Christine, by Stephen King

Books

There is a reason that reviews tend to be negative when it comes to Christine – it’s not that it’s a terrible book, it’s that there is just too much of everything in it. It takes too long to move the car from one place to another, never mind the narrative, and where the rare moments of incisive teenage mental angst come, they arrive in the minds of under-nourished characters. However, for all the negatives, it is hard to outright demonise this giant volume, the product of a shit ton of coke and booze in the body of a bestselling novelist, because it still delivers the sort of tricks that only King seems to manage. For one thing, he made the junky, forgettable concept of a demonic car sort of, well, memorable. As King himself said in a 1984 interview,

An audience can relate to a certain degree to something like a haunted house, The Amityville Horror, traditional horrors like ghosts, vampires and things like that. You give them a car, or any inanimate object, and you’re suggesting something that is either along the pulpy lines of the E.C. comics, or else obviously symbolic. […] When you do that, you’re really starting to take a risk. But, that’s also where the excitement is. If you can make somebody go along with that concept, that’s really wonderful.

Christine is the name of a ruined old Plymouth Fury that ensnares a young, acne-ridden teen, Arnie, to open his wallet and then later his soul. Dennis, his only friend, is forced to watch from a distance (literally; he’s in hospital for half of the novel, taking a break from narrating things) as his nerdy little friend becomes the world’s most unlikeable dick. Will Dennis get his friend back from the borders of Crazy Town, or will the old car steal poor Arnold Cunningham away forever?

I took a break from Christine about halfway through to read a couple of other books. When your book is over 700 pages long, it’s easy to stray into the warm embrace of a 300 or 400 paged other lover. But, as it turned out, it was good to come back to it after that break. As James Smythe notes in his Guardian blog, there is a formula oft quoted to the ridicule of a King story: “x (where x = any seemingly innocuous thing: dog, hotel, clown etc), + y (where y = possession, demons, the undead) = novel.” He acknowledges that this only applies to those commercial favourites, of course, whilst thankfully the real gems tend to avoid such easy accusations. But what can be a criticism can also be a redeemer – formulaic can be cosy, it can be like an old friend who always tells the same stories but you enjoy hearing them anyway, and you enjoy them doubly when you haven’t heard them for a while. That is how Christine feels.

The world of Christine is like the world of Carrie, of Needful Things, of Pet Sematary, of any number of others because, aside from the fact that most King books reside in the same fictional universe anyway, they also share a habitual tendency to dedicate themselves to the lives of the working class, of the oddballs, of the young. He writes these characters with almost obsessive desire to plant colloquialisms, to live out their ordinariness, their father who drinks beer and watches sports, their dog or cat loved by the children – and then the ground is ripe for extraordinariness.

Although there are weighty criticisms levelled at Christine, it remains undeniably an iconic novel in genre fiction, with cruel imagery to corrupt even the biggest Herbie fan. If you are intent on reading the majority of King in the coming years, as I am, Christine needs to be on your list. It is essential reading – so get in the car, because Roland D LeBay is driving and he’s not a patient man.

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