This review is about how much I enjoyed this book, which is a lot. For reasons I will explain below, I do not know that many other people will love this novel the same way I do. Even so, I have to recommend it very highly. It is immaculately written, with a wonderful sense of (pseudo) history to it. The book is essentially a portrait of two lives, in terms of their relationship-- that of Charles Dickens, and the narrator, Dickens' protege, Wilkie Collins. On top of that, it is a very chilling horror story.
While this novel is an obvious work of fiction, it is based very heavily on both Collins' and Dickens' actual lives, with a list of resources several pages long at the back of the book. Dickens did survive a train wreck, and he was very interested in mesmerism, and there were several very strange episodes related to his experiments with hypnotism. He did have a penchant for exploring the slums of Victorian London, the dark side of the coin to Victorian society's sartorial splendor. Like many great men, he was almost undoubtedly both a hero and an ass.
Then there is the narrator, Wilkie, who loves Dickens so, who craves his mentor's approval, and feels a deep resentment for Dickens because of that craving. Collins was addicted to laudanum, and watching him descend into (probable) madness, his horrifying deeds occluded through the lens of delusion and self-manipulation... it is a stomach churning experience. Collins very much resembles the Victorian age himself, cultured and perhaps even a little bit absurd on the surface but corrupt and cruel and self-deceptive underneath. Of course, a trick was played on him to begin his descent, but it was a pebble that begins a landslide. Much of Wilkie's life is dedicated to avoiding responsibility for his actions, and to appearing like a better person than he is. The casual sociopathy that pervades much of his narrative soaks slowly into the reader, and is hard to shake off afterwards.
I do think I benefited from a passing familiarity with both Collins and Dickens, and from an unusual knowledge of Dicken's unfinished novel, <I>The Mystery of Edwin Drood.</I> As a result, I could see where the characters in Simmons' novel influenced the fictional Dickens in his creation of the ridiculous detective Dick Datchery and the opium purveying Puffer Princess. Most of all, I could see how Wilkie Collins is the inspiration for Dicken's villain, John Jasper, a proto-Jeckyll whose kind heart (?) forces him to create a monster within himself who will do the things he wants, kill the people he hates, leaving his conscious self guilt free. As such, I do have to ask, would I have enjoyed this book as much without that rather specialized literary knowledge? I think making these connections was a special part of the thrill for me. Even so, this book does rank among my favorites, and is the work of a true master of genre-- all of them-- besides. There aren't many carefully researched historical horrors, which is sad because it's an unusually satisfying combination. Even at nearly 800 pages, this particularly morsel is singularly delicious.
5 Stars (If you dig Likert scales)