by Stephen King
3 out 5 fuel injected stars
You never forget your first time, and the memories of my initial encounter with Stephen King when he lured me into the back of a 1958 Plymouth Fury and had his way with me are still clear over 30 years later.
For the record, he wasn’t gentle.
I was a wee lad of 13 when this came out, and Stephen King had established his reputation as America’s boogeyman after his breakout in the ‘70s. I wasn’t much of a horror fan and despite my growing interest in ‘grown-up’ fiction had no interest in the King novels and movies that were freaking the adults out. Then one day I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and read a magazine article about King and his new book centered on a haunted killer car.
“That sounds pretty cool,” I thought. After my appointment, I went to the library which was right around the corner from my doctor’s office. (Ah, small towns...) I can’t remember if I actually was able to get it then or if I had to put my name on the hold list. I suspect that a new King novel probably had a waiting list. In either case, I soon got my grubby little mitts on a copy and read my first Stephen King novel. The countless hours since devoted to reading his work and the small fortune I’ve spent accumulating his books over the years are a testament to how deeply the hook was set.
Looking back now, that seems kind of odd because Christine is not my favorite King novel. In fact, it’d be well down my personal list after others like The Stand, The Shining or The Dark Tower series. Still, it’s a pretty good King novel and was more than enough to put me on the King path that I’ve been on ever since despite the occasional rocky patches.
I still remembered being surprised at how relatable the story was. The way I’d heard adults talk made me think that the entire book would be a bloodbath. Instead, I was shocked to see that King actually focused most of the early part of the book on a couple of small town high school guys who didn’t seem any different from the older teens I knew. I remember thinking that this was the first book I’d read that had people living in a way that seemed familiar to me. That’s why when the horror started creeping in from the edges; it made it that much worse.
Geeky loser Arnie and high school stud duck Dennis have been friends since they were children. As they’re getting ready to start their senior year, Arnie spots a For Sale sign on a rusting piece-of-shit 1958 Plymouth Fury nicknamed Christine by its owner, a nasty old bastard named Roland LeBay. Despite Dennis’s best efforts to talk him out of it, Arnie insists on buying Christine which puts him at odds with his academic parents, especially his domineering mother who has managed to control every aspect of his life to that point.
As Arnie works on what seems to be a miraculous restoration job on Christine, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the car and angry at the world. Dennis was uneasy about the vehicle from the beginning and gets more suspicious as his best friend seems less and less like himself. When people who crossed Arnie start turning up dead via bizarre vehicular homicides, Dennis’s dread of Christine leads him to believe the impossible.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as the book about the evil car, but like most good horror there’s a more human theme lurking in the story. In this case it’s about how childhood friends can drift apart and how inexorable that can be in some circumstances. Dennis and Arnie wouldn’t be that much different than anyone who gets wrapped up in the changes that adulthood is about to lay on them only to look up and realize that the person who always used to be at their side has gone their own way. That’s a sad fact of life that King uses as the foundation of the book, only he uses a murderous car as the wedge he drives between them instead of the more mundane distractions that usually do the job.
The other hook that he hangs the story on is based on the old nerd-gets-revenge fantasy. In this case, despite Arnie’s sweet nature, he’s so incapable of standing up for himself that even Dennis finds him pathetic at times. When Arnie develops a backbone and begins dating the prettiest girl in school, you can’t help root for him even as you know that the cause of these changes is Christine and therefore can’t be a good thing.
With all this going for it, then why doesn’t Christine rank higher in the King pantheon? A couple of factors drag it down. At the time it was published, this was King’s longest book other than his epic novel The Stand and that one was about the end of the world so some wordiness wasn’t out of line. Some of the bloat that would often characterize his later work was beginning to creep into this one. The set-up of Arnie and Dennis’s history and Arnie’s status as the unlucky geek of their school goes on too long. Also, the character of Dennis is just a little too good to be true. Not every teenage boy is a raging sociopath, but after a while I did find it hard to believe that a good looking star athlete with plenty of girls chasing after him would really be best friends with the school misfit as well as a loving and respectful son to his parents.
Then there’s the fact that while the destruction of Arnie’s personality is a big chunk of the book, the actual bloodshed comes at the wheels of Christine, and while King writes several gruesome death scenes and creates some very creepy moments, it’s still just a car. Even with magical evil powers, you still think you could get away by just going into a tall building and waiting until it runs out of gas.
Despite the elements that keep it from being considered among his best work, Christine is still a good example of what King does best by mixing human weakness with supernatural elements to create a story that keeps you turning pages.
Also posted at Goodreads.