Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (1982): Bind the Devil a Thousand Years

After reading a couple of thin, unsubstantial, craptastic pulp horror novels, I needed a book written by someone on a friendly professional basis with the written word. And with just a glance at my bookshelves, I knew Peter Straub was my man. Best-known for his 1979 bestselling mainstream horror classic Ghost Story, as well as two collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman (1984) and its sequel Black House (2001), Straub has been publishing quality literary horror novels since the early 1970s. Floating Dragon is a typical example of Straub's talents and thematic concerns, a long novel filled with ghostly - or perhaps not ghostly - doings, upper middle-class marital strife, vaguely malevolent children, somewhat experimental narrative disjointedness, the disorienting conflation of place and time, and a self-consciously literary narrator, a pedigree that's at once John Cheever and M.R. James.

Set in idyllic seaside Hampstead, Connecticut, in 1980, populated by snooty folks whose roots go back to the bloody battles of the Revolutionary War, Floating Dragon establishes a solid sense of place but it is time that Straub bends and jumbles immediately. Events occur simultaneously in different chapters, future events are revealed like spoilers as asides and in visions, and past events creep up everywhere ("Pasta is prologue," quips one character when being served overdone fettuccine at an unfortunate dinner party). The novel begins with the 1980 murder of Stony Friedgood, a promiscuous housewife who seems to have picked up the wrong man at a local bar.

At the same time, Stony's husband Leo is called to a secret government defense plant to help do damage control on a chemical spill. DRG-16, a new kind of nerve gas, has turned three men into slush as it seeps out of its containment tank and soon becomes very nearly conscious, a malevolence creeping across the land. By the time Leo returns home it is high above Hampstead and already causing death and hallucinations, but his dead wife in their bed is no hallucination; in fact, she was not even killed by DRG; it was another, older, more transcendent evil, one that has returned each generation to this town and is known by many names in men of ugly hungers and strange eyes, men who meet awful fates for their awful deeds: Gideon Winter, Robertson Green, Bates Krell... Many names, but ultimately one: the Dragon.

As many other characters are introduced, we slowly see four that stand out; each of them has a family line that stretches back centuries in Hampstead. Graham Williams, an aged alcoholic novelist who never recovered from being called out by Joe McCarthy, living alone in a book-filled home; Richard Allbee, a former child TV star who's returned to his hometown after years abroad in London; Patsy McCloud, a vibrant woman slowly losing her self-possession to her abusive husband; and young Tabby Smithfield, a 12-year-old boy with an alcoholic father. Williams has done his research on Hampstead and explains that the four of them had ancestors who murdered Gideon Winter. Now more women are being killed and Williams fears that his past confrontation with madman Krell may explain what is going on again now.

As a prose stylist Straub is one of the very finest in horror and his slow and sure reveal of this New England town beset by horrors both real and imagined is masterful and enthralling. The "thinking cloud" isn't necessarily fatal and much creepiness is found in the bizarre behavior suddenly exhibited by the townspeople. He digs deep into the sheer wrongness of what's happening to Hampstead and boy, it's disturbing. His set pieces are magnificent, full of towering and mind-numbing terror and harrowing images of a gleeful and savage inhumanity. Characters react realistically and I believe I felt a palpable sadness and shock when some of them died. The carnage is astonishing in places. Those policemen in the movie theater... the children who drown... the likable young reporter who ventures into Krell's old home... that tidal wave of blood and mangled bodies. And that's barely a scratch on the surface.

(One thing that I did not expect about Floating Dragon was its similarity to Stephen King's 1986 epic horror novel, It. Both have vast, intertwining back-stories, concern the horrible crimes of the past and their effect on people as well as place, and have an evil force that's cyclical in nature against which a disparate group of people with various weaknesses and special powers band. Even the actual horrors that Straub dreams up seem replicated by King in his novel...)

There is so very much to recommend about Floating Dragon that I don't think anyone will be surprised to find out that the climax of this 600-page novel doesn't quite seem worthy of what's gone before. I'm almost to the point where I don't even like reading the ends of some novels because I just know they're going to be a letdown as they rush - or meander - to tie everything up. I didn't dislike the hallucinogenic climactic battle between good and evil but it's certainly not the best thing about the novel; surely its many, many brilliantly done scenes of calamity and woe are that. The horror fan's cup do runneth over. Yep, still and all, Floating Dragon is an absolute '80s horror fiction must-read.

13 comments:

Branden said...

That's a very interesting point about the ending of novels, and I found that especially true in Peter Straub's Ghost Story. I loved that book, and I thought the ending was good, but that book was really about the ride, not the destination. Getting to the end (not the end itself) was the treat in Ghost Story, and I suspect that is going to be the case with a lot of Straub's novels, just as you have described here. Nice review, and I'm looking forward to your next book review.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks Branden. You're right, it's the ride, not necessarily the destination. I've read Ghost Story but haven't been able to track down a suitably vintage copy of it again. Definitely deserves a reread.

Anonymous said...

have always been a huge straub fan... anythign he writes, i will buy. pity he isn't more prolific, but i'll take quality over quantity if that is indeed the trade-off

peelslowlynsee said...

I eagerly read Floating Dragon when it came out--I was in the thick of my Stephen King/Peter Straub phase--and didn't like it as much as I did Ghost Story or Shadowland (to me, the gothic version of John Knowles "A Separate Peace"). My favorite is prob. "If You Could See Me Now," which I'd love to re-read one of these days.

Reading your summary reminds me that at 14 I was too young to get a lot of Floating Dragon. I do remember the ending being a letdown, so I know I agree with your assessment, even if I don't remember what happened.

Perhaps you could help me with one thing: what chapter has the description of Leo(?) in Times Square? I remember it being my favorite chapter in the book. I always thought it would make a great scene in a film.

I wonder if I'd give FD another shot. I think if time permitted, I'd try one of his more recent novels or revisit Ghost Story or even Shadowland, which puts the Dragon pretty low on the list. I guess that's the curse of a 600 page book!

Will Errickson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Errickson said...

That great and gory sequence in the old New York City porno district is in the third section of Part Two of the book, pp. 336-342 of the paperback. I read Dragon pretty quickly and intend on rereading Ghost and reading Shadowland as well.

Tim Whitcher said...

I've read most of Straub's books, but prefer Shadowland hands down.

Will Errickson said...

That's good to know, Tim, b/c I have a copy of that on my to-be-read shelf!

Jack Tripper said...

I barely made it through Shadowland. Maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind, though. But Floating Dragon is one of my all-time favorite horror novels. It has absolutely everything--every cliche horror trope you can think of is thrown in, which is probably why it divides so many horror fans. But I just found it terrifying, keeping me up for three straight nights until I finished, scared to close my eyes.

Lincoln Brown said...

That Fontana paperback has fantastic step back cover art

Lincoln Brown said...

That Fontana paperback has fantastic step back cover art

3Fs said...

Peter Straub’s an unquestionably accomplished writer, and, at times, even a prose stylist. However, I didn’t like “Floating Dragon” as much as most of his readers.

It’s obviously a long novel – the reader knows that going in – but I also found it to be overstuffed. I liked the subplot about the chemical spill, as well as the myriad denizens of Hampstead, but the supernatural elements were just too confusing, so much so that it was often hard to tell how revelations related to prior plot points. Also, FD’s narrative relied heavily on dreams, hallucinations, and visions. Yes, these devices are common in horror fiction, but if every instance of them were removed from “Floating Dragon” this book would go from a doorstop to a novella.

John Seavey said...

I'm so glad I wasn't the only one who saw the similarities between 'Floating Dragon' and 'IT'. The house that seemed terrifyingly and disorientingly larger on the inside, the final battle in which a nonsensical rhyme turned out to have power ("He thrusts his fists against the posts" vs "When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbin along...") I don't think there was anything untoward about it, but it's very eerie.