I’ve written so much elsewhere about my love for Stephen King that I steadfastly refuse to do it here. It’s not just because I’m tired of my own enthusiasm, but because From a Buick 8 is such a tepid, by-the-numbers effort that my affection starts to look a little silly.
Reading this book – and thinking about King’s longevity – I couldn’t help but think in terms of my other great pop culture loves, music and film. At some point we have to acknowledge that artists who’ve been around for 30+ years essentially get by on their past glories, and that if we appreciate their newest efforts, it’s rare that we love them in the way we love their earlier accomplishments. Claiming to adore a 21st Century Stephen King novel is sort of like fawning over a new Rolling Stones album: it’s good that they’re still alive, but do we really want to compare Bridges to Babylon with Exile on Main St.? I’ll dutifully see every film Woody Allen directs, but it’s pure folly to think Magic in the Moonlight can hold a candle to Annie Hall. That isn’t to say late-career artists can’t create a winner – Dylan being Example A – but it’s rare. And so the question becomes: At what point do we stop letting nostalgia cloud our opinion of new works from tired artists?
And that’s sort of where I am with From a Buick 8. I don’t really fault King for recycling storylines after all this time – to continue the Stones metaphor, Keith Richards only has so many riffs in him – but I’m not sure there’s any way to look at a second haunted car novel as anything but creative fatigue. In the Afterword, King describes how the idea came to him on a drive up the Eastern seaboard and how he then filtered it through his subsequent near-fatal accident, but it doesn’t do much to make the story seem fresh.
And that story? A group of Pennsylvania State Troopers, headed up by chief Sandy Dearborn, talks to Ned, the 18-year-old son of a colleague who was recently killed by a hit-and-run driver, about the haunted car in their storage shed. Resembling a 1953 Buick Roadmaster…
…the car was abandoned at a gas station by a mysterious driver and later appears to be the portal to another world.
It’s a book where, to be honest, not much happens. The car spends the book in the shed, occasionally emitting blinding flashes of light … and, oh yeah, sucking unknowing people into its trunk and occasionally sending creatures from the other world to our own. These arrivals look vaguely like things from our world – a creepy bat, a creepy fish, creepy leaves – without actually being from our world, and they don’t live long once they’re here. One of these sequences – a screaming humanoid thing arrives after an unusually violent light show – is the most effective scene in the book, a genuinely disturbing encounter that’s right in King’s wheelhouse.
But the rest of the book is more a story of how Ned’s father Curtis became obsessed with the car – or, maybe more importantly, how the car obsesses Curtis. Structurally it’s sort of interesting, told mostly in flashback by the troopers, but their voices are largely indistinguishable (with the exception of Arky, a Michigan transplant who speaks in dem‘s and dere’s), and King’s folksy idioms seem clunkier than ever, bordering dangerously on Garrison Keillorisms.
It’s not even really a case where I can say, “Man, there’s a good story in here somewhere, but this isn’t it.” It’s a goofy premise handled about as well as can be. Fortunately, I’ve read a couple of King’s post-Buick 8 works, and it’s good to see that he would return, near as can be, to form. 11/22/63, especially, is close to prime King – his Match Point rather than his Scoop.
The House of Love – A Spy in the House of Love (1990)