By the time I finally got around to reading Floating Dragon by Peter Straub, the book was a beaten and torn library copy that needed to have some of the pages taped back inside to keep it together. The spine wasn’t just cracked; the shiny purple paper had been worn off from the previous reader’s hands, leaving only remnants of the title. I carefully fixed those loose pages down with small pieces of clear tape and held it in such a way the rest of the pages wouldn’t fall out. It was 1984 and I was still a year from graduating high school. I couldn’t understand why anyone would treat a library book so badly. When I finished reading it, I understood why the book was tattered. The story inside is intense and nerve-wracking. The deeper you get into the book, the more the evil sets off the smoke alarms in your brain.
There are scenes inside Floating Dragon that will haunt you for the rest of your life.
Hampstead, Connecticut is being assaulted by not one, but two deadly evils. One is man-made, a product of chemistry not safe for human interaction, or with interaction with any lifeform, for that matter. The other evil is old, and has visited Hampstead many times over the centuries, always returning to take as many lives as it can before retreating into the shadows again. How unlucky the people of Hampstead are, to be facing two evils at the same time. Four people, each descended from the original settlers of Hampstead, must face off this evil, personified in human form as the fifth original settler, who returns every thirty years for revenge.
I try to avoid spoilers with these columns, and will continue that trend here, but there will be specific scenes I will allude to that may seem a little spoilery. For the record, you have been warned. One of the first things I like to point out with this book is that it is a strange hybrid of third person/first person narration, with the narrator breaking the fourth wall early on to let you in on the gig. Graham Williams is a writer, of course, and has lived in Hampstead long enough to see one of the physical incarnations of the Dragon in a man named Bates Krell. It’s important to note that Williams is the writer here, for he is the one documenting this account of the Dragon’s attack on Hampstead, with bits taken from the other characters’ journals and diaries, and their direct recollections of the events themselves. The majority of the book is in third person, and is for the most part, fairly objective in tone, which grounds it into reality. It made sense to write the book from the third person perspective, yet once you know it’s Williams sharing the story, you cannot escape his personal interjection no matter how unbiased he attempts to spin the events.
We begin with several quick sketches, introducing us to some of the other players in this story, and these scenes are tight yet impactful. We need to get a sense of Hampstead real quick, because the town is just as much a character as the people that inhabit her. Much like any other town, Hampstead is full of eccentric characters that we can all instantly relate to, even former child actor Richard Albee, who is forever haunted by his famous television tagline, and the ghosts, real and imagined, of his former co-stars. Albee has moved back to Hampstead to build his family. It seems like everyone he encounters remembers him from when he was a kid, and yet he longs to escape that life to follow his own dreams, if only as another way to get away from the nightmares his childhood has wrought upon him. Patsy McCloud is the long-suffering wife of blow-hard Les McCloud, who spends his time loaded up on booze and beating Patsy whenever he’s not on the golf course. Rounding out the main characters is Tabby Smithfield, a thirteen-year-old boy growing up fast with an alcoholic father who isn’t worth a damn. In this day and age, these characters and their lives are more the norm than the exception; tragic and unfortunate.
While these main characters discover, through William’s insistence, that they are the descendants of the original settlers of Hampstead, Gideon Winter, the Dragon, has also returned home. He comes back every thirty years to destroy the latest generations of the people that killed him after a series of murders involving children. Already, several women in Hampstead have been murdered in the story, with more to come. Both Patsy and Tabby display some degree of psychic abilities, though they are completely unaware of what it is they should use those powers for. As the story progresses, they both learn how to harness those powers.
Straub also filled Hampstead with other secondary characters that provide a chilling backdrop to the supernatural horrors. Dicky and Bruce Norman, nasty twins in an accelerated growth spurt much too young to be dabbling in the messes they tend to find. Gary Starbuck, a professional thief blackmailed by the twins into sharing a score that results in bloodshed. And then there’s DRG-16, the thinking cloud that’s really a biological weapon gone AWOL. The story begins with the murder of Stony Friedgood, but it’s her husband Leo who’s the character to watch here. An employee of the company that created DRG-16, Leo witnesses first hand one of the many things the gas can do. For the most part, the townspeople ultimately affected by the gas quietly and slowly go insane. But as the gas begins to ‘think’, the insane become suicidal, while others just turn suicidal without showing a hint of insanity. Even animals such as birds, cats, and dogs are affected, often running directly into cars, or diving into swimming pools. Leo Friedgood got a little close to the gas perhaps, and his body begins to change. Straub sprinkles Leo’s continuing story through-out the narrative, and the results are harrowing as we see a strong, robust man come undone before our very eyes. The final scenes with Leo are nightmarish and guaranteed to linger long after you turn the pages.
When Floating Dragon was first released, many critics thought it was nothing more than a hodgepodge of ideas all tossed together like some kind of natural/supernatural soup. While Straub did manage to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in the book, he did it skillfully, intentionally, and most importantly, horrifically. Reading this book for the first time made me realize that writing about the natural horrors, the non-supernatural, can also be a terrifying experience when handled the right way. When combined with the supernatural in a way that makes sense logically, the effect is a one-two gut-punch across the border into the nightmare lands. Re-reading the book made me realize that yes, Straub squeezed a lot into this novel, but why not go for the gusto? Nothing feels shoehorned or forced; even the supernatural feels, well … natural.
There are some startling similarities within Floating Dragon to Stephen King’s IT; the third-person/first person narration, breaking the fourth wall, the recurring horror coming back for another round of revenge. Straub and King are friends, and were working on The Talisman (1984) together back then, so it makes sense that some ideas would rub off on each other in similar yet different ways. Regardless of the eventual outcome of those two stories, each exist in their own worlds, giving life to memorable characters we won’t soon forget. Though the ending of Floating Dragon isn’t as strong as other novels releasing at the same time, it nonetheless pulls all the right strings to make the book one of Straub’s more popular novels.
Tattered Tomes will return in September with a revisit of Shadowland by Peter Straub, part of me and Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies’ Straubathon. Then we will end the Straubathon with Straub’s Ghost Story, perhaps his most famous and influential novel, in October. I will be beginning a new column focusing on gothic literature later this month, so stay tuned for that. And please, get your hands on a copy of Floating Dragon, especially if you’ve never read it. There’s a nightmare waiting inside those pages, ready to melt you down to the core.