Me? I can give you the exact date.
That would be the evening of the 12th of April 1988.
Such an admission might make me sound like something of a King obsessive. Far from it, before accepting the invitation to contribute to this project I had only ever owned one book by the man. And that (“Pet Sematary”, since you ask) wasn’t even the book of his I’ve read. That singular honour belongs to one of his earlier successes.
This other book had been lent to me by a friend’s girlfriend after we all went to a rock gig at The Apollo in Ardwick Green, Manchester (this was in the days before business sponsorship meant the place was renamed every couple of years). At some point in the evening conversation turned to horror (the main event being Alice Cooper may have had something to do with this) and the work of Stephen King. No doubt appalled that my only contact with the author had been through film and television adaptations of his work (and an appearance in Romero’s “Creepshow”), the girlfriend offered to lend me a copy of a book that she thought would be most likely to put me on the right path (take the King’s shilling, if you will).
That book was “Salem’s Lot”.
I quite liked it. I read it in a couple of weeks (fast for me) and returned it to my friend. Not to the girlfriend, though. She’d packed her bags and left a few days earlier. I never saw her again and don’t even know if she ever got her book back.
So why did I not go on to read more of King’s work? It’s a fair enough question, for which I don’t have a satisfactory answer.
Though, I do have some form where horror fiction is concerned.
At college I read and loved George R R Martin’s “Fevre Dream” and McCammon’s “They Thirst”. I even remember quite liking James Herbert’s “The Dark” and there was something by Dean Koontz (that may have had the word Darkness in the title). But as much as I enjoyed these books, I have never read another word by their authors to this very day.
When I first volunteered to write something for this project, I had the pick of some of King’s finest (or so I’m informed) work. I wasn’t too concerned with selecting one myself, so suggested I be allocated one, and whatever that one was I’d go with it.
I got “Doctor Sleep”.
Great, I thought. A recent release and one that had been fairly well received, I knew that much about it already. There was just one problem. I also knew it was a sequel to “The Shining”. Which kind of takes us back to the beginning again. I’d only ever read one book by Stephen King and, as you now know, “The Shining” wasn’t it. Writing about the sequel when everything I could bring to the review about its forebear would be Kubrick-shaped and with a Jack Nicholson smile seemed totally wrong.
So back I went, cap in hand. And for my sins it was suggested I tackle this one instead.
“From A Buick 8”.
I’d never even heard of it. Damn, I hadn’t even seen the film version (Yes, I know there isn’t one – at least, not yet). The cover featured a stylised illustration of a vintage American car, headlights ablaze, in full-on ‘I’m-gonna-run-you-down’ “Christine”” mode. I ordered it online, avoiding the temptation to take a peek at the other reviews there - though I couldn’t help but notice the three star rating. Even I know that everything Stephen King writes is always four stars and up. Clearly always didn’t quite cut it with this book.
As should be clear to all by now, I am no votary of King’s output. I have no frame of reference as to how this book sits with the rest of his oeuvre. If there happen to be any ideas or a motif carried over from King’s other fiction, I will have undoubtedly missed them. The book stands or falls on its own merits.
King sets the story, not in his main (Maine) New England stomping ground, but relocates to Pennsylvania to tell the story of D Troop. It recounts the events surrounding a 1953 Buick Roadmaster that has been stored in a shed behind the local police barracks since 1979.
Sounding like something from the pages of John Keel’s “Mothman Prophecies”, the Buick first appears at a local gas station, driven by a mysterious black-garbed man (King’s very own Indrid Cold?) who promptly vanishes into thin air after instructing the pump attendant to ‘fill her up’.
It’s clear early on, and regardless of what the cover might suggest (never trust them cover artists, they’ll always lead you astray), that King isn’t about to return us to “Christine” killer car territory. The problem is that the Buick, on closer inspection, doesn’t appear to be a real car at all. The steering wheel is too big, the dashboard controls and engine are there just for show. Wherever the man in black came from, it looks increasingly unlikely that he drove from there.
Back at the barracks the Buick proves to be more than just an insoluble replica. The temperature within the shed inexplicably drops and the members of D Troop are witness to powerful light shows that emanate from the vehicle itself. But that’s not the worst of it, for sometimes with the light shows comes strange, terrifying things (usually dead or dying) that are clearly not native to Pennsylvania. The Buick seems to act like some sort of cosmic cat-flap. And like a cat-flap, it swings both ways.
The story consists of a variety of different narrators telling the story to young Ned Wilcox - the son of Curtis Wilcox, a member of D Troop who had died in the line of duty a year earlier. King helpfully gives each narrator a chapter bearing their name and whether it is set in the now or then. Then being anytime in the previous 25 year lifespan of the story - and now being, well now, which is actually then as well. Since the contemporary elements of the story are set in 2002. Got that? Good.
The novel focuses solely on D Troop, rarely does the story leave the barracks. Wives and other non-service personnel seem to exist in name only. Sandy, the principal narrator, appears to have no life beyond the badge. The location of D Troop also appears to be isolated from the rest of the population. That might be how things work in the keystone state, but I’d imagine that over the course of 20 years, a car that occasionally has cause to spit out light and monsters might have caught the attention of the wider community. Not in Statler, Pennsylvania apparently. Here it remained the closely guarded secret of all the employees who had passed through Troop D in the past 20 odd years. Hard to believe that they all kept quiet and even after a few drinks resisted the urge to tell anyone about that weird car they kept out back.
King finished the first draft in 1999. Then on 19th June of that same year, King’s life was very nearly ended when a distracted van driver struck the author as he walked along Route 6 near his home in Lovell, Maine. What might now be viewed as a lesser work in the King canon, was close to being the final one.
King completed the novel during his convalescence and it is tempting to read something of his own near death experience into the story. It includes a horrific death by a drunk driver that is referred to throughout – King says that this was written before his accident. It’s a story that deals with fate and its consequences. King himself has called it in the author’s note, “a meditation on the essentially indecipherable quality of life’s events, and how impossible it is to find a coherent meaning in them”. What young Ned wants to hear, as he sits with Sandy, Arky, Huddie and Sheila on the smoking bench outside D Troop barracks, is a proper story - with a beginning, middle and an end. A story that will provide him with the answers he is looking for. I suspect that’s what most of the three or less star readers were looking for as well.
The unknowable elements of the story remain just that. The only way that the story might have ended differently would be to have the Buick’s mysterious driver reappear at the end and explain everything that has gone before to the confounded cops and reader alike. But this isn’t some bad seventies cop show. Those loose ends are nothing of the kind, like King’s allusions to the chains that link the characters together, they’ll keep on travelling forward long after you’ve closed the book.
Even if this isn’t King at his best, it is still an intriguing idea, engagingly told. The slow build and lack of answers are probably going to turn off many readers. But King makes this clear from the outset, so it’s unfair to feel short changed. In fact, I think it works because of the questions it leaves unanswered. Life’s like that.
So, based on this could I be persuaded to read more Stephen King?
Sure, why not. But then I would have probably said the same thing 27 years ago.
Neil Williams was born in Cheshire and still lives there with his wife and young daughter. When not writing, Neil designs book covers and he can be found on the Net at his website.
His debut novella, The Derelict, was published in 2014 by Pendragon Press.
His debut novella, The Derelict, was published in 2014 by Pendragon Press.