gothic similar to Simmons' The Terror. There are a number of obvious borrowings from TMOED, including characters like Dradles (Durdles) and Hatchery (Datchery), and Collins' love-hate obsession with Dickens--not to mention Collins' eventual decision to kill Dickens--mirrors Jasper's obsession with his nephew. (Which, incidentally, does make Dickens Drood--but not in the way that Collins first thinks.) Readers will also recognize various settings from Dickens' novel, here turned back into their geographic originals. All of this, however, interfaces with Collins' own autobiography and fiction--in particular, the Egyptian "invasion" of England owes much to The Moonstone. Collins, in effect, writes himself into a sensation novel, complete with horrific hauntings (based on Collins' real, laudanum-induced hallucinations) and multiple murders.
Having said all this, I felt that this novel had exactly the same problem as The Terror, only magnified: the realist plot (Collins vs. Dickens) has the potential to be much more interesting than the horror elements. In fact, Drood and the mock-Egyptian material all struck me as more silly than scary. Perhaps Simmons thought so too, because he keeps dropping the Drood plot to concentrate on Collins, Collins' insecurities, Collins' drug-taking, Collins' mistreatment of the women in his life, Collins' jealousy of Dickens, Collins engaging in literary criticism, and so forth. Collins, I fear, is a connoisseur of excellent whine, and he whines for 771 pages; there's nothing wrong with an unpleasant narrator--some great narrators have been deeply unpleasant--but if he's going to hang about for nearly eight hundred pages, then more subtlety is in order. Given that Collins is "writing" this novel, it's possible that we are supposed to take the kitschy Egyptian stuff as part of the supposed confessions of a second-rate mind, so to speak, along with the horses that "vomited from the smell" of refuse (65; seriously, not possible) and the narrative's meandering plot construction. However, I have doubts. (See also the novel's final plot twist, although the alert reader will have figured it out much earlier.) I also could not help noting that Collins rarely wrote Dickensian doorstops, Armadale and The Woman in White aside. Like The Terror, this book would have been far more effective if it had been far shorter, with the three-by-five cards less in evidence and put to better use .
 Gaslight has an e-text of the novel in its serial format, along with links to some of the solutions (and discussions thereof). For a bibliography of such attempts, see the Dickens Drood Collection at the University of Minnesota. Here's a nineteenth-century continuation in which Drood is not murdered at all (although John Jasper thinks he is).
 A case in point: we get a nearly four-page digression about the actor William Charles Macready (223-27), who plays a very minor role in the plot, but not even a tag to explain the identity of the briefly-mentioned Augustus Egg.