Within this crazed, hyperbolic, fatally excessive monstrosity, a horror novel which proved too much even for horror’s undemanding and star-struck readership, there exists the teasing little ghost of a tale about the intersection of an industrial accident and an accursed village. The hints one has while reading FLOATING DRAGON of this unrealized story, glimpses of what the book might have been, justify a brief account of the circumstances under which it was written, even as they cast a colder, harsher light on what it finally became. The sense of what FLOATING DRAGON might have been, i.e. a swift, intriguing yarn in a post-Lovecraftian manner, makes its failure to locate narrative containment of any sort all the more offensive, but the perspective granted by “inside” knowledge of the author’s situation at the time may at least provide some explanation of the catastrophe.
The inexplicable chilliness which had affected my relationship with the Straubs – he my oldest friend, she his deeply valued daily support and buffer against the world’s intrusions (I must say, Peter is perhaps the most deeply defended person I’ve ever known) – toward the end of their long residence in London dissipated altogether upon their return to the United States in 1979. At this time, they would have been well advised to return to their native Midwest, as I took pains at every opportunity to point out. The purchase of a modest but accommodating house in Milwaukee would not only have saved them a vast, in fact an actually almost unimaginable sum in real estate costs, home repairs, taxes and so forth, at a stroke eliminating my stressed-out friend’s continuous financial anxieties, it would also have reconciled him to his humble but sturdy roots, thereby freeing him from the neurotic fixation on his birthplace which deforms the next stage of his work. Failing that, I could have found them a perfectly adequate residence right here in Popham, and it would have been no problem for me to arrange a non-tenure-track appointment for the returning author in our English Department, involving minimal teaching duties, a bi-annual reading, and all the accompanying benefits. This generous offer fell upon deaf ears, four of them. Instead, Peter chose to purchase a crumbling mansion located in Connecticut’s “Gold Coast,” Fairfield County. Specifically, in the town of Westport. Nothing less congenial could be imagined.
I visited the Straubs on two occasions during their residence in Westport, early and late, that is, in 1980, during the first flush of my old friend’s success, and in 1983, his fortieth year, by which time his loathing of his adopted town had so undone him that he spent his weary days, to judge by those he spent with me, in piloting his yacht-like Mercedes from one bar to another. Alarmed by his behavior, which incorporated an inordinate degree of churlishness toward this long-time friend and confidant, I staged a one-man, personal intervention and convinced him to change his ways, whereupon he embarked upon KOKO. But that is another story, to be addressed in its own time.
We are concerned now with my first visit to 1, Beachside Common, Westport, the ruins of a formerly grand house still in the throes of restoration when I appeared for a weekend’s visit which extended for another five happy days upon the conclusion of the 1980 Conference on Popular Culture in New York, at which I had been gratified by the presentation of that year’s Elmer J. Atwood Award For Superior Achievement in the Field of Popular Culture Studies. The “Atwood,” as we call it, is a handsome little cast-iron sculpture in the form of a 1951 Motorola television set, and it so weighted the largest of my suitcases as I trudged toward Peter and Susan’s new residence from the Greens Farms train station, following a none-too-accurate map hand-drawn on what appeared to be a cocktail napkin by my old friend, that I had sweated through my undershirt, shirt and suit jacket by the time I had managed to get myself and my complement of luggage up onto their porch. Various muscular workmen under the command of a white-bearded giant (a gentleman later to be affectionately drawn as “Ben Roehm” in both FLOATING DRAGON and KOKO) observed this entire process without offering any assistance whatsoever. Susan Straub opened the door with the infant Emma in her arms and three-year-old Benjamin Straub beside her. Little Ben’s face illuminated with a smile, Susan’s, alas, fell. I attribute this less-than-hospitible response to the sight of my many bags and the thought that she might have to assist me with them. In any case, she doubltless remembered the invitation to drop in any time I was in the vicinity her husband had given me a scant three weeks before at the end of a telephone conversation, recovered her politesse and invited me in. Little Benjamin instantly darted forward and kicked me smartly in my right ankle, resulting in a nasty dark discoloration which persists to this day.
After the installation of my various bags in the guest room, a space scarcely large enough to accommodate the requirements of the usual traveller, and a hasty sponge-bath, I was escorted upstairs to my friend’s newest office, which occupied the entire third floor of the spacious manse. I had been informed that months of work had resulted in a space Peter found “very nice,” even “good for work.” These mild words in no way prepared me for the sybaritic grandeur the once-impoverished author now deemed appropriate to his station in life. A parquet floor, an immense Oriental rug, an Italian sofa of butter-soft leather some ten feet long and two matching chairs like leather thrones, huge glass-and-marble coffee tables with marble ashtrays weighing at least fifteen pounds apiece, hand-made bookshelves, massive speakers on clever revolving stands, graphics by an internationally well-known artist, a state-of-the-art set of stereo or “hi-fi” components in a handsome wooden case, many subtle, even cunning, lights, a half-mile of records near the expansive desk, two skylights, hand-fashioned wooden platforms beneath the dormer windows, all of it elegantly disposed within a space the size of a bowling alley. I believe the only reason I did not faint away altogether before the attack of light-headedness which this display of lunatic expenditure brought on was that on the desk itself I observed an open journal and a jar filled with pencils – Peter was, at least, still writing his books by hand, he had not completely lost his mind. For a dread moment, I had feared to see a “computer’s” or “word processor’s” hideous shape there.
Those who have become parents to small children tend to forget that adult guests and visitors do not share their obsession with the offspring, grow weary of the perpetual demands made by the little dears, not to mention the tears, screams, howls and other unpleasant noises emanating from the adored, and wish for conversation on subjects other than the children’s accomplishments, in fact heartily desire that the precious wee ones might be sent off to a distant room for lengthy periods, especially when one of them imagines it a comic treat to deliver sharp little kicks to the adult guest’s tender ankles. So it was with my hosts, and it was with a magnificent display of good-humored tact that I marvelled at little Benjamin’s messy performance with a bowl of spaghetti and little Emma’s hunger for the maternal breast. (There are spectacles a guest really ought be spared.) I do not believe that the besotted parents ever quite comprehended the honor bestowed up me by the “Atwood,” and their failure to give adequate attention to the fine points of the speech I delivered at the Conference during any one of the half-dozen opportunities I granted them would have disappointed me deeply had I not known of their hunger for any sort of intellectual discourse, even if it had to be repeated to be grasped. In fact, the few occasions for anything like serious discussion over the course of this week-long visit presented themselves either late at night in Peter’s office, when Susan and the children were safely tucked in bed, or in his automobile as I accompanied him on his frequent journeys to Waldbaum’s supermarket in search of diapers and the like. What I gleaned of his current project during these conversations filled me with a familiar unease.
My hapless old chum, he who would never have escaped Professor Military’s Philosophy 101 course with a passing grade much less his eventual A without my thrice-weekly tutorials, was now resolved to devote a lengthy novel to the problem of the indertiminacy of reality, a theme well beyond his intellectual abilities. Even worse, he intended to clothe this theme in horror’s gaudiest and most self-referential motley, to court excess and its concomitant shapelessness deliberately, abandon all restraint as a matter of principle, and indulge himself by exploiting every cliche of situation and imagery known to horror, or at least those that should come into his mind, not to invoke their pulp-magazine capacity to entertain, but to exemplify and summarize the genre of horror itself, to objectify it within the context of indeterminacy, to simultaneously undermine and celebrate the very genre from which it detached itself by this objectification! He did not use these words, he was barely conscious of his own intentions, but this is what he meant. Even more fatally, as well as employing diaries, invented histories, etc., in another misguided attempt at intertextuality, the book would finally reveal itself as the work of one its own characters! His final delusion was that this grotesquery, at once arid and overblown, would be met with overwhelming approval by the fans, aficionados and connoisseurs of horror.
The actual reception of this farrago by those for it was most intended was best epitomized by the review written by Thomas M. Disch for TWILIGHT ZONE. Sensible Mr. Disch eviscerated the book, pointing out with an appalled amusement its sloppiness, verbosity, slap-dash construction and sophomoric errors of style. Other, less intelligent genre reviewers expressed their disappointment at what they took to be a reckless imitation of Stephen King, their favorite writer. Influenced more by its author’s reputation than the book itself, the British Fantasy Society bestowed upon it their Best Novel Award for 1983, a matter which cooler heads amongst that august organization must still find embarrassing. Of course, the general reading public gobbled it up. The careers of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Anne Rice and many others demonstrate that the public at large will read anything at all, providing it is bad enough.
FLOATING DRAGON does offer some tender pages toward the end, if you have the stomach to read that far. I must say that I was horrified but not at all surprised to learn that Peter had virtually committed artistic suicide half-way through the book — he purchased a “word processor.” Thenceforth, he processed words instead of writing them.
Putney Tyson Ridge