Monday, August 06, 2012

Stephen King: Christine (1983)

Arnold Richard Cunningham, a pimply-faced 17-year-old high school senior, buys a battered 1958 Plymouth Fury for a few hundred bucks from an elderly crank named Roland LeBay. Arnie's best friend, Dennis Guilder, tries to dissuade him, but Arnie, acting "like a man possessed", is frantic to own the 20-year-old damaged hulk, which LeBay calls Christine.

Later on, Arnie tells Dennis:
I saw that car – and I felt such an attraction to it ... I can't explain it very well even to myself. But I saw I could make her better. ... I don't think she's any ordinary car. I don't know why I think that ... but I do.
Arnie's parents are furious at their son's impulsive purchase and forbid him to park it at the house. He rents storage and repair space at a local garage and begins spending all of his free time working on the car, fixing things haphazardly, trying to get it street legal. Meanwhile, his friendship with Dennis is strained, and the two friends drift apart. (Dennis narrates two of the three sections of the book; the middle section is told in the third person.)

As Christine is restored to her former glory, Arnie experiences similar positive changes. His skin clears up, he gains self-confidence, and he begins dating a beautiful classmate, Leigh Cabot. But the transformation soon turns negative: Arnie begins exhibiting personality traits that no one even knew existed. He often looks haggard, he starts limping and suffering back pain, and he begins talking like LeBay (who dies shortly after selling the car), inheriting his anger and fury, referring to various authority figures as "shitters". As Arnie becomes more and more stubborn and possessive over Christine, he alienates himself from everyone around him.

Christine is not an ordinary car. The radio plays only music and news bulletins from the 50s. There is also a thick, rotten smell that everyone but Arnie notices, a lingering whiff of decomposition or "gone over eggs". It is the stench of death. Years before, LeBay's young daughter Rita choked to death on a piece of food in the back seat. Six months later, his distraught wife Veronica committed suicide, dying by carbon monoxide.

Dennis has nightmares about the car, and he realizes that he's afraid to walk in front of it, as though it might "accidentally" pop into gear and run him over. Leigh is similarly wary, and she tells Arnie that when they make out in the car, it feels as though she is being watched, with the green lights of the dashboard resembling cat's eyes, "blazing with hate". Arnie acts less honestly passionate and more lecherous while in the car. Leigh eventually believes the car is alive, and sees her as a rival for Arnie's affection. After she nearly chokes to death (mirroring Rita's death), Leigh realizes that Arnie was slow to help her (as LeBay was hesitant to save his daughter) because "Christine didn't want her to have any help. This was Christine's way of getting rid of her."

When a bunch of hoodlums vandalize Christine – a fight with Arnie led to their expulsion from school and they have promised revenge – Arnie vows to destroy the shitters. He begins repairing Christine again, but this time the repairs are complete in a matter of days. Even Arnie is somewhat mystified, experiencing blackouts where "he couldn't remember what he had done to Christine and what he hadn't". Arnie soon realizes that Christine has the ability to regenerate, to fix itself; as its odometer runs backwards - which Arnie initially dismisses as a wiring glitch - it gains power and strength.

Christine begins driving around town in the middle of the night by itself - sometimes with the corpse of LeBay at the wheel - idling outside Leigh's house, and tracking down the vandals and eliminating them one by one. King describes the car in human terms: the grille is "a grinning mouth"; the car sits, "seeming to brood ... engine growling softly". Arnie is questioned by the police several times about these peculiar hit-and-runs, but he has air-tight alibis - and there is never any damage to Christine's pristine red-and-white exterior.

After being questioned, Arnie is sick to his stomach. He understands what is happening, but cannot imagine getting rid of the car. He considers junking it tantamount to committing suicide. But as Christine's death count rises, he battles against LeBay's possession. When he realizes that Christine will likely not stop killing until everyone close to him is dead, he begs Dennis for help: "Sometimes I feel like I'm not even here any more." Dennis and Leigh devise a plan to completely destroy Christine - and save Arnie, if possible.


In Christine, King draws upon two classics of the gothic horror genre - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - and the theme of the free will, an individual's choice to do good rather than evil. King uses Stevenson's transformation of personalty and the evil within, while Arnie's restoration of Christine and its deadly results mimic Frankenstein's creation of his monster.

Douglas Winter (Stephen King: The Art of Darkness) states that those older books depict the fears of an "age of imperial decline". King writes about similar cultural fears in the latter half of the 20th century, a time of immense technological advancement. In many respects, people are living their lives according to a pace set by machines, often machines that we are unable to wholly comprehend.

King also uses the metaphor of the machine to describe the uncertainty of adolescence and the search for identity:
That's something else about being a teenager. There are all these engines, and somehow you end up with the ignition keys to some of them and you start them up but you don't know what they fuck they are or what they're supposed to do. There are clues, but that's all. ... [T]hey say, Start it up, see what it will do, and sometimes what it does is pill you along into a life that's really good and fulfilling, and sometimes what it does is pull you right down the highway to hell and leave you all mangled and bleeding by the roadside.
King often presents technology in a negative light, as antagonistic to human welfare and values. People seldom benefit from scientific progress in his books – and any progress that is made often becomes uncontrollable. In King's words: "Our technology has outraced our morality." Thus, individuals abdicate responsibility for their actions and creations – and that (in King's fiction) often leads to supernatural manifestations or allows evil to thrive.

University of Vermont professor Tony Magistrale: "[A]s man becomes more reliant on his technological creations, he comes to resemble them in his insensitivity and moral impatience." In Christine, Arnie becomes dehumanized through his unseverable attachment to his car.

Despite the brisk momentum of the second half of Christine, King takes at least one-third of the book building his premise and laying down the back story. The hardcover is 526 pages; it could easily have been whittled down to 326.

Next: Cycle of the Werewolf.


laura k said...

This is the first book that actually seems silly. Where many have seemed horrific, creepy, macarbe, the idea of a car driving around by itself killing people is comical, but not in a good way.

Did you like this one? I can't tell.

Zenslinger said...

This book is strong because of the teen friendship that's right in King's wheelhouse. The wholesome kid with the friend who is so socially awkward that it takes a Faustian bargain to make him cool -- it's a good dynamic. The car is secondary in a way. I reread this sometime in the last few years.