On the 9th of June 1865 The Folkstone Boat Express arrived early at a section of rail being repaired. The train derailed while crossing a low bridge and the carnage depicted in the image above (from Illustrated London News 1862) ensued. Ten people were killed and 40 more were injured. This event would become known as the Staplehurst Rail Crash. At the time crashes like this and worse were commonplace. What made this crash notable was that one of the passengers was one of the most famous writers the world has ever known - Charles Dickens. The man himself was unharmed and even helped with the rescue operation. Psychologically Dickens would never be the same again, suffering anxiety about rail travel for the rest of his life, which would end five years later to the day. He mentions the accident in the postscript of Our Mutual Friend and was part of the inspiration for one of my most favourite ghost stories - The Signal-Man.
Dickens tells the story of the Staplehurst crash again to his protege and sometimes friend Wilkie Collins at the beginning of Dan Simmons's historical chiller Drood. This time though he tells of another survivor of the train crash; a dark and sinister figure, seemingly preying on the dying. The last five years of Dickens life are told first person in Simmons's book by the decidedly unreliable pen of Wilkie. It's all wonderfully researched and detailed. Wilkie, less known now than he was in his day, still remembered for a small handful of books like The Moonstone and The Woman in White, took massive amounts of Laudanum and eventually Morphine to deaden daily pain and becomes more unlikable as the book progresses. He is obsessive, fiercely jealous, especially of Dickens, manipulative and treats his women abominably, even considering the times. Simmons slips the Drood character into the tale without hardly a ripple on the surface water of established history. The book weighs in at just shy of 800 pages but it never lost my interest. My home town gets a few mentions mainly owing to the fact that Dickens would tour the country on reading events, reciting segments of his books on stage. One of the last towns he read at before illness ended the tours was Blackburn. The biographical elements of the book are often more fascinating than the fictional elements, so if you are interested in either writer or just the Victorian era I heartily recommend this book.
Year of the Toad - *Common toad near Blackford Pond, Edinburgh * Last weekend we visited Blackford Pond hoping to see lots of toads spawning but we were too early for the ...
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