Amid the chaos of the Staplehurst train crash of June 9, 1865, something mysterious, and ultimately deadly, happened to the most popular novelist in the world. Seven railcars leaped the track and fell from a bridge to a small creek below. Ten people were killed, 40 more were wounded, and by all accounts Charles Dickens was a hero of the day. He helped free people trapped in their cars, and he administered aid to dozens of injured and dying passengers before assistance finally arrived.

Dickens was hailed as a hero, but he had something to hide: He was traveling with Ellen Ternan, his secret companion and (most likely) his mistress. And something that day changed Dickens for good. His wit and good nature had been celebrated far and wide, but after Staplehurst, Dickens demonstrated the classic signs of depression, punctuated erratically with outbursts of rage and cruelty. He never completed another novel, although he left one, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished. Some doctors theorize that Dickens suffered a brain injury in the crash that altered his personality; some biographers suggest he was emotionally overwhelmed after bearing witness to so much death and suffering. Whatever the cause of his change in behavior, this much is true: Five years to the day of the accident, Dickens died, a portentous fate that would not be out of place in one of his novels.

Dan Simmons is no stranger to giant novels with enormous casts: His Hyperion cantos are sprawling sci-fi epics, and he's published two-dozen mammoth horror, mystery, and fantasy novels over the last quarter-century. His latest novel, Drood, is about those last, dark years in the life of Dickens, and it's in every way Dickensian: huge, unflinching in its description of the grubby Victorian world, and melodramatic in the very best way.

Like the best of Simmons's work, Drood stands astride genres: It's a historical novel, but it also features a supernatural element. Narrated by Dickens's contemporary and occasional collaborator Wilkie Collins, Drood posits that Dickens was visited at Staplehurst by an apparition in a top hat and opera cape, "cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale... [with] dark shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp" and a nose consisting of "mere black slits." This skeletal visage belongs to a man named Drood, and Dickens and Collins spend the next five years trying to discover his secrets.

The two authors journey below London, to opium dens and weird pseudo-Egyptian temples beneath the streets. Their adventures are drug-addled and dark:

I fumbled out the pistol. At the moment, I was convinced that we were being attacked by gigantic grub-faced rats.
Dickens stepped between me and the surging, feinting forms.
"They're boys, Wilkie," he cried. "Boys!"
"Cannibal boys!" I cried back, raising the pistol.
As if to confirm my statement, one of the pale faces—all tiny eyes and long nose and sharp teeth in the bull's-eye light—lunged at Dickens and snapped, as if he were attempting to bite off the author's nose.

Collins is an unreliable narrator, to say the least: He drinks two cups of laudanum a day (allegedly to battle his painful gout), and he is often racked with jealousy that Dickens, whom he regards as an inferior talent, is exponentially more popular than he. Many passages of the book are consumed with unflattering (and often hilariously misguided) criticism of Dickens's work; Collins claims, for instance, that Miss Havisham is a pale imitation of the main character from his own The Woman in White. Collins becomes convinced that Drood has implanted a scarab beetle in his skull, and stress and jealousy cause the beetle to crawl around his brain impatiently. Before long, he's planning to murder Dickens and assume his role as the most beloved novelist in England.

Simmons leaves the fantasy elements up to the reader's judgment. There is enough mesmerism, opium, and out-and-out storytelling in the book to potentially render any one part of the account untruthful. In many ways, Drood is equally a mystery—a what-did-he-do as much as a whodunit—and a fantasy novel. And it functions as a fairly comprehensive biography of the last five years of Dickens's life. Dozens of biographers have reported that, after the train crash, Dickens undertook a relentless schedule of public readings so gruesome in their delivery that women and children would faint or flee in tears. None of those biographers have been as spirited as Simmons in describing the ghoulishness of an imaginary murder that Dickens commits onstage every night, playing both roles at once:

Dickens's voice filled St. James Hall so thoroughly that even Nancy's final, whispered, dying entreaties could be heard as if each of us in the audience were onstage. During the few (but terrible) silences, one could have heard a mouse stirring in the empty balcony behind us. We could actually hear Dickens panting from the exertion of bringing his invisible (all too visible!) club down on the dear girl's skull... again! Again! Again!

And no other biographer recognized the fatal toll that the exertion of performing these ghastly readings night after night probably had on Dickens: Collins declares it "suicide by reading tour," a sentiment that must surely bring a smile to the lips of many a published author.

Drood is about the horrors and pains of being a novelist. It's a book about the heartbreak of putting years of your life into a book, populating it with all the wonders and terrors that live in your head, and watching that book receive no attention at all on its release, as though it were published in invisible ink. It's about being friends with another novelist you suspect is your superior (it's said that T. S. Eliot once called Collins "Charles Dickens without the genius") and you know is better loved by the general public, and also knowing that there's nothing you can do to change that.

The story of literature can be told entirely in friendly and not-so-friendly rivalries (Bacon and Shakespeare, Plath and Hughes, Marston and Jonson, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Amis and Barnes—hell, Amis and Amis). And history has no doubt forgotten the thousands of also-rans who've been swallowed in the conflagration of literary glory. Drood masterfully tells the story of one such also-ran and invites the reader into the special kind of hell that exists in the dark space right next to the limelight. recommended

Dan Simmons reads Wed Feb 18, University Book Store, 7 pm, free.