Peter (Francis) Straub Barbara Righton - Essay

Barbara Righton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Floating Dragon] Peter Straub has returned to the same ground of his acclaimed Ghost Story. Once again he has created four main characters who are linked, albeit tenuously, by a murder. But unlike his earlier tale, in which a well-defined spirit was motivated by revenge, Straub has conjured up a pervasive "wrongness" that haphazardly destroys for wanton pleasure. "Hampstead's always been rotten as a bucket of month-old oysters," says an old newspaper compositor. But this is at best a vague explanation for the series of ghastly occurrences—earthquakes, fires, suicides—dating back to 1645 when a mean Englishman named Gideon Winter tried to wrest the town from its founders.

Like the spirit of Eva Galli, the murdered beauty in Ghost Story, Floating Dragon's amorphous demon is insidiously malevolent. It takes as much pleasure in toying with its victims as it does in viciously murdering them….

Unfortunately, Straub undercuts the real horror as competently as his devil slices up its victims—first by drawing in a host of secondary characters and then by delving into the mundane details of their personal lives. "Nothing is ever isolated, nothing is ever random, everything is connected," Straub warns, much as he did in Ghost Story. Yet here inventions are left dangling. A mirror in an antique shop clouds over, emits lightning bolts and visions of carnage, only to disappear from the book. Straub has created some of the most incongruous, laughable images: bats in white face and red hair; a shotgun that changes into a glowing sword; and a pervasive evil that becomes embodied in a fire-breathing dragon. Only the most patient of readers will put up with the annoying flashbacks and flash-forwarding—as many as 17 times in one 19-page passage….

Lovers of this genre are ever willing to suspend disbelief; they are even willing to slog through 623 pages to solve a mystery or nail a villain. Unfortunately, at the end of Floating Dragon, the reader is no wiser. The evil remains ephemeral, the ghost nameless.

Barbara Righton, "Snuff the Tragic Dragon," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1983 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 96, No. 11, March 14, 1983, p. 50.