FLOATING DRAGON by Peter Straub
Peter Straub has written two of my favorite books of all time. The first is probably his best know novel -- GHOST STORY. It was such a huge bestseller that I think Peter Straub is probably tired of signing it by now*. The second is SHADOWLAND, a book that had a profound effect on me when I was a teenager. It’s one of a handful of books that inspired me to write and draw, and whenever I look at one of my very first attempts at writing -- the short graphic novel WALK THROUGH OCTOBER -- I can’t help but notice how strongly SHADOWLAND influenced the imagery in that story.
So it came as a bit of a surprise that I’ve had such a hard time getting into some of Straub’s other novels. I’ve read a number of them and while the level of writing is always undeniably high, I haven’t always gotten sucked into the narrative. But after reading Straub’s introduction to a collection of Stephen King’s non-fiction called SECRET WINDOWS, I felt like digging back into some Straub and settled on FLOATING DRAGON, a book I’d read in college and enjoyed, though not as much as GHOST STORY and SHADOWLAND, both of which he’d written before DRAGON.
Reading it again, I have to admit that I didn’t get it the first time around. The book is far more complex than I’d ever realized. On the surface, it’s the story of a classic haunted town, with a long history of bad things and an ancient evil waking up to wreck havoc. An excellent setup for a horror novel, but Straub added in a whole other level to the story, involving a “thinking cloud” made up of a dangerous chemical that may or may not be driving the town slowly crazy. The first time I read the book, I thought the two threads didn’t come together well, but now I realize that was the whole point. There’s an ambiguity to what’s happening in the town that even the main characters can’t help but notice. Without that ambiguity, FLOATING DRAGON would be a decent enough supernatural thriller, but Straub went for something a lot more complicated and interesting. I just didn’t notice it at the time.
Now I’m tempted to go back and read some of the other Peter Straub books I hadn’t liked as much. I suspect there are a number of interesting things I missed the first time through.
*Random side story: My friend Daniel Waters (an unbelievably talented writer in his own right -- check out his excellent GENERATION DEAD) brought a copy of GHOST STORY up to Mr. Straub at a convention and the author joked that no one ever brought any of his other books to be signed. When I finally worked up the courage to ask Mr. Straub for an autograph, I made sure I brought my battered copy of SHADOWLAND for him to sign. Not sure if I won any points, but it is one of two books I still have from my youth. The other is an extremely battered paperback copy of F. Paul Wilson’s THE KEEP, probably my favorite horror novel of all time. Still haven’t worked up the courage to have FPW sign it for me.