From a Buick 8: Equal parts horror, science fiction and Lovecraftian ode

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFrom a Buick 8 by Stephen King horror book reviewsFrom a Buick 8 by Stephen King

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.

Sandy considers:

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.

Published in 2002. The state police of Troop D in rural Pennsylvania have kept a secret in Shed B out back of the barracks ever since 1979, when Troopers Ennis Rafferty and Curtis Wilcox answered a call from a gas station just down the road and came back with an abandoned Buick Roadmaster. Curt Wilcox knew old cars, and he knew immediately that this one was…wrong, just wrong. A few hours later, when Rafferty vanished, Wilcox and his fellow troopers knew the car was worse than dangerous — and that it would be better if John Q. Public never found out about it. Curt’s avid curiosity taking the lead, they investigated as best they could, as much as they dared. Over the years the troop absorbed the mystery as part of the background to their work, the Buick 8 sitting out there like a still life painting that breathes — inhaling a little bit of this world, exhaling a little bit of whatever world it came from. In the fall of 2001, a few months after Curt Wilcox is killed in a gruesome auto accident, his 18-year-old boy Ned starts coming by the barracks, mowing the lawn, washing windows, shoveling snow. Sandy Dearborn, Sergeant Commanding, knows it’s the boy’s way of holding onto his father, and Ned is allowed to become part of the Troop D family. One day he looks in the window of Shed B and discovers the family secret. Like his father, Ned wants answers, and the secret begins to stir, not only in the minds and hearts of the veteran troopers who surround him, but in Shed B as well…. From a Buick 8 is a novel about our fascination with deadly things, about our insistence on answers when there are none, about terror and courage in the face of the unknowable.

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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  1. I didn’t think this book was horror, even with the things that happen around the car. I thought it was King doing an Americana saga — actually, Brad was asking a while back about American novels about small towns and in one way From a Buick 8 could fit that mold.

  2. Marion – so much of King is cross-genre. Except for his earliest stuff, I haven’t read much of his recent work that fits strictly within a single genre. Even his new Bill Hodges/detective mysteries are now verging into supernatural.

    At its core, this novel is sci/fi horror if it must be labelled. King is so good at creating ‘Americana’ that it can’t help but be that too. I don’t know about ‘saga’ though.

    Any almost all of his books are ‘about’ small towns. He sticks with what he knows.

  3. I notice you can’t make up your mind if it’s SF or horror, though.

  4. No. I can’t. It’s Sciforror

  5. Jason, would you believe I have never read a single word of Stephen King before? It’s not because he’s too popular – I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve heard enough rave reviews to know his work has depth. It’s mainly because I’m not a horror fan. I couldn’t even watch The Shining, since I can’t stand being scared. But as you have pointed out, his work is really cross-genre and has a lot of emotional depth, so I have no basis to avoid his books as “horror”.

    I am determined to tackle on audiobook The Shining, The Stand, It, 11-22-63, Under the Dome, and the Gunslinger series. That should keep me fairly occupied through 2020…

    • Um, you might want to wait for a summer to read The Shining, especially if horror disturbs you. The same with It. Or wait for Jason’s reviews to help you evaluate.

    • I didn’t start reading him until about five years ago.

      Now keep in mind…The Shining, the movie is not terribly similar to the book. King, in fact, doesn’t like the movie and was pissed that Kubrick took it in a different directly. There are scary moments, but I wouldn’t worry too much.

      It is just fabulous and my favorite. A two-part movie is in the works and I’m looking forward to rereading the book. King’s just so good at creating such deep relatable characters. There are scary moments, but not sure it’ll force you to keep the lights on at night.

      11-22-63 is just a good time travel thriller/mystery. Under the Dome is similar…thrilling, but not scary specifically.

      Now if you want to stay away from scary and creepy, DONT read The Exorcist.

  6. Marion, warning duly noted. I’ve been wimpy all my life, but in my fourth decade I’m planning to conquer my aversion to horror.
    My only Stephen King experience was being taken by my parents to the drive-in (of all places) to watch The Shining when I was only 6-7 years old, and being so terrified that I hid behind the bathrooms till the movie was over. Come to think of it, that was some seriously bad parenting, I believe!

    • The Stanley Kubrick version? And you were SEVEN? OMG!!!

    • That’s just not right!

      I’d never been able to watch it until I was in college.

      My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were out at a Halloween party related to my internship at an Ad Agency. I had an apartment just off campus at Boston University which is right in the city. The party was somewhere near the harbor. We left early and started to head home in a horrendous rain storm. Just coming down in buckets. We got totally soaked and I think ended up splurging on a cab to get us poor college students home. We got something to eat and then went to the apartment and found The Shining on. Pitch black outside, rain, lighting and hurricane winds.

      I’m not sure we made it past the iconic scene of the two twins standing in the hallway.

      Come to find out years later…that storm was the one written about in the famous Sebastian Junger book: The Perfect Storm. It was the first day that it rolled up North and hit Boston.

  7. Nice anecdote! I thought you were going to say you started hammering out Red Rum on the typewriter~
    It’s fun to associate specific books and movies with special moments in life. The same is true for favorite albums.

    BTW, what is your take on THE DARK TOWER series? That’s the ultimate genre-bender, and a major time commitment. Is it worth it?

    • Now keep in mind that I’m not a big Fantasy reader, but I gave Gunslinger a chance. And I hated it.

      Rambling, pointless, vague. Just didn’t grab me.

  8. I’ve heard THE DARK TOWER series gets better as it goes, and The Gunslinger was written much earlier before King had really mapped out what he wanted to do. I’ll give it a try someday, but not super-high on my TBR list.

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