Saturday, February 19, 2011

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

From a Buick 8
By Stephen King
Copyright 2002

This is Stephen King’s second haunted car novel. The first, Christine, was a darn good story full of teenage angst and mechanized horror. From a Buick 8 is like Christine gone to pasture. It’s slow, plodding, and the car seems like an old grouch compared to the sleek, shiny Christine who toyed with her prey as she pursued them.

Like Christine, From a Buick 8 is set in western Pennsylvania. The setting is a Pennsylvania State Police barracks. Out behind the barracks is shed B, that contains a Buick 8 recovered by Troop D of the Pennsylvania State Police back in 1978.

In 2002, A state trooper is killed in the line of duty when a career drunk takes to the wheel one too many times and hits him as he’s making a stop on a tanker truck. The dead trooper’s teenage son starts hanging out at the barracks, volunteering to do chores just to spend time with the people who knew his father best. He inquires about the Buick 8 stored in shed B. This starts a flashback tale of how Troop D acquired that Buick 8 and all the trouble it gave them over the years.

The post commander, dispatcher, and several veteran troopers all gather outside the post at the smoker’s bench that affords them a view of shed B and the Buick 8 inside. Sgt. Sandy Dearborn (a last name familiar to Dark Tower fans) starts telling the tale to young Ned Wilcox, son of the late Tpr. Curtis Wilcox, of how his dad and another trooper found the old Buick at an country gas station in the age of disco.

A gas station attendant calls the state police to report that the driver of a car has vanished from his gas station and left his car unattended. Tpr. Wilcox and his partner arrive to find the old Buick sitting at the pumps unattended. The gas station attendant (who would go on to be the chronic drunk that kills Tpr. Wilcox nearly two decades later) tells them that the owner – a man in a strange trench coat (despite the fact that it is summer) and large hat, disappeared around the back of the gas station, never to be seen again.

Tpr. Wilcox and his partner immediately determine this is no ordinary car. The first clue is its appearance. Despite the fact that it’s been a rainy day in western PA that day, the car parked there is as clean as a showroom model. Closer inspection reveals that it is indeed, not really a car at all. The engine vaguely resembles an engine, but has no spark plugs or wires. The dash controls are all there, but they don’t work. The side ports (for which the Buick 8 was famous) are out of whack with four on one side of the car and three on the other. There is no key to start it and make it run. Despite being a humid, summer day in the hills of western PA, the car’s interior is cool and damp.

The car is towed back to the barracks for inspection. Soon after the car is pushed into the shed, strange things begin to happen. Mini-lightning storms take place in the shed and the temperature drops. Bewildered, the post commander decides to make a closer examination of the car.

A forensics team is called in the post commander for an “off the record” inspection. Their results are inconclusive. The paint isn’t really paint as we know it. The parts of the car from where the paint samples were taken repair themselves. Rocks will not stay inside the tread grooves of the tire, even rolling off of the top of the tires. None of the car’s accessories work and the glove box is a fake panel with no real opening.

What does open, however, is the trunk. And when the trunk open, bad things happen.

The car progresses from being a mere curiosity to a real problem for Troop D when one of their own disappears while alone with the car. The troopers allow the missing trooper’s mother and friends to believe that the trooper simply rode off into the sunset while they continue to research the odd automobile. Young Tpr. Wilcox takes the lead in the research.

Guinea pigs are placed in the trunk to see what happens to them. Eventually, one disappears. A few months after the disappearance of trooper, another lighting storm commences in the shed. The troopers (who now where ropes around their wastes and only visit the car in pairs) investigate the interior of the shed and find a creature that closely resembles a large eye supported by two wings. By the time they get to it, it is nearly dead, apparently unable to live in our world.

The creature is an abomination. It’s odor causes the troopers to vomit. To look at the creature that came from the car hurts the eyes and offends all of the senses. The creature is bagged up and stored in a cooler in the post’s basement. Later, Tpr. Wilcox conducts a necropsy on the creature that accomplishes nothing but making everyone in the vicinity get sick.

Life around Troop D slowly returns to normal through the 1980s as they go about investigating crimes and enforcing traffic laws. However, a close eye is kept on the old G.M. product that certainly came from someplace other than Detroit.

On another occasion, some leaves fly out of the trunk. The immediately decay into a gray, viscous substance that makes everybody ill. Later, a plant that closely resembles a lily shows up. Again, it decays into the gooey, gray material.

The book’s (unintended) climax is when what appears to be a sentient being arrives from the trunk of the Buick. It’s a creature that resembles nothing living in this world. The troopers are horrified by this mass of what appears to be flesh and plant melded into a single being with eyes at the ends of tentacles. The troopers kill the creature and, as all things that come from the Buick, it decays.

The intended climax comes when the post commander tells the boy that after that, the Buick settled down. It still put on some light shows and occasionally the temperature still drops in the shed from time to time, but the unearthly arrivals ceased during the Reagan administration. Ned Wilcox is wholly unsatisfied, wanting some sort of conclusion or resolution. Sgt. Dearborn explains that sometimes in life, there are no answers and no conclusions.

The troopers and Sgt. Dearborn all head for home. However, Dearborn gets a funny feeling that perhaps Ned is not done with the Buick. He turns his car around and heads back to the post. There, he finds 18 year old Ned Wilcox behind the oversized wheel of the Buick, holding a can of gasoline, ready to torch the car, the shed, and himself to destroy the supernatural luxury sedan.

Other troopers soon arrive, the same foreboding feeling coming over them and driving them to return to the post. Sgt. Dearborn tries to wrest Ned from the inside of the car. The Buick, perhaps sensing it can claim one more earthly prize before its spirit departs for whatever world mechanical spirits go to in the universe of the Dark Tower, grabs hold of Ned. The interior of the car starts to collapse in on itself, pulling Ned into another world. A tug of war ensues and Sandy Dearborn is holding on to Ned who is dangling over a dimensional hole that shows a completely alien world. As he struggles, Dearborn sees the revolvers of a Pennsylvania state trooper lying on a desolate beach in that other world.

The book concludes with young Ned Wilcox joining the Pennsylvania State Police and being assigned to Troop D. Like his father, he keeps a watchful eye on the Buick, convinced that it killed his father by forcing the man who discovered her to run down his father. In the end, Ned points out that the paint is fading, the glass is cracking, and the old Buick’s days are winding down in that shed in western Pennsylvania.

This was not Stephen King’s worst book. I reserve that title for the horrendously bad Lisey’s Story. However, From A Buick 8 is a poor book and ranks near bottom of King’s body of work.

It’s as if King wrote this book on autopilot. There is enough character development, but not the type of deep, rich writing that King usually provides in writing backstories. The story, such as it is, is just a bunch of stuff that happened around a supernatural car. There is no element of causation in any of the arrivals of the creatures or objects. There is no solution or resolution to the problem.

The book’s climax brings no resolution to the central character in the story, which is the car. Instead, it revolves around Ned Wilcox who is but passive listener in the story. King spends more than 300 pages dropping hints at the nature of the car, then gives us no resolution. As Sgt. Dearborn tells Ned, sometimes, life is just a series of events; not stories with beginnings and conclusions with everything neatly wrapped up. However, books are not life. A well written book must include a climax that resolves at least the core elements of the plot. King’s climax resolves none of the core elements of the plot.

King also falls into a trap that too often ensnares Dean Koontz and other horror writers: he over-describes his monstrosities. King usually employs H.P. Lovecraft’s technique of giving us a rough sketch of the creature, but telling us that it is too horrible for our minds (and the characters’ minds) to grasp. This type of writing is not easily done, but King was a master of it. In this book, he goes into deep descriptions of the monsters. What King allows our minds to behold isn’t nearly as horrific as what he didn’t tell us in better written books.

Besides, isn’t one haunted car novel enough for any one author? The mysterious Buick is a pussycat compared to Christine and the book isn’t worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence with Christine.

The connections to the Dark Tower are passive. The car closely resembles the cars driven by the Low Men in Yellow Coats from Hearts In Atlantis. So perhaps the driver was one of the Low Men. The car is a portal to another world. And as we know, there are millions of worlds contained within the Dark Tower.

The book does nothing to advance the Dark Tower story. At the time of its publication, King fans were in near revolt because it had been five years since King had written a Dark Tower book.

Upon completing From A Buick 8, King promised Dark Tower fans that our resolution was coming. He would go on to write three more Dark Tower books in succession to bring his magnum opus to a close. So, from here, we go back to the story of Roland and his Ka-Tet as they draw nearer to their iconic Dark Tower. We’re back on the beam and headed for the end now!

According to Wikipedia, Tobe Hooper is developing a movie based on this book. Tobe Hooper has made some really good movies, but I don’t see how this one can be made into a good movie. I suspect this movie will more closely resemble Hooper’s bad King adaptation The Mangler than it will his superb television mini-series, 'Salem's Lot. Stay tuned King fans. . .

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