Christine by Stephen King
originally published 1983
Signet, 2nd printing, 1983
Synopsis & Review: If you’ve been even semi-sentient since the early Eighties (1983, to be exact), then you have an idea of what Christine is all about. After all, she’s become part of our vocabulary; when you think “ghost car”—as one so often does—Christine immediately springs to mind.
But for those existing in a cultural literacy vacuum, Christine involves a young man, a senior in high school, and his first love. Arnie Cunningham has one friend in this world, Dennis Guilder; no one else seems to look past his awkwardness or bad complexion, or intense intelligence to see the enormously funny, interesting person he is. So when he falls, he falls hard. And the object of his first affection is a 1958 Plymouth Fury, custom painted Autumn red and white. When we first meet Christine, she is a harridan, wretched and decrepit, rusting away malevolently on Roland LeBay’s front lawn, but Arnie loves her from the start. And it’s a rocky start. Once LeBay is paid, Arnie’s parents flip their collective lids, adamantly refusing to allow him to park Christine on their property, forcing Arnie to shelter her at a local garage, Darnell’s. This puts Arnie into close proximity with not only some local hoodlums, but also with Will Darnell, a man with ties to petty crime. Regardless, Arnie bull-headedly continues with his obsession, restoring Christine to her original splendor.
The school year begins with a bang as Arnie and Dennis incur the wrath of hoodlums, and they both meet Leigh Cabot, a lovely transfer student. To both the boys’ bemusement, Leigh shows an interest in Arnie, making Dennis reconsider his friend, whose complexion has cleared and is walking around with more confidence than ever before. The only fly in the ointment is Leigh’s unreasonable dislike of Christine, one which Dennis shares. The restoration project continues apace, but in an oddly haphazard fashion; Anie’s replaced the windshield, but only half of the grille, and some of the upholstery, and dents are gone with no sign of bodywork, but her tailpipe is still dragging. As far as anyone ever sees, all Arnie seems to do is minor work like lubing her—and sitting in the car listening to oldies on the radio. But when Dennis is laid up in the hospital with two broken legs in a football game, there’s no one around to notice what’s happening. That is, until everyone who crosses Arnie starts dying in gruesome car accidents. While Christine rejuvenates, Arnie changes, beginning to look and act older, crasser, and angrier. A lot like Roland LeBay, in fact, who loved Christine and nothing else. And who was always angry. And vengeful.
Riding in cars with boys/ghosts might be an apropos subtitle for Christine. Of course, it’s less about a girl who rides with boys as it is about the boys themselves, the boys and their friendships. Like many of King’s strongest works, Christine focuses on the young, and he captures their world beautifully. You find him at his descriptive best, with passages that might be clunky, or reliant upon obvious symbols, but damn it, they work, they’re true.
Dennis and Arnie are high school boys, embarking on their senior year at the book’s start, and preparing themselves for entry into the great, wide world beyond the insular, suburban, public school world they’ve known their whole lives. Their friendship is of long standing, from elementary school until now, and it is the destruction of that friendship, the destruction of all relationships, that makes Christine so distressing. We know it is the loss of the friendship and its death that are central to Dennis’ story from the prologue, where he explains Arnie and what he meant to him. Arnie is Dennis’ window out into something different; a BMOC, Dennis plays varsity football and has no trouble getting dates, but he retains his friendship with Arnie because of the magic that Arnie introduces him to, be it ant farms or chess—he makes Dennis a better person. And Dennis does his best to make things easier and better for Arnie, too.
But from the moment Arnie sees Christine, all of his relationships begin unraveling. Beginning when Arnie tells his parents that he’s bought a car, Christine brings strife into his life. She has him at odds with his parents, particularly his domineering mother Regina, and eventually with Dennis and Leigh. The latter relationship has a poignancy of its own, being a tragedy of what might have been, rather than the ruin of what was. Leigh symbolizes the new start Arnie would have had after graduating high school and moving on to college, where many bright, sociable people can come into their own after a lifetime fulfilling the role determined for them in childhood. Life, love, acceptance, all washed away by Christine.
The obvious horror aspect of Christine, the murders committed when she becomes the instrument of Arnie/LeBay’s revenge against the thuggish bully crowd led by Buddy Repperton, is the weakest element of the novel. Though Christine’s murderous actions do divide Arnie further from his friends and family, and bring him under the suspicions of the police department, they’re also less interesting than the wholesale destruction of Arnie’s family and friendships, and better left offstage. (The exception to this is the Buddy Repperton chase, a tense cat-and-mouse game that never fails to thrill.) Now, despite what my friend Bill wants to believe, the destruction of Arnie and Dennis’ friendship is not carried out by Leigh, but by Christine and her attempts to isolate Arnie (was Dennis’ football injury an accident???). Their tight bond threatens Christine’s hold on Arnie, and she does anything in her power to destroy it, whether that’s hospitalizing Dennis or fanning the flames of his jealousy and paranoia. Regardless of what Arnie does under Christine’s spell, Dennis loves him, and will do what he can to save him. But like us, he is only human—and a teenage boy at that.
Buddy Repperton, and all the rest of the supporting characters, are perfectly executed by King. From Arnie’s haute bourgeois intellectual liberal parents and Dennis’ mild sibling rivalry, to George LeBay’s quiet hopelessness and Will Darnell’s venality, tempered by his own sense of lost youth, they hit all the right notes. Interactions between youthful characters, especially with Dennis’ sister Elaine and other high school students are painfully honest and even occasionally screamingly funny. King recreates high school, making it live and breathe, with all its faults and virtues.
Read also: Cujo, Pet Sematary, Firestarter, and Carrie by Stephen King
Cover: Black, with Christine ominously backlit, and her headlights glaring into your eyes. Pretty good, but I like the (first?) one with the car chrome effect spelling her name. There’s a later cover that combines the two, and it’s way too much.
People came in and went out, a lot of them kids from school. Before long I’d be seeing them in the halls again, and I felt a recurrence of that fierce nostalgia-in-advance and that sense of fright. In my head I could hear the homeroom bell going off, but somehow its long bray sounded like an alarm: Here we go again, Dennis, last time, after this year you got to learn how to be a grown-up. I could hear locker doors crashing closed, could hear the steady ka-chonk, ka-chonk, ka-chonk of linemen hitting the tackling dummies, could hear Marty Bellerman yelling exuberantly, “My ass and your face, Pedersen! Remember that! My ass and your face! It’s easier to tell the fuckin Bobbsey Twins apart!” The dry smell of chalk dust in the classrooms in the Math Wing. The sound of the typewriters from the big secretarial classrooms on the second floor. Mr Meecham, the principal, giving the announcements at the end of the day in his dry, fussy voice. Lunch outdoors on the bleachers in good weather. A new crop of freshmen looking dorky and lost. And at the end of it all, you march down the aisle in this big purple bathrobe, and that’s it. High school’s over. You are released on an unsuspecting world.
15 December – 19 December
For your pleasure, I’ve included the argument betwixt Bill and myself, which we agreed to stop so that we could discuss Christine properly here. May have spoilerishness.
Bill: According to Schatzi, based on our discussion of Stephen King’s novel Christine (and my ranting about Dawson, Joey and Pacey) I am irrational when it comes to situations like this. If my friend had a relationship with and genuine feelings for a girl and I know about how he felt, I cannot be anything other than friendly with her or i see it as an act of disrespect to the friendship.
Schatzi: Hey, take a look back at all the relationships avoided due to a friend’s involvement. How many of them are still together, or married, or were together 4eva? Like, none. Relationships are fleeting, friendships are not, so why get bent the fuck out of shape over a passing fancy? Just because someone feels like they’re in LUUUUV doesn’t mean jack shit; everyone feels like that at the start.
Bill: “Relationships are fleeting, friendships are not.” That is exactly why it irks me so much when someone will risk doing irreparable harm to the trust a friend has in them just to get a little ass. And it is irreparable. Even if you “get past it” or forgive them or whatever, you’re still never going to have that same level of trust with your friend.
Schatzi: Since the relationships are so fleeting, why get bent out of shape over them? Your own argument proves mine!
Bill: Because, no matter how fleeting it was, someone that should have had some regard for your feelings had none or went ahead and acted on some easily controlled impulse inspite of the regard they had for those feelings. It’s a betrayal. Just is.
Schatzi: They can have regard for your feelings, but you’ve gotta stop being a whiny little bitch and clinging so something that is over. OVER.
Bill: It’s totally not about clinging to anything. It’s about one friend not taking a risk of causing a rift with one of his boys for no good reason.
Think of it like this: You love Eli. Even if I absolutely hated him, I would not walk up and stab him in the face with a turkey baster full of AIDS, because I know that would upset you and I value you enough to bury that hypothetical hatred and not act on it, because I wouldn’t want to jeopardize our friendship.
But you’re telling me, “Go ahead and stab him. I won’t hold that against you. It’ll only hurt for a couple days and they have those awesome drug cocktails now that will probably stop the hiv.”
Schatzi: That’s the dumbest, most irrelevant hypothetical ever.
Bill: Well, it’s purposely outrageous. I’ll tone it down. I wouldn’t steal a CD of yours because I wouldn’t want to make you doubt your trust in me. Yes, it’s just one CD and you probably have that shit downloaded anyway, but I would still be a total fuckwad if I stole from you. Likewise, I wouldn’t pursue a girl my friend had genuine feelings for for the same reasons.
You know what, instead of trying to liken it to other dumb shit, I’ll just say this: If you’re really friends with someone, if you have that loyalty to them, your hormones are never reason enough to knowingly do something that could potentially harm that friend’s trust in you. If you do, you fucked up big. That’s how I see it. So fuck that shitter Dennis.
Schatzi: You’re making it an all-encompassing situation, which it wasn’t.
Leigh and Artie were through. It was over. Once a relationship is over, you don’t have any more rights, and you need to stop expecting people to put their lives on hold so you can wallow.
Bill: It’s not about Leigh and Arnie. It’s about Dennis and Arnie.
Schatzi: But you’re butt-hurt that it’s Dennis and Leigh.
You know what? Fuck it. Who’s your best friend? I’m going to go have a torrid affair.
Bill: No! I’m not butt hurt over it being Dennis and Leigh together. I think they both suck separately. Dennis knew that what he was going to do would hurt Arnie severely. He still did it because she had nice boobs. That’s fucked!
And Leigh knows she’s going to be driving a wedge between two life-long friends, one of them she claimed to love. If she cared about Arnie, then why would she do something like that to him? She could have anyone, so why would she go for Arnie’s best friend? It’s heinous.
They both went ahead and did the worst thing they could have possibly done to a kid that needed their help and why? Because a stuff prick has no conscience? Ugh.
WHERE IS THE LOYALTY?!
Schatzi: But who tried to save Arnie’s ass, even when he and his devil-car were killing other people and trying to kill them? Who stuck it out trying to save him?
Bill: You make him sound so sinister! Arnie is the victim! He’s practically possessed! He might as well be a puppet with LeBay and Christine holding the strings.
Schatzi: HE KNEW ALL ALONG THAT THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG.
Yeah, he was some poor, sad schlub, but jumping Jesus on a pogo-stick, burrow owls live in hole in the ground.
Bill: He knew something was wrong, something, but not what and not how wrong it was. They (and himself a little) wouldn’t even allow him to remember how he hurt his back. And when he’d be ready to try and reach out for help, he’d get those debilitating back pains. And he was more than just a little addicted, the poor kid.
And there we stopped, rather than monopolize the board with our argument. But I stand by what I said: Relationships are fleeting, friendships are (generally) lasting, and getting butthurt because your ex wants your friend is silly. Human and understandable, but silly nonetheless. We’re all autonomous creatures with individual rights, and subjecting others to the whims and caprices of your heart isn’t right. Also, in favor of Dennis and Leigh (and Arnie as well), they’re kids, and they don’t always mke the best choices. Perhaps it would have been kinder to wait to kindle what was between them until after Arnie was either saved or lost, but when you’re young, everything is immediate. It must happen no, or it never will—and that’s only enhanced by the very real dangers Dennis and Leigh were facing, the threats to their own lives, as well as those of their families.