A Book About Cars for a Man Who Can’t Drive

September, 2016

Christine

I can’t drive.

I’ve never been able to drive. I’ve never found it all that necessary. I live in a bustling enough metropolis so that all kinds of public transportation is within reach. Friends have always been willing to give me lifts in exchange for gas money, and the advent of Uber has eliminated any real craving I’ve had to get behind the wheel.

Mostly.

See, I’m a big Bruce Springsteen fan. King quotes him in this book (and cleverly at that; “Cadillac Ranch” sounds like a rave-up ode to fast cars but it’s really about death and hearses). It’s almost impossible to be a Springsteen fan without feeling that yearning to get into some big car, bust out of a town full of losers, and blaze a trail down the thunder road. When it comes to cars, the language of rock and roll has always been romantic. The Beach Boys knew it, and Janis Joplin, and Meat Loaf. At least in America, singing about cars was singing about love.

That’s what Christine is about: cars and love, and how both can sour if the need becomes obsession. For me, I never needed to know how to drive a car to know what drives this novel. Love is a universal instinct, and the darker impulses that complicate love are almost as universal. Arnie’s story isn’t horrifying because it’s about a kid falling for a car. It’s horrifying because it’s easy to fall in love with someone (or some thing) that can’t love you back. Because it’s easy to be so blinded by love to not understand you’re being used. Those things are also universal.

As a grownup, I’m fascinated by so much of what King packs into Christine: its terrific central friendship between Arnie and Dennis, the way Leigh starts out a stereotypical hot girl and becomes more, the subtle things King has to say about the passage of time in America. But even though I never learned to drive, my gut-level response is the same as it was when I first read the book at thirteen – that I’ve been handed the keys to a dangerous vehicle, and I’m about to go for a hell of a ride.


Digging in the Dirt: The Deep-Seeded History of “Weeds”

Cavalier 1976

April 2013

Readers familiar with Creepshow – both the film and the graphic novel counterpart illustrated by Berni Wrightson – remember Stephen King’s star turn in the “Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segment.  Due to King’s over-the-top portrayal of a bad-luck hick (never before has a compound word been as trenchant as meteorshit!), as well as the film’s general tone of horror/comedy, “Jordy Verrill”’s story of a man being overrun by alien vegetation came across as hyper-campy.  However, most aren’t aware that the segment is actually an adaptation of a prose story, a nasty little tale called “Weeds,” first published only two years after Carrie hit bookstores. 

Shivers VII

Appearing in 1976 in the adult publication Cavalier (and reprinted in April of 1979 in Nugget magazine), the prose version of “Weeds” is a highly satisfying work, its tone in line with stories King produced around the same time.  “Grey Matter,” and “I am the Doorway” – other stories of personal infestation were both published just a few years prior (also by Cavalier), while “The Lawnmower Man,” a tale whose central images of lawns and greenery “Weeds” borrows (while marching toward a far less maniacal conclusion) arrived just a year before.  Interestingly, King’s much later novel Dreamcatcher would echo some of the story’s final ideas, including parasitic telepathy and the concept of alien vegetation attaching itself to a human host with the purpose of taking over the world.  Where “Weeds”’ graphic and celluloid counterpart, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” plays the central character as a bit of a buffoon, Verrill here is a more tragic figure, owing much more to The Stand’s childlike Tom Cullen than Stephen King’s onscreen interpretation (though not to fear: the word “meteorshit” does, indeed, appear).  The story is scarier, too, starting with the sympathetic portrait of Jordy King draws; as the implications of what’s happening beyond Jordy’s own transformation start occurring, King breaks out some terrifically visceral sentences:

Very faintly the earth was groaning, as if in a sleep filled with pain.  He could hear it being pulled apart and riddled by the strong thrust of this thing’s root system … A grinding, squealing sound … This sound was like an earthquake whispering deep down in the earth…

Unfortunately, this compelling version of “Weeds” has remained frustratingly elusive … until now.  Though the story unfortunately remains unpublished in any of Stephen King’s anthologies, readers now have two chances to read “Weeds.”  In the spring of 2013, Cemetery Dance published Shivers VII, the latest in the Stoker Award-nominated anthology series edited by Richard Chizmar; “Weeds” is the concluding tale.  In addition, Cavalier magazine published a short ebook anthology featuring interviews with Andy Warhol, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Dylan, as well as a selection of short King works that first appeared on their pages (though not necessarily those original versions), including “Weeds.”

While “Weeds” is no longer impossible to read, it – along with the prose version of its Creepshow brother “The Crate” – has still never been collected in a Stephen King anthology.  Now that King is allowing some of these unearthed gems out into the light, might a new collection with old stories be far behind?


Derry, Maine: Your Kind of Place

April, 2013

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 “Can an entire city be haunted?” asks Derry historian Mike Hanlon at the beginning of Stephen King’s most impressive novel, It.  King spends most of the novel exploring Hanlon’s definitions of haunt, most notably “a feeding place for animals,” and, concurrently, “a place often visited.”  We’ve been visiting Derry, Maine quite often in the years since It’s dual narrative seemed to put paid to the city’s greatest threat – the “concatenation of monsters,” to use Dr. Michael Collings’ brilliant phrase – and Derry doesn’t rest easily.  While Castle Rock may be King’s most famous small town, with its long reader association and the book-length dénouement, Derry has worked its dark magic in the background … and unlike Castle Rock, it hasn’t been destroyed.

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Famously, our first trip back to the town The Loser’s Club once called home was 1994’s Insomnia.  Like It, Insomnia tells a small, human story against the backdrop of larger, universe-changing conflicts.  While It explicated Lovecraftian cosmic horrors and the concept of the macroverse, Insomnia opens up King’s more “mainstream” novels to the mythos of the Dark Tower series, cementing Derry’s importance in King’s ongoing magnum opus.  It can be argued that this decision changes the initial concept of Derry as one of King’s somewhat insulated small towns, Insomnia remains as effective as It in addressing “other worlds than these” while never letting them crowd out its core as the story of regular people battling monsters, and mostly winning.

From that perspective, King’s 2011 time travel novel, 11/22/63, may be even more fascinating.  The novel sees its protagonist Jake Epping spending an extended time in Derry, 1958 – a few short weeks after the young Losers’ battle with It.  Jake can sense Derry’s continued, underlying evil, even though It is hibernating.  While King lets readers spend some time with post-battle Bev Marsh and Ritchie Tozier – and it’s time well-spent, a delightful return to beloved characters without ever seeming pandering – it’s most interesting witnessing Derry from an adult perspective in 1958.  It never glossed over the dangers of its child characters, but readers experience their adventures through the mostly naïve eyes of children and, later, through the sheen of nostalgia.  An adult from 2011 (and, maybe more importantly, an outsider), Epping quite adeptly senses the past Derry as a Bad Place, as tinctured with bad feelings and intent as The Overlook in The Shining, the Marsten House in ’Salem’s Lot, or that rolling haunted house Christine. In this way, 11/22/63 becomes a more vital continuation of It than either Insomnia or Dreamcatcher

Though both Dreamcatcher (2001) and 1999’s Bag of Bones have used Derry as a backdrop, neither seemed to forward the notion of Derry either as a place of ongoing horrors or as a central locus of the Dark Tower universe, which may have been those books’ intentions.  While Dreamcatcher nicely parallels It’s story of heroic children and the grownups those children become, other than the ominous graffito PENNYWISE LIVES seen late in the book, it seems that both the efforts of The Losers Club and Insomnia’s Ralph Roberts have paid off.  Derry, at least for now, seems safe.