Christine (1983)
By: Julian on October 17, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Credits
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 768
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In the introduction to Four Past Midnight, Stephen King recalls the critical drubbing that Christine received by fans and critics alike. I'm not aware of any of the reviews for the novel but, if King is correct about the consensus (and I'm sure he is), then I am more than happy to provide a dissenting view. King's tale of automobile fetishism (this supernatural story would perfectly complement the eroticism of JG Ballard's Crash, another book about a bloke and his crush on cars) is a terrific story, well-written, surprisingly intelligent and moves at the speed of a jet, let alone a possessed '58 Plymouth Fury.

A couple of preliminaries may be discussed here. First, a note about Christine's engine: the novel has been written in three parts – Dennis – Teenage Car Songs, Arnie – Teenage Love Songs and Christine – Teenage Death Longs, with all of the chapters within opening with a song lyric about cars and driving, from the gleeful ("that car's fine lookin' man, it's somethin' else"), to the morbid ("there's a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad"). Dennis and Christine are written in the first-person and Arnie is written in third person. It's an odd structure but it works in the context of the novel.

Second, those concerned about devoting time to a 600 page novel that served as the source material for John Carpenter's dire 1983 film need not be concerned. King's novel is tighter and the central antagonist is different. I'll attempt to explain that without giving too much away about either novel or film: my reading of the novel is that it is not the car itself that is the possessor. Others might interpret the book more along the lines of the Carpenter film – my interpretation curbs (somewhat) the fundamental absurdity of the Carpenter film's premise.

Seventeen-year-olds Arnie and Dennis are best buddies but their relationship was initially built on convenience – Arnie's nerdy appearance and behaviour attracted bullies that outweighed him physically and emotionally, and Dennis was there as his protector. Towards the end of their high school years, Arnie and Dennis are both thinking about booze and college, and the chess club and girls, respectively. Driving home one day, Arnie and Dennis pass the house of World War II vet Roland Le Bay, who is selling a rotten red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury – Christine – for $250. Dennis sees the deal for what it is – an absolute rort, the car wouldn't even be worth a fraction of that for parts – but Arnie is attracted to it in a curious way. He places a deposit on it, weathers the furious protests of his parents Regina and Michael that evening, and returns to complete his purchase of the banged up, run-down vehicle the next day.

Recognising that there is a phenomenal amount of work to do on Christine just to make it roadworthy, Arnie stores it at Darnell's Garage. The proprietor of the garage, Will Darnell, might best be described as a seedy criminal, allowing Arnie to store Christine at an outrageously inflated price and chastising him for, largely, being a youth. To Dennis' disappointment, Arnie takes it all lying down and knuckles down on his work, spending most of his time at Darnell's and allowing his relationship with Dennis to deteriorate.

Le Bay dies and Arnie gets Christine into suspiciously top shape, but it's not long before Dennis notices certain behavioural differences between pre-Christine Arnie and his friend now. For one, Arnie has inexplicably netted Leigh Cabot – a stunning newcomer to Libertyville High. Further, Arnie's antisocial behaviour has escalated: Christine is keeping him ostracised from Dennis and fractures soon emerge in Arnie and Leigh's relationship. The school bullies also notice the source of Arnie's main affections and, as Christine sleeps in an airport parking lot, they do a real number on it, rendering the car (and Arnie's hard work) to a few sheets of battered, punctured steel.

Driven by this new adversity, Arnie works harder than ever on Christine. His behaviour also changes – he is deeply suspicious of Dennis and Leigh when they suggest Christine is consuming too much of his time and Regina and Michael have identified a different child living under their roof. But when Arnie begins to adopt the mannerisms and tendencies of Le Bey – and when Christine's attackers begin to meet gruesome fates in mysterious car accidents – Dennis and Leigh are spurred to help their lost friend.

I mention this in each of my King reviews, but it's worth mentioning again: the author's cardinal strength is the way in which he presents his characters, in this novel, Arnie and Dennis. In his film, Carpenter painted the two as sharing a quasi homoerotic relationship (or, at the very least, Dennis' adoration for Arnie is heart-wrenchingly unrequited by the time Christine is on the scene). King avoids these sorts of lazy clichés. The stages of mateship between Arnie and Dennis are impeccably written and it is quite sad to read its gradual deterioration through no fault of Arnie's own.

Christine's thirds are quite consistent, in spite of the change of perspective between the first and final and second third. Obviously, they take quite different approaches, but their titles are often misnomers: Dennis introduces him as our narrator, and Dennis lays the groundwork for the friendship that is about to be squandered, the torment that Arnie receives (from Dennis' perspective) and Arnie's initial obsessions with Christine. Despite Arnie's title, that section flicks between Arnie, Dennis (hospital-bound after a football injury), Leigh and Arnie's anguished parents, with the chapters often titled by the particular interaction that takes place ('Regina and Michael', 'Michael and Arnie', 'Arnie and Christine'). Rest easy, King hasn't written Christine in the first-person perspective of the car: Dennis, out of hospital, returns as our humble narrator, and this section focuses on Christine's complete consumption of Arnie's life and the manner in which Dennis and Leigh set out to destroy the car. The only time that Arnie sits uneasily with the rest of the book is when it is read in the context of the introduction, which notifies the reader that the novel is a document of events written by Dennis. If this idea informs the manner in which Arnie is read, then one might assume all of the second third is speculation on Dennis' part, and the chapters about Dennis are a touch odd given Dennis speaks about himself in the third person. That's a churlish gripe, though, and it doesn't really interfere with how the novel reads.

Of course, the main fault is the premise. I found it hard to cop a killer car in Carpenter's Christine (I saw the film before I read the novel), and King also writes, without a hint of irony, about the hotted up Plymouth running down a belligerent victim, before reversing over him and running him down again about five times. There's a key difference between book and film though (and a qualifier to the premise is promised in the book's blurb), which mitigates the ridiculousness to a point. I've alluded to it earlier and I won't go too much further in the interest of preserving the novel for those who haven't read it. Those who have read the novel are probably aware of the mitigating factor that I'm talking about (Christine is, ultimately, a mere co-conspirator) but may or may not agree with my interpretation. The novel is open to a series of them: an allegory for consumerism, a metaphor for friendships that invariably dwindle after high school, a cynical comment on teenage boys' inexplicable desire to play nurse to hideous machines that need euthanising, or just an expansion of some of the themes King wrote about in his short story Trucks, except here they're played straight.

Whether or not you choose to read Christine with intellectual baggage or as a slightly ridiculous horror story (I preferred the latter), there's a lot to like here. By the early eighties, King had written a series of brilliant horror novels and was hitting his strides as a formidable suspense author, and this is a deserving entry into that canon and spectacularly chronicles the trials and tribulations in a teenage friendship. Recommended.
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