Genre fiction comes in various grades. Most of it is "fast food," tasty and quick but ultimately utilitarian. Some of it is "junk food," total crap that's barely worth reading. In terms of horror I'd put somebody like Stephen King in the first category -- he writes novels whose substance is basically a set of well-disguised plot vehicles -- and in the latter category is Dean R. Koontz, an author of carbon-copy books meant to be read on airplanes.
But there are some writers whose substantial style transcends the genre they write in, and I'm mainly talking about Peter Straub.
Straub's best books are weird human dramas that happen to have horrific elements to them, and for that reason they come across as both rich and confusing. Books like "Ghost Story" and "Shadowland" have enough depth to cover hundreds of trashy horror novels; the relationships and events have a purpose outside of the plot, some scenes simply provide "colour" instead of advancing the story, and inexplicable things happen that are never ultimately explained...just like real life.
The thing is, Straub never seemed to be able to TOTALLY fuse his literary style with the plots of his horror novels, maybe because his heart wasn't entirely there or because such a thing is impossible to mass-market. Straub's books, while wonderful and enriching, are also maddening. They're schizophrenic. They ramble.
When "Floating Dragon" came out in 1983, my sister and I were already avid Straub fans...and both of us HATED the book for reasons we couldn't articulate; it just seemed STUPID, especially the climax, in which the heroes defeat a monster by singing "when the red, red robin goes bob, bob, bobbin' along."
A few weeks ago the book was staring me in the face at a used bookstore, and I decided to give it another chance. I can appreciate it more now, though I still think it's a failure, and at last I can tell you WHY.
Half the book is Straub at his best, giving us a huge cast of multi-dimensional characters whose personalities evolve over time. When the wife-beating character who we've grown to hate finally dies, the book doesn't jump immediately into the expected celebration; instead, the characters sit around and talk about him, wondering what made him tick, gradually exposing the small piece of worthwhile humanity that may have been buried inside. This turns into a meditation on the wife's own character and history, and some thoughts about gender and politics, and suddenly...geez, the dead man stops being "the wife-beater" and becomes an actual PERSON. He has leaped off the page to become somebody we know, even if we still hate him.
Straub does this often in "Floating Dragon," expanding on his characters even after (or ESPECIALLY after) he's killed them off...to the point where you suspect that he cares more about the drama than he does about the killer bats and shape-shifting murderers...and so do us more mature readers, no longer eleven years old.
For a horror novel, "Floating Dragon" contains very few thrills, and the thrills it DOES contain tend to be in Straub's weak "phantasmagorial" style: bleeding earth, shambling corpses, skull-like moons, cackling demons. In his introduction, Straub defends these touches as a "love-letter" to horror (because he had decided to leave the genre), but love-letters still need to make sense. A love-letter that says "Smooch kiss hug sweet mush-mush winsome cuddle forever" does not make a good read, and neither do endless passages about motivationless corpses who creep up on people through pools of imaginary blood.
This book would have made an excellent creepy drama if 50% of it were removed, all the repetetive boo-weirdness-hallucination stuff. Some of the ideas are brilliant -- the "leakers" are particularly creepy -- and only Peter Straub would try to pull off TWO unrelated malevolent forces at once, and then refuse to explain any of it in the end. But ultimately this is like a collection of the worst parts from "The Talisman," where random spooky-boo stuff happens because it's "nightmarish."
One thing I learned in writer's groups is that nobody wants to read a transcription of your nightmares. And that's what "Floating Dragon" feels like.
To make matters worse, Stephen King released "It" a few years later. I don't know if Straub ever accused King of plagiarism, but he might have had a case. Except that "It" was a good book, and "Floating Dragon" wasn't.
PS: The "Red red robin" ending sounds better to me today than it did back then, but it's still pretty silly. In his introduction, Straub calls it a "climactic moment of outright lunacy." I call it "being stuck for an ending."