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 a 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 maid’s 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 re-entry 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, back-pedaling.) 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 Stanford to Westport and there setled to earth, creating a bizarre, hallucinatory, generally corpse-strewn disorder? That would make half of the kind of book I wanted to write. The other half came from thinking about why such a colorful tragedy might descend upon charming little Wesport/Hampstead.
Without ever admitting it to myself, I knew that this book would be an at least 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 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.