Bothari’s #CBR4 Review #23: Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
This is my 23rd CR review, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to address the spoiler issue. My own general guideline seems to be that if I was surprised by something in a book, I shouldn’t mention it, so other people could be surprised too. But sometimes that’s really limiting! If something surprising happens early in the book, is it okay to spill?
For this time, at least, I’m going to spill something that happens pretty early in the book (page 66 of 598 pages), even though it surprised me. It’s more writing-related than plot-related, so hopefully that makes it more acceptable.
Floating Dragon takes a long time to cohere. The beginning is very choppy, showing little snapshots of lots of different people and time periods. Stony Friedgood cheats on her husband in the early 70s. Graham Williams curses at his unfinished novel in the mid-70s. A little boy named Tabby Smithfield plays with his grandfather. His father is a jerk. There’s a journalist. There’s a golfer named Les who beats his wife. Dozens of characters blur by, with no time to learn their names or figure out if we’re supposed to keep track of and care about the whole peanut gallery of them. Sections start getting longer, but there are still huge time jumps and years go by, sometimes with barely-mentioned seemingly-important events getting a casual mention. Then in the middle of this flood of information, a new chapter starts and is suddenly in first person. “I’m Graham Williams. I’m the writer mentioned earlier,” he says. He explains that he’s there to record the events of the Black Summer of 1980, and that he needs the reader to believe him, but it’s easier to write about the traumatic time if he removes himself from the situation. So he switches back to third person unless it’s really, really important, and then he jumps back in and says “It’s Graham again. Here’s what I saw that day…”
All this makes it difficult to get into the book. Too much is happening, and you’re not sure how much of it is important. Especially because throughout the book, there are possibly-imaginary tangents, where you’ll learn everything that happens to a character in the next 5/10/20 years, and then the next sentence is “Well, that’s what could have happened.” And then you’re back in real time.
It sounds like I didn’t like the book, but I did, really. Once things start happening, people start dying, and there aren’t so many names to keep track of. It’s still choppy all the way through, and there were parts I had to go back and re-read because I wasn’t sure what the heck was going on, but the story itself was good. Every 50 years or so, really bad things start happening to this affluent little town in Connecticut. Graham Williams figures out that an evil spirit he calls the Dragon has been haunting the town since the 1800s, and takes over someone every 50 years. That someone then starts killing townsfolk, but that’s not all. The Dragon also causes mysterious illnesses, a wave of suicides, visions, hallucinations, and assorted madness throughout the population. Graham is in his 70s, and has spent much of his life researching the town, and has lived through one other Black Summer and Dragon appearance, so he has theories about how to defeat the evil. When he starts putting together his team of allies, and the Dragon starts trying to kill them, things zip along. There are four of them, and they have kind of a Witches of Eastwick thing going, where they have power when they’re together – visions, telepathy, etc.
Things get a little repetitive in the middle, as more and more horrible things keep happening to more and more people. I don’t read a lot of horror novels, but I’m guessing the endless descriptions of blood and pain and fear are pretty normal. It just seemed like that kind of stuff ratcheted up to 11 way early in the book, and then nearly 500 pages of the same came after. This group of people is sick! This group of people is angry! This group of people is sad! They’re all having visions of blood! These guys were dicks when everything was normal, and now they’re even bigger dicks! After a while, it’s like, okay, I get it, blood, anger, fear, when is the Dragon going to DO something?
Again, it sounds like I didn’t like it, but the characters saved it. It’s interesting to watch Graham, Patsy, Tabby, and Richard become aware of their strengths and grow into a family. I wanted to see what happened to the town. I wanted the Dragon defeated. So I liked the overall story, but some of the bells and whistles (and triangles and drum solos and bagpipes) could have been edited out.