Floating Dragon by Peter Straub

Oddly enough, my decision to read Floating Dragon was not born out of my love of all things draconic, but rather because I’ve been busy with fantasy and science fiction and needed a change of setting, and because my recent rediscovery of Stephen King prompted me to try one of his contemporaries and friends, also (as anyone familiar with my previous reviews might guess), because Floating Dragon is one of my lady’s favourite horror novels.

Written in 1982, Floating Dragon is set in the affluent American town of Hampstead Connecticut, a small, well to do town not far from New York. In the spring of 1980, the chronically adulterous Stony Friedgood is murdered by a man she picks up at a bar. At the same time, her husband Leo becomes aware that the chemical weapons manufacturer he works for has accidently released a cloud of toxic gas into the atmosphere headed for Hampstead. As the murders and hallucinations begin however, writer and town historian 76 year old Graham Williams knows that the gas is only part of a more wide ranging evil, since Hampstead is home to a dark and malevolent presence that awakes in a cycle of violence and blood every thirty years, the being known as the dragon.

Some books grab you from the first word, many writers start with something compelling or shocking just for that purpose. Others take a slower approach, leading you slowly down the path step by step until you find your suddenly a long way from where you started, though of course the cleverer authors will make sure to throw the reader the odd coy bit of intrigue just to keep their attention. Straub tries a combination of both of these approaches at the beginning of Floating Dragon, beginning with a grizzly murder and an equally grizzly accident, then fanning his perspective out to give us snapshots of a number of characters and crumbs of history about Hampstead, partly revealed as the first person research of Graham Williams. Straub admits he was experimenting with style in Floating Dragon, and unfortunately for me, as the book began the experiment did not pay off. The majority of the style seemed to be a cold, almost screenplay like succession of snapshots, often cutting between one scene or another, dropping allusions or promising revelations but never quite settling down. For example, where a writer like James Herbert would give us a brief life story before rendering someone into rat food, and Stephen King would give us a chapter or two to get to know any potential victim, we learn almost nothing about Stony apart from the fact that she is fond of extra marital activity (we don’t even learn where her nickname comes from). Even her murder is quite literally undercut, with the authorial camera switching just before the dirty deed is done, and then switching again just before her body is actually discovered, and since we had no character connections either to Stony or her husband to shock us, the murder just felt literally bloodless.

The description of the accident with the gas, despite a wonderfully goreful detail of its effects in concentration, spends more time discussing the how and why and actually comes off more like a documentary than a horror novel.

The first few sections of the book all play out like this, the major characters are each introduced in a set of cold, rather abrupt changes in view with no real attempt at setting or backstory. We learn that Richard Albee is back to Hampstead from England with his pregnant wife Laura and that he was once a child star on a fifties sitcom, but we learn almost nothing about who he is, what his relationship with Laura is like or how he thinks. Similarly, the first sight we get of the books primary female character, Patsy McCloud is her being beaten by her husband, making me sure her chief purpose in the plot was to be rescued (figuratively, literally or both).

Yet, a lifetime of reading has taught me to never judge a book by its opening, and so I persevered and almost abruptly the style changed. This began with James Tab Smithfield, a thirteen-year-old boy who begins experiencing strange visions throughout his chaotic life, stuck between a rich but domineering grandfather and an alcoholic, eternally failed father. Indeed Tabby’s return to Hampstead was the first indication of more of an upswing in quality, and suddenly from a distant, almost analytically omniscient perspective we’re in close contact with a confused, disconnected youth who has not only a new town, new school and bad company to deal with, but also a peculiar gift for psychic visions.

Not just Tabby, Richard’s love and concern for his wife and a disconnection from American culture generally and the at times almost ritualistically sincere materialism of Hampstead (something experienced by Straub himself after his own return to the States), are picked out in sharp contrast. Graham’s wonderfully grumpy concern and gentle self-derision, not to mention a nuanced impression of Patsy as a truly three dimensional person trapped in the net of a complex, if unpleasant relationship, indeed any fears I had that Straub would take the easy way out with Patsy or any other of his characters for that matter were quickly set to rest.

It was also at this point in the novel that the weirdness really started ramping up. Straub has claimed that he attempted to throw as much horror into the mix as he could. To some people this seemed to be excess, particularly when he started with short vignettes or asides about the unpleasant experiences of his secondary characters, but for me the sheer variety of horror on offer was completely compelling.

There is an axe wielding psycho, an evil mirror, there are bizarre landscapes such as blood welling from underground, there are visions of dead people complete with artful amounts of gore, there are disasters, diseases, eerie voices, and more unpleasant wildlife than you’d see on a day trip to Jurassic Park. Indeed one of the most horrific things about the horror, is that you really never know what your going to see next, or how a given character might be affected.

Once we got to it, character, and character reactions were a definite plus, from the four main players, to minor perspectives just existing to show us a particular bit of nastiness, a walk into the jaws of death or even a little black humour.

Straub’s style also includes several rather clever little asides, dotting around in time, giving portents, occasionally changing the perspective or having a word or two to tantalise, indeed given that I found the book’s first four hours somewhat slow going, how quickly I burned through the rest of the books rather monstrous twenty three hours length is really quite surprising.

Many people have cited some distinct similarities between Stephen King’s It and Floating Dragon. An ancient evil that awakes every thirty years, several main male characters and a single female character who come together to confront that evil, a number of asides around the small town as bystanders are picked off, even a number of scenes and themes in common. Yet, where in It the interludes dealing with the past predations of Pennywise are slight departures from the main narrative (unnecessary according to some, though I personally enjoyed them as a change of pace), the previous encounters with the Dragon have far more prominence and history behind them. My only minor problem with the historical angle, is that four times throughout the book Graham promises to “tell all”, and yet only on one occasion, when the perspective shifts to give Graham’s first hand involvement in a previous encounter did I really feel we got a satisfactory revelation. Again, it seems that Straub is best when dealing with characters immediate experiences, and at his weakest when trying to talk in generalities.

Straub also scores over King for having very well rounded female characters (especially in a book written in the early eighties). Not only Patsy, but the Hampstead gossip columnist Sarah Spry, a woman who proves far more than the annoyingly nosy journalist she appears, and Ronny Rigly, Richard’s real estate agent and friend. The only character I felt a little short changed by was Richard’s wife Laura, since with Straub’s dearth of backstory we really didn’t learn too much about her other than that she’s a little upset at moving to a new town. Even that we learned during a rather incongruous conversation Richard has with his wife during a beautifully described bout of lovemaking; sometimes multitasking really isn’t a good idea.

The only seriously dated aspect of the book is its picture of juvenile delinquents, since to myself who grew up in a large city in Britain, smacking in mail boxes with a baseball bat seems pretty tame, though equally this might be a symptom of the rather safe affluence of Hampstead; certainly Straub shows plenty of far worse crimes during a visit to New York.

As the book rockets towards its ending, Straub really does pull out all the stops. A late chapter is entitled “through the looking glass” and that really is how the book begins to feel, more like a surreal and disturbing fantasy world than a book set in late twentieth century America. Usually in horror novels the point when reality seriously starts to crumble, whether its visions of grandmothers turning into fish or angel shaped biscuits turning evil, there is always the sense that this must be just a dream and the main characters will wake up. Well not here, the weirder things seem, the deadlier they are, indeed one comment late on in the book by Graham that just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t kill you seemed almost like Straub’s mission statement. I was pleasantly surprised (especially after the slightly lacklustre opening), just how darkly poetic and disturbingly nuanced Straub’s writing can be, indeed to say that there is so much horror the subtle, almost delicate way Straub handles everything from gore to feelings of fear, to disturbing normality in the face of extreme weirdness is truly awesome.

The climax in some ways resembles that of It, our principle group of heroes confronting the evil (even some of the landscape and challenges leading up to the confrontation are similar). The power used during the confrontation on the one hand feels a slight deus ex and thus something of an easy get out, on the other since things have got so unashamedly grim the conclusion is certainly not unearned, particularly since Straub is clever enough to show that the power of light does not always work all of the time. I do wish, given Richard’s part in the ending that we’d spent a bit more time with him beforehand, though as the book’s climax is so astoundingly, almost absurdly glorious this is only a minor point, and certainly Straub does a good job of giving each principle character there own individual part in the conclusion.

Another way in which the climax of Straub’s novel resembles King’s is that Patsy’s part is to create a psychic link through the love of the three male characters. Here however, Straub definitely scores over King, since the beautifully described, intensively poetic link Patsy creates is a far cry from King’s questionable actions between six boys and one girl in the Derry sewers. I particularly appreciated that during the link Patsy is very much shown as the agent rather than the passive party, indeed at the beginning of the book I feared Patsy might be simply reduced to rescue bait, I was extremely pleased that all the way through she rescues herself, and at the end rescues her comrades too, though of course it’s entirely possible I’m slightly biased on being fond of Patsy due to how much she reminds me of my lady.

Floating Dragon was an experiment for Straub. He experimented with a new writing style, he experimented with his own feelings of disconnection from American culture, he experimented with excessively chucking as much horror at the book as he could. Some of these experiments work better than others, but in the end the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Rarely have I read a horror novel that took me to quite as bizarre or weird places as this one, nor managed to have an absolutely gripping and completely, insanely beautiful battle in its conclusion between characters I’d come to love and something which is as mysterious as it is evil.

Despite a ropy opening and a slight lack of context, you can be assured that once this dragon starts flying the ride will be a truly epic one.

9/10 Even dragons float down here

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