Hell on Wheels

Christine by Stephen King (1983): King’s novel about an evil car has one of his more potent evocations of high-school life, as amiable jock Dennis Guilder tries to protect longtime friend (and outcast geek) Arnie Cunningham from bullies and jerks galore. And a domineering mother. And a guy selling a rundown 1958 Plymouth Fury for too much money. And the supernatural. And, ultimately, Arnie himself.

The big mistake here isn’t, as some critics claim, that King never solved a narration problem involving Dennis being sidelined for the middle of the story. Dennis narrates parts one and three in first person, while part two comes at us in third person, mostly omniscient narration that is nonetheless also ‘written’ by Dennis after the events of the story. The third-person narration allows us to follow characters other than Dennis — most notably Arnie himself and the fascinating auto-yard owner Will Darnell — when Dennis isn’t around.

This third-person middle section solves two problems — one, the depiction of events Dennis isn’t present for, including a spectacular car chase; two, the problem of Dennis’s own narration. Set in 1978 and narrated from late 1982, Christine gives us a narrator who reads a lot more like someone in his mid-thirties in terms of vocabulary and observation. Dennis just isn’t credible as a 22-year-old narrator. But setting the main events of the book in 1968, or moving the frame narrative to 1992, would both have created new problems. So it goes.

As I noted, King’s evocation of high-school life is mostly first-rate stuff. Arnie is one of King’s most tragic characters, a good kid whose moral sense has been toxically compromised by incessant bullying and by his parents’ obsessive, meticulous micromanaging of his life. When the intoxicating, demonic Christine comes along, a car only its owner could love, Arnie is pretty much doomed. That the 1958 Fury was not a popular or a particularly good-looking car is really part of the point: Arnie has fallen in love with an automotive outsider.

As with many of King’s novels, the supernatural functions like a surrogate for addiction: the car becomes Arnie’s obsession, and its corrosive effect on his own personality goes mostly unchecked by him, though much commented upon and protested by everyone around him. Like King’s Carrie (or a thousand real-world high-school shooters), Arnie’s been primed to be a murderer in the name of vengeance.

And he’s ultimately the foil not just of the demonic car, but of her awful, bullying, resentful, deceased owner — King’s other great creation here. Christine’s first love, Roland LeBay, manages to embody murderous obsession and self pity. His catch-all term for anyone who crosses him in any way — “shitter!” — is a small Kingian gem of condensed characterization.

There are a few narrative hiccups and at least one ‘Wow!’ moment of unbelieveable character stupidity towards the end of the novel, stupidity that serves only the plot and not common sense or what’s been established up to that point. It’s a novel that could have used more thinking through, but the scenes of high-school life — and Arnie’s squirm-inducing outcast status — represent some of King’s finest character work. Recommended.

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