Saturday, November 24, 2012

Christine by Stephen King

By Stephen King
Copyright 1983

Hell hath no woman like a Fury scorned.

Christine. In horror fans, her name conjures images of red and white tinted Detroit manufactured death. She is two tons of rolling iron with a mean disposition and a short temper. She's also an incredibly jealous lover.

Having thrown his publisher, agent, and fans for a loop in 1982 with a compilation of three mainstream novellas and one semi-supernatural novella in Different Seasons, King returned to the genre that made him famous with his tale of a boy and his car, and their tragic love affair.

Arnie Cunningham is Libertyville High School’s designated loser. Every school must have two, King tells us. One male and one female. They become the dumping ground for frustration and insecurity experienced by every other teenager in the high school.

Unlike most designated losers, Arnie has a friend to keep him from getting worse than he does from the school’s toughs. Dennis Guilder is a football standout, good looking, and a big man on campus. He’s been Arnie’s best (and only) friend since they were little kids. Despite their divergent statuses in the school pecking order, Dennis sticks by Arnie.

On the way home from school one day, riding in Dennis’ Dodge Dart, Arnie screams at Dennis to stop. Arnie has fallen in love at first sight and the object of his ardor is a badly dilapidated 1958 Plymouth Fury sitting in a suburban front yard with a for sale sign on it.

The book is set in 1978, so Christine was 20 years old when Arnie found her and every one of those 20 years was apparent in her appearance. She’s rusted badly. Oil puddles under her block. Dennis takes one look at her (immediately the car is referred to as her) and tells Arnie the car is junk beyond salvation.

As Arnie is admiring his new love, the owner emerges from a rundown tract house and introduces himself as Roland LeBay, U.S. Army retired. LeBay is a foul man with a foul mouth and a foul smelling back brace he wears having incurred injury while in the army. Arnie immediately wants to know the asking price, telling LeBay that whatever he’s asking for it, it’s not enough. LeBay quotes a price of $250. Dennis is astounded, telling LeBay the car is dead and he’s taking advantage of his friend. LeBay dismisses him and takes Arnie’s $25 deposit.

The news that Arnie has purchased a car is greeted with fury (pardon the pun) by his parents who have controlled and dominated Arnie his entire life. When Arnie takes delivery of Christine and drives the backfiring, oil smoke emitting hunk of Detroit iron to his home, his mother forbids him from keeping it at their house. He is forced to take it to a local garage run by the town’s local criminal, Will Darnell, where he rents a repair bay for $20 a week.

Dennis takes an immediate dislike to Christine. The car makes him uncomfortable. He sits in it and the car seems to speak to him. When he stands in front of it, the car’s grille seems to leer at him. Christine is ugly in more ways than her rusted appearance.

Life goes on at Libertyville High School. Dennis plays football and although the team is not very good this year, Dennis is a standout star. He’s got a girlfriend of whom he is fond and is enjoying new vistas of teenage sexuality with her. Arnie has his auto shop classes, chess club, and Christine.

Dennis stops by Darnell’s garage a few weeks after Arnie buys Christine to check on his progress and is immediately struck by the haphazard manner in which Arnie has gone about repairing her. While the engine still drips oil, he’s replaced the broken antenna. There’s new upholstery on the back seat while the rest of the interior remains rotted. And half of the one piece grille has been restored to chrome. The cracks in her expensive to replace wrap around windshield are gone.

A few weeks later, Dennis and the team are playing an away game and Dennis is shocked to see Arnie arrive in Christine, still looking worse for wear, but definitely improved in appearance and performance. So is Arnie. His chronic acne has cleared and he looks more mature. Dennis is even more surprised that Arnie now has a fine looking young lady on his arm. Leigh Cabot is attractive (Dennis is immediately attracted to her) and new at the school. Arnie is now walking with a limp, having injured his back when helping Darnell with some of his cars he claims.

That next week, Arnie reads that Roland LeBay has died. Arnie feels compelled to attend the funeral and Dennis goes with him. After the funeral, Dennis decides to talk to LeBay’s brother who tells Dennis his brother’s ugly life story full of bitterness and hatred. He also tells Dennis Christine’s story. Christine was the culmination of LeBay’s life’s goal: to own a new car and he treasured it. His daughter choked to death in the car and LeBay refused to get rid of it. His wife committed suicide in the car and LeBay hung onto it. Nothing was going to part Roland LeBay and Christine until LeBay was no longer able to get a driver’s license and no longer needed the car.

A few days later, Dennis is going to meet Arnie for lunch outside the school when he finds Arnie cornered by several of the school’s delinquents, led by a tough named Buddy Repperton. Buddy has produced a switch blade and is threatening Arnie with it. Dennis wades into the standoff and confronts Repperton and his friends. Before anything bad happens to Arnie, a teacher arrives and breaks it up. Buddy is expelled and his friends suspended.

Arnie finally presents Christine in her restored grandeur. He takes Dennis for a ride. Dennis notes that the odometer rolls backward. Arnie says there must be a defective cable and it’s just one more of the small repairs he needs to make.

Before Thanksgiving, Dennis is badly injured in a football game. He breaks both legs and has a spinal injury. He is confined to a hospital bed and is out of the picture for several months. Meanwhile, Arnie puts the final touches on Christine, making her look showroom new.

For Arnie, it would seem his life has dramatically improved. His tormenters have been tossed from school. His appearance, like Christine’s has dramatically improved. He’s dating a hotty and has a cherry vintage car. But things are not good.

Arnie’s mother, still peeved over her son’s independence in buying a new car and spending much of his college money on it, refuses to let him keep the car at home. His father buys him a parking pass at the local airport and Arnie is forced to take a 25 minute bus ride to get to his new car. His home life now tense.

One night, he and Leigh are engaged in a heavy petting session at a drive-in movie when Leigh abruptly jumps from the car and runs to the concession stand. She can’t stand being in the car, she tells Arnie. She senses jealousy and resentment from Christine. Arnie dismisses her anger as ridiculous. But when Leigh starts slapping Christine’s dash board Arnie gets mad. Leigh tells him he’s just angry because Leigh’s slapping his other girl.

Other things make Leigh uncomfortable about Christine. Her green, glowing dashboard resembles two malevolent eyes. Her radio plays only vintage rock and roll, no matter where the dial is tuned. Leigh Cabot is quite convinced that Christine has a soul – and evil soul full of jealousy and anger. She visits Dennis in the hospital and confides her concerns to Dennis who is growing more attracted to her. Recalling his own discomfort around Christine, Dennis sympathizes, but is hardly in any position to do anything about it.

One night, while out partying, Buddy Repperton and his friends decide it’s time to exact revenge upon Arnie. They go to the airport and effectively destroy the car, punching holes in her body, cutting up her interior, and smashing her engine. Leigh and Arnie arrive at the airport the next day to find her mangled hulk. Arnie flies into a rage, screaming about the “shitters,” (one of Roland LeBay’s pet pejoratives) who trashed his car. He has it towed back to Darnell's intent on repairing what seems to be irreparable.

Over the next several days, the boys who trashed Christine die violently. One is repeatedly run over on the street. Buddy Repperton and a few of his friends are chased on a snow covered road and forced off where they die in a fiery crash. A police detective drops in on Arnie at Darnell’s where Arnie is doing some mechanical work on her. He has paint samples linking Christine to the crimes while Arnie has air tight alibis for the crimes. What troubles the detective is that Christine’s body, which should have been mangled after the violence she inflicted, is in perfect repair. Arnie denies any knowledge of the crimes and points to his alibis.

Leigh reaches her breaking point when, one afternoon, she starts choking on a hamburger while riding in the Fury. Arnie tries hitting her on the back, but can’t dislodge the clog in her windpipe. A hitchhiker they picked up earlier gives her the Heimlich and saves her life. Convinced that Christine is responsible, she tells Arnie it’s either her or Christine. Leigh won’t ride in the car anymore. Arnie makes his choice and it is Christine.

Dennis is released from the hospital just before Christmas and Leigh comes to visit him. She’s distraught over the breakup and worried about Arnie who has become increasingly bitter toward the entire world. She doesn’t know what to do about Arnie or the car. As the two are talking, they fall into a passionate embrace and kiss deeply. Dennis has fallen in love with his best friend’s ex-girlfriend.

Two days before Christmas, Arnie is arrested in Will Darnell's car, hauling cigarettes without tax stamps into New York from Pennsylvania. He is held in a local jail for a couple days before being released to his parents. The police want to nab Darnell for a host of illegal activities, but Arnie -- much to the consternation of his parents -- won't roll over on his boss.

Dennis decides to spend New Year’s Eve with Arnie to ascertain his friend’s mental state. Arnie seems to lapse back and forth between himself and someone else. He confuses Dick Clark with the long dead Guy Lombardo. Sometimes, during the evening, Arnie acts like an entirely different person. While Arnie is driving Dennis home, Dennis enters his own time warp. Fifties music blares on Christine’s radio as Arnie observes the scene outside. Libertyville appears as it did in the 1950s. He looks beside him at the driver and is horrified to find that the desiccated corpse of Roland LeBay is driving the car. As they approach the Guilder residence, reality as Dennis knows it is restored. The tense, uneasy evening with Arnie is over.

Arnie is confused by his own behavior. He disappears from himself for long periods of time. He’s invented and excuse for his chronically ailing back, but struggles to remember how it really happened. It then comes to him how he pushed the derelict car around the junkyard behind Darnell’s as the odometer slowly rolled backward. Eventually, the engine repaired itself enough to allow him to start it and drive it around the yard for hours as time rolled backward and Christine fixed herself. At first he is horrified. But he finds solace in cruising in Christine who seems to make his unhappy thoughts go away.

Dennis and Leigh meet one evening for a meal and then start making out in Dennis’ car behind a fast food restaurant. Whilst they are liplocked and groping each other, Christine and Arnie stumble across them. Arnie, who made it clear to Dennis he was intent on getting Leigh back, feels horribly betrayed by the only friend he ever had. He leaves after promising revenge.

Dennis and Leigh are now both convinced that they will be Christine’s next target. Dennis talks to Arnie’s dad who is extremely worried about his son who is now completely alien to him. Dennis asks him to let him know if Arnie plans to leave town. It dawns on Arnie’s dad that every time one of Arnie’s enemies is killed, he’s out of town. He promises to let Dennis know. The next day, he calls Dennis to tell him that Arnie and his mother are going to Penn State on a college visitation.

Dennis and Leigh hatch a plan to destroy Christine. Dennis rents a large truck and takes it to Darnell's with Leigh, confident that Christine will seek them out. Dennis is in the truck while Leigh waits by the garage door to shut it once Christine enters. The plan is for her to bolt outside as the door is closing while Dennis jousts with Christine.

It does not go as planned, and Leigh does not get out. Christine enters and Leigh is unprotected. Christine tries several times to run her over and she eventually seeks refuge in the garage office. Meanwhile, Dennis is ramming Christine repeatedly. As Christine moves, she repairs the damage Dennis does. Finally, Dennis is able to corner Christine and repeatedly rams her until her body is knocked off the frame. Still, she tries to repair herself and Dennis goes on ramming until there is little left of Christine but hunks of misshapen metal. She cannot move.

The police and paramedics arrive and Dennis is taken to the hospital, having reinjured his leg. He comes out of his painkiller haze to talk to a detective investigating the case as well as the other deaths, having taken over from Detective Junkins whom Christine disposed of. He tells Dennis that Arnie and his mother were killed in a crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and that Christine has been placed in a compactor. He wants to know the whole story. Dennis, unconvinced that the detective will not believe him, tells the whole story. The detective leaves without commenting on the veracity of Dennis’ story.

We find out that Dennis and Leigh go to college together and date for several years before breaking up. Dennis graduates college and now (apparently in 1983) teaches junior high school history. He still exchanges Christmas cards with Leigh who has married and moved to Arizona. One time, he includes a note in her card, asking how she copes with what happened. She writes back that she doesn’t know what Dennis is talking about.

Dennis reads that about a California man run down in a hit and run. He was a native of Libertyville and was the lot attendant who let Buddy Repperton and his friends into the parking lot the night they trashed Christine. Dennis knows that somewhere, in the United States, there is a pristine 1958 Plymouth Fury with non-stock red and white paint, tooling around, spreading evil.

For this novel – perhaps more than any other King novel – I have mixed feelings. There is much to love about it and there is much to criticize.

I loved the story and the characters. The primary source of conflict is a haunted car. But the story could be about anything that creates high emotion and high tension between teenagers and parents in those tumultuous years of high school. In developing this part of the story, King is brilliant. Arnie rebels by buying Christine and his parents hate it because the act is an act of independence and defiance. Also, owning one’s own automobile is a source of independence and often parents have difficulty in extending independence to their progeny.

The conflict between girlfriend and car is also a genuine concept that King develops well. Since kids have owned cars, boyfriends and girlfriends have argued over them. It can be about the particular make and model of the car, the looks of the car, or how much time and money the guy spends with his car. Cars are a source of tension in teenage relationships and King captures this tension brilliantly.

One critic wrote that the characters in this novel were caricatures. I could not disagree more strongly. I found most of the characters, major and minor, to be complex and well developed. Dennis is the hero, but he’s no knight. He steals his best friend’s girl. Arnie develops into a despicable, loathsome creature spewing bitterness at everyone. Yet, the lovable loser inside doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. Arnie’s parents are a dichotomy of emotions that conflict. They love Arnie and recognize their own misbehavior and ill treatment and their weakness that will not let them stop dominating their son. Only the thugs – particularly Buddy Repperton – are thinly developed. The other characters are complex.

Perhaps what’s best about this novel is what King didn’t write. He never wrote from Christine’s point of view. We never know for sure what Christine’s motives are or what her thinking is. The reader comes to understand this from Christine’s independent actions. Writing from the point of view of a sentient car would have taken the novel into foolish places.

The chief weakness of this novel is the shifting point of view of the narrative – and it is a major flaw. The opening paragraphs of Christine make it sound as if we’re going to have Dennis Guilder recount the story for us. It is a first person narrative and is well written. The reader is on board to have the story told in Dennis’ voice.This first person narrative goes on for approximately the first third of the book.

But after Dennis is taken out of action by the football accident, the narrative switches to third person from the points of view of Arnie, Leigh, Will Darnell, Arnie’s mother, and others. There is a huge, gaping seam in this transition that is disconcerting. When Arnie reenters the picture, the narrative returns to the first person narrative and the book closes as if it was Dennis’ story to tell when one third of the story was told from the points of view of others. That’s cheating for a writer.

The other major criticism I have is the cheap, easy way Arnie died. He didn’t go out a tragic figure, taken over by the evil spirit of Roland LeBay and his car. The evil spirit of Roland LeBay lurks in everything that Arnie does and everything that happens to Arnie. Christine is the central figure in Arnie’s life. Yet, as the climax of the book is unfolding, Arnie is unceremoniously killed in a random car accident. His death was a throwaway sentence uttered by an unimportant character. King made us feel sorry for Arnie; made us care for him. Then he disposed of him cheaply.

In his canon of work, I would place Christine as above average, but not among his best work. King was on a creative roll when he wrote Christine and his stories were pure horror. While the story was better and deeper than Cujo, it did not quite measure up to the emotion that was in Pet Sematary which were also written in this same period of time.

While I’d not rank it with his greatest work, for even the casual Stephen King fan, I’d call it a must read.


  1. I haven't read this in years and years. I recall, tho, feeling the EXACT same way about Arnie's departure from the story, when I first read it. I'm coming around to it soon, for my big King re-read - look forward to it.

    I never enjoy when writers switch p.o.v.s like that. Sometimes it can work, I guess, but usually only if it switches between different first-person-p.o.v.s, so different characterizations can take place.

    I guess it works in It, now that I think of it. I enjoy the Mike-Hanlon-narrated sections in-between the 3rd-person p.o.vs. of the other. Ah well, there are always exceptions to any rule.

    I don't recall enjoying the film very much, tho it's been a long time since I watched it start-to-finish. The tortured-outcast of Arnie comes through well enough, but it's not a performance I particularly enjoy. I plan on watching it again after I re-read it, hopefully by New Year's.

  2. There's nothing wrong with writing from various points of view. However, it is cheating to sell the story as a first person narrative and then switch, midstream, to a third person POV from multiple characters -- some of which were minor.

    There are no hard and fast rules for writing. However, one must believe that if you start in first person narrative, you have to stay there. That doesn't mean King couldn't have switched POV's. Part of it could have been a first person narrative from Leigh's point of view.

    But King hemmed himself in early when Dennis declared that he was going to tell us this story.

    It doesn't ruin the book, but it certainly weakens it.