Floating dragon, p.1
Floating Dragon, p.1Peter Straub
“Here is a novel guaranteed to double the national nightmare quotient, so watch out!”
“Buy it today. Anything by Straub is worth several thousand John Sauls and a million V. C. Andrewses.”
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“A deliciously imaginative story of hauntings and monsters.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A book that positively bubbles with invention, jammed with characters, color, events, hackle-raising twists of fate, horrific monsters, terrifying nightmares, and a reality that shimmers and shifts as much as the noxious steam from a witch’s cauldron.”
Berkley Books by Peter Straub
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
G. P. Putnam’s Sons hardcover edition / February 1983
Berkley mass-market edition / March 1984
Copyright © 1982 by Peter Straub.
“Introduction” by Peter Straub copyright © 2003 by Peter Straub.
Cover art: Dragon by Owen Franken/Corbis; Rope by Getty One.
Cover design by Marc Cohen.
“When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along” by Harry Woods copyright © 1926 by Callicoon Music (pursuant to section 304 [c] and 402 [b] of the U.S. Copyright Law).
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FOR EMMA SYDNEY VALLI STRAUB
The Death of Stony Friedgood
Part One: Entry
Part Two: Establishment
Part Three: Dominion
After the Moon
After ten years in Dublin and London, my wife and I moved back to the United States with our our two-year-old son in the summer of 1979. We were so out of touch with American realities that to us Cape Cod, Long Island, and Connecticut’s Fairfield County seemed within an hour or two drive of each other and more or less identical. That is, they all sounded like entertaining places to live. (We had no idea that New York City, specifically Manhattan, would be perfect for us, being the most reliably entertaining place in America.) Victor Temkin, the lively soul then president of Berkley Books, recommended Westport, Connecticut, for the excellence of its school system and its proximity to New York. So we arranged a long-distance rental, arrived in New York to spend a week at the dire, long-vanished Summit Hotel, known to us as The Abyss, then mushed north into Fairfield County, which, not very coincidentally, was the title of the book I intended to write after finishing my work-in-progress, Shadowland. Within a month, our real-estate agent, whom I will call Barbara Baxter, drove us to a terrific old house near Burying Hill Beach on Westport’s Gold Coast, and by the end of the summer we had moved in, along with an army of carpenters headed by a twinkling, white-bearded giant named Ben Rohr.
While sawdust and the sound of hammering filled the air, I charged along through Shadowland, which I finished in the immense, beautiful new office Ben Rohr had created for me from a nest of maids’ rooms and unfinished space on the third floor. Ah, what a place—just coming up off the narrow staircase and turning into the room made me want to get to work. The question was, what was Fairfield County going to be about?
Clearly, the book at least in part would be about the experience of moving to Fairfield County, a subject that occupied me daily, whether I liked it or not. Richard and Laura Allbee recapitulate most of the upsets and discoveries my wife and I encountered during the first year of our reentry into the country we had left a decade earlier. No one ever expects to get culture shock from their own country, but stay away long enough and you can’t avoid it—America refuses to stand still. As we were, the Allbees are as amazed as rubes by the plenitude and abundance of goods in the local supermarket. As we did, they inwardly recoil from the astonishingly intimate confessions uttered by total strangers. (In front of the meat department in Waldbaum’s stupendous grocery, a woman turned to me and said, “My first four abortions were absolute murder.” “Ah,” I said, backpedaling.) In England, everybody smoked and drank, what fun, but in Westport everybody jogged, and the only person choosing a pack from the drugstore’s staggering cigarette cornucopia was me. People assumed intimacy; they actually hid behind a kind of sincerity, of all possible stances; they didn’t know that conversation was supposed to be entertainment, a game, a giddy free-for-all, instead of deadly anecdotes punctuated with opinions about sports and politics, plus financial advice. All of this went into the book, as did some of the locals: Barbara Baxter became cheerful Ronnie Riggley, her cop boyfriend Bobo Farnsworth, Ben Rohr passed virtually unchanged into Ben Roehm, and the social columnist in the Westport News turned into the Hampstead Gazette’s Sarah Spry.
At first, I was vaguely planning to do something Scott Fitzgerald-ish, but the book snapped into clearer focus when the evening news reported that five workmen found mysteriously dead in a Stamford factory had been declared victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. A colorless, odorless gas had seeped into their chamber and before they had any idea of being in peril, killed them all with the efficiency of a machine gun. Suppose the gas were not carbon monoxide but something worse, something more complex and sinister; suppose it traveled like a thinking cloud northward above I-95 the twenty miles from Stamford to Westport and there settled to Earth, creating a bizarre, hallucinatory, generally corpse-strewn disorder? That would make
Without ever admitting it to myself, I knew that this book would be at least a temporary farewell to the supernatural material that had been my daily fare since I first began to butter my own bread by driving a succession of Staedtler Mars-Lumograph 100 B and Blackwing 602 pencils across hundreds of sheets of paper. Undead things in bandages, ancient curses, paranormal powers, the inanimate alarmingly animated, spontaneous combustion, visionary apprehensions, human beings uniting into ad hoc families to combat hideous literal evils, ghosts, ravening beasts, beckoning mirrors, vampiric entities, external horrors, that whole gaudy blaring blinding circus of metaphor made real—at a level just below consciousness, I had decided to take my leave of all this dear, goofy imagery by wrapping it all together in one gigantic package and then . . . blowing it up! Anything like restraint or good taste was verboten, the aesthetic was grounded in a single principle, that of excess.
As a narrative rooted in the principle of excess, Floating Dragon proceeds through a series of sustained, escalating set pieces toward a climactic moment of outright lunacy. Our band of illuminated heroes bursts into “Bye, Bye Blackbird”; a shotgun mutates into a glowing, outrageously phallic sword; a literal dragon explodes into a mountain of fire; an entire town more or less detonates. It is completely shameless. However, it is not without a measure of deliberate and conscious craft.
During the late seventies, I discovered the work of the English novelist Paul Scott, whose Raj Quartet seemed to me a master class in how to organize a great mass of complex material in a way that actually represented its complexity. Scott broke his material into a shifting continuum of third person accounts, quoted documents, and flashbacks in the form of stories told by the characters. The ongoing narrative was in constant motion, refracted through many different points of view. For sheer novelistic technique, I had never seen anything like it, and I went through the Quartet’s more than two thousand pages in a trance of awed delight. My whizbang, Floating Dragon, could never attain or even aspire to Scott’s moral seriousness, but I could at least do my best to honor his method, which seemed the most promising way to stretch my canvas over dozens of different characters each intent on his or her own ends, and four or five separate eras in Hampstead’s history.
I wrote the first third of the novel in my usual old way, by hand, in pencil, then typing up what I had written. At that point Stephen King and I signed the contract for our first collaboration, The Talisman, and agreed to buy computers before we began the work. To accustom myself to a keyboard, I bought an IBM Selectric typewriter, which hummed and buzzed reassuringly through the middle section of Floating Dragon. Before beginning the final third, I bought an IBM Displaywriter, one of the first word processors—it was so expensive that for a couple of days two staff people from IBM headquarters in Stamford showed up to teach me how to use it. (King bought a machine he liked to call his “big Wang.”) I wrote the final section in pencil across something like three hundred pages of lined journal, then typed the results up onto my brand-new monitor and printed them out. At the time, I thought that the epilogue was one of the best things I’d ever written, and I still do. It’s full of the lovely, delicious agony of leave-taking.
I also thought that dedicated horror readers would love my exuberant valentine to their favorite genre, for it represented a kind of love letter to them. Instead, they scorned the book: I had forgotten that true believers dislike and distrust anyone who appears to be having fun with the object of their faith. Ordinary readers, on the other hand, practically vacuumed the book off the shelves, which was extremely reassuring.
Now time and the land are identical,
—John Ashbery, Haunted Landscape
The devil is a dumb spirit. All the devil knows is what you tell him with your own big fat mouth.
—Frederick K. Price
The Death of Stony Friedgood
For Stony Baxter Friedgood, her infrequent adulteries were adventures—picking up a man who thought he was picking her up gave her life a sense of drama missing since she had been twenty and a student at Scripps-Claremont. Not only adventures, they were the salvation of her marriage. In college she had juggled four boyfriends, and only one of them, a mathematics graduate student named Leo Friedgood, had known of the existence of the others. Leo had seemed amused by her secretiveness, as he was amused by her private school nickname. Only after several months did Stony realize the extent to which amusement masked arousal.
She married him just after graduation—no graduate school for Stony, and no more for Leo, who shaved his beard and bought a suit and took a job with Telpro Corporation, which had an office in Santa Monica.
Tabby Smithfield grew to the age of five in an enormous stone house in Hampstead, Connecticut, with four acres of well-tended ground and a burglar alarm on the front gates. The neighborhood, consisting of sixteen houses along Long Island Sound, was impressive enough to attract its own tourists; perhaps six cars a day trolled down Mount Avenue, the drivers and passengers leaning to glimpse the mansions behind the gates. Locally, Mount Avenue was “The Golden Mile,” though it was twice longer than that; it was the original road between Hillhaven, the Victorian suburb of Patchin, and Hampstead. Mount Avenue, the site of the original farm settlements of Hampstead and Hillhaven, had once been the principal coaching road north to New Haven, but its hectic days were long past. Manufacturers with plants in Bridgeport or Woodville, a doctor, and the head of Patchin County’s biggest legal practice lived in the impressive houses, along with others like them, older people who wished no excitement in their private lives. Tourists rubbernecking along the Golden Mile rarely saw them—there might be a visiting movie star taking the sea-laden air along the coastal road or a college president pausing for breath before he made his pitch for funds, but the owners of the houses were invisible.
Outside the gray stone house, however, those taking a fast peek through the opened gates in 1969 might have seen a tall dark-haired man in tennis whites playing with a small boy. Perhaps a uniformed nanny would have been hovering on the steps before the front door, her posture inexplicably tense. And perhaps the boy’s posture too would have seemed awkward, inhabited by the same tension, as if little Tabby Smithfield were half-aware that he was not supposed to be playing with his father. They make an oddly static and incomplete scene, father and son and nanny. They are badly composed: one figure is missing.
Stony Friedgood’s first affair after her marriage was in 1964, with the husband of a friend, a neighbor in their neat row of tract houses: he was unlike Leo, being jovial and blond and easygoing, a very junior banker, and Leo invariably spoke of him with contempt. This affair endured only two months.
Stony’s delicate face, which was sharp-featured and framed in shining brown hair, became familiar in galleries and art museums, in certain bars at certain times. Considered from a utilitarian point of view, one neither Stony’s nor Leo’s parents could have understood, the Friedgoods had a successful marriage. By the time Leo was promoted twice and transferred to Telpro’s New York offices, their income had doubled and Stony weighed only a pound more than when she was a student at Scripps. She left behind her yoga classes, a half-completed gourmet-cooking course, four unused tickets to a concert series, the undigested and already vague memories of six or seven men. Leo left nothing at all behind—the company paid to ship east his sailboat and the eight cases he called his “cellar.”
Monty Smithfield, his grandfather, was the great figure in Tabby’s early childhood. It was Monty who kissed him first when he returned from nursery school, and Monty and his mother took him to his first haircut. Birthdays and Christma
Like any child, Tabby had no idea of what his father did for a living, no idea that there was a living to be earned. Clark Smithfield was at home four or five days every week, playing his rock records in the living room of their wing of the big house, going out to tennis matches whenever he could. If at the age of three or four Tabby had been asked what his father did, he would have answered that he played games. Clark never took him to the company of which he was a nominal vice-president; his grandfather did, and showed him off to the secretaries, announcing that here was the future chairman of the board of Smithfield Systems, Inc. Before he showed Tabby the computer room, the old man opened a door and said, “For the record, this is your father’s office.” It was a small dusty room containing an almost bare desk and many photographs of Tabby’s father winning college tennis tournaments; also a Richard Nixon dart board, as dusty as everything else. “Does my daddy work here?” Tabby asked with sweet innocence, and one of the secretaries snickered. “He does,” Tabby insisted valiantly. “He does work here. Look! He plays tennis here!” A spasm of distaste passed over Monty Smithfield’s tidy features, and the old man did not smile for the remainder of the tour.
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub / Horror / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes