King's Highway pt. 62: Christine

Bad-ass cover, is it not?
This wasn't one of my favorites. I enjoyed reading it as a teenager but found my eyes skimming over some pages, this time around.

While it's certainly true that the novel "plays to one of King's greatest strengths: making broad characters human and making the uncanny believable," as mentioned here, and that there's nothing technically wrong with the book, or unbelievable, it's just rather lightweight. There is no real dramatic tension; the insights into adolescence, parental/familial relationships, girlfriends, and sex would be no one's idea of "the definitive portrayal of..." such. Again, not that they're bad, just that they're functional and that's about it. They're as believable as they need to be, but all of it could be cut-out or diminished with no harm done. 

And as mentioned in this review from a defunct King-re-read blog that I wish its author would resurrect, "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 think this would have been better served as a short story or a novella. All of the best bits could be preserved in such with no loss of velocity.

You likely know the plot, but I'll relay it just the same via images from the movie.

(L to R) Arnie and Dennis buy the car from loathsome old man Le Bay.

Arnie begins to notice strange things about the car, like how the car seems to repair itself and only really hum when it plays the oldies station.
The odometer runs backwards, as well.
Dennis doesn't like the car and has reservations about its influence on his friend.
Alas, he breaks his leg, so he can't do much as Arnie falls increasingly under its spell.
Nor can he protect Arnie from the bullying of one Buddy Repperton, who looks a little old for high school, but so be it.
Owning the car improves both Arnie's complexion and his confidence, and he begins to date new-to-school Leigh Cabot.
Christine does not approve. Leigh survives this attempt, but it's enough to break her and Arnie up. You know, that old chestnut, We were in love, but my car kept trying to kill her.
Christine starts to kill people, starting with the "shitters" (rather literally) led by Buddy, who attacked her in the airport parking garage where Arnie keeps her. Before they die, they each see the ghost of LeBay behind the wheel.
As does Arnie.
Leigh and Dennis hatch a plan to destroy the car.
Harry Dean Stanton's the cop on the case.
The novel ends with Dennis and Leigh crushing the car to smithereens. An epilogue finds Dennis four years older and reflecting back on the events both of the novel (Arnie and his family all die) and after (he and Leigh date, then break up, now he's a schoolteacher.) He reads an article on the vehicular homicide of the last of Buddy Repperton's gang, in Los Angeles, and wonders if LeBay's ghost is back... The last line is His unending fury. 

Actually, that last line speaks to the "meh"ness I felt upon completing this one. LeBay's "unending fury" felt more-told than shown. But beyond that, Dennis's narrative voice is inconsistent. At times he seems wise-beyond-his-years, as in these two passages from the epilogue:

"I carried a torch for her, but I'm afraid I carried it self-consciously and dropped it with an almost unseemly haste."


"A secret needs two faces to bounce between; a secret needs to see itself in another pair of eyes. And although I did love her, all the kisses, all the endearments, all the walks arm-in-arm through blowing October leaves... none of these things could quite measure up to that magnificently simple act of tying her scarf around my arm."

I mean, he's 22. But, of course, let's give the 22-year-olds the benefit of the doubt, here, okay fine, but nevertheless, it's just too flowery, for both his established-character and the subject matter. Here's a case where the kind of narrative-characterization evident in, say, Blockade Billy, would have worked better. You don't get anything special from having the novel told by Dennis, and his characterization is inconsistent as a result of it.

Speaking of such things, when the p.o.v. changes in the second book ("Arnie - Teenage Love Songs") I thought, "How much more interesting the book might have been had it been structured like Hearts in Atlantis?" Normally, I dismiss such speculation (anything can be "what-if"d but that doesn't make it a compelling means-of-evaluation,) but in this case, I thought now that really could have been something. If Christine was ever re-booted as a pair of novellas and a couple of wrap-up short stories, the canvas-stretching might do wonders for the subject matter.

As it is, I simply cannot agree with this enthusiastic and often-spot-on reviewer, who says "his supernatural story would perfectly complement the eroticism of JG Ballard's Crash, another book about a bloke and his crush on cars." I'm not a huge Ballard fan, but even so, it's a stretch to put this in the same league. (I'll take From a Buick 8 over either of those, thanks, and I'll take Spielberg's Duel over either Cronenberg's Crash or Carpenter's Christine.)

Before I move on to the film, I thought the song-excerpts that start each chapter add little (and there's way too many of them.) Another shrug. I normally jot down phrases or passages that resonate with me to include in these blogs, but outside of the two above (from the epilogue) nothing really jumped out at me.

The movie is about the same, for me - not good, not bad, but nothing special.

Came out the same year the book was published in that deluge-of-King-material from 1983 to 1985 or so. Carpenter was at the height of his cinematic powers, then, arguably.
I prefer the book if only because the story works better if the car is haunted by LeBay's unsettled-spirit/ unending-fury. The movie jettisons this and makes it clear from the opening sequence alone that the car is just "Bad to the Bone." Incidentally, according to the commentary, this was the film where that song makes its first appearance.

It's certainly noteworthy, though, for its lack of miniatures; an untold number of cars (few of them actually Plymouth Furies, just dressed to look like them) were demolished for this film. Probably more than even Maximum Overdrive. And this sequence where the stunt driver (Kerry Rossall) drives an actually-flaming vehicle (with gasoline in its tank) is from a crazy-dangerous-stuntwork-era we'll likely never see again.
The film's other most-memorable sequence is likely the Christine-repairs-itself "Show Me" scene:

Achieved by turning the cameras upside down (note to aspiring filmmakers - this doesn't work with digital cameras, but doing so in olden actual-film days made the film run backwards. For more obsolete filmmaking know-how, call me.) while the car was pulled downwards by a compressor-sort-of-device. (I forget what these specific things are called, but it's not a crusher.) All special effects are supervised by longtime Carpenter collaborator Roy Arbogast.

The commentary track for this is kind of fun. I'd say it and perhaps the soundtrack (it is a Carpenter movie, after all; while I'm here let me say the transition of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" to the 70s-Tanya-Tucker-version was a nice touch of bringing the movie from then-to-now. Well, the "now" of the film. Now-ish.) are the best parts about owning the DVD. It's by John Carpenter and Keith Gordon, i.e. Arnie from the film, who later went on to direct the film version of one of my favorite YA novels The Chocolate War. (John Stockwell, who plays Dennis but will always be Michael Harlan from My Science Project to me, also went on to direct, but I think Keith's probably got him beat as far as worthwhile material. Still, I tip my cap to anyone making a living in Hollywood, regardless of where they cast their respective nets.)

I wanted to include a screen-grab of the end of Arnie's driveway, particularly in one night scene. It's just about the most evocative shot of driving around to pick up your friend I've ever seen. Alas, couldn't find one.

Here's a young Kelly Preston, though, as Dennis's cheerleader girlfriend, all but forgotten for the rest of the film. (Likewise for the novel, though she gets a bit more mention)
Is it worth seeing? Sure. Worth reading, too, I guess, but neither are high up on my list of personal favorites of King or Carpenter.

The car looks wonderful, though.
Though how could you go wrong filming such a work of art as the Plymouth Fury 1958? Seriously, what an automobile. Check out this site for a complete history (and awesome pics, if you're into such things.)
A quick word on John Carpenter before signing off.

This guy's run from Halloween (1978) to They Live (1988) is just amazing; ten years, nine masterpieces. (Well, I'm including Christine, so ten years, eight masterpieces and one not-bad-one. I'm also perhaps-unfairly not including his tv-work, but whatever.) In the twenty-four years since, he's produced seven movies and - my affection for Ghosts of Mars notwithstanding - no masterpieces. Here's hoping he knocks my socks off again, and soon.

(For those who like both worst-to-best lists and John Carpenter, check out this excellent Truth Inside the Lie post. And no, I'm not getting paid to promote that blog, or any of the ones I link to so-damn-often. What can I say? When I find something I like, I stick with it.)



  1. Couple of quick revisions (I don't feel like editing this one anymore):

    - Only Arnie actually buys the car; Dennis loans him some cash for the down payment but is not a co-owner, as I kina/sorta make it sound.

    - Dennis and Leigh destroy the car, but it's actually Detective Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) who has it crushed.

  2. King seems fascinated by evil cars and trucks. I find the notion intriguing to some extent, but I've never been too keen on King's take on the subject.

    "Duel" is my clear favorite of the evil vehicle sub-genre; I just count the driver as an extension of the truck, something like an ectoplasmic limb it can extend at need. Second on my list would be "The Car," which is just plain awful, but man, do I love the titular construct. It and "Duel" are set in the Southwest, which, after having driven through that region a couple of times, perfect for such stories. There's a few stretches of highway through Utah and New Mexico that are downright spooky, and where I'd have had the bejabbers squeezed out of me had an old Diamond Reo loomed up in my rear-view.

    I haven't sat down and watched "Christine." Our discussion of the book in the past waved me off of reading it. I kept the movie on my queue, so I'll eventually give it a look. I've seen bits and pieces, of course, given how long it's been out. The '58 Fury is a gorgeous car, so that alone piques my interest. I even bought a Christine shirt from Fright Rags (and I'm not a shill for them, either, to be clear to those reading) just because of how beautiful that car is.

    I'm trying to think how far back the "evil vehicle" sub-genre goes. The earliest example I know of is Ted Sturgeon's "Killdozer," from 1944, which was made into a TV movie in the '70s. I've been trying to get hold of a copy of the story, and the movie is on my queue, too. I've seen some of the movie, but maybe 30 years ago.

    1. I will never, ever tire of reading or hearing the title "Killdozer."

      I can't say enough about "Duel." That film is just a masterpiece. And hell yeah on the '58 Fury - what a beautiful car.

  3. Christine is beautiful. But you have to remember, Christine was a custom job. The 1958 Plymouth Fury came in only one color -- and that was a dull off-white.

    I am an old car aficionado. The 1958 Plymouth Fury (really just a fancy trim package on the Plymouth Belevedre) was not a pretty car compared to the stuff that Ford and G.M. were turning out at that time.

    I always thought that King picked the 1958 Plymouth Fury because it was unattractive, like Artie.

  4. If you like the film, Duel, you should check out the Richard Matheson short story. It is better than the movie -- and the movie was pretty darn good.

    I wrote a review of the movie after I reviewed the short story (and others in the collection of the same name). Matheson's biographer weighed in with some comments that might be of interest to fans of the film. http://brianbookreviews.blogspot.com/2011/01/book-to-movie-duel-1971.html

    If you don't want me promoting my blog on yours, just delete the comment. I'll understand. But I thought fans of the film might enjoy Matthew Bradley's insights into the film.

    1. I don't mind at all, thanks for the link. "Duel" is a fantastic film. I'm an admirer of Matheson's to be sure, and I've got the short story around here somewhere and plan on reading it in the sometime-after-this-King-reread.

      Thanks for the Fury info, as well. The pics in that site I linked to are great and provide great supplementary info. When it comes to old cars, I'm a visual fan but no expert, nor even mildly-knowledgeable, on them, or on cars in general.

  5. The real question is whether this novel could have ever been improved? The answer is: search me.

    I do know that the character of Arnie fits in with his troubled kids, a subset that seems to exit only from the early part of his career. I wonder if he could ever revisit that type of character (p.s. no, Doctor sleep doesn't count in my book, though never mind).

    Anyway, Arnie is sort of like Carrie in a way, yet because this book is written from a guy's perspective, somehow Arnie strikes me as much more autobiographical and somehow more real. In fact, he's sort of the only element in the novel that kind of "works" so to speak.

    It would have been interesting if King could have written this book from Arnie's perspective. He could have made it a sort of first person POV account of what Arnie goes through yet because we're in his head we don't know what to believe is real and what's all in his mind. It could have been like a chronicle of a "road Trip" in Christine were each succesve encounter gets more and more surreal and horrific until...Okay I just blanked, sorry.

    I'm sure it would have involved going out in a blaze (false) glory though.


    1. Correction to last post, final line should have read "in a blaze OF (false) glory.


    2. I quite like the idea you suggest - a road trip with Christine. Maybe with multiple narrators. I'm telling ya, if it'd followed the Hearts in Atlantis structure, perhaps with that through line, it might have been awesome.

      Like I mentioned, it's kind of a meaningless "What if," but it's cool to think about.

    3. (Meaning only my Hearts in Atlantis suggestion re: meaningless, lest I give the wrong idea.)

      If Marvel continues their King association, actually, maybe someone could be persuaded to resurrect the What If...? title but in the King-verse. I like that idea a lot - get Michael Chabon, Scott Snyder, whomever, just established writers with a knowledge of both King and comics: put 'em in a room and have 'em brainstorm.

    4. Oh on the contrary, I think I'd apply that same meaningless moniker to my own idea. To go into more detail, it would have involved Arnie getting into an argument with his mother and then sneaking off in the night to run away from home. The only problem is he uses Christine to do it.

      In fact, the more I thought about it, the more my idea could only support a novella at best, say the length of Mile 81, or maybe The Mist if we're being extremely generous, and that's probably stretching things to the limit mind you.

      That Snyder, Chabon idea sound interesting, though.


  6. Christine could have been improved with a more meaningful death for Artie. Artie, the tragic protagonist of the entire novel, dies in a throw away sentence uttered by a detective who'd not yet appeared in the story. That's cheap.

    John Carpenter got it right. In the end, we find out it was Artie -- not Christine who lusted to kill Dennis and Leigh -- not Christine. Christine was just a tool for Arnie in the Carpenter movie.

    1. In the film, Artie's will to kill is enabled by coming into possession of the haunted car, sure, LeBay being compartmentalized with his brother. I prefer the novel's take on that, myself, but I don't think either is particularly successful.

      But I agree on Artie's death in the book, and it seemed weird to me that LeBay would/ could leap into the car Artie's mother was driving. No different, I suppose, than leaping to LA for revenge against Sander Galton. But I didn't necessarily like that much, either.

  7. This is one of those rare cases (in King-dom, at least) in which I actually prefer the movie to the novel. I don't dislike the novel by any means; it's a basically good novel, but one that never really takes flight the way you sense that it ought to.

    In a way, the same is true of Carpenter's movie, but I think the tone of the film is so interesting that it makes up for the various deficiencies in plot/acting/pacing, etc. A big part of that is due to Carpenter's score, which is one of my favorites he ever did.

    1. Carpenter's score in the "Show Me" and "Death of Moochie" scenes in particular - just great. I wonder if we'll ever see a film scored with synth again, either as a tribute or throwback (I guess it'd have to be a throwback either.)

      Carpenter, at least, should!

    2. Oh, yeah, those are great. The Moochie scene is one of my favorite score cues of all time, by anyone.

      I'd love for that style of synth-scoring to come back. There was a movie called "Doomsday" a few years back that had moments of it. It's a crazy movie, and not necessarily a good one, but parts of it were very much riffs on '80s Carpenter flicks, and the score reflected that. Not great, but interesting for any Carpenter buff.