Christine (1983)

Arnie Cunningham is the quintessential nerd: bullied at school, struggling to live up to his parents' high expectations, weedy and riddled with acne. His oldest (and only) friend, Dennis Guilder, has none of these problems, and has always played the role of Arnie's protector. The friendship which exists between the two teenagers accounts for much of what occurs in Christine, King's eighth novel. But there is, of course, another major factor, Christine herself.

The book opens with a brief prologue introducing the two friends, which also serves to foreshadow the events in the novel proper; from the start, we know that something bad is going to happen - a common enough effect in King's writing, but I think this is most explicit instance of it in his work up to this point ("It was bad from the start. And it got worse in a hurry."). King cleverly introduces Christine here as well, discussing how Arnie falls in love with her at first sight in such a way that we think she is a girl. This notion is dispelled a page or so later, when we get our first glimpse of her: a delapidated 1958 Plymouth Fury rusting on a lawn with a 'For Sale' sign on the windscreen.

Arnie is instantly smitten and leaves a deposit with the current owner, a lecherous wretch named Roland D LeBay. LeBay is unpleasant from the outset, a misanthrope living in squalor, and he swiftly extorts as much money from Arnie as he is able, despite Dennis's best efforts. Christine immediately proves divisive, bringing out a stubborn streak in Arnie which sets him at odds with his parents, Michael and Regina. Instead of leaving the car outside their house, he rents a bay at the seedy local garage, Darnell's, where he begins restoring her to her former glory.

In the meantime, King builds in various other plotlines, only to leave them simmering off to one side: LeBay dies, and Dennis learns some disturbing facts about Christine from the old man's brother, George; a nasty confrontation at school results in the expulsion of Buddy Repperton, head of a gang of bullying delinquents; new girl Leigh Cabot transfers in from another school and takes a shine to Arnie; and Dennis is seriously injured in a triple takedown on the football field. And all the time, Arnie's work on Christine is nearing completion.

Spoilers ahead! King structures Christine in a fairly unusual way. The first section - covering everything above - is written in the first person from Dennis's point of view. With his accident, which leaves him hospitalised for several months (and therefore out of the loop), the narration moves to the third person. Arnie's love for Christine grows more and more obsessive, leading to an increasing estrangement from his parents. But we also get the first rumblings of evil from Christine, as Leigh - now dating Arnie - almost chokes to death on a hamburger inside the car. In this scene, King suggests a malevolent sentience within Christine, as the glowing dashboard instruments become eyes watching Leigh's struggle for air. However, while we might be willing to believe Leigh's terrified opinion, Arnie is not.

Christine has now been moved out to a parking lot out at the airport, at the insistence of Arnie's parents, and it isn't long before Buddy Repperton and his cronies discover her there. They wreak a vicious revenge on Arnie, utterly trashing his now-pristine car: ruining the gas tank with sugar, smashing all of the windows and panels, and leaving a shit on the dashboard for good measure. Arnie's immediate response - horror - says a lot about his relationship with Christine; this is the worst possible thing that could happen in his world. His next response - that "the shitters" who are responsible will get what's coming to them - confirms a nasty idea which King has been gradually building up: that Arnie is becoming (or is in some way possessed by) Roland LeBay - see, for example, his use of LeBay's term "shitters" to refer to those who cross him, or his developing back pain, which eventually requires him to wear a brace, just like LeBay did. And his handwriting, while signing Dennis's cast, is no longer his own.

Major spoilers ahead! It is at this point, some 280 pages into the novel, that King gears up, revs the engine and takes us for a spin.* We are treated to a series of murders around Libertyville, as Christine bumps off Buddy Repperton's gang in brutal fashion. Moochie Welch (what a great name) is ground into the pavement over and over again. Buddy and his other friends die in a spectacular crash in the depths of winter. These scenes are undeniably thrilling, especially given that the victims of these events actually see the driver before they die: the rotting corpse of Roland D LeBay. The passages where Christine is transformed from vaguely ominous vehicle to death car left me wanting more of the same, but King is angling for something a little more complex. The appearance of a police detective, Rudy Junkins, at Darnell's garage provides dramatic irony for the reader; it's a bit like Columbo - we know the solution to the crimes, but he has to work his way to the same conclusion bit by bit. That the conclusion in this case is supernatural obviously complicates matter for him. But his line of questioning is enough to persuade Will Darnell of the truth, no matter how ridiculous it might seem.

I don't really want to keep on endlessly explaining the various plot strands, so I'll try to wrap this up in short order. It turns out that LeBay's wife and daughter both died inside Christine - the daughter in a parallel "accident" to the one which almost kills Leigh. King suggests that LeBay has offered them up as a kind of sacrifice to allow him (and Christine) to return from the dead. The action switches back to the first person as Dennis is released from hospital and sets out with Leigh to finally destroy Christine. But even when this seems to have been achieved, King gives us an ominous coda to the story which suggests otherwise.

I've missed out a lot of the detail in this review, which is a reflection on the novel itself. Christine is almost 600 pages long, and the majority of its length is either background (ominous dreams, mysterious little events, and much of the plot given above) or conjecture from the characters (asking "Can this really be happening?" over and over again). King has an obvious fondness for the 1950s B-movie; there is some discussion of this in Danse Macabre. He also shows his appreciation of the music of that era in the lyrics which open every chapter - not to mention the fact that Christine's radio will only pick up '50s stations. However, there is too little action in the novel for it to work effectively. This is especially frustrating because, in the best scenes, the blank, relentless force of Christine's evil calls up Halloween's Michael Myers or, more appropriately, the looming truck of Steven Spielberg's Duel. There are numerous memorable moments, but they take a long time to arrive. The characters are well drawn, but we spend (I feel like a Philistine for writing this) too long waiting for something to happen. Many of King's books develop in a similar fashion, but here the pay-off feels a little too rushed, a little too weak. It's almost as if the B-movie trappings are getting in the way of the Grade A horror I have come to expect.

I remember really enjoying Christine as a teenager. This time around, however, I found myself struggling to get into it in the same way. Perhaps I was more able to identify with the characters in those days, or perhaps I was just more willing to believe in the idea of an evil car. Either way - despite King's usual strong characterisation and set pieces - I now find it a little disappointing.** Which isn't to say that I won't go back and read it again some day (or that you shouldn't read it yourself), because it is as technically well written as one might expect and there are passages, as I have said, which are definitely gripping. But there are others I would reread first.

* Apologies for that.

** And I should stress that I really did find it only a little disappointing. I think my main problem is that this is the first book so far which has been at all underwhelming. It's not a failure; it's just not as strong as the chillers which have preceded it.

Next: Pet Sematary.


Sasha said...

There is something about the possession (demonic) of inanimate or at least unsentient objects that isn't quite as compelling as the psychological complexity of your humans.

But since you mentioned 'Duel', you might like to know that you can hear the original story on BBC 7 here:
I'm not going to try to embed the link since it didn't work last time I tried it. Looks like only Part 2 available sadly, but might still be worth it.

And as you see, couldn't hold out - boredom much relieved.

Dan said...

Missed it, unfortunately. But the film is a stone-cold classic.

Emma said...

I read Christine for the first time a few months back, having avoiding it due to an unflappable "girlie" desire not to read books about cars ("From a Buick 8" excepted - I loved that one). I finally put the pedal to the metal (sorry - but yours was worse) and read it... and, as expected, thoroughly enjoyed it. I therefore beg to differ about your criticism (and may have to de-friend you on Facebook) but have no actual reason other than being a King obsessive (though I admit it wouldn't be in my top ten).

Dan said...

Yeah, I'm not really sure why it didn't work for me this time around. It may just be a case of being too familiar with the material, I suppose. Agree to disagree?

Paul Heller said...

The book isn't really about the evil car, or even the ghost that drives her. It's about the friendships that matter until they don't anymore, about the separations that make us go our own ways... about the way we all will turn into old cars someday. Everyone lived this book, even if they didn't read it.