Books

Drood by Dan Simmons

Christopher Guerin

Charles Dickens' last, unfinished novel is given new life in a story about the competitive friendship between Wilkie Collins and Dickens, both obsessed with a mysterious man named Drood.


Drood

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 9780316007023
Author: Dan Simmons
Price: $26.99
Length: 784
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-02
Amazon

Dan Simmon’s huge headstone of a book, Drood is a combination of literary biography, horror story, detective story, and memoir: the Victorian author Wilkie Collins writing about his friend Charles Dickens. It contains elements of the Sherlock Holmes stories (Collins as Watkins to Dickens’ Holmes), Collins’ own detective novel The Moonstone, a healthy dose of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and even the Salieri versus Mozart plot from the movie Amadeus. What Drood is not is “Dickensian”.

While Simmons has taken his title from the last, and unfinished, of Dickens’ novels, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, neither the writing, the plot, nor the characters (entirely devoid of humor, every one) have much to do with Dickens’ fiction. Drood is all Wilkie Collins, and, as we are to learn only too well, Wilkie Collins is no Charles Dickens.

Written as Collins’ “posthumous memoir” to a “Dear Reader” centuries hence, Drood recounts Collins’ literary and personal interactions with Dickens over the last five years of the latter’s life, beginning with the Staplehurst train disaster in June 1865.

Dickens barely escapes injury and as he attempts to help others less fortunate, he encounters “a tall, thin man wearing a heavy black cape.” As Dickens later describes him, this figure “was cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale, and stared at the writer from dark-shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp. A few strands of graying hair lept out from the sides of this skull-like visage.” The creature has virtually no nose, only “mere slits opening into the grub-white visage” and “small, sharp, irregular teeth, set too far apart, set into guns so pale they were whiter than the teeth themselves.”

Dickens’ last glimpse of this apparition: “The man’s pale eyes in their sunken sockets seemed to have no eyelids. The figure’s lips parted, its mouth opened and moved, the fleshy tongue flickered out from behind and between the tiny teeth, and hissing sounds emerged.” Dear Reader, meet Drood.

Dickens, we learn, has been much affected by the train accident and his post traumatic stress disorder features an obsession with Drood, whom he imagines wandering through the carnage, ghoul-like, helping the injured into their graves. Dickens not only tells Collins all about the incident, but provides, apparently having done his research, a complete history of Drood.

An Egyptian Fu Manchu, ruler of London’s Undertown, a subterranean city populated by society’s most abject castoffs, Drood is a criminal mastermind, followed by legions of thugs, who is responsible for more than 300 murders. Dickens’ obsession with Drood soon becomes Collins’, and the next almost 800 pages of the book, in part, is a series of horror set pieces in which Collins, sometimes through the offices of a detective Fields, encounters either Drood or his minions. Or, at least Collins thinks he does, which is a problem I’ll return to in a moment.

Drood is also the story of a literary friendship, and its deterioration. Friends and collaborators, who worked together on plays and Christmas stories, Dickens and Collins are gradually estranged due to Dickens growing preoccupation with his reading tours, a phenomenal success in that age, and Collins’ resentment of his friend’s achievements. Generous doses of laudanum and Dickens’ enthusiasm for mesmerism further complicate things.

Throughout, the story of Collins’ obsession with Drood (and two lesser apparitions, which have populated his imagination, and his home, since childhood) is intertwined with his obsession with Dickens, which eventually leads Collins to the conclusion that he must murder “the most famous author in the world” (as we are reminded he is time and time and time again).

Now, the historical Dickens wasn’t murdered, which represents a challenge to the author, who has apparently tried to be as truthful as possible to the historical record. Yet, Collins does murder Dickens, or seems to. Skip the next paragraph, if, like me, you hate hearing how a novel ends before you’ve read it.

I wanted to like this book. Dan Simmons can certainly write, his sentences are clean and precise and rarely flowery (nothing like Dickens). I love Dickens and horror and detective stories, all the various elements of Drood, which should make a pleasing concoction. But you can’t cheat. And Drood cheats again and again.

The murder of Dickens, exquisitely described, is quickly revealed to be that poor last refuge of creative failure, a dream. Collins commits other murders. Or does he? We are given all the factual evidence that he has, but in a long desultory ending the author leaves us with a big question. Has it all been Collins’ fantasy, engendered by a few mesmeric suggestions from Dickens at the beginning of the book, and fueled by opium and the writer’s own hyperactive imagination? The answer is, probably. And Drood? Well, I won’t give away everything.

I might have forgiven all this if the journey had been more pleasant. Seven hundred and seventy-one pages can feel like two thousand when you’re told the same thing over and over again. Perhaps, in a book this long, to be reminded two or three or four times of something that took place earlier on might seem helpful, but after a while it feels like the author thinks the reader is dumb.

There are a number of great scenes in the book: the Staplehurst disaster is vividly described, a first (not the second) descent into Undertown is scary, and a literary argument between a high-handed Dickens and Collins is perhaps the most engrossing scene of all. But, just as often, Drood relies on horror clichés. On page 313, Collins say, “I do not mind telling you, Dear Reader, that I was terribly weary of crypts. I do not blame you if you are as well.” This is fair warning, for a lot more time spent in crypts is yet to come.

Finally, even with these caveats, Drood might have been worth the ride if Dickens, and Collins especially, were more interesting characters. The portrait of Dickens is clear, if not vivid, but being inside Collins’ airless crypt of a brain is punishment indeed. He is a man without passion or conviction. He is obsessed only with Drood and Dickens. Even his feverish literary pursuits are enslavement to these obsessions. I suspect that given Simmons’s premise for the book, he felt it couldn’t be otherwise. But that doesn’t keep his Wilkie Collins, however many horror stories he has to tell, from being a bore.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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