Thursday, January 31, 2008

Horror Cuisine by Peter Straub

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 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."


Anonymous said...

Speaking of genres, I suspect you and I and even other gentle readers here read less autobiographies than we should. :)

Four off the top of my head I heartily recommend you pick up the next time you go 2nd hand book store browsing:

Conrad Hilton's "Be my guest" : This is the one I am currently reading.

This starts off in the frontier West, I have just reached the "Great War" of 1914, the guy is 29, and he still hasn't got into the hotel business. You love frontier stuff, you will love this. :)

Modern readers will know him as Paris Hilton's great granfather, but the otherwise insane but very much sane-and-in-control-of-his-life-by-wrestling-standards-because-at-least-he-never-killed-his-wife-and-kids-or-ODed-on-drugs "ultimate warrior" recommended it in a anti-Paris rant. For that I am grateful. :)

Mohhammed Ali's autobiography written sometimes in the 70s. Great, great stuff. Just so sad that such a strong and eloquent personality has been prematurely silenced by Parkinson syndrome. :-(

Sam Walton's "Made in America"

Gandhi's "My experiment with truth". The english will throw you off at first, but once you get past the first chapter, it makes for very gripping reading.

Happy reading! (Even with the warrior rant. :) )

Anonymous said...

And with respect to "I wanna to ride a white horse", I am disapointed to see that no one has uploaded "Disco Station, Disco" from Hathkadi starring Reena Roy and a dwarf station master on youtube. :)

Toni Lea Andrews said...

Hmmm...maybe I'll give Straub another try. I have had problems getting into a lot of his books.

And King doesn't always qualify as fast food. Let us not forget "The Stand."

Also, Koontz's retelling of the Frankenstein story rises significantly above his other work. I highly recommend it.


P.S. Have you read the first book in my Urban Fantasy series? I can't help but wonder what genre of cuisine you'd place it under.

Adam Thornton said...

Gosh, I can't remember the last biography I read!

I'm genuinely interested in learning more about Conrad Hilton's life (though not his legacy). I've realized that there was much more to frontier life than just gun-slingin' and cattle-rasslin', so "Be My Guest" sounds like a good one.

Thanks for all the suggestions!

Adam Thornton said...

YouTube's Bollywood selection is very strange. I have yet to find "Rukh Rukh Rukh" from "Vijaypath" or anything from "Hairaan."

There's also a great song in the Tamil version of "Hitler," but you can imagine what searching for "Hitler" in YouTube would be like.

Adam Thornton said...

Hi Toni, I've certainly generalized to keep the post blog-short, though I'm unconvinced that even "The Stand" rises to the "horror cuisine" level. I haven't read it in years -- and I've never read it with the aim of categorizing it -- but every character and event in the book seems designed to either advance the plot or to be a spooky set-piece.

Though I'd have to go back and have another look, and it would be a pleasure because I really loved the book.

As for Koontz, I'd exclude some of his early novels from the "junk food" category ("Strangers" especially, and maybe the one about the town-swallowing amoeba), but after his late 80's spree of relentlessly bad, formulaic books, I wrote him off and haven't checked I've never read his "Frankenstein." Something else to check out!

In terms of Straub, give "Ghost Story" or "Shadowland" another chance. I'm going to check out his mystery novels again at some point too. Though I agree that even at his best, his pacing can be jarring.

I never knew you HAD a first book in an urban fantasy series. How do I get it? :)

Hilda said...


I can vouch for Toni's book "Beg for Mercy". It's the first in a series and it is really good with wonderful characters. Even though I'm not a big fan iof the genre, I enjoyed it and definitely recommend it.

Adam Thornton said...

That one goes on my acquire-then-read list, then!