Reading “From a Buick 8”
Every few years I read a book by Stephen King, and it’s a bit like visiting an old friend. I was an avid King reader in middle school and much of high school, but by the time I left for college I’d pretty much moved on. My focus was literature, and the pulpier pleasures of genre fiction struck me as childish and unimportant.
Now that I’m older, I see the error of my ways. As a writer, King might not be on par with, say, Melville or Tolstoy, but he’s a gifted storyteller, with a knack for characterization, description and making simple yet profound insights into human nature and the world. His horror novels are creepy and somtimes gross, but they’re also moving, and they get under your skin.
I recently finished reading King’s 2002 novel “From a Buick 8,” which he wrote while recovering from a near-fatal accident that occurred when he was struck by a car while walking on a country road in Maine. (King wrote about this incident at length in his excellent memoir/writing guide, “On Writing.”) A similar event provides “From a Buick 8” with a certain impetus: The story opens in the aftermath of the death of State Trooper Curt Wilcox, who was killed when a drunk driver smashed into him while he was making a routine traffic stop. Curt’s teenage son, Ned, has been hanging out at the barracks since his father died, doing chores. One day, Ned discovers the barrack’s secret: A vintage Buick Roadmaster without a scratch on it and some curious features, such as an immobile steering wheel. Ned asks the commanding officer, Sandy, about the car, and Sandy and some of his colleagues do their best to explain the mysterious vehicle’s secrets.
“From a Buick 8” is King’s second novel about a haunted car, the first being “Christine,” from 1983. But Christine was actively killing people, while the Buick’s misdeeds are (mostly) in the past. The car SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT WOULD HAPPEN! appears to be a device and portal to another world. Occasionally the temperature drops dramatically in the shed where the Buick is stored, a blinding lightning storm occurs, and weird creatures, such as bats, emerge from the trunk of the car. Ned is transfixed by the stories he hears, and learns from Sandy that his dead father was also fascinated, even obsessed, by the car. Like his father, Ned wants to know where the car came from, and who built it; when Sandy suggests that such questions can’t be answered, he doesn’t listen.
“From a Buick 8” features many of King’s favorite themes and motifs. The setting is a seemingly idyllic smalltown community that is beset by something horrific — a haunted, malevolent object or force. King realized this premise most fully, perhaps, in “It,” his 1986 novel of an evil being, known only as It, who preys upon small children; much like the Buick, the exact nature and origins of It are unclear. The unknowability of the supernatural, as well as the fascination that the supernatural holds for some people, are ideas that runs throughout King’s body of work. In “From a Buick 8,” one of the characters, a state trooper named Huddie, reflects, “I was almost at the door when I looked at the Buick. And some force pulled me toward it. Am I sure it was its force? Actually, I’m not. It might just have been the fascination deadly things have for us: the edge and the drop, how the muzzle of a gun looks back at us like an eye if we turn it this way and that. Even the point of a knife starts to look different if the hour’s late and everyone else in the house has gone to sleep.” One could argue that King’s success stems from his understanding that people are, like Huddie, drawn toward horror, rather than repelled.
“From a Buick 8” is not King’s best work. It plodded a bit, and I didn’t actually find the Buick all that interesting. Which is why I was surprised to find the story so moving, and the conclusion so heartwarming. As is typical of King’s work, the characters are people you feel like you know, and whom you’re genuinely fond of by the end of the story, and “From a Buick 8” is memorable because of its characters. It is a father-son story, and a story about life in a rural state trooper barrack and the relationships among the men and women who work there. The Buick’s arrival, discovery and decline might give shape to the narrative, but characters like Ned and Sandy give the book its heart.
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