Stephen King tends to get hammered in the press and by literati. He’s pulp, they say. He’s popular, they say. Nobody can be as productive (he publishes an average of two books per year) and still write quality, they say. I remember starting college in Boston in 1988, shortly after U2 released their huge Joshua Tree album. The established U2 fans rejected it outright as a ’sell out’. They couldn’t believe that their heroes sold out to ‘the man’ and became… popular. I think King gets painted with a similar brush.
But the truth is, much of his writing resonates quite deeply. His work can be touching. It’s relatable, and has as much symbolism and depth as one chooses to see. Is everything he touches great? No. But as a rule, is it schlock? Absolutely not.
I only discovered Stephen King as an adult. And over the last few years, I’ve been working through his catalog, kicking myself for not having given him a chance sooner. Fortunately, I have a whole lot to look forward to.
From a Buick 8 was published in 2002. The actual writing took place in 1999 and was finished shortly before it was published, bracketing King’s well-publicized auto accident, which almost took his life. The story’s emotional focal point centers on the accidental death of a police officer, Curt Wilcox, who was killed by a drunk driver while investigating a truck’s mechanical problem on the side of the road. The exposition surrounding the officer’s death is detailed and pain-laden, and I couldn’t help but view my analysis of the story through the lens of King’s accident until I got to the author’s notes where King is swift to point out that the scenes of the accident were written before his own and were only moderately edited after. It was just coincidence, which brings us to the crux of King’s story. How much in life has a natural beginning and end? How many of the threads of our existence have a natural continuance or succession? How much happens that is explainable or simple coincidence?
From a Buick 8 is equal parts science fiction, horror and Lovecraftian ode. Many readers anticipate that the eponymous Buick is a sort of “son of” Christine — the evil car gone amok in his 1983 novel (and movie), but this is not the case. Stephen King’s 1953 Buick Roadmaster has nothing to do with Stephen Kings’s 1958 Plymouth Fury.
When the story begins, it’s 1979 and a stranger in a black jacket pulls into a gas station in rural PA. He asks for a fill up, indicates he needs no oil and heads to the john. 30 minutes pass, the strange man never returns, and leaves his Buick 8 behind. Local Police Troop D is brought in and the mystery is off and running. The car is like nothing anyone’s seen. It has no functional parts, sucks the heat out of the shed in which it sits, and belches horrible creatures from its trunk.
From a Buick 8’s narrative thread focuses on Officer Wilcox’s son, Ned, several months after his father’s death in 2001. The story is a journey taken together by two characters: Ned, and the current Chief Commanding of Troop D, Sandy Dearborn. The journey is one that covers time rather than space as vignettes connect the past and present of Troop D’s interactions and investigations of the Buick over the years. It’s Ned’s journey of understanding and acceptance. It’s Sandy’s story of reconciliation with what the Buick means and the role it’s played in the collective past of Troop D.
Sandy’s journey started years ago but doesn’t end until the present. Ned’s is happening in the narrative real time.
There’s much sitting around and talking… telling stories, drinking and eating. One might make a symbolic connection to the Last Supper: Jesus (who is probably Sandy, but could also be Ned at times), surrounded by disciples (the other officers and caretakers), mostly younger but some the same age, who sit at his feet while he tells tales and waxes poetic. King even references that the storytelling group appears to look like a “little council of elders… surrounding the young fellow, singing him our warrior-songs of the past.”
The real theme of From a Buick 8 is about learning how to let go. Let go of the past… Let go of blame… Let go of finding fault and reason and answers. Chief Sandy uses the imagery of a chain when discussing cause and effect. And his idea of a chain surrounds, ties, and binds the story and characters. For example, the gas station attendant who witnesses the man in the black coat leave the Buick is the same person who, years later, hits and kills Curtis Wilcox.
I didn’t know about reasons, only about chains — how they form themselves, link by link, out of nothing; how they knit themselves into the world. Sometimes you can grab a chain and use it to pull yourself out of a dark place. Mostly, though, I think you get wrapped up in them. Just caught, if you’re lucky. Fucking strangled, if you’re not.
Is there simply cause and effect? Ned’s father’s death is suggestive of nothing beyond coincidence. The book sets the tone with the following quote from Sandy regarding Curtis’ death:
If there was a God, there’d be a reason. If there was a God, there’d be some kind of thread running through it. But there isn’t. Not that I can see.
This story didn’t have the emotional depth that makes King’s memorable work… well, memorable. Despite the incorporation of a dog who senses evil and a teenager whose father just died in a violent accident, it just didn’t touch me.
The elements of horror are definitely creepy. There are some gross-out moments, but nothing flat-out scary. Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ is a place King loves to go. But Lovecraft, for all of his bombast and grandeur, had a certain subtlety about his pacing and finales. Lovecraft is all about the glimpse… the merest horrified glimmer of ‘eldritch horrors’ that one sees in the periphery. King, for all of his own vivid visualizations, is not beyond that Lovecraftian subtlety.
Sandy thinks back on the first time he entered the shed where Troop D kept the Buick:
In the twenty-odd years that followed that day, he would go inside Shed B dozens of times, but never without the rest of that dark mental wave, never without the intuition of almost-glimpsed horrors, of abominations in the corner of the eye.
And King always works one or two Lovecraft code words into his work. In this case, I didn’t catch a reference to ‘cyclopean’ structures, but I did see something that was “lit up a pallid, somehow eldritch yellow.”
From a Buick 8 ends in very Lovecraftian fashion, which will disappoint people who desire a very conclusive and explosive finish. If you’ve read later-era Stephen King, you’ll relate the ending in From a Buick 8 to the big finale in Revival. It’s pretty dramatic, but King doesn’t give it to you: he leads you to the water and you have to drink it in. But he does this with a very clear purpose. Some things end and have a clear conclusion. And sometimes things just don’t. Ned searches for an answer to his father’s accidental death. Of course, there is no answer. Things happen. Sometimes bad things. Sandy, our own personal Pennsylvania Jesus, tells Ned at one point:
Sometimes there’s nothing to learn, or no way to learn it, or no reason to even try. I saw a movie once where this fellow explained why he lit a candle in church even though he wasn’t a very good Catholic anymore. “You don’t fuck around with the infinite,” he said. Maybe that was the lesson…
This is a good book. Not one of my favorites from King, but enjoyable and uncharacteristically short. If you’re a King fan you’ll enjoy it, though it may not be tremendously memorable. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll enjoy it as well.