Novel * Stephen King * Toxic Nostalgia or Spooky Car? * 1983
Teens. Gross, right? It was gross being a teenager. Just kinda greasy and anxious and horny and frustrating (relating to the previous thing, usually). Blech. I will never, for as long as I live, understand people who look back at their teenage years with fondness. These people are those sad motherfuckers who’ve been left behind by life. They’re like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, morose and sullen, saying things like “How much you wanna bet I could throw this football over them mountains?” If you want to see this in the wild, just look up any video from the 80s or 90s on Youtube and read the comments. “Now that’s real music, unlike that Taylor Swift trash.” “I would give anything to be in the 90s again!” “Those were the best years of my life. MAGA!” “Look around and you don’t see no fuckin smartphones!” Seriously, it’s just the saddest shit. Especially now that a lot of those people are my age. Or younger. I mean sure, I remember the music I listened to in high school with fondness. I still listen to quite a bit of it. Same with movies, or books, or whatever. But I also remember why I was attracted to all that stuff in the first place, and it was because it was a refuge from my adolescence.
I bring all this up because I read Christine when I was the same age as the principal characters, and as such I think I missed the point of the novel. If you’re one of the four or five people who don’t know Christine, it’s the one about the evil car what runs people over. It’s about a seventeen-year-old loser named Arnie Cunningham who fixes up an old ’58 Plymouth Fury. The car is possessed or something and goes on a rampage. That’s pretty much what I remembered before I reread it, and it’s the reputation of the novel. Christine is the book Stephen King critics like to make fun of because on its face, the premise is silly. You’ve heard of haunted houses, but what about a haunted car? Ooooh, spooks! It didn’t take me very long, however, to realize that Christine is only tangentially about a possessed classic car. More than anything, it’s about how terrifying it is to be a high school senior in America, standing on the precipice of adulthood. That’s an easy feeling to forget when you get older, and there are parts of this novel that are a stark reminder of what it was like.
Christine is also about nostalgia in general. This book, published in 1983, takes place a few years before in 1977. These dates are important, because Christine herself is a product of the 1950’s, which became a huge source of nostalgia-fueled media right around this time. Grease, Happy Days, it was a thing, not unlike the 80s and 90s being the subject of current nostalgia-based media (does anyone really think Stranger Things would be as successful if it wasn’t awash in hyper-detailed nostalgia?). Christine the evil car is locked into a particular time and place. She always tunes the radio to the oldies station. She’s a big old honking gas guzzler with fins and shit. Oh, and she has an insatiable lust for human blood. The novel is more about the juxtaposition between the era Christine represents and the teenage characters trying to look forward than it is about being scary. Because it really isn’t all that scary. Like, Christine is gonna kill some fools, there’s not a lot of suspense around that. If anything, Christine trades less in spooks and more in the existential dread of being seventeen.
Christine has an odd, three part structure. The first and third sections are narrated in the first person, from the perspective of Arnie Cunningham’s only friend, Dennis Guilder. The middle bit is all in third person, since Dennis is taken out of the action by a plot point. It’s a weird choice, and I’m still not sure I like it. I get it, King was a young author trying new things, but it’s jarring to move from Dennis’ perspective to a more omniscient viewpoint. Especially since I enjoyed Dennis’ voice. I will note that even though the narrative is being told from a point four years in the future, the prose still feels a little too mature for a supposed 22 year old. Any more it seems like people in their early twenties are basically teenagers, but maybe that wasn’t the case in 1983? I don’t know, I was four. Anyway, Dennis’ point of view is important not only for plot reasons, but because we’re getting a running commentary on being a teenager. Dennis isn’t a loser. He’s on the football team, he has no problems getting dates, he’s well liked. And he’s still miserable. It’s an important thing to remember, and it colors the narrative as a whole.
Considering the realistic light that King shines on the teenage experience coupled with the fact that the physical manifestation of nostalgia is an evil car, the novel doesn’t necessarily portray nostalgia as inherently bad. Every chapter in the book has a small epigraph, which are all song lyrics, mostly from the era of rock n’ roll that endlessly plays on Christine’s radio. First of all, can you imagine how much that would cost in licensing nowadays? There are three full pages of song credits in this thing! More importantly, though, those song lyrics were chosen because King has a deep love of that era of music. Further, it’s an illustration that there is still value in the things that shape us. Those old rockers are still relevant to those that love them. Personally, I can still put on Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana or whatever and still find value in those songs I’ve been listening to most of my life. The key difference is I still try and find new music I like. Not just music, but experiences, because to exclude the present for the past is toxic. It’s a narrow, unforgiving way to look at the world, and deeply unfulfilling because you’ve basically decided that nothing will ever be as good as it was, so what’s the point?
In Christine, the manifestation of this viewpoint is Roland LeBay, the evil bastard who sold the car to Arnie at the begging of the story. Now he croak-boats pretty quick, but of course his angry, evil spirit inhabits the car and eventually possesses Arnie as well, so we get quite a bit of his character. As the baddie, he obviously sucks. He’s just angry constantly, he was essentially responsible for the death of his family, mostly because he was obsessed. Obsessed with his vehicle, obsessed with the “shitters,” who have been keeping him down his whole life. Eventually, after being estranged from anyone even remotely close to him, all he had left was the car, which he also left to rot. And the entire time, Roland was locked into a single time and place, 1958, the one point in his horrid life that was good to him. Poor, overmatched Arnie is subsumed by the all-encompassing hatred and obsession. He was a perfect vessel, considering his status as a high school loser. Still, if anyone had more reason to look forward to an uncertain future, it was him. After all, college would have represented a new start away from oppressive parents and unpleasant peers. Unfortunately, the car actually was haunted, so he never really had a chance. And if the epilogue is any indication, Dennis may not be wondering if he can throw footballs over mountains, but he will definitely be focused on his past. What with the murder cars and all.