Darnell’s Garage: Christine

Been awhile.

I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging, so I’m starting a new series called “Darnell’s Garage” where I try to repair busted stories. So, I figured I’d start off with the book that inspired the name: Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine. Warning: spoilers and car puns ahead.

Gotta admit, that’s a siiick cover

OK, here’s a drinking game to play while reading Christine. Take a drink every time a character does some variation of “car bad? no, it’s just car. I’m crazy.” By page 50 you’ll be as wasted as King probably was when he wrote this. Yes, everyone knows King struggled with drugs and alcohol at this point in his career. I shouldn’t rag on him. It’s also tempting to blame this mess on his substance abuse. But he also wrote great books during this time, too, so that’s not the issue.

My suspicion is that after the detour of Different Seasons, a collection of capital L literary novellas, which is now a classic in King’s oeuvre but at the time was a flop, King needed to get back on track. He dusted off this old manuscript and rushed it out the production line. (I’m pretty sure he sold the film rights before it was finished, which makes sense because it came out the same year as it was published.) A lot of the book feels like a younger King. Much of the prose is awkward and purple, the mark of an insecure author trying to impress. And the dialogue feels very wooden. It just doesn’t have that smooth-rolling, natural storytelling voice he’d mastered by The Shining.

Christine‘s plot is pretty straightforward. Arnie Cunningham is a nerd whose only friend is Dennis Guilder. Arnie falls in love with a beat-up 1958 Plymouth Fury owned by a creepy old man named Roland LeBay. Arnie buys it regardless of the condition and starts restoring it (or her, rather). As he makes progress on Christine, he starts to lose his acne and finds a new swagger. He starts dating a pretty new girl at his school named Leigh Cabot (any relation to John Cabot, I wonder?). But then things start getting weird. He begins taking on the mannerisms of LeBay. Some bullies trash the car, but overnight it’s as good as new. Oh shit, the car is possessed. Christine kills the bullies and anyone who messes with Arnie. Dennis, Leigh, and Arnie’s parents all realize something is up with the car and try to convince Arnie to ditch it. He won’t and alienates everyone who cares about him. Dennis realizes the car must be destroyed. There’s a smash up derby and Christine is destroyed along with Arnie. Or is she…

Despite such a simple story, King really manages to run this thing into the ground. First, the perspective inexplicably shifts from Dennis’s first person POV for the first third to an omniscient third-person narrator in the second third then back to Dennis for the final third. The jarring effect is enough to give you whiplash. King said it’s because Dennis has a football injury that puts him in the hospital, removing him from the action of the plot. He didn’t know how to continue the story without him being involved. Seriously?

The obvious solution is to simply write the story completely from third person. Not only would this solve the awkward shift in perspective, it would also get us out of the POV of who possibly King’s worst protagonist. Dennis is painfully boring and devoid of pretty much any flaw. His relationship with Arnie makes no sense to me. Yes, it’s possible that a star football player could be friends with a nerd, but Dennis doesn’t seem to have any other friends aside from his hot girlfriend he refers to only as “the cheerleader.” Yes, he doesn’t eventually fall for Leigh behind Arnie’s back, but it doesn’t feel like a betrayal. Similar to Dennis, Leigh has no flaws and is painfully dull. She feels like an early King characterization of the main love interest. Like Susan Norton in Salem’s Lot, she is the Girl Next Door TM.

I think it would have been much more interesting if Dennis and Arnie had been childhood friends but drifted apart as Dennis became more of a jock. Then they reunite during their summer job and become friends again. Once back in school, Dennis struggles to accommodate Arnie into his social circle and feels guilty about bowing to the pressure of the high school caste system. Dennis tries to redeem himself by trying to protect Arnie from Christine but ultimately fails. I think this would have been more realistic and would’ve added an interesting layer of conflict to their dynamic.

Arnie is really the novel’s core. I found his arc very compelling. He’s a sympathetic and tragic character. One of King’s great insights into his characters is that hurt people often hurt people. Arnie is like a male Carrie. But King buries the lede here by focusing on Dennis. Yes, there are lots of novels that shift the perspective from the most important character, like The Great Gatsby, for example, but here we miss out on so much of Arnie’s downward spiral. We don’t get to see much of Arnie and Leigh’s relationship in it’s early stages; they just sort of happen. Also, there’s a 100-page subplot about Arnie running cigarettes for Will Darnell and getting arrested by the feds, which goes pretty much nowhere.

Frustratingly, King undermines Arnie’s arc by pivoting away from a story of Christine corrupting him to LeBay possessing him. For most of the story, it seems to be about Christine exploiting Arnie’s worst traits, but then LeBay comes back from the dead, and it’s actually him taking over Arnie’s body. It then becomes unclear whether Christine was evil or if it was all LeBay. (The movie wisely simplifies this and makes the car evil from the get go.)

Then, in the end, King has Arnie die “off screen.” Yes, it makes sense that Arnie has left town as an alibi while Christine did the dirty work, but surely we need him there for the big climax? To have him and Dennis face off for the big dramatic payoff. That would’ve made sense given the scene beforehand when Dennis and Arnie fight outside of school. Arnie is now fired up and throws caution to the wind. (Again, this was another improvement in the book.)

Then there’s the book’s namesake, Christine. A lot of people blame this book’s failure on its silly premise, but I actually like King’s more pulpy ideas. Christine is probably the quintessential example of the Family Guy joke that King’s bread and butter is “what if normal thing was BAD.” Of course, those of us who read King know that’s a snobby strawman. King is at his best when he’s using these horror tropes to explore character and comment on issues. I also thought the kill scenes with Christine were a lot of fun. There’s also two scenes where Arnie and Dennis are haunted by the ghosts inside Christine along with surreal, nightmarish visions of the past.

In the case of Christine, I thought King had some real insights here into the role of cars in the life of a teenage boy. Cars represent freedom and maturity. They’re also dangerous and claim the lives of many reckless teens. The way Christine absorbs the negative energy of the tragic events that happen inside her is a nice metaphor for the ways we as humans imbue objects with significance. Unfortunately, there’s a missed opportunity here for King to reflect a bit more on how men tend to feminize cars and other objects. There’s also some insightful commentary on the dangers of nostalgia and being obsessed with the past. King is one of the rare baby boomers willing to look honestly at the time of his childhood.

It certainly seems like King was self-conscious of the book’s premise, though. He doesn’t stop at the first bit of exposition with LeBay’s wife and daughter dying in the car. That would’ve been enough. Instead he goes on with human sacrifice and changelings and the possession bit I talked about. It’s like he doesn’t trust the audience to just roll with the premise of an evil car. Instead, he commits the mortal sin of over-explanation and just makes it worse. He’s looking for nuance in the wrong places. He should’ve gotten into the weeds with his characters instead of turning Dennis into some shitty paranormal detective.

That brings us to who I guess is the real antagonist, Roland LeBay. At first, he was pretty effective minor character. But King elevates him to the roll of main villain, effectively stealing the spotlight from Christine. It would’ve been fine to just have a few scenes with him riding in Christine as a corpse. There’s another superfluous chapter where Dennis calls LeBay’s brother George where he just doubles down on more awful shit Roland did throughout his life. Like, we get it. He’s a bad dude. LeBay Bad, Christine Bad. Move on.

There’s also a lot of inconsistencies in King’s characterizations, which is odd for him considering he’s often so good with character. For example, Arnie is immediately characterized as socially awkward. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t make a good impression. That’s partly why people rag on him so much. But then later in the book, he woes Leigh’s parents and King says something like “Arnie could be charismatic when wanted to.” LoL what? And this isn’t because of LeBay’s possession either, because that guy was famously known around town as the biggest asshole ever. I know this sounds like a nitpick, but it just demonstrates how lazily King approached this book.

Then there’s Arnie’s parents. King couldn’t seem to decide whether he wanted to outright villainize them or make them sympathetic. I liked his characterization of them as naïve liberals who talked all about open-mindedness and love for the proletariat, but lived in a bourgeois bubble and refused to hear of their son becoming a mechanic. But this plays into this Goldilocks-esque resentment King has for people. He doesn’t like academics, or rich people, or white trash, or evangelicals. In order to escape his scorn, it seems like you have to be a public-school teacher or some middle-class professional, who enjoys watching sports in the evening and reads middle-brow paperbacks. Loosen up, Stephen.

Mostly, Christine‘s worst sin is that it’s just boring. The story is bloated and meandering, wandering down dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs. It’s really a checklist for all the criticisms detractors have thrown at King. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it more than some of his other books like Cujo, Dreamcatcher, or Gerald’s Game. And that was thanks to Arnie. Sadly, he is the victim in and of the story.

Cheers,

-b

~ by braddunne on April 18, 2021.

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