I’m reviewing Christine as I’ve been invited to be a guest contributor on the Constant Reader, a podcast that is undertaking an exhaustive analysis of the Stephen King canon, taking in all of his books, as well as pretty much every film and TV adaptation that has been made. If it sounds like a mammoth undertaking, well, it is, and should keep Richard Sheppard, the host, busy for at least a good few years. I was delighted to be part of it, and when we discussed which books I might talk about with him, I alighted pretty quickly on Christine.
When I was in my formative teenage years in the mid-90s I latched onto King pretty tightly; his books gave a tantalisingly risque and frightening glimpse into the adult world, with all its fallibility, violence and, yes, nobility, but he also spent a lot of time peering into that liminal space between teenage years and adulthood, the invisible threshold between preparing to be, and being itself. Carrie surely treads this line as well as anything, ditto The Body (adapted as Stand By Me) and It, but Christine, above all the others, seems to be tailor made for the teenagers themselves who are on the cusp of adulthood. I mean, it features fast, sexy cars, hot girls, bad guys, rock n’ roll and rebellion. What teenager could resist?
It’s a big book. Maybe because it was the 80s, maybe because King at that point was a surefire moneyspinner, maybe the editors felt they didn’t need to say to this guy, “hey you might want to trim this down a bit…” Also maybe because he was drinking and a bit spaced out on painkillers, that behaviour bled through on to the page. As such, it doesn’t seem the most technically polished of King’s books; the change of POV after the first act is a bit odd and jarring. Tellingly the next couple of books were Pet Sematary, Cycle of the Werewolf and Eyes of the Dragon, all at least 200 pages shorter. For me, the whole subplot about cigarette smuggling seemed superfluous. And despite all of this, Christine sold well, over 300,000 copies in its first year and made him a ton of cash.
Side note about Christine: by 1983 King was selling so well that he was earning royalties even before the final advance payments had been made by the publisher, but regular publishing contracts usually stipulate that royalties cannot be paid until the advance has been paid off in full – so for Christine, he offered the publishers a new deal; he’d take a $1 advance, so he’d start earning royalties from the sale of the very first copy. That was testament to King’s draw back then. There’s something very 80s about the whole thing: the excess of the book, the big publishing deals, even the excess was done to excess.
Side note number 2: the film rights to Christine were sold before the book was published! Think about how crazy that is: in a business that is as conservative as Hollywood (with respect to business and risk-taking if not with respect to political gestures) a film studio was prepared to shell out on this barely-finished manuscript and a top director in John Carpenter months before a single copy had sold. Even the outlier’s outlier, JK Rowling, never managed that with the Harry Potter books. It’s a distinctly American episode.
Fitting, then, that I believe Christine herself represents America. That might seem very loose, but there’s a sense that Christine represents, more specifically, a bitter America in decline. The malevolent previous owner who eagerly sells the junked Christine to Arnie, Roland D Lebay, says that the Army was in decline when he left (when he bought Christine), and now the car also has been beat-up and run down. Hence his bitter catchphrase of “shitters” which he flings disdainfully at anything and everything he deems to be symptomatic of America’s plunge down the drain: Commies, blacks, youngsters, officials, and on and on.
The car in general represents America because the car represents individual freedom in the way that other modes of transport don’t, especially in a large place like America. It also represents youth, and rock n’ roll, and latterly, sex and death, which is taken to its logical conclusion in JG Ballard’s Crash.
Maybe that’s why King has a thing for cars more generally, too. There’s the ’61 Biscayne in Carrie that belongs to Billy Nolan; Jack Torrance’s clapped-out VW in The Shining; the sentient trucks in Maximum Overdrive; the titular car in From A Buick 8. Cars are representative of America in a general sense, but Christine is representative of an America gone wrong; she doesn’t get you where you need to be, she doesn’t represent freedom, she represents regression; rather than power, only the façade of power, just as LeBay represents the corrupt heart inside America.
Christine bewitches Arnie (intentionally? It seems to suggest Christine – or Lebay – does it intentionally) is looking for the right owner, but he just happened upon her. Like Christine, and by extension America, Arnie is a man in decline; he’s declining before he’s even a man – and therefore isn’t really a man at all. He’s beat-up, useless, run-down, a wreck – his appearance is a mess, like Christine’s – but just as Dennis sees something in Arnie that nobody else sees, Arnie sees something in Christine nobody else can see. Dennis says Christine attracts a certain type of loser, like a Venus Fly Trap.
She represents many things, but fundamentally: she’s a car, no more and no less. She’s everyday, which is in-keeping with much of Stephen King’s oeuvre, much of which shows the malevolence of the everyday things around us: a car, a pet, a shop, a dog, a hotel, a schoolgirl, a number-one fan, and so on…
But it’s also in-keeping with a lot of the great horror from American cinema’s Golden Age, the 1970s. This is horror where the monsters aren’t defined by their otherness wrt human beings; ie things that possess a topography, a shape, a form that is at odds with our experience of objective reality – werewolves, vampires, chimaeras, King Kong, etc, what we might call classical monsters – and moves horror into a realm that is constructed from within, like a cancer.
Cancer is a good analogy; it’s a form of mutation, something that is of this body and something which does not fit and which cannot be naturally rejected – so Christine is of the body or world that we recognise but it cannot be ejected without trauma, just like other malevolent beings such as Pennywise, and in both cases I think the traumatic ejection of the malevolent being coincides with the character sacrificing something. In both cases it’s childhood. I investigate these ideas in Eat Yourself, Clarice! in much greater detail.
So Christine is a funny old book; it’s bloated and excessive and technically imperfect but, like so many of King’s books, fascinating and compelling, and deceptively deep; there’s a hell of a lot going on when you peek under the hood.