King's Highway pt. 42: From a Buick 8

I had no idea this novel existed when I started this project five months ago. During the years I wasn't reading any King, I'd click on a link or two or read the odd newspaper story, but it wasn't until 2012 that I took a close look at his post-Tommyknockers bibliography.

The hardcover comes with this poster, as well.
I first heard about it in On Writing, when it was then only a first draft. King summarizes it as follows:

"A mysterious man in a black coat - likely not a human being at all but some creature inexpertly disguised to look like one - abandons his vehicle in front of a small gas station in rural Pennsylvania. The vehicle looks like an old Buick Special from the late 1950s."

In the final draft, it's a '54. But, like our mystery-man in the black coat, it is not exactly a car but... something else, inelegantly masquerading as one.
"(It) falls into the hands of some State Police officers working out of a fictional barracks in western PA. 20 years or so later, these cops tell the story of the Buick to the grief-stricken son of a State Policeman who has been killed in the line of duty." (pg. 229)

That's the bare bones of the plot. I was very intrigued by this description. The first thing I thought of was That would make a great sequel to Duel. 

I mean, someone had to come along and clean up that mess, right? And who's to say the driver of the truck wasn't a Can-Toi?
He goes on to relay how it was between drafts at that point (1999) and the dot-your-Is/cross-your-Ts part of it - i.e. traveling to Pennsylvania for some ride-along time with actual Western PA state troopers - was delayed by his car accident and recovery. He made it, though, and he thanks them for their patience and instruction as he hopped after them on one crutch, learning everything he needed to learn in order to make it all believable.

(I enjoyed this section of On Writing a lot. Well, the whole thing's amazing, but it was fascinating to peek behind the curtains at SK's process. Write the whole thing first, let it "cool" for a few weeks so you can edit it with fresh eyes, and then do your research and make sure you haven't put Pittsburgh in Ohio or got the real-life details too mixed-up. After all, "It is a story about monsters and secrets, not about police procedure in western PA." I tend to get too bogged down in research-details when I write; it can really delay and derail things.)

This is a pretty typical view from the thruway in western PA.
But once you get off the turnpike or away from the cities, it varies wildly...
from this
to this. Just wanted to give you folks who haven't been there an idea of the setting, which like many of King's settings, is fictional but next-door to real places. I've always loved the look of western PA.
While I have you here, he mentions how he set this story "down the road" from K.C. Constatine's series of "increasingly philosophical" detective novels centering around chief of police Mario Balzic.
Great, more stuff to read, thanks, SK! This author sounds like a real character, and I loves me a good ongoing series... But! One thing at a time.
Back to "America's schlockmeister," this time from the author's afterword to the book itself. "(From a Buick 8 is a) meditation on the essentially indecipherable quality of life's events, and how impossible it is to find coherent meaning in them."

Unsurprisingly, the author nails it; that is exactly what the novel is about. I think one's enjoyment of this will depend on how comfortable one is with that perspective. The Buick and the troopers are just the delivery mechanism. As Kev notes in his review, "In the early 2000s, Stephen King began experimenting with uncertain endings in more depth and with more frequency than ever before. While books like Pet Sematary, 'Salem's Lot, The Waste Lands, and Christine featured cliffhanger finales, these were mostly done for effect rather than ambiguity. Starting with From a Buick 8 and continuing through The Dark Tower, The Colorado Kid, and Cell, King is fascinated by the way books generally offer a sense of completion, in ways that real life rarely does. With From a Buick 8 on, King seems far more interested in the nature of mystery than closure, and how questions without answers affect his characters."

Art by Berni Wrightson
Post-modern, in other words, for us lit-nerds. Anyway, does it work? I'd say so. About halfway through this, our narrator - well, our main narrator; the book is split between several narrators, each with his/her own particular way of speaking, which makes for a fun read, tho I can see how it might irk some people - begins to get frustrated with Ned (the grief-stricken son, mentioned above) for wanting the story delivered in bullet-point form, marching logically to its conclusion. But there is no conclusion. It's the journey, not the destination; it's the mystery, not the solution. Kind of an anti-Agatha-Christie attitude... I think I'd be unsatisfied if this was his approach to every story, (I don't think King is cut out to be David Lynch; hell, David Lynch might not even be cut out to be David Lynch) but as a meditation on "life's unknowables," it works here.

This theme is expressed most clearly in two motifs that appear throughout the book like counterpoint in a Brandenburg concerto. One is "Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back:" the Troop D mantra, stated in various ways by all of the characters at some point. The other: "I didn't know about reasons, only about chains - how they form themselves, link by link, out of nothing; how they knit themselves into the world. Sometimes you can grab a chain and use it to pull yourself out of a dark place. Mostly, though, I think you get wrapped up in them. Just caught, if you're lucky. F**king strangled, if you're not." (pg. 13) Chains are Sandy's (our main narrator) main metaphor for life/ time.

The only part that might work against this (I'm not sure how I feel about it, after only one read) is the dissection scene. But I guess I have to give you a bit more background to discuss that. The Buick, once it's stored in the shed behind the barracks, gives off "lightquakes" from time to time, always preceded by a hum and a drop in temperature. Sometimes, but not always, these lightquakes result in either something from our world disappearing (as is the case with one unfortunate trooper) or something from some other world appearing...

as is the case with this weird-ass wanger-chested thing, as imagined by Tanem at ConceptArt.
Among the other things that appear is a bat-like creature, which Curtis (the grief-stricken son's father, in flashback) dissects. Both the dissection and the lead-up to it take up a bit more space in the narrative than may be necessary. But, it's wonderfully gross, so that's a plus.

As we've come to expect from Sai King, there are some lyrical flashes of description/ turns of phrase worth noting:

"It's funny how when you look back at disasters or love affairs, things seem to line up like planets on an astrologer's chart." (pg. 13)

"It was the early afternoon on the sort of day that's common enough in the Short Hills Amish country during midsummer; overcast and hot, the heat magnified by a syrupy humidity that hazed the horizon and made our part of the world, which usually looks big and generous to me, appear small and faded instead, like an old snapshot that's lost most of its color. From the west came the sound of unfocused thunder." (pp. 18-19)

"This young fellow, twenty-two years and untold thousands of beers later, would come along and kill the feather of a boy who was not then born, crushing him against the side of a Freuhof box, turning him like a spindle, unrolling him like a noisemaker, spinning him almost skinless into the weeds, and leaving his bloody clothes inside-out on the highway, like a magic trick. But all that was in the yet-to-be. We are in the past now, in the magical land of Then." (pg. 25)

"We smiled at each other, the way men do over love or history." (pg. 67)

"Curt handed out Polaroids... the best had that odd, declamatory quality which is the sole property of Polaroid photographs. I see a world where there's only cause and effect, they seem to say. A world where every object is an avatar and no gods move behind the scenes." (pp. 96-97)

"When desire drives, any fool can be a professor." (pg. 128)

And I quite liked this bit from the end:

You don't know where you came from or where you're going, do you?" I asked him. "But you live with it just the same. Don't rail against it too much. Don't spend more than an hour a day shaking your fists at the sky and cursing God."
"There are Buicks everywhere," I said.

Someone on the SK Forum took that to mean there are all these portals to other dimensions, everywhere, which, while certainly true in the King-verse, is too-literal a read of that line, for me. I don't think King meant there are specifically a whole bunch of magical Buicks everywhere (though that's an amusing thought.) Much more likely that what-the-Buick-represents vis-a-vis man-and-eternity/unknowable-mysteries is everywhere for the pondering.

"If there could be some sort of test at the end of this... some way in which Ned could demonstrate new maturity and understanding, things might have been a whole lot simpler. But that's not the way things work nowadays. At least not by and large. These days it's a lot more about how you feel than what you do. And I think that's wrong." (pg. 143)
Yeah, but what about The Dark Tower, you ask?

Maybe I'm not done looking at old cars... I mean, seriously, these things look pretty bad-ass. I want to watch American Graffiti now.
- Sandy's last name is Dearborn. Probably just a fun coincidence, but Dearborn is the alias Roland assumed during his time in Mejis (in Wizard and Glass).
- The original driver of the car (who disappears, leaving the car in Troop D's hands) certainly seemed to me like a "Low Man," aka one of the Can-Toi. I don't know if its subsequently revealed what the hell he was doing in Western PA or where he went, though. (Didn't look it up.) I also don't know if any of the creatures the Buick coughs up are mentioned for their absence, elsewhere, not that that really matters. (But I wouldn't put it past him, if they are.)
- At the end, Sandy peers into the other-dimension on "the other side of the car" and sees a landscape that reminded me of The Drawing of the Three, though I think it's meant to be something else. (The Todash Darkness, i.e. the land of "The Mist," most likely.)

Anything else? If so, I missed it. I didn't look into these too closely. I'm so close to the end that I figure, why spoil anything.

One last thing. This bit: 

"Sandy's opinion was that when the Feds did show the occasional flash of intelligence, it tended to be self-serving and sometimes downright malicious. Mostly they were slaves to the grind, worshipers at the altar of Routine Procedure." (pg. 98) 

should be printed on currency right next to Annuit Coeptus and Novus Ordo Seclorum.

As a certain Vulcan scientist of my acquaintance might put it, "I would accept that as an axiom." (As my wife might put it: "...NERDS.")


  1. I don't actually remember a heck of a lot about this book, but I know that I liked it when I read it!

    The audiobook is good, too; there is a different reader for each character's sections of narration, which was a cool approach to take.

    1. That is a cool approach, I agree.

      It's a good book. Nice quick read, well-written.

  2. I thought this was Stephen King on autopilot. It wasn't terribly bad like Lisey's Story or Gerald's Game. But there was little good to be said for it.

    1. See, "King on autopilot" was how I felt about Bag of Bones. I enjoyed it (I guess I enjoy King even on autopilot, lol) but this one felt more original to me...

      Still haven't read Gerald's Game or Lisey's Story, but I'm getting to them slowly but surely.

      Thanks for readin'.

    2. I cannot condone the use of the phrase "terribly bad" in association with Gerald's Game, which I find to be a terrific novel. Lisey's Story, though, irritated me to a severe degree; parts of it are great, but other parts really, really aren't.

    3. Maybe I'll read them both at the same time and knock them out together. I think I might. One for the morning commute, one for the afternoon.

  3. As interested as I am in UFO lore, I'm flabbergasted that it took this long for me to pick up on something. I've gleaned from what you say about King's writings that he is using UFO lore, specifically that concerning Men in Black. The MiBs I grew up reading about in UFO magazines in the '70s tooled around in spotless, seemingly new cars that couldn't be new because they were models from 20+ years before the time of the stories concerning them. Usually described as Cadillacs, that could just be because so many of the big luxury cars of the '40s and '50s looked really similar, and Cadillac epitomized that look. Anyway, info about MiBs and their cars can be found a lot of places, such as here: http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2012/10/the-strange-saga-of-the-vanishing-cars/

    1. In 7th to 8th grade, there was a Men in Black book from my library that I used to read voraciously. I always wanted X-Files to do more with them, and I never quite took to the Smith/Lee Jones movies because they didn't do it in a way to remind me of the lore. Although this novel is not about the Men in Black in the same way it isn't about police procedure in Western PA, both certainly inform it, absolutely, and I wouldn't be surprised if King's ideas for the Low Men came from similar books/ inspiration.

      Thanks for the link - that takes me back. A quick anecdote from Total Recall, Inc.: near my old bus stop 86-89 is what I eventually learned was an Old Car Garage. It's still in operation and filled with some of the choicest old cars in Rhode Island (when the doors are open, you can see inside the warehouse and row after row of gleaming and colorful Cadillacs et al; otherwise, all you see is a squat Hangar 18 blue warehouse in between the renovated-for-condos mills and other artifacts of the New England Industrial Revolution.) Anyway, back then, I didn't know any of that, so occasionally, on my walk home from the bus, a gleaming, polished, purring black or flame-red caddy would go by, slowly, as if watching me. One time it beeped and a hand came out and waved almost in slow-motion, as if mocking my perception of it as a visitor from beyond/ Project Blue Book. Like the song says, I ran all the way home...