From a Buick 8

by Stephen King

Published by Scribner

356 pages, 2002






Driving the Highway to Hell Without Headlights

Reviewed by David Abrams


From a Buick 8 is like a campfire tale minus the roasted marshmallows. Stephen King has never been an author I'd call bright and cheery, but this time out, his ghost story is even more glum than usual. Chances are, you'll crawl into your bed after reading it and feel like you're covered with blankets of gloom and despair, the bitter aftertaste of campfire smoke and char still on your tongue.

Oh, there's plenty of horror here that's sticky and gooey, and at least one character gets roasted (from the inside out), but From a Buick 8 is about as sweet as a plate of rotting cabbage -- a particular stench that happens to be King's parfum du jour (in Dreamcatcher, you'll recall, it was pungent farts).

The eau de cabbage rises from the trunk of a car which shows up at a rural Pennsylvania gas station one afternoon, startling the dimwitted attendant:

It was a beautiful midnight-blue Buick, old (it had the big chrome grille and the portholes running up the sides) but in mint condition. The paint sparkled, the windshield sparkled, the chrome side-strike sweeping along the body sparkled, and even before the driver opened the door and got out, Bradley Roach knew there was something wrong with it. He just couldn't put his finger on what it was.

The state troopers are called and that's where our story picks up. From a Buick 8 is narrated, campfire-style, by members of the Troop D barracks who haul the car back to the station and lock it away in a shed out back. Right away, the troopers notice that no dirt seems to stick to the car's body -- even pebbles forcibly resist being lodged in the tire treads -- and the interior seems to be rather…odd. Then people start disappearing and foul Lovecraftian creatures are seen erupting from the trunk. As one character says, "It breathes, that's what I think. Whatever that car really is, it breathes…. It blew that pink-headed thing out on the exhale, the way you can blow a booger out of your nose when you sneeze. Now it's getting ready to suck back in. I tell you I can feel it."

For the most part, King's writing is restrained and more somber than usual, but when he starts flinging gore across the page, he proves that no one can match his mastery of the ick factor, some of which borders on the poetic. He handles the blood, gristle and guts carefully, judiciously. He knows just when a gob of goo will make our scalps feel like ants are running around drunk in the hair follicles. While From a Buick 8 isn't packed with as many hair-rustling moments as some of his classic works, there's enough here to make you think twice before popping open the trunk of your own car and reaching around in the dark interior.

The tale is mainly told by trooper Sandy Dearborn to Ned Wilcox, a teenage boy who's been hanging around the barracks ever since his father, another trooper, was killed in a bizarre accident the year before. Ned's father was one of the first people to discover the allure of the Buick -- an obsession which may or may not have led to his gruesome death. For his part, Sandy doesn't believe in coincidences, "only chains of event which grow longer and ever more fragile until either bad luck or plain old human mean-heartedness breaks them."

Like Sandy, King takes a dim view of the road humanity is zooming down -- the Highway to Hell, if you will -- and the headlights have never been dimmer than they are in this story of a Car From Beyond, a 1954 Buick Roadmaster that turns out to be a portal to a hellish hell full of cabbage-stench creatures who can best be described with words like "pus" and "ooze" and "quivering pink."

The Bad Stuff has always lurked (and outright leaped) in the majority of King's novels, but the pessimism seems to be on the rise in From a Buick 8. Nothing can be done to stop the evil from swallowing our world. In his past novels, there's usually been a brave band of people struggling to ward off the nasties, often with a precognitive child in the lead. Here, all the King's men and women can't put the world back together again once it's shattered by the mysterious appearance of the midnight-blue car at a rural Pennsylvania gas station one afternoon. It (evil, the car, a trunk that won't latch) is hungry in an indiscriminate -- and nonsensical -- sort of way. King never fully explains the threat, leaving us (and the characters) with a vague sense of unease when the world beyond the Buick portal is glimpsed.

This is where the new novel differs from Christine, the other King book which springs immediately to mind when you hear the words "evil car." In that 1983 novel, there was no doubt that the 1958 Plymouth Fury was the relentless force of Satan, crushing people, smearing them across the highway and literally driving Arnie Cunningham to single-minded obsession. In Christine, you could almost hear King giggling with ghoulish glee as he typed. He even ended the novel with a winking pun: His unending fury.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Christine was reduced to a cube of scrap metal and now King comes across as tired and resigned to the fact that horror is no joking matter, not in a world where airplanes can be used as weapons of mass murderers or a swerving van can plow into you on your afternoon walk, reducing your hip to hamburger. For proof of King's weariness, look no further than the author photo on the back flap of From a Buick 8, surely one of the oddest author photos I've come across. In it, King is backed into a corner and his head is tilted back as he looks for help from above. It smacks of "I've had it, I'm through, here's the towel, evil wins," or, if recent announcements are to be believed, "I will write no more forever."

What he's written in From a Buick 8 is sporadically good, but ultimately unsatisfying. It's like being offered a plate of cabbage when what you really want is marshmallows skewered on a stick. | November 2002


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.