Berkley, 1982, 595 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-06285-6
You know, I’m really glad I’ve read Peter Straub and Stephen King’s The Talisman before Floating Dragon. They’re not related at all, but this way I can reasonably expect that these two writers know and like each other. Which means that Straub presumably wasn’t too annoyed when King re-used Floating Dragon‘s plot in every fourth book he’s ever written.
I jest, but as Freud once said, there are no jokes: Floating Dragon recounts how a sleepy north-eastern town is destroyed by supernatural forces beyond its control, save for a band of heroes who can defeat the menace. You may recall the same bare outline from King’s It, or Needful Things or Tommyknockers or… Granted, it’s a broad premise, yet all too often during Sleeping Dragon, you’d swear you were reading a Stephen King novel. That, I suppose, is a good thing.
Floating Dragon begins with a very human-made terror. In an experimental bio-warfare laboratory, a virus accidentally escapes, the winds carrying it all the way down to sleepy little Hampstead, New York. Its effects are ill-known, but widely predicted by scientists to be catastrophic. At the same time, an old supernatural monster comes back to the very same town. And it’s even worse than a genetically-engineered plague…
I was, all things considered, quite taken with the first half of Floating Dragon. This pure intersection of natural and supernatural horror isn’t something I can recall seeing in such a context (usually it’s the supernatural that causes the natural to go nuts, such as thunderstorms underscoring a dramatic finale and such) and for a while, it looks as if Straub is going to give equal billing to both disasters.
For instance, our little virus critters slowly transform people into “leakers”, who slowly decompose from within. One of Floating Dragon‘s best creep scenes comes as one of the first victims deliquesces after a particularly hard blow: “In ten minutes Leo Friedgood was an arrangement of wet clothes, shiny bone and a damp spaghetti of bandages in a pool of slime.” [P.342] Yummy!
But there’s more: Floating Dragon‘s first half is a small masterpiece in setting up an overwhelming atmosphere of dread. Straub is really, really good at creating effective omens and setting up little spoilerish passages such as “He died on the bathroom floor the next day, and his remains were not discovered until September. By that time, all his neighbours were dead too, though not of the flu.” [P.148] Royce Giffen’s mini-vignette [P. 184-191] is particularly creepy, perhaps even more so than what the explanation turns out to be.
Straub’s writing in Floating Dragon is a touch less accessible than King’s usual prose (it’s certainly less focused), but perhaps more technically sophisticated. A few scenes are told in flashback from different perspectives, which strikes me as an interesting (though maybe not original) technique. Then again, Straub manages to pack a whole town’s worth of characters -several dozen speaking parts at least- in less than 600 pages, which requires some effort.
For a while at least, Floating Dragon manages to be an effective piece of horror fiction. But then the last hundred pages or so degenerate in a phantasmagorical quest against evil (the kind of hallucinogenic prose seemingly written in a haze of illegal chemicals), that we’ve seen far too many times before, and usually in only a fraction of those hundred pages. The man-made virus threat never amounts to anything more than a cause for “leakers”, flu and clinical depression, leaving all the mayhem up to the supernatural force. There’s not much interplay between the two, which is cause for a slight disappointment. The trite epilogue and the lack of resolution for some subplots are also a bit of a downer.
In the end, Floating Dragon remains a good read, but the lacklustre ending really does spoil a book that, until then, remained quite good. There’s no denying that the sort of small-town horror depicted here has been done over and over again since, but I think that Peter Straub’s book does manage to retain some if not most of its strengths even twenty years later.