Monday, February 27, 2006

“Floating Dragon” – Peter Straub

After a series of horror novels culminating with “Ghost Story”, Straub wrote “Shadowlands”, a more fantastical book about magic and illusion. After that worthy detour he pulled out all the stops and wrote what he has described as an over the top grand guignol horror story. There are old secrets, new secrets, melting bodies and terrifying Neanderthaloid twins. Blood and gore oozes from the pages and in the end half a small Connecticut suburb is depopulated. Is there much more to it than that though?

I guess. Straub wrote it partially in response to his own relocation to Connecticut with his family after a decade in England and Ireland. He was jarred by the forced and often excruciating openness as well as the almost oppressive pull to join in. One of the book’s main players is in just such a position and much of “Floating Dragon’s” early pages play on his unfamiliarity and discomfort.

The small town of Hampstead is brought to life with tremendous detail. We know about the cops and the stores and all manner of the town’s flotsam and jetsam of daily life. The point is that when things fall apart there’s a deeper understanding of the enormity of those events. As a child of the seventies I found his recreation of suburbia much like the memories I hold in my own head and I enjoyed that aspect of "Floating Dragon."

I like Straub’s writing and I liked the book but it just doesn’t do all that much other than exist between its two covers. I reread it because I read it when it first came out and had vague memories of being disappointed while still enjoying it. I wanted to look back and see how I felt about it now. The plot moves along, unfolding almost as you'd expect, though with a few tough twists, but it feels too mechanical. Too often it's spectacle for its own sake (which is ok by me) but there’s not much else going on.

“Ghost Story” and his other horror stories up till this seem suffused with their characters’ guilt over wrongs they’d done or failed to prevent. There’s deeper current running through them that at the least make the books feel more meaty. “Floating Dragon” is too mannered and precise to function as a splatter story and too over the top to really work as an unsettling story about the past and its crime returning to haunt the present.

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