There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The unquiet music of history: Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (1982)

….Sarah took out the first spool of microfilm and threaded it into the viewer. She wound it up until she saw the first page of the first issue of the Hampstead Gazette, tightened down the focus so she could read the dates without squinting, and turned the pages past the viewer until she came to 1898.

HAMPSTEAD MAN CHARGED WITH WOODVILLE DEATH, she read in the issue specified in "Bixbee." Three issues later, SECRET LIFE OF GREEN: DISSIPATION AFTER SEMINARY. Six months later, GREEN CONVICTED. The implication running through these articles was that Robertson Green had committed all the murders of prostitutes in Norrington and Woodville.

The next article concerned a farmer on the Old Sarum border who had killed his wife with an ax. Sarah did not make notes about this case, but switched spools of microfilm and ran the new spool past the viewer. Now she was in the summer of 1924, and the Gazette had become larger and easier to read. There were still advertisements on the front page, but there were graphics too.

In the issues Bixbee had indexed, the first pages of the Gazette showed photographs and drawings of women—three women, each of them found dead in the marshland on the west side of the Nowhatan River in the first weeks of that summer, WAVE OF DEATH CONTINUES, read the tall black headline for the issue of June 21, 1924. ANOTHER VICTIM? inquired the headline for July 10—beneath was a photograph of a woman named as Mrs. Dell Claybrook. Mrs. Claybrook had vanished from her home sometime during the evening of July 8. AND YET ANOTHER? asked the Gazette on July 21, over a drawing of the pert, snub-nosed face of Mrs. Arthur Fletcher, who had disappeared from her home while her husband tended to his bond business in New York, THE SIXTH VICTIM? the Gazette asked its readers on August 9. Mrs. Claybrook and Mrs. Fletcher were still missing, and a Mr. Horace West had returned home from a business trip to the mills in Fall River to find his wife, Daisy, inexplicably missing. Two days later, Daisy West still absent, Mr. West had gone himself to the police station and confronted Chief Kletzka. Chief Kletzka had found it necessary to use physical restraints on the agitated Mr. West. Neither man had sworn out a complaint against the other.

Another entry was utterly puzzling, for it had nothing at all to do with murder. It was a small item on page sixteen about the impounding of a fishing boat belonging to a Mr. Bates Krell. Mr. Krell had apparently left Hampstead abruptly: before his creditors could have him jailed, the article seemed to imply.

Bates Krell? Sarah thought. Now, where . . . ?

Was Bixbee implying that Krell had been the last victim of the unidentified 1924 murderer? Sarah thought he was, but she still could not have said why the fisherman's name seemed familiar to her.

When Sarah turned the next spool of microfilm to the issues Bixbee specified for 1952, she found herself looking at the first important story she had ever written for the Gazette. JOHN SAYRE TAKES OWN LIFE. Here were two of the photographs she had taken on that wretched day: Bonnie Sayre crying into the gloved palm of her hand, the rear of the country club and its little stretch of well-mannered beach.

Yes, but murder? No doubt under "Suicide" Bixbee had a long set of entries—why did he list this obvious case under "Murder"? No one had ever suggested that anyone but John Sayre had taken his life. On impulse, she leafed through Bixbee to "Suicide" and checked the date—yes, there it properly was.

Sarah looked at her notes. On the far left side of the yellow page, separate from her more detailed observations, she had written:

1898, R. Green

1924, second mass killings

(B. Krell vanishes)

Now she added:

1952, J. Sayre (?)

And beneath it put:

1980, Friedgood, Goodall, et al.

And looking at these jottings, she remembered: she remembered standing in John Sayre's office while his wife and his secretary wept with their arms around each other; remembered going to the lawyer's desk with Graham Williams and seeing with him the two names scratched in the notepad. Prince Green, Bates Krell. Had she told old Bixbee, and asked him about the names? Sarah could not remember—but Bixbee had put them all together in his index. A killer of prostitutes, a fisherman who had run out of town (or been killed), a respected lawyer. What could possibly be the link between them? And between them and what was going on in Hampstead in 1980?

Sarah drew circles around the names and dates, then sat up straight in her chair before the microfilm viewer. She had seen that there was roughly thirty years between each of these incidents. With the exception of the period 1950-52, there had been a series of murders in Hampstead every thirty years. No, she caught herself—Robertson Green's killings had been done in Norrington. Killings, then, in or around Hampstead, once in every generation. . . .

The Gazette office suddenly seemed dark and cold to Sarah. She switched off the viewer. Already she knew that if she looked back into the records she would find the pattern repeating and repeating itself, going back as far as the records themselves went. . . and before that, in a time when man did not inhabit the Connecticut coast, did the animals insanely attack and kill one another, bear against bear and wolf against wolf, every thirty years?

Sarah wanted to hide: that was her first, instinctive response to what she thought she had discovered. She felt like turning off all the lights and crouching in a corner until it was safe to come out again. Being Sarah, instead of that she reached for the telephone….

*     * *

I first tried to read Floating Dragon 30 years ago. Then 20 years ago. The first chapters thwarted me.

Today, mission accomplished. And happily so.

Floating Dragon is an ambitious social x-ray of middle-class Connecticut during Reagan's first term. Will the Connecticut bourgeoisie survive their trial-by-fire? You betcha!

Like Ghost Story, Floating Dragon features grandees fighting a time-worn evil. But this one recurs as a broad social catastrophe every thirty years. A hearty group of modern-day descendants of colonial forebears must confront the a 1980s manifestation of of North American sin-judgment, and survive.

Straub in the 70s and 80s gave us small ersatz groups waging righteous war on "eeevil." Floating Dragon has evil aplenty: homicidal homicides;  zombies; vampires; revenants; bourgeois perfidists.

Floating Dragon was published  in 1983. I wonder if critics have noted the themeatic similarities with King's It (1986)? Certainly fodder for a doctoral theses.

8 September 2018


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