A modern take on Chaucer’s classic

eoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. Viking Press, 2009. 436 pages

Being an old English teacher, I am aware of a literary tradition regarding classical works of literature: every generation of so, “masterpieces,” such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, the plays of Sophocles and Euripides and ancient epics such as Gilgamesh and The Decameron are translated (again) by a new group of prominent scholars. The purpose of these translations, according to the translators, is to make the classics more “relevant” to modern readers. For example, a careful translation of “Antigone” may reveal subtle similarities between King Creon’s military policy and Germany’s Third Reich. Recently, a new “interpretation” of Gilgamesh uncovered marked similarities between the fate of an arrogant tyrant 3,000 years ago and the invasion of Iraq during George Bush’s presidency. No doubt, similar reasons were given for a new translation of the Greek Bacchae during the height of San Francisco’s “hippie movement” when Timothy Leary’s fans ran amuck.

However, this time out, we have a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Peter Ackroyd - a translation designed to make this venerable 14th century literary work relevant to “the audience of today.” Ackroyd tells us Chaucer’s poetic (but archaic) language has rendered this marvelous collection of stories obscure and/or meaningless to the modern reader. Why not “translate” the entire work into conventional modern language? To illustrate his point, Ackroyd “retells” the passage that introduces this review (“The Prologue”) as follows:

“When the soft, sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every saplings and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectations. The west wind blows away the stench of the city and crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter, it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of general renewal and restoration. The sun has passed midway through the sign of the Ram, a good time for the sinews and the heart. This is the best season of the year for travelers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimages.

Now, admittedly, Ackroyd’s passage is much easier to read since he has removed all of the archaic words and spelling. However, he has also removed Chaucer’s poetry (his meter and rimes) which has been replaced by... conventional prose. Is it better?

When I encountered The Canterbury Tales in my sophomore year at WCU (with my Cliff Notes firmly in hand), I discovered that there were 28 pilgrims who intended to make a leisurely journey from London to Canterbury to the tomb of Thomas a’Becket, and that Chaucer originally intended for each of them to tell four stories — two going and two coming back — a total of 112 tales. In actual fact, Chaucer only completed 24 tales. However, it is am amazingly varied collection, which ranges from bawdy fabliaux (dirty joke) to anti-Semitic rants and high-minded moral sermons.

Despite the fact that it has been over fifty years since I read Chaucer for the first time, it is amazing how vividly many of these characters live in my memory. Both the gap-toothed Wife of Bath, with her obsession with sex and the sleazy Pardoner with his jar of “pig bones” (which he sells as holy relics along with his “papal indulgences”) are morally corrupt - yet Chaucer’s descriptions of them give them a kind of literary immortality. In addition, despite the repulsive nature of speaker, “The Pardoner’s Tale” remains one of the great cautionary tales of literature.

Ackroyd’s “retelling” of such ribald classics as “The Miller’s Tale.” “The Reeve’s Tale” and “The Summoner’s Tale” are probably the original prototypes, of the 20th century “traveling salesmen” jokes since they all deal with cuckoldry, sexual misadventures and flatulence, and all are examples of low comedy. Ackroyd retells all of Chaucer’s “dirty jokes” with a sort gleeful zest that definitely adds to their humor. For example, the college students in both “The Summoner’s Tale” and the “The Miller’s Tale” speak in modern-day “cockney” and use many of the current, four-letter, sexual idioms. This is equally true of the Nun’s Priest’s tale, which gives an earthy account of the barnyard adventures of Chanticleer, the lusty rooster!

Many of the stories are boring (“The Knight’s Tale”), pretentious and/or ridiculous (“The Clerk’s Tale” of the “patient Griselda”), or moral tales filled with religious hypocrisy and anti-Semitism (“The Prioress’ Tale” of how Little Saint Hugh was slain by the Jews and “The Second Nun’s Tale” of Saint Cecilia’s martyrdom). Ironically, Chaucer is not responsible for the literary shortcomings of the tales, for each stands as an insight into the personality of the speaker. For example, Chaucer’s Knight is noble, honest and poor, but he is unable to tell an interesting story. One can imagine the pilgrims nodding off in the saddle as the poor Knight drones on and on. It is interesting that the most morally offensive tales are told by religious personages such as the Nun, the Prioress and the Clerk - all of which unwittingly reveal their own ethical shortcomings.

It well may be that Ackroyd’s retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may actually create a revival of interest in this 14th century classic. The low humor is still hilarious and Chaucer has a marvelous talent for revealing the pompous self-importance of corrupt 14th century church officials. It is especially important to remember that the opinions expressed by Chaucer’s pilgrims are not Chaucer’s — especially with stories like “The Clerk’s Tale” which is easily the yarn most likely to infuriate a modern feminist. I believe that Chaucer would share her outrage.

Hill recreates horror that dad Stephen King perfected

Horns by Joe Hill. William Morrow Publishers, 2010. 370 pages.

Ignatius William Perrish (“Iggy” to his friends) awoke one morning to find that, in addition to a headache, he had a very tangible set of horns sprouting from his forehead. Alarmed by his new acquisitions, Iggy takes himself to his family doctor’s office where he makes an alarming discovery. When other people (the receptionist, his current girl friend, etc.) focus on the horns, they not only have an uncontrollable desire to confess their secret sins, they ask for advice and assurance. Should they push their Alzheimer’s-striken mother down the basement steps? Should they continue embezzling funds? Is it time to break off a sleazy affair with a neighbor’s wife? Also, as soon as Iggy becomes distressed by the shocking sins of the people he meets and turns away in horror, the sinners forget what they have just confessed. In fact, they forget Iggy was ever there.

What follows is a nightmarish series of encounters in which Iggy visits those near and dear to him: his mother, his father, his grandmother and his celebrity brother. Poor Iggy learns that most of his family harbors an intense dislike for him. His mother is ashamed of him and is reluctant to attend social events where people know she is Iggy’s mother. His father hopes that he will move out and his grandmother considers him a loathsome pervert. Stunned by this information, Iggy reluctantly confronts his brother Terry, dreading to hear that even the person he admires most in the world probably despises him too.

By this point in Horns, the reader suspects that Iggy is suppressing a few dark secrets of his own; for example, he is a murder suspect. A year has lapsed since Merrin Williams, Iggy’s girlfriend, was raped and murdered on the eve of their departure for college. Merrin’s body is found in a favorite local hangout for courting couples — an abandoned foundry. Iggy is a primary suspect, but the evidence against his is circumstantial; he is never charged with the crime. However, it soon becomes evident that everyone, including Father Mould, the local Catholic priest (who has some pretty loathsome confessions of his own), and Iggy’s family thinks he is guilty. When Iggy finally reveals his new horns to his brother, he braces himself to hear yet another confession of hidden enmity. Instead, Terry reveals that he knows that his brother is innocent; but has failed to give evidence that would clear Iggy’s name because certain details of the crime would destroy Terry’s career (he is a popular TV personality).

Now, admittedly, a novel about a protagonist who has a set of horns on his head is a little bizarre, but this fact is rendered irrelevant by what follows: Horns contains two wildly divergent themes: (1) a deeply moving and poignant love story (Iggy and Merrin) and (2) a dark meditation on the nature of Good and Evil (God and the Devil). Although the novel is essentially a story about a group of teenagers in a small New Hampshire town, it gradually morphs into a morality tale that poses a number of disturbing questions. Is the majority of mankind essentially evil? In our secret hearts, are we all more comfortable with Satan than with God? Do we all nurse bitter resentments, anger and lust even as he communicate with our friends and family?

In addition to confirming Iggy’s innocence, Terry reveals the identity of the real murderer — Lee Tourneau, an enigmatic, handsome young man who just happens to be Iggy’s “best friend.” Now, in the aftermath of Merrin’s death, Iggy learns that Lee’s friendship is a carefully contrived mask to hide Lee’s profound envy and hatred for everyone who is blessed with comfortable lives, material goods and family ties.

It is especially interesting that the only character in Horns who is immune to the strange power of Iggy’s horns is Lee Tourneau. Raised in poverty by parents who are incapable of affection, Tourneau structures an existence designed to “get even” with his privileged peers — all the people he despises for real or imagined slights. When Lee launches a kind of secret war of deceit and betrayal on all of his alleged friends, Iggy and Merrin are fated to suffer the most.

Horns becomes a disturbing study of guilt, envy and suffering. At times, Lee Tourneau’s bitter envy resembles other infamous masters of deceit: Iago, who hated Othello because the Moor’s life had a beauty “that makes me ugly.” Then, there is Claggart’s hatred of Melville’s Billy Budd. Lee burns with a rage to destroy both Iggy and Merrin, simply because they exist.

Joe Hill is definitely his father’s (Stephen King) son. Horns, like his previous bestseller, The Heart-shaped Box, is filled with passages and imagery that causes the reader’s skin to prickle. Especially memorable are a series of scenes in the abandoned foundry where Iggy hides while he attempts to develop a way to defend himself against Tourneau.

As Iggy broods on the injustice of his situation, he begins to change, acquiring all of the traditional trappings of a demon. He discovers that he can mimic the voices of others and has the power to summons them to his hideout. Eventually, he notices that he has attracted visitors — hundreds (possibly thousands) of snakes gather around Iggy like adoring disciples.

There is, of course, a final conflict and it has dark grandeur which needs to be read. Consequently, this review will not steal any of Joe Hill’s thunder but merely note that the author does a masterful job of orchestrating an ending filled with drama, thunder and a strange kind of cosmic justice.

Carden wrestles with storyteller legacy

There are two voices inside Sylva storyteller and playwright Gary Carden. One belongs to the mountain man of letters whom author Lee Smith coined “the Appalachian Garrison Keillor.” The other belongs to an orphaned child who clung to a pink transistor radio to make it through the lonely nights on Rhodes Cove.

“I was a damned lonely little kid, and I’d turn that radio on and it was like a bright night light,” Carden said, his voice turned sweet on the memories of his favorite ‘50s radio shows.

Carden is one of the most recognized literary voices in Western North Carolina largely because of his ability to communicate the authentic experiences and cadences of a mountain culture that is nearly vanished.

As an artist, the tension in Carden’s work is grounded in the double-consciousness of a man who knows firsthand the feeling of being “found wanting” and who still expresses pride in his heritage.

“I kind of turned into a missionary of some kind because I felt it was my job to communicate my culture,” Carden said. “Can you tell people about mountain dialect and the way my granddaddy lived without communicating ignorance?”

For Carden, the question is personal and not abstract. His father drove an oil truck and played in a mountain band until he was shot dead in his own garage by a loafer drunk on wood alcohol.

“It was an accident that didn’t make sense. That’s the kind that bothers you forever,” Carden said.

His mother, only 18 at the time of the killing, left him with his grandparents and went to Tennessee.

While his story is the type of Appalachian biography that reeks of authenticity, Carden reckons what makes him real isn’t his personal tragedy so much as the shared pain of growing up ashamed of his own voice.

“My granny warned me –– and most mountain people know this –– when I got out of college,” Carden said. “’Garneal,’ she said. ‘When you get out of here, you’ll be weighed and you’ll be found wanting.’ And she was right.”

Last weekend, Carden staged his play “Nance Dude” at Western Carolina University’s Coulter Auditorium to benefit the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library. It was the second performance of the two-part library benefit featuring actor Elizabeth Westall in two one-act plays that draw a line between history and folklore.

“It’s a special category. It’s history becoming folklore,” Carden said of “Nance Dude.” “There comes a time when people start decorating the facts and at some point the history becomes folklore.”

The play showcases two of Carden’s innate gifts: his ear for Appalachian dialect and his ability to normalize the brutality of dark mountain history with humor and humanity. “Nance Dude” re-tells the true story of a Haywood County woman convicted for the murder of her granddaughter.

Carden rem-embers his own grandmother explaining to him why his grandfather “didn’t laugh much.” She told the story of Kirk’s Raiders shooting down his great-grandfather in cold blood and leaving the body on the front porch.

“When my grandmother told me that story, she’d pull me right to her face and say ‘Don’t you forget what they did to Bryant,’” said Carden. “And of course I think that’s one of our greatest flaws as a culture ... the way we carry grudges.”

But “Nance Dude” also gets at the root of why Carden, now in his 70s, still burns hot in quest of his defining work. Carden has won awards as a writer and a storyteller, and honorary degrees as a folklorist, but he has never gotten the one acclaim that would put to rest the prophetic fear his grandmother instilled in him.

“My work has never been considered significant enough to be published,” Carden said.

Carden wonders whether his identity as a storyteller hasn’t limited him.

“Playwrights have a hard time. Poets have it harder. And storytellers have it the worst,” Carden said. “What do you do with a literate Appalachian storyteller? A mountain storyteller is supposed to be a hick with a wooly beard who’s never read a book.”

But Carden’s not making excuses. Instead, he’s still searching for his defining moment as an artist. He recently finished a play called “Signs and Wonders” that casts a light on the damage Pentecostal preachers from Bob Jones University did during their student auditions in mountain towns in the ‘50s. But he thinks there’s something bigger brewing in him.

“I’m kind of in stasis,” Carden said. “I need to do something significant. I’m bored and I’m not content with what I’ve done. I’ve got about 10 plays that need to get done and I know they won’t be.”

Some of Carden’s best written works are published in a collection called Mason Jars in the Flood & other stories. The autobiographical “Harley stories” are his version of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, autobiographical tales about growing up that carry both the personal and cultural angst of a moment in time.

Carden grew up in the mountains when the world was turning modern, and the mountain folk were being shut out of their own home. He became a man of letters, earning two degrees from Western Carolina University. When he writes about his childhood, he does it in clear and beautiful prose that hints at a fundamental conflict.

“You have to live in two worlds,” Carden said. “Culture demands it of you.”

Gary Carden, the artist, is still looking for the perfect way to call the world to account for the wrongs visited on Appalachian people since the Civil War and on his heart since his childhood. Like many writers, his thirst for success is fueled by a drive to hold life accountable for the pain it dispenses.

“My strength is the same as my grandparents’ inability to forgive,” Carden said. “I can’t forget things that are wrong. I want to see justice done.”

A requiem for Cataloochee

Requiem by Fire by Wayne Caldwell. Random House, 2009. 335 pages

Dear readers, if you have some slight respect for my opinions about Appalachian literature, I hope you will believe me when I say that Wayne Caldwell has written a remarkable novel — one that we will be talking about for many years. Requiem by Fire, Caldwell’s second work in what may well be a series of novels, is rooted in the history, folkways and culture of a vanquished place: Cataloochee. Whereas the first novel gave breath, blood and passion to the early settlers of that place, this sequel attempts to capture the lives of those same settlers and their descendants (some 1,100 in all) when they are faced with eviction.

If you have ever wondered how the federal government and the U.S. Park Service orchestrated the removal the households in Big and Little Cataloochee, here is a detailed and sometimes heartbreaking account. At its worst, the “presence of the Park” in Cataloochee and elsewhere sometimes resembled occupation by a conquering army, since uniformed and armed officials took up residence in the designated area and began issuing mandates — regulations that stipulated everything from reimbursement for land to deadlines for final departure. From the beginning, the Park stressed a singular dismal fact: This land now belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You must leave.

For many of the aged residents such as Silas Wright, the coming of the Park was a death notice. In response to petitions from landowners who refused governmental reimbursement and requested permission to stay, the Park relented but issued restrictions that were so rigorous most landowners felt that they could not comply. No hunting, no cutting of trees (firewood was restricted to deadfalls) and severe limits on gardens and fishing. Although there was considerable dissatisfaction with the Park and its dictates, the majority of the people finally loaded their belongings and left. Silas Wright, the oldest member of the community, chose to stay.

Many of the elderly “exiles” did not survive for long. Like some of the plants many of the families attempted to transplant to their new homes in Saunook, Maggie Valley or Waynesville, these displaced souls faded and died — as though they had been deprived of some vital nutrient that could only be found in the soil of Cataloochee. There were suicides and many suffered psychological damage. There were exceptions, like the family that moved to Saunook, bought an old garage and converted it into a mercantile store that specialized in “mountain crafts.”

Noting that their customers were fascinated by such antiquated items as sun bonnets, quilts, corncob pipes and rustic chairs, they quickly became “real mountaineers” (or at least what the visiting public perceived them to be), and in the process provided an income for other Cataloochans who could whittle, sew, hew and weave.

Much of Requiem by Fire deals with the trials and tribulations of Jim Hawkins, a young native of Cataloochee who readily accepts the job of warden for the Park. In essence, Jim must enforce the unpopular rules and regulations devised by the Park. Hawkins accepts his job with a sort of religious fervor. His love for Cataloochee and its people motivates him to see if he can ease the pains of their transition. Since the Park authorities have quickly developed a reputation for insensitivity and arrogance, the local residents accept Hawkins who is “one of their own” and who has a talent for acting as a buffer between the Park and the disenfranchised residents.

Certainly, he has a knack for defusing explosive situations. He also knows when to look the other way.

However, Hawkins has made one serious mistake that causes him considerable suffering. He has married a “town girl.” Born in West Asheville, Nell comes with Jim to Cataloochee and is immediately distressed. No telephone. No movie theater. No restaurants or social life. Although she endures several years of discomfort and boredom, she does not adjust but becomes increasingly resentful. Where Jim sees beauty and solitude, Nell sees discomfort and isolation. Nell’s departure is inevitable and comes at a time when Hawkins is beset with serious problems ... one of which is a pyromaniac.

Willie McPeters is an unforgettable character. Although he has much in common with other mentally deranged characters in southern fiction, such as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes or Faulkner’s degenerate Snopes family, McPeters is more elemental, a kind of embodiment of mindless and bestial destruction. McPeters begins to burn abandoned buildings in a sexual frenzy and as his destruction in Cataloochee increases, Jim Hawkins finds evidence of Willie’s presence near his home (McPeters leaves an acrid stench where ever he goes).

Ironically, as Hawkins struggles to save his marriage and track down the elusive firebug, the Park announces its new edict. All of the vacated buildings in Cataloochee are to be burned. Nothing is to be left that would detract from the Park’s mission: to return Cattaloochee to a wilderness state. Consequently, this sets the scene for the most heartrending section of Requiem by Fire — Hawkins is ordered to officiate at the burning of the place where he was born:

Destroying the place where as a baby he had padded in knitted booties. The place he’d learned fire burns and ice is cold, and that nothing is better for the sniffles than a mother’s love and warm VapoRub.The place he’d broken windows with homemade baseballs.The place that had kept him dry during storms and wet in the tub on Saturday night. The place where his father had read the Bible out loud every night and where Jim had learned about alcohol when he was caught sneaking from Mack’s jug and where his punishment had been to keep drinking until he retched. His place.

As Hawkins stands watching the inferno destroy even the boxwoods and the maple tree in the front yard, he is joined by the lonely and stubborn Silas Wright, who now believes that Cataloochee is truly gone. Silas also encounters a group of campers from the flatlands and their behavior and opinions presage the coming of vast hordes who will perceive Cataloochee as a “vast outdoor playground.” Silas senses that it is time for him to go as well.

Requiem by Fire begins and ends with dreams — Silas Wright’s dreams. The first fire is one that Silas and his friends deliberately set when Silas was a young man. They had burned the old Cataloochee school because they believed that the only way they would get an adequate school for their children was to burn the old one. Now, at the end of his life, Silas dreams of fire again. However, this time the fire is multi-faceted. It both cleanses and obliterates, destroys and renews. In Cataloochee, a way of life has perished, but a new world is approaching by a paved road. The tourists are coming.

Presentation of Carden plays to benefit library fund

Two plays crafted by Sylva writer Gary Carden will be presented at Western Carolina University in March to benefit the new library fund of the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library.

Carden’s “Birdell” will be staged at 7 p.m. Friday, March 12, in the auditorium of WCU’s Coulter Building, while “Nance Dude” will be presented Friday, March 19, at the same time and location. Both presentations will feature actress Elizabeth Westall and are being co-sponsored by WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center and School of Music, the Jackson County Arts Council and the library Friends.

The Friends organization is engaged in a fundraising campaign to raise $1.6 million to purchase the furniture, fixtures and equipment for the new Jackson County Public Library Complex, currently under construction on Courthouse Hill in Sylva. The campaign has collected more than $1.4 million so far, and among the contributions is a $250,000 challenge grant from the State Employees Credit Union Foundation.

Both plays are one-act monologues that portray the authentic voices of Appalachian women. “Birdell” is based on the lives of families who lived on Hazel Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains until the coming of the national park, and is told from the perspective of the fictional character Birdell as she reflects on her long life. Carden based his play “Nance Dude” on the book, “The Legend of Nance Dude” by Maurice Stanley. Both play and book depict a Haywood County woman who was convicted of killing her granddaughter in 1913.

A native of Sylva, Carden earned two degrees at WCU and for more than four decades has presented traditional mountain culture to the public as a teacher, storyteller, novelist, historian, screenwriter and playwright. WCU recognized Carden’s body of work in presenting him with an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2008.

Westall, a Yancey County native who earned degrees at Berea College and Duke University, taught English and drama before her retirement in 1985. Since then, she has acted and directed in numerous regional productions.

Tickets prices for the shows are $15 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $5 for students.

Volunteers are needed to help set up, sell tickets, act as ushers and perform other jobs. E-mail Betty Screven at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to sign up. For more information about the March 12 and 19 presentations, contact the Friends of the Library at 828.507.0476.

One fateful night

The Turnaround by George Pelecanos. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 320 pages


On a sweltering summer night in 1972, three white teenagers in Washington, D. C., decide to cruise through a black neighborhood called Heathrow Heights. On a dare, the driver, Billy Cachoris, yells a few racial slurs at three black teenagers while his companion, Pete Whitten, throws a cherry pie. Alex Pappas, the third teenager, is in the back seat and does not participate in this dangerous prank. Belatedly, Cachoris discovers that he is in a turnaround with no exit. His only choice is to turn around and go back to where three very angry blacks stand in the middle of the street waiting. Billy stops the car, gets out and attempts to apologize. He is sucker-punched and while he is lying in the street, he is shot in the back. Pete jumps from the car and runs. Alex is badly beaten and scarred for life.

George Pelecanos, who calls The Turnaround his most autobiographical novel, provides extensive information about the three black teenagers. James and Raymond Monroe are brothers and both have recently heard their mother describe how she had been subjected to racial slurs by some white teenagers just a few nights earlier. Charles Baker, several years older than the Monroe brothers, has a reputation for violence and drugs. He strikes Billy Cachoris and attacks Alex Pappas, leaving him with mutilated eye (Alex says that he looks as though his damaged eyes is perpetually weeping.) A witness later testifies that one of the Monroe brothers fired the fatal hot. Eventually, James Monroe confesses and is charged with murder.

The Turnaround is about consequences. When Pelecanos moves the action forward 35 years, we discover that the lives of all of the participants in that tragic night in 1972 have been altered; the lives of numerous others (children, wives, relatives, etc.) are affected in varying degrees. The central character, Alex Pappas, had once planned to go to college, but ends up operating his father’s Greek diner. Alex is haunted by that night in Heathrow Heights, and he often wonders if he could have changed the outcome. He sees his role in the tragedy as an example of his role in life. He is “the guy in the backseat,” someone who is not really involved in the action, but sanctioning it with his silence.

Recently, his sense of being powerless to shape his life has been intensified by the death of his own son in Iraq. James Monroe does not fare well in prison and ends up serving a total of 20 years. Out of prison, he drinks too much and ekes out a living as an underpaid mechanic. Charles Baker, who had testified against James Monroe in the trial in exchange for a light sentence, has become a hardened petty criminal who preys on the weak. Only Pete Whitten, a local WASP from a privileged family, and now a local lawyer; and Ray Monroe, who works in a military rehabilitation center assisting maimed veterans; and Alex Pappas have managed to create meaningful and economically secure lives complete with wives and children.

When a chance meeting between Alex Pappas and Ray Monroe occurs, Pelecanos handles this confrontation as a kind of moral “turnaround.” Thirty-five years after the tragedy of Heathrow Heights, all of the survivors find themselves facing a personal crisis. Alex feels that he has sacrificed his personal dreams for the benefit of his family; Ray Monroe has lead a fulfilling life of service to others, but is haunted by guilt (he harbors a secret about the death of Billy Cachoris); James Monroe, trapped in a dead-end job, a tendency to drink too much and an inability to make friends, has unwittingly become involved with Charles Baker in an extortion scheme. Finally, there is Charles Baker, who bitterly resents the material wealth of everyone and spends much of his time developing schemes to take advantage of others. Unfortunately, one of his plans involves taking control if a lucrative drug operation run by a syndicate of ruthless dealers.

The Turnaround represents yet another example of a “new theme” in the recent works of George Pelecanos. Many of his earlier novels (Down Where the Dead Men Go, Shoedog, A Firing Offense) although skillfully written are noted for their darkness and brutality. In recent years, a new theme has emerged in works such as The Night Gardener, Drama City and Hard Revolution: the theme of redemption. In recent works, Pelecanos develops characters who find meaningful lives through family, sacrifice and work. Indeed, this is the trinity that dominates in The Turnaround.

In the latter part of The Turnaround, there are two significant confrontations: the chance meeting between Raymond Monroe and Alex Pappas, which evolves into a series of meetings in which these two men strive to find a way to bring closure to the bitterness and resentment that both parties have harbored for 35 years. It is through the initiative of Pappas that the two factions finally merge in the creation of “a project” that will redeem them all. The second significant confrontation is between Charles Baker and Pete Whitten (and later repeated between Baker and Alex Pappas) and is tainted by Baker’s use of threat and intimidation. In the final analysis Baker’s schemes are counterproductive, and, produce yet another tragedy.

What is interesting about this change in themes in Pelecanos’ novels is his passionate presentation of the redeeming aspects of family, work and sacrifice. In The Turnaround, Alex Pappas and Raymond Monroe survive because of them. Characters (like Charles Baker), who are without family or meaningful work are often doomed. For several years now, Pelecanos has been active in book-signing circuit, and he frequently delivers lectures to his fans that resemble fervent sermons. (See Pelecanos on YouTube.)

No review of a Pelecanos novel would be complete without acknowledging the author’s remarkable ability to capture and/or encapsulate the atmosphere of a specific time and place. With Pelecanos, it is Washington, D. C., and the area around Dupont Circle, circa 1970. The Turnaround resonates with crisp dialogue that contains vivid references to that era’s music, sports, radio personalities and popular cars. Many reader may relish the feeling of cruising through D.C. in a Monte Carlo listening to Wilson Pickett do “In the Midnight Hour” on WOL. I agree with Alex that, compared to what is now on the radio, those were good times.

Power struggle

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell. Saint Martins Press, 1998. 397 pages

Several years ago, when I was reading everything I could find about mythical figures such as King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Tristan, Iseult and Galahad, I blundered on the works of a Romanian philosopher named Mircea Eliade. Eliade was also obsessed with mythology and one of his most famous essays, “The Eternal Return,” entertained the idea that all of the stories of legendary heroes and tragic lovers are still with us.

However, the story’s basic elements (culture, physical characteristics, sex, etc.) are constantly changing. For example, the story of Tristan and Iseult could have been repeated last week in a Greek fishing village where Iseult is a waitress in a local cafe, Tristan might be an African fisherman and King Mark may operate a local grocery. Eliade thought that all of the great myths served as “ eternal templates” that were repeated endlessly throughout all time.

Bernard Cornwell has an interesting variation on Eliade’s theory. Instead of creating colorful alternative versions in different times and places, Cornwell radically alters the original story. In Enemy of God, not only is Arthur not a king, he has no desire to become one. Sir Lancelot, instead of being a courageous warrior and Queen Guinevere’s devoted lover, is a cowardly, vain and devious snake who plots Arthur’s death. Cornwell’s Guinevere is arrogant, ruthless and selfish — almost the opposite of the traditional virtuous wife who regrets her adultery, but is incapable of giving up Lancelot.

As a consequence, Cornwell’s treatment of the Arthurian legend is filled with unpleasant surprises and revelations. There is no round table, nor does Arthur preside over a kind of parliament of courageous and devoted warriors. Instead, England is ruled by a multitude of contentious warlords, each with their own petty holdings. Although there are alliances and blood-oaths, they are frequently broken as the warlords shift positions and loyalties in order to increase their own power and holdings.

Enemy of God, like The Winter King, is narrated by Derfel Cadarn, an aging monk who was once Arthur’s favored warrior. In fact, Derfel not only emerges as Arthur’s biographer, but quickly becomes a dominant character in this complex and violent epic. Also, it is through the narrator’s eyes that 5th century England comes alive. At this point, England is a land filled with the relics of the old Druid culture, nearly destroyed by the Romans who had built marble temples, impressive roads and stone buildings. Now, the Romans have vanished and roving bands of Saxons, Irish warlords, Druids and fanatical Christians struggle to claim the war-torn country.

Enemy of God contains (at least) six major themes. (1) Merlin’s quest for a mythical Cauldron that will enable him to summons the “Old Gods of England” and re-establish the ancient order that existed before the Romans came; (2) Derfel’s love for Ceinwyn, Princess of Powes, who has been promised to King Lancelot, who becomes Derfel’s most hated enemy); (3) the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult, two lovers who flee King Mark’s kingdom (Mark is Tristan’s father in this version); they seek refuge with Arthur; (4) the growing treachery of Lancelot, including his plot to kill Arthur; (5) Arthur’s prolonged attempt to make Mordred, the crippled grandson of King Uther, the rightful King of Camelot; and (6) the rise of the fanatical Christians who have branded Arthur as the “Enemy of God” and are dedicated to purging England of pagans.

As these varied episodes unfold, Cornwell does a masterful job of creating an atmosphere fraught with superstitious omens and prophecy.

Although there is little magic in Cornwell’s ancient England, the little that remains is impressive. Early in the novel, Merlin and his assistant, the one-eyed Nimue, announce the following harbingers of disaster: a sword shall rest on the neck of a child; a king who is not a king shall rule; the living shall marry the dead; and the lost shall come to light. With a growing sense of dread, Derfel moves from revelation to revelation, knowing that one or more of these prophecies will alter his own fate.

Cornwell’s second novel presents Arthur’s “united” kingdoms as a deception. Beneath the surface of brotherhood and love lies a tangled knot of lies and betrayal. What gradually becomes apparent is that each of the major factions (Merlin, Arthur and the Christians) has a hidden agenda. The struggle for control of England will be between Merlin of Avalon who is committed to the ancient and mystical world of the Druids; Arthur’s dream of a reign of peace which will unify England under a single ruler (Mordred); and the Christians who believe that paganism will be driven out of England and their God and the church will be established after Christ’s anticipated return (500 A. D.).

Although Arthur’s proposed “Camelot” appears to be winning in Enemy of God, Derfel perceives the inner corruption that is undermining everything and repeatedly attempts to warn Arthur. He only succeeds in alienating his family and himself from Arthur’s protection. The prophecy regarding “a sword resting on the neck of a child” presages a treacherous attack on Derfel’s family, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Mordred, the devious, crippled child/king, will prove to be “a king who is not a king.” Certainly, the most bizarre prediction proves to be the one involving Lancelot’s “marriage” to the corpse of Mordred’s mother in order to become the “rightful heir to the throne.”

Between the rituals involving Merlin’s legendary Cauldron, the sexual orgies associated with Guinevere’s cult of Isis and the Christian ceremonies that promote self-flagellation and maniac seizures, The Enemy of God presents a disturbing picture of a country moving towards the total collapse of all order (religious, political and cultural). By the conclusion of this novel, Arthur is definitely showing signs of disillusionment and resignation.

The reader may be subject to the same feelings. Certainly, those of us who have loved the story of Tristan and Iseult may find it difficult to accept

Cornwell’s reduction of this tragic love story to the young prince’s somewhat abrupt death (killed in a duel) and Iseult’s execution by burning at the stake. None of the trappings of the traditional story are here. No love potion accidentally shared, no courtly love affair and no “ship with a white sail.” Instead, Cornwell gives us two helpless teenage lovers, whose lives are brutally extinguished before they have hardly begun to live.

Cornwell’s reduction of romantic myths to grim fables that are devoid of magic and/or grandeur is disturbing. Enemy of God contains a basic cynicism that may be the downfall of both the legendary Arthur and Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy.

A different take on a legend

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. Saint Martin’s Press, 1997.

I was probably 10 years old when I discovered King Arthur in the local library. I never got over it. That battered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology was filled with illustrations of armored knights with noble countenances, sad maidens trapped in dark towers and bloody duels on lonely roads. I was hooked. As the years passed, other writers took up this wonderful story and I found every new version even more appealing. From Thomas Mallory to Alfred Lord Tennyson and from The Once and Future King to the musical, “Camelot,” I remained a devout fan. Like millions of other disciples, I read Mary Stewart’s epic series, and I especially remember a beautiful John Boorman film, “Excaliber,” that came out in 1981. I never cared for the comical and irreverent versions like Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as well as the hundreds of “sword and fantasy” romances packed with dragons and Druids. No, I wanted my Arthur to be either serious, fierce and doomed, or “not yet born” (Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy).

Now comes The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, the first novel in an Arthurian trilogy. This is not a work to be undertaken lightly, for it comes freighted with issues that demand careful reading. First, the cast of characters is intimidating with over 100 lords, nobles, heartless villains, Druids and enchanting (in every sense of the word) women. Second, the names of people and places represent a minor challenge due to the fact that they have Celtic, Irish and Welsh origins. The reader must become accustomed to proper names that have a generous supply of double dd’s and yy’s as in King Gorfyddyd (pronounced Gor-vith-id), who is an especially nasty, one-armed fellow who hates Arthur with some cause ... Arthur cut his arm off in an earlier battle, and then added insult to injury by leaving Gorfyddyd’s daughter, Ceinwyn, at the altar.

However, this enthralling tale quickly renders these textural problems irrelevant. Cornwell’s “refurbishing” of the King Arthur myth is both original and captivating. Instead of a Christ-like figure intent on Christianizing the heathen, Arthur is an exceedingly ambitious (and deeply flawed) leader who is only saved from being a heedless tyrant by his conscience. In addition, the majority of the “Christians” in The Winter King are vain dissemblers who are intent on their own vision of power. Although Cornwell’s world is filled with the trappings of magic, he is careful to make the distinction between the belief in spells, curses and divinations and any subsequent event that could be termed “miraculous.” (Sorry, no “sword in the stone” this time.)

Cornwell’s warlords and soldiers fear the curse of the Druids who march in the enemy’s frontlines behaving like demented epileptics, but there is little indication that their powers are real. Everyone in The Winter King is constantly on the alert for omens and portents: the flight of a bird, the sound of thunder and the death agonies of a sacrificial lamb can fill the bravest warrior with apprehensions and even the most elegant lady will spit in the direction of the enemy when she encounters an omen. (Everybody spits a lot in this novel.)

The narrator of The Winter King, Derfel Cadarn, is a Saxon orphan who grew up in the household of the High Druid Merlin; later, he became a soldier in Arthur’s army, advances to the status of warlord and ends his days as a monastery monk devoted to recording all that he has witnessed in his life. It is through Derfel’s eyes that we see such legendary figures as Arthur, Guinevere, Galahad and Lancelot. The consequences are definitely provocative. Here are a few brief examples.

In this first novel, Guinevere is a vain, ambitious and materialistic woman who despises the Druids, dabbles in paganism (she claims to be a follower of Isis and spends much of her time acquiring art). However, her initial attraction to Arthur has all of the trappings of true love/lust. Although she has been “bespoke” to a war chief named Valerin, and despite the fact that Arthur is in the midst of wedding Gorfyddyd’s daughter Ceinwyn, both become victims of “love at first sight.” Heedless of the consequences, the two lovers bring havoc and the death of thousands. (Remember, Lancelot hasn’t even seen Guinevere yet!) In the eyes of their followers, their love is both fated and doomed.

As for Arthur, in this introductory novel he is not even a king, but the illegitimate son of King Uther who has renounced him and proclaimed his heir to be a crippled child (grandson) named Mordred. (No, not that one! There are three Mordreds so far!). Arthur readily accepts Uther’s decree and pledges himself to be the guardian of a maimed “child king.” His motives are suspect from the beginning, and after the scandal attending his abandonment of Ceinwyn on her wedding day, he is condemned by the majority of England’s warlords — yet he steadfastly insists that he will be the leader that will bring unity to a land that is hopelessly divided between Saxons, Franks, Druids and Irish warlords.

Lancelot easily qualifies as The Winter King’s most despicable, vain and devious character (even though he has been perceived by other writers as the darling of Arthurian legend for centuries). Cornwell presents Lancelot’s undeserved reputation for bravery, loyalty and virtue as the direct result of an extremely effective publicity campaign conducted by poets and bards. Indeed, the narrator, Derfel, perceives the versifiers and singers who spend their time composing fictional accounts of Lancelot’s adventures to be nothing more than parasitic sycophants and he takes ill-concealed delight in their massacre in the palace of King Ban, Lancelot’s father. Lancelot’s brother, Galahad, emerges as the prince who actually possesses the virtues attributed to his brother.

The Winter King contains some of the most vivid descriptive passages of suspense and bloodshed that I have encountered in Arthurian literature. Derfel’s journey to the Isle of the Dead to rescue Merlin’s mistress, Nimue, is unforgettable (as is Nimue, who manages to be crazed, bizarre and captivating. She has a golden eye, too!). The destruction of King Ban and his kingdom, the murder of Norenna, Mordred’s mother, and Arthur’s final battle with his arch-enemy, Gorfyddyd, deserve to be described as riveting. They had me grinding my dentures and holding my breath. However, all of this slaughter and tension is interspersed with marvelous descriptive passages that conjure up those Victorian paintings with Arthurian settings: flowery bowers, crystalline streams, lush gardens, silken garments and impossibly beautiful women.

The reader may end up like the doomed lovers Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and Nimue and poor Derfel and Ceinwyn (no kidding! All it took was the touch of her finger on the back of his hand!). Yes, the reader may also be fated (like me) to go and find a copy of the second novel, Enemy of God. Expect another review shortly.

Suspenseful guest drives novel

For some 30 years now, Bernard Cornwell has been one of the most prolific writers in the western hemisphere. With over 40 books to his credit, he has settled comfortably into the “historic fiction” genre and has become famous for his “Sharpe series” that follows the adventures of his protagonist, Richard Sharpe, during the Napoleonic Wars (24 novels). The entire series is being filmed by BBC and suddenly, American readers are struggling to read and/or view the film versions in their correct order.

In addition, Cornwell has a “Starbuck series” that deals with the American Civil War. There are also additional series, including a King Arthur trilogy, a Holy Grail series and a “Saxon series” set in 9th century England (not to mention a few bestselling “thrillers” and the adventures of a protagonist named Captain Rideout Sandman who lives a precarious but exciting life in 19th century London).

Considering Cornwell’s impressive list of works, this reviewer decided to select a work at random. (I found Gallows Thief in the “used book section” at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.) I immediately found myself totally engrossed in the daily life of Captain Rideout Sandman, a colorful survivor of the Napoleonic Wars, an honored soldier who has fallen on hard times. When Sandman’s father is forced to declare bankruptcy, the subsequent shame brings ruin to the family. After the father commits suicide, honorable Sandman sells his commission in order to pay some of his father’s debts; however, the resulting scandal eventually results in the cancellation of Sandman’s wedding to Lady Eleanor Forrest.

Within a short time, Rideout has serious financial problems and is attempting to eke out a living by playing cricket. When some of Rideout’s friends recommend him for employment with the government, he is suddenly offered a “temporary position” by Viscount Sidmouth, a high-placed official of the Royal Court. Specifically, Sandman is asked to investigate the recent murder of the Countess of Avebury, even though the alleged killer has been arrested tried, found guilty and is awaiting execution at London’s notorious Newgate Prison. It seems that the Queen of England has expressed a personal interest in the affair, and the Viscount has been instructed to submit an official report regarding the specific details of the crime — a duty he readily delegates to Sandman.

At first, Rideout thinks that the “investigation” is merely a rubber stamp procedure to satisfy the Queen; consequently, he mistakenly believes that his official duties will be over in a few hours — especially since everyone assures him that the condemned felon, a painter named Charles Corday, had raped and stabbed the Countess of Avebury in the studio where she had recently posed for a commissioned (nude) portrait. However, when Captain Sandman visits Corday in prison, the accused turns out to be a frail “ pixie,” 19th century London jargon for a homosexual. (Gallows Thief is permeated with street jargon.)

Rideout’s subsequent encounter with the bloated and offensive Sir George Phillips, Corday’s “mentor/employer,” suggests that Corday is not only innocent but is a “stand-in” for someone else. In addition, a witness to the murder, a house servant named Meg, has mysteriously vanished. Finally, if matters were not complicated enough, Captain Sandman finds himself at odds with a “gentlemen’s club” called the Seraphim. The membership of Seraphim consists of wealthy, arrogant young men who spend their time in gambling, drunkenness and “carnal indiscretions” (much like London’s Hellfire Clubs of the early 1700s). One of the Seraphim’s current hobbies is collecting nude paintings of notable aristocratic ladies ... like the Countess of Avebury (who is not what she seems).

As Captain Sandman searches for Meg, he finds himself dealing with a daunting number of additional problems, including assassins and debtors. His morale is somewhat improved when he discovers that the Lady Eleanor not only still loves him, but has even suggested a future elopement to Scotland! A man sent by the Seraphim Club to kill Rideout turns out to be Sgt. Berrigan, another veteran of Waterloo. When Berrigan decides to cast his lot with Capt. Sandman, the two become friends and set off on a nerve-racking journey to prove Corday’s innocence. It is an odyssey that will end with the two friends (and Robin Hood) standing before a scaffold at Newgate Prison, surrounded by a raving mob.

Much of the appeal of Bernard Cornwell’s novels is due to the amazing depths of his research. For example, some of the most harrowing passages in Gallows Thief contain graphic descriptions of Newgate’s stench and squalor with particular emphasis on its notorious public executions. Indeed, the novel’s Prologue gives a surreal (and historically accurate) account of the bizarre practice of allowing aristocrats the privilege of being seated on the scaffold so that they may witness the death struggles of the condemned. The carnival-like atmosphere, the casual cruelties and the inept methods employed by the hangman are described with meticulous accuracy.

Thankfully, Cornwell’s penchant for detail is also evident throughout the novel. As Capt. Sandman attends cricket matches, drinks with his friends in the Wheatsheaf Tavern or watches a musical extravaganza at the Covent Gardens Theater, the pages of Gallows Thief exude the smells, sounds and sights of London in the 1820s. In one scene, Cornwell captures the image of a louse crawling in a gentleman’s powdered wig at the theater; the raucous laughter of the audience when a pickpocket’s fingers are snared by the fishhooks in his would-be victim’s coat. Amid the flicker of gaslights, he notes the sheen of sweat on the powdered faces of elderly aristocrats — and the pervasive smell of unwashed bodies.

Gallows Thief contains an impressive assortment of vibrant characters, including the earthy and decidedly sexy Sally Hood, sister of the notorious Robin Hood (who manages to pursue his career as a master highwayman while occasionally assisting Capt. Sandman in his quest for justice); an assortment of venal, privileged lords, ministers and lawyers — all captured in true-to-life portraits. In addition, Cornwell’s minor characters: beggars, doxies, and posturing nobles, all become vividly alive as they move through the varied scenes: ornate and often abandoned mansions, taverns, slums, prisons and rural farms.

Cornwell’s appeal can be summed up by a recent quote from the Washington Post: “The strength that have come to characterize (Cornwell’s) fiction — immaculate historical reconstruction and the ability to tell a ripping yarn.” Perhaps that also means that Cornwell will launch yet another series: the adventures of Capt. Rideout Sandman, late of the King’s army.

Dickens’ backstabbing best friend explores London’s underworld

Drood by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown & Company, 2009. 775 pages.

I must admit, I’ve never been much of a Charles Dickens fan. Other than watching those wonderful film adaptations (“Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”), I have only read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. All of that melodrama and sentimentality threatens my diabetes. Nevertheless, Wikipedia tells me that in addition to being the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, Dickens remains one of the most popular writers in the English language. His 15 most notable works have never gone out of print. Perhaps I should at least add Bleak House and David Copperfield to my “to read” list.

However, thanks to novels like Isabel Zuber’s Salt and Jeff Rackam’s The Rag and Bone Shop, I have developed something of an obsession with Dickens’ private life. His divorce, his marriage to his wife’s sister and his life-long affair with the actress Ellen Ternan shocked many of his peers, but had no effect on his popularity as a writer, playwright and actor. I have always been fascinated by Dickens’ life-long friendship with William Wilkie Collins, one of the most bizarre “personalities” of the Victorian period — a mentally unstable laudanum addict (many Victorians were addicted since doctors readily prescribed the drug for migraines and rheumatism). Wilkie Collins frequently corroborated with Dickens on numerous highly successful publications and theatrical productions. Unfortunately, Wilkie also suffered from a massive case of envy. One of his biographers noted that “in the great constellations of 19th century literature, Dickens’ shone like the sun;” by comparison, poor Collins, a writer of supernatural tales and detective fiction, “glimmered like a pale and distant star.” The accolades and honors bestowed on Dickens were a lifelong thorn in poor Wilkie’s side, and eventually, the minor writer began to resent and finally, to hate his best friend.

What does all of this have to do with Dan Simmons, who is noted for epic treks into the realms of horror (The Terror, Olympus, Summer Night)? The link is Dickens’ unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This strange, fragmented tale has fascinated writers and playwrights for over a century. Since Dickens’ death, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to complete it (including a recent musical). Simmons’ Drood not only delves into the mystery behind Dickens’ last work (and his private life) — it also uncovers a fanciful abyss of evil that once thrived in the “lower depths” of London. Perhaps it still does.

In the opening of the novel, Simmons’ narrator, William Wilkie Collins, announces that although he has written the manuscript, Drood, which he claims to have completed in 1889, he has postponed its publication for 120 years — until 2009. This “precaution,” says Wilkie, means that all of the novel’s hapless characters will not be harmed by (or held accountable for) the author’s revelations.

However, before the reader progresses very far in this “Grand Guignol” of a tale, it becomes evident that the narrator of Drood is not a trustworthy reporter. Wilkie not only lies frequently, he has difficulty in perceiving the difference between fantasy and reality. In addition to being bitter, devious, sensual, arrogant and cowardly, he suffers from lurid and terrifying hallucinations. (He is also an oddly appealing character.)

Did he and Charles Dickens really find an entrance to a place called “Undertown,” where legions of thieves, drug addicts and homeless children exist in unimaginable squalor? Somewhere in those labyrinthine depths, did they really meet a near-supernatural creature named Drood, an Egyptian magician and mesmerist who has legions of fanatical followers and plans to establish a dark kingdom on Earth (with the unwitting assistance of Dickens and Wilkie)? And finally, is it possible that Wilkie’s terrifying descent into a Victorian Inferno complete with putrid rivers, murderous oriental thugs and cannibalistic children is either an opium dream or a hypnotic trance ... or both?

Drood is a cunningly constructed tale that has been “surgically implanted” into Victorian London like an alien heart. Historic personages, as well as colorful characters from Dickens’ novels move effortlessly from a vibrantly “real” London into Simmons’ fabricated land of darkness and terror. It is difficult to find a clearly marked boundary between the two worlds since the interface appears to be seamless.

The most exciting sections of Drood evoke a wondrous era in which the arts thrived. Thousands of patrons packed lecture halls in English (and American) cities to hear Dickens lecture, act or read from his own works. In the 19th century, the English theater enjoyed a kind of Renaissance in which actors and writers became outrageously wealthy and powerful (Several Victorian playwrights actually “rewrote” Shakespeare’s tragedies as comedies!). The privileged classes ate, drank and reveled in sumptuous decadence. (One of Dickens’ admirers actually purchased a Swiss chalet and had it transported and reassembled on Dickens’ property – a birthday present). And yet, according to Wilkie, just beneath those cobbled streets or under the hundreds of London’s evil-smelling cemeteries, the legions of darkness were waiting.

I have simplified Drood’s plot out of necessity. Wilkie Collins’ character is much too complex to discuss here. Suffice it to say that I will never forget his “doppelganger” that visits him at night; or the green-skinned woman with yellow tusks who sometimes attacks him as he goes up the stairs to his bedroom; or the unspeakable horror that shuffles up and down a dark, locked stairway in his home. Space limitations make it impossible to talk about a host of bizarre characters that become Collins’ companions in his quest for Drood. Finally, I haven’t mentioned Collins’ plans to murder his best friend, Charles Dickens ... or his Faustian pact with Drood.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to mention a link between Simmons’ previous work The Terror and his new novel, Drood. The latter opens with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins celebrating the success of their latest play, “The Frozen Deep,” which is a dramatic account of a lost expedition to Antarctica. Yes, their play is a dramatic enactment of The Terror’s doomed “Franklin crew” — the expedition that allegedly perished due to cannibalism and starvation, just a few years prior to the play’s premiere.

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