Floating Dragon (Peter Straub)
Read again? Yes.
This is the only book in maybe 25 years that ever scared the crap out of me. The first time I read it--17 years ago--I couldn't sleep soundly for a few nights. The last book that affected me that way was Benchley's "Jaws" in early-Eighties middle school.
The only thing that scares me anymore is the knowledge that George Lucas is lurking under an expensive rock somewhere, ready to ooze out and make another movie.
"Floating Dragon" is set in Hampstead, a small Connecticut town, a bedroom community for New York City. A woman named Stony Friedgood is murdered on May 17, 1980. In nearby Woodville, there's the inadvertent release of a toxic gas at a secret military facility.
Shortly thereafter, people in Hampstead turn up with a bad case of dead. Some are suicides. Some simply drop where they stand. Some begin to liquefy and have to wrap themselves in bandages to keep themselves together. Some have visions and go insane. Some are carved up by an unseen murderer. The survivors--those who didn't leave Patchin County when the troubles
began--are treated to an awful ride from which there is no escape. But is it the effect of the gas (known as DRG-16 to the military wonks)...or is it the evil that has manifested in cycles in Patchin County for two centuries?
Hampstead's a small town, one of those everybody-knows-everyone-else places, home to famous actors, New York power brokers, and professional snobs.
Some of the town's founding families are still here more than three centuries later: Williams, Smyth, Green, and Tayler. These names and more are part of the county's history from the 1700's on. In that regard, "Dragon" reads like a family tree: each generation of these core families bears witness to--or causes--horrifying murders.
The principals are:
Graham Williams, formerly famous author; now a failure and a coward (his own words). Blacklisted by Tailgunner Joe McCarthy.
James Tabb ("Tabby") Smithfield, formerly poor little rich kid; now a poor little poor kid with an alcoholic father.
Richard Allbee (Green), formerly famous child actor; now restores Victorian- and Edwardian-era houses.
Patsy McCloud (Taylor), formerly popular girl, now a beaten wife.
Williams is the first to realize that the four of them--the last of those original founding families--coming together means bad things are afoot. When he was 20, and again in his 50's, he faced that evil alone. This time around, it's plain that the four of them must band together, or all four of them will die.
Straub's writing is tight and flows well for the most part, with good description and characterization. He uses much of the book's 544-plus pages (plus thirty pages of back-story vignettes) effectively, but he doesn't tell the story in a linear manner. To keep us as disoriented as the characters, he bounces from point of view to point of view, from present to past. We see certain events through several sets of eyes.
The down side is that the story drags toward the end: it took a week and a half to finish it this time around. The Big Fight at the end is silly and disappointing in a "You mean that's IT?!" way. Had to take a point off for that.