Fasten Your Seatbelt

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Does Stephen King have to write spooky stuff? A stupid question, it would seem. King answered it in his recent memoir, “On Writing,” in which he recalled how, as a student, he’d quit trying to write sensitive, restrained fiction because what really got his juices flowing was a scary story about rats. He challenged the notion that the serious writer “controls the material instead of the other way around,” and concluded: “I am built with a love of the night and the opened coffin, that’s all.” Still, it’s a question that won’t go away. And it’s King’s own fault.

For one thing, in books such as “Hearts in Atlantis,” he has sprawled well outside the boundaries of the horror genre. For another, King is serious. His latest novel, “From a Buick 8,” is stylistically assured, effortlessly suspenseful, with characters as well-rounded as almost any “literary” novel can offer. That it has spooky stuff in it is a bonus or a distraction, depending on one’s point of view.

This is King’s second haunted-car story, following “Christine,” his tale of a homicidal 1956 Plymouth. The midnight-blue 1954 Buick Roadmaster in this novel is a subtler beast. In the words of Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Sandy Dearborn, who was there in 1979 when the car was found abandoned at a rural gas station: “When you got right down to it, it wasn’t a 1954 at all. Or a Buick. Or even a car. It was something else.”


It just sits there, and has for 23 years. In fact, it can do nothing else. Its engine is unworkable, its gauges fake, its exhaust system made of glass. (How it got to the gas station in the first place is an unanswered question--the first of many.) The cops tow it to a shed in back of the Troop D barracks and study it. Now and then it shrugs off its tarpaulin, chills the shed even on the hottest days and emits a piercing hum and flashes as bright as lightning.

The Buick defies forensic analysis. After 23 years, the men and women of Troop D can conclude nothing definite about it, except that it “breathes.” It seems to be an interface between worlds, a porthole, an airlock. Now and then it exhales things--non-leaves, non-bats, non-fish, non-lizards--that die on contact with Earth’s toxic atmosphere. Now and then, exerting a hypnotic attraction, it inhales things, including one of the troopers.

Eighteen-year-old Ned Wilcox finds out about the car after his trooper father, Curt, is killed in a bloody highway crash--by a drunken driver who, by coincidence (or maybe not), was the gas station attendant who originally found the Buick. The boy hangs around Troop D as a way of staying in touch with his father. The cops, schooled in grief, understand this. They let Ned mow the grass and help out the dispatcher.

Before long, Ned becomes part of the Troop D “family” and thus privy to the secret the troopers have kept all these years from their nominal families and the rest of the world. Dearborn and the others sit him down and tell him about the Buick and about how his father was the most dedicated of the “scholars” investigating it.

The telling of this tale, in many voices, takes up most of the novel. Before it’s done, we’ve learned about the troopers’ jobs and looked into their souls. We’ve gained insight into a small, insular group, knit by love and loyalty and by a shared contempt--not uncommon in law enforcement and the military--for “John Qs,” civilians, the public that pays the bills but doesn’t know what police work truly costs.

All this should be enough material for a fine novel--more than enough, for writers of the restrained and sensitive variety. But King gives us the car too. He has a reason. “From a Buick 8” (the title echoes a Bob Dylan song) is about the human need to know, to find answers even when none are available. This need is partly noble; it’s the foundation of all science and religion. But it can also get us killed.

Young Ned, no surprise, feels the car’s sinister pull just as his father did. The conclusion of the novel is thrilling, even though we recognize that it’s only fantasy. So here’s that stubborn question again: Is the trade-off--thrills for realism--worth it? King would surely say yes: The car symbolizes all that’s inexplicable in the world, and it has more pizazz. King’s fans might go further and say: Enough subtlety. Bring back the original, blood-spattered Christine. The sales figures will tell.