Book Review : Peter Straub - Floating Dragon (1982)
Last January, Bob Pastorella and I started a retrospective of Peter Straub's most important work * that would sprawl over the entire year. I hadn't previously read Straub and was earnestly excited at digging into the legacy of such an iconic author. Well, I haven't been quite conquered so far. Koko, Mystery and The Throat, the Blue Rose Trilogy novels, were impeccably crafted mysteries with a powerful overarching sense of foreboding but they didn't feel all that original. I didn't see what about them made Peter Straub special. The fourth installment of Bob and I's Straubathon Floating Dragon provided more insight on why readers loved Straub so much. This novel is crazy. It's either subtle and ominous or it tears the very fabric of reality apart. There's no in-between and I loved it.
Floating Dragon is one of these novels that's about a place more than it is about specific people and that place is Hampstead, Connecticut. It follows the lives of several people living in the same neighborhood, but the main catalysts are the Friedgoods, an unhappily married couple. Stony is a beautiful, bored and aging adultery housewife and Leo is an overachieving workaholic who both experience their own demise on the same night. Stony is inexplicably murdered in her own bed, while Leo was a work, containing the leak of a new biological weapon he's working on with the Department of National Defense. The leak was no contained at all and he's starting to feel the effects himself. So, there are two evils converging towards Hampstead : a deadly, invisible weapon and a deadly, invisible killer who's been eluding the law of men for en eternity.
Fucking hell, the plot of that book is so complicated I didn't even have time to get into who the protagonists actually were.
Anyway, Floating Dragon is a riot because it's completely unpredictable. See, the Blue Rose trilogy always grounded its allusions to supernatural in reality. It was barely more than a long and cerebral mystery. That isn't the case here. Floating Dragon features ritual murders just like the Blue Rose trilogy, but also some balls-out confrontations with a supernatural antagonist which could've been set in a parallel dimension or another planet. If great horror is exploiting its audience's fear of the unknown by simply alluding to it through reality, Peter Straub lays out otherworldly terror over otherworldly terror and just never bothers to explain it. And it works. It works beautifully. This is also how Straub created such a powerful sense of scope to Floating Dragon. One minute you're in Patsy McCloud's domestic problems and the other, she's fighting evil incarnate on the street. It's fun and satifsying.
Peter Straub's always been somewhat of a countercultural voice in American letters. It's all over the Blue Rose trilogy, but it's particularly apparent in Koko, where he depicted Vietnam from returning veterans perspective. Floating Dragon is no different. The eighties' materialism, the triumphalism and military paranoia of the Ronald Reagan years are the center of the novel. It's another reason why it's so scary and effective. The fears reflected in Floating Dragon were actually drawn from actual anxieties people had (and somewhat still have today in the Donald Trump era). The DRG-16 is our own secret weapon that turns against us and the secrets of the shallow and materialistic neighborhood of Hampstead becomes lethal and starts snatching people off the street. Straub didn't invent these terrors, he simply projected fear that were already existing to their utmost nightmarish outcome and that's why it's so efficient.
Now for my mandatory complaint: Peter Straub writes novels for people who read one book a year. Floating Dragon was exquisite, but it was so freakin' complicated and overflowing with characters and minor plot twists, you need to slooooow down your pace. I read a lot everyday and this novel didn't serve my habits at all. Every couple of pages, a new minor character is getting introduced and several times, I read entire pages where I didn't know who was who and what the fuck was their purpose in Floating Dragon **. It's excruciating and it seems to be exactly the point. It bugged me a lot more in the Blue Rose Trilogy than it did here although it was more intense in Floating Dragon, but Peter Straub seems to be going for the most terminally epic tropes possible in order to exhaust his reader until his next book. It's a weird quirk I'm learning to begrudgingly like, but it made Floating Dragon a lot more demanding that it needed to be.
I loved Floating Dragon. I find that kind of novel where the narrative isn't confined to a single point of view and the setting becomes more important than the characters to be some kind of sophisticated achievement. It's the first Peter Straub in this retrospective that lived up to my unfair and exaggerated expectations. Floating Dragon is terrifying, masterfully structured and a sneaky-good social critique of the Reagan years, which is why it was so successful. Now that I've read what Peter Straub is capable of, I feel confident telling you to skip the Blue Rose Trilogy and go straight for this one if you want to "try out this Straub guy." Floating Dragon is boundless, unhinged and fueled by a desire to be epic. And guess what? It's a pretty damned epic horror novel.
* Excluding the material he wrote with Stephen King. We decided to focus on his solo writing endeavors.
** Mostly, it was to die a horrible death.