Yikes! Peter Straub's Floating Dragon Scares Suburbia

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

A specter haunts the suburban paradise of Hampstead, Conn., and it isn't just crabgrass. A housewife gets slashed, a corporate exec turns to liquid, children in Keds march lemming-like into the sea, which is sometimes blood-red and covered with flies. All of this couldn't make author Peter Straub happier: Such imaginative horror, in a suburb so real you can smell the lawn trimmings, has made his latest chiller, Floating Dragon (Putnam, $15.95), a best-seller. "The terrifying stuff takes flight because it has a solid grounding in reality," says Straub, 40. "Modern writing tries to prove that the supernatural can be drawn into deserts, supermarkets and Laundromats."

Floating Dragon's verisimilitude receives an added boost because fictional Hampstead is modeled closely on Westport, Conn., the affluent seaside New York suburb where Straub lives. "But writing about Westport doesn't make it spooky for me," says Straub, who composes seven hours daily in the attic office of his Victorian house. "When I come downstairs, all the horror disappears." Except, it seems, his fear of shlock. "There's no point in letting this field be taken over by people who are writing with their feet," says Straub, who strives for literary satisfaction, especially in creating engrossing effects. "When I describe something really awful or build up to some huge special effect that's going to make people gasp and forget to breathe, then I enjoy what I'm doing."

One particular fan and friend is ghoulmaster Stephen King, author of Carrie, The Shining and Cujo. The pair freely glean from each other's work. "Peter opened my eyes to the art of fiction as storytelling," says King. "I brought a more emotional quality to his writing, but he brought a more intellectual quality to mine." The mutual admiration runs so deep that they are co-authoring an upcoming fantasy called The Talisman, now two-thirds complete. Working from a prearranged outline, they trade off writing sessions, zapping progressive chapters back and forth betweeen Straub's word processor, in Westport, and King's, in Bangor, Maine. "It's mildly annoying when the plot goes where I didn't expect," says Straub. "But it's fun to get the book back from Steve and see what happened."

His own life has taken a few odd plot twists. Straub, the son of a Milwaukee steel salesman and a nurse, earned a master's in contemporary literature from Columbia University. Afterward he married his college sweetheart, Susan Bitker, taught at a Milwaukee prep school and squelched the dreams of writing he had harbored since his youth. "I was afraid to write," he says. "It seemed that the only worthwhile books were masterpieces that could never be equaled by a flawed human like me." But in 1969, when the Straubs moved to Dublin, Ireland, where Peter began to work on his Ph.D., the writing urge took hold and he penned his first novel, Marriages. When that was published to little note and less remuneration, Straub, by now writing full-time in London, turned to his agent for advice. "You're poor, you're unhappy, write a Gothic," she said. He did. First came Julia, then If You Could See Me Now, then 1979's Ghost Story, which has sold nearly 3 million copies and was made into a 1981 movie starring John Houseman. Ghost Story also succeeded in making the Straubs favorites of the British tax system, which prompted their return to the U.S. four years ago.

When not tapping out his imaginings—to the music of jazz pianist Bill Evans and saxophonist Scott Hamilton—Straub savors long lunches, evenings at Manhattan jazz clubs, and scaring the Oshkoshes off his children, Benjamin, 5, and Emma, 2, with homespun ghost stories. Peter has never met a demon except "those found inside the ribcage." As for the others, says Straub, "If I saw a ghost, I would be fairly terrified. I hope I wouldn't just take notes."

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