Picked up an old copy of Stephen King’s Christine at a place called Savers, best place, in my opinion, for finding fiction at a discount. Cymphonee and I would walk into that place with nothing more than twenty bucks to our names and come out the other side with 10-15 books to tie us through till the next time the change jar miraculously filled itself up. We once debated about bringing home a pair of field worker figurines that seemed to be made of straw and mud and old corn husks; hella creepy but, at the end of the day, we decided to pass on them. I still get the feeling that stuff in thrift stores stays on the shelves for a good reason, probably because it’s cursed or has some kind of bad mojo attached to it and is just waiting for the perfect person to pick it up and move that mojo around. That’s exactly what happened to Arnold (Arnie) Cunningham.
Unfortunately, I’d only seen the movie before and liked it well enough, but the book is a whole other can of worms, and tire marks, and heart wrenching characters that really tugged on my own personal experiences. Before I jump into it, I must say that the movie, in my opinion, got the emotional beats entirely wrong. Well, not wrong, it’s just that they were absent. Christine is told in three parts, two of which are in the first person from Dennis Guilder’s perspective. The second part of the book jumps to third person, but you get the sense that it was done that way because it couldn’t be done first person all the way through. Dennis spends most of the book in the hospital and there would have been no other way to tell the tale without the shift. It’s jolting, but after about a paragraph or two you can easily merge back into whatever lane King is steering you into.
This was a long book and I’ve heard people say that it could have been told in half the length. I doubt it. If you’re only looking for a slash ’em up horror story about a possessed car that turns teenagers into roadkill then maybe 250 pages would suffice. I think King could have cut out maybe twenty pages and still had a great story. I went into this book looking for the roadkill, but what I came out with was one of the eeriest, most tragic stories I’ve read in a while. Why talk about a 30 year old story now? Because it’s my blog and even to this day I think Stephen King is one of the greatest story tellers of all time.
In reference to Arnie, Dennis says: He was a loser, you know. Every high school has to have at least two; it’s like a national law. One male, one female. Everyone’s dumping ground. Having a bad day? Flunked a big test? Had an argument with your folks and got grounded for the weekend? No problem. Just find one of those poor sad sacks that go scurrying around the halls like criminals before the home-room bell and walk it right to him. And sometimes they do get killed, in every important way except the physical; sometimes they find something to hold onto and they survive. Arnie had me. And then he had Christine. Leigh came later.
And: Maybe that’s one of the ways you recognize really lonely people…they can always think of something neat to do on rainy days. You can always call them up. They’re always home. Fucking always.
I had my doubts about what a swell guy Dennis Guilder was from the get go. I don’t think you can call him a ‘golden boy’ but I don’t think he’s on quite the same rocky ground as most of the other characters. Although we don’t see Dennis hanging around his other friends, he sure puts it to Arnie in the loser category. These guys/girls exist. Arnie is kind of Dennis’s fix ’em up project, a pimple-faced vestige of his childhood that just happened to latch onto him. I think it makes Dennis feel good about who he is to have Arnie as his sidekick. Hell, Dennis doesn’t really have anything going for him besides a lukewarm steady date when he wants, a clear complexion, and a spot on the high school football team. Maybe it’s because I’m older now, because in high school these things are apt to exclude you from the ‘losers’ list, but these two guys are basically on the same list. However, they have very different families so I’ll chalk it up to that as the deciding factor.
Maybe Arnie thinks that Dennis is a bit higher on the social ladder because he’s a fix ’em up kind of guy, maybe Arnie knows he’s just a sidekick project. Maybe that’s why he becomes so obsessed with his own project, Christine.
Roland D. LeBay, owner of Christine, is just about the most repulsive character in this book, worse than Buddy Repperton and his goons even. If you’ve seen the film then you’ve seen this guy for about 5 minutes. But if you read the book you’ll see that this bastard is the cause of everyone’s problems; his unending rage runs through each and every chapter. So Arnie pays a ten percent holding fee to keep Christine off the market until he gets paid. Dennis loans him a bit of cash. Right off the bat LeBay hates Dennis, and Dennis hates him right back. The weaker the better it seems, and LeBay sets his sights on Arnie.
That’s when I really began to understand it was more than just Arnie suddenly deciding he wanted a car. He had never even expressed interest in owning one before; he was content to ride with me and chip in for gas or to pedal his three-speed. And it wasn’t as if he needed a car so he could step out; to the best of my knowledge Arnie had never had a date in his life. This was something different. It was love, or something like it.
Now I can understand Dennis trying to look out for his friend here. Christine is a rusted bucket filled with glass, shredded seats, and decade-old oil-it’s doubtful LeBay can even get her started. And I think this is where King gets it right. Guys like Dennis want to be the ones to evolve, to make moves, and ‘step out’ as he puts it. He’s almost insulted that Arnie won’t stay in his little box. Maybe there’s a tinge of concern that dealing with LeBay is a bad idea or that the price he’s asking for a ’58 Plymouth Fury in terrible condition is too steep, but I think Dennis wants to keep his fix ’em up project right where he is.
So Arnie’s parents blow a gasket when they hear he bought a car. They even blame Dennis for letting him do it, as if he’s Arnie’s keeper; the grown up one that led the ugly duckling astray. This encounter disturbed me, in a good way. Again, King gets it right. It’s irresistible force meets immovable object and something has to give. Arnie’s parents disgust Dennis a bit here, and we see that it’s not the first time they’ve blamed him for Arnie’s actions. Kids (teenagers in this case) know and understand adult dynamics much more than we give them credit for. Dennis knows that his peers are not the only ones beating Arnie down.
That’s it, I thought, now feeling a little sad as well as upset. They’ll beat him down and LeBay will have his twenty-five dollars and that ’58 Plymouth will sit there for another thousand years or so. They had done similar things to him before. Because he was a loser. Even his parents knew it. He was intelligent, and when you got past the shy and wary exterior, he was humorous and thoughtful and…sweet, I guess, is the word I’m fumbling around for. Sweet, but a loser. His folks knew it as well as the machine-shop white-soxers who yelled at him in the halls and thumb-rubbed his glasses. They knew he was a loser and they would beat him down.
Does Arnie blow-up on his parents? Sure does. But then again, years and years of being pent-up in a box can do that to a person sometimes. Arnie: I think that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids. Again: Because as soon as you have a kid, you know for sure that you’re going to die. When you have a kid, you see your own gravestone. Well, when you have a kid like Arnie Cunningham that may just be the case, as neither of Arnie’s parents make it out alive. People wonder why Arnie was so drawn to Christine in the first place. Was is supernatural? Was it LeBay finally finding his successor to unending fury? Sure, but I also think Arnie’s parents set him up to take the plunge.
King pours it on thick with Roland D. LeBay; you get the sense that he liked writing this character. But it’s necessary. How would you know that Arnie was slowly becoming LeBay if you didn’t know the details about what kind of guy LeBay was to begin with? LeBay’s back problem, and his brace, comes back as a theme later on in the story. King sets it up as a big reveal. Why does Arnie’s back hurt so much too? The answer is interesting, but the build up is too much. Indeed, the back problem thing is brought up so many times that I thought the ghost of a chiropractor was behind the wheel of Christine.
On the way to pick up Christine from LeBay’s house, Arnie tells Dennis why he wants the car so badly. “I don’t know exactly,” he said. “Maybe it’s because for the first time since I was eleven and started getting pimples, I’ve seen something even uglier than I am. Is that what you want me to say? Does that let you put it in a neat little category? And we’re still friends, right? And that means we don’t have to lie to each other, or at least I think that’s what it’s supposed to mean. So I got to tell you, maybe it’s not all jive. I know what I am. I’m ugly. I don’t make friends easily. I…alienate people somehow. I don’t mean to do it, but somehow I do. Other people, you, for instance, Dennis-don’t always understand what that means. It changes how you look at the world when you’re ugly and people laugh at you. It makes it hard to keep your sense of humor. It plugs up your sinuses. Sometimes it makes it a little hard to stay sane.”
“Well, I can dig that. But-“
“No,” he said quietly. “You can’t dig it. You might think you can, but you can’t. Not really. But you like me, Dennis-“
“I love you man,” I said. “You know that.”
“Maybe you do,” he said. “And I appreciate it. If you do, you know it’s because there’s something else-something underneath the zits and my stupid face. Anyways, that car’s like that. There’s something underneath. Something else. Something better. I see it, that’s all.”
That’s a lot of dialogue and paraphrasing, but it gets the point across beautifully. Arnie knows how everyone sees him, even his best friend. More than getting ripped off in a car sale, more than dealing with Roland D. LeBay, more than Arnie’s strange fascination with what’s hidden underneath Christine, I think Dennis is scared to see his friend step out of the box.
While Arnie steps inside LeBay’s house to finalize the paperwork, Dennis studies Christine. He sits behind the wheel and the world begins to change. Lets go for a ride, big guy, Dennis hears in the back of his mind, or from somewhere in-between the past and present. Christine seems brand new again as echoes of the past flood towards him. This is the first hint that maybe there is something different about this car, something hidden beneath the rust and broken glass and chipped paint. Dennis freaks. As Arnie pulls Christine out of the garage and onto the street, Dennis sees LeBay crying. He relates the event to a cat of his, Captain Beefheart, dying in the back seat on the way to the veterinarian’s office: That was almost as bad as LeBay. But when I looked back, the old bastard had gotten himself under control-well, mostly. He had stopped leaking at the eyes and he had stuffed the snotrag into the back pocket of his patented old man’s pants. But his face was still bleak. Very Bleak. “Well, that’s that,” he said hoarsely. “I’m shut of her, sonny.”
“Mr. Lebay,” I said. “I only wish my friend could make the same statement. If you knew the trouble he was in over that rustbucket with his folks-“
“Get out of here,” he said. “You sound like a goddam sheep. Just baa, baa, baa, that’s all I hear comin out’n your hole. I think your friend there knows more than you do. Go and see if he needs a hand.”
And this is what Dennis does throughout most of the book: makes every observation that Arnie is in deep trouble, sees all the signs, makes the situation about himself, and, at the end of all of it, really does nothing to help his friend out. LeBay, at this moment, is even more concerned about Arnie than Dennis is.
Christine’s tire busts and she’s grounded, stuck out in front of someone’s house. Dennis is worried about how all the black exhaust smoke looks, how the backfires and racket sounds, how embarrassing it must feel to be Arnie at that moment. The homeowners threaten to call the police if Christine isn’t removed immediately, and later on, when the man of the household returns from work and Christine still isn’t gone, he nearly gets into a brawl with Dennis over the whole thing.
The people in this town, Libertyville, are horrible. LeBay refers to the world in general, and the people who populate it, as ‘shitters,’ and I think we can begin to understand, by this simple scene, what he’s talking about. Is it twisted to sympathize with a guy like Roland D. LeBay? Of course, he’s a complete maniac. But there’s a reason that he sells Christine to Arnie. He sees how Arnie’s been beaten down by everyone around him, and Dennis proclaims time and time again that everyone knows Arnie is a loser. If Arnie had never bought Christine, what would have been his fate? Would he have overcome the fury of being shat on his entire life? I don’t think so. That fury would have come out eventually. LeBay just speeds up the process. There are no victims, only volunteers, may have been his creed.
Is this one of King’s best books? Surely not. But I also don’t think it’s the utter garbage that most folks think it is. If you had a perfectly carefree experience as a teenager and there isn’t one character’s shoes you can see yourself tying at the end of the day, then this book definitely isn’t for you. I never had pimples like Arnie or a wolf in sheep’s clothing friend like Dennis Guilder who not only watched me crash and burn but stole my girlfriend in the process, but I can suspend by disbelief and my own personal experience (I was bullied a lot growing up) and understand where Arnie is coming from. We don’t get to see why LeBay was so pissed off at the world and so we peg him as a naturally evil person. Hell, even his own brother, George LeBay, says he was evil incarnate. But we do get to see why Arnie is so willing to let the fury of LeBay overtake him.
There are plot lines that veer, like Will Darnell’s smuggling activities, Arnie’s back problems, and Dennis sitting in the hospital for nearly half the book. This is the kind of book where reading between the lines will go a long way to answering questions that seem to pop up all the time. Somewhere along the way, Dennis has two important conversations with George LeBay, Roland’s brother. I understood the meat and potatoes of those conversations as the origins of the whole fiasco. LeBay’s daughter chokes to death in the back seat, and he seems to do nothing to help her. The same thing happens to Leigh Cabot while driving around with Arnie and he doesn’t seem too concerned. LeBay’s wife eventually dies from exhaust fumes inside of Christine, much like Arnie’s father right before the final confrontation with Petunia (a pink kaka-sucker rented to put an end to Christine).
George LeBay, after talking to his sister, affirms that Roland somehow allowed his own family to be sacrificed inside the thing he most loved in the world, thus making him immortal in a round about way. It’s Roland D. LeBay who’s the source of evil the entire story, not Christine. The car is just a conduit, an extension of LeBay’s unending fury. Why are Arnie’s back problems mentioned so many times? Not only to mirror LeBay’s back problems, but to reveal that Arnie sacrificed a part of himself to Christine also. The night he took Christine to Will’s garage, he pushed her around the entire junk yard until her odometer turned back to the point where she began to regenerate again. Are these things in plain sight for the reader? Not always, and I think that’s why a lot of people think this book is such a shitshow.
All but Arnie and LeBay are pretty shallow characters. Dennis trys to redeem himself and save Arnie by mentioning all the good times they had together growing up, but it’s a feeble attempt to save a character who was doomed from the very beginning. Dennis and Leigh placate Arnie while he slowly slips into darkness, then they plot behind his back to kill the one thing he actually cares about. Call me insane, but I was kind of rooting for Arnie and Christine by the end of the book.
So I left out all the gory details about how Christine kills nearly every person that ever messed with Arnie, including his parents. His mother, who crashes her own car while arguing with Arnie on a trip to a college campus, is the only one not directly killed by Christine (well, Arnie dies here too). It’s mentioned that there were three people in the car when Arnie and his mother crash, the third person (presence) being Roland D. LeBay. And the funny thing is, Arnie (from beyond the grave) thanks Dennis in the end. While I liked the ambiguous ending, I felt really sad for Arnie and kind of understood why he thought the whole world was against him. In my opinion, everyone in Arnie’s life turned out to be ‘shitters.’
No one likes whiny, rage-filled teenagers, and I guess that’s why it’s a bit hard to really appreciate how well King captured being pissed off at the world as a teenager. If you’re a teenager you’ll probably like this read a lot more than most adults do. The Catcher in the Rye used to be one of my favorite books, but I’m sure if I read it now I wouldn’t feel the same way. I guess you have to be there. Maybe King wrote this at a time when he thought he was in a little box; stuck inside the box of ‘horror writer.’ If you have the patience to ride through over 500 pages of a pretty good story with a lot of fury and tragedy, try this one out. If you need the answers to every single question posed, and editing and grammar ticks drive you insane, stay away from this one.
Keep it light, and try your best to walk in someone else’s shoes.