Saturday, June 01, 2013

Another (Old) Book Review

From A Buick 8
Stephen King

You can count the number of Stephen King books I have read more than twice on one hand - Salem's Lot, The Stand, Insomnia and now From A Buick 8. There are a number of stories I have read more than twice - The Mist, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Mrs Todd's Shortcut and a few more, and there are the books that will be read a third (or even a fourth) time. King and I have an ongoing relationship and at times that familiarity has bred contempt; however, when he writes something that is exceptional, re-reading it can have a number of effects - like watching a film again, you see things you missed first time around and that makes the re-reading all the more worthwhile. When you read a book for the third (or in the case of The Stand fifth) time it is like sitting down with an old friend and things you forget come flooding back.

I recall loving this book when it came out. I did review it but I have no idea where and I think it might have been on my original blog, so that would be in the ether of the Internet's theoretical graveyard. I also think it was the last King book that I really, really loved. It was written between 1999 and 2002, during the time when King had been involved in his own car story. In fact, I think many people repudiated the idea that he could have possibly been working on another malevolent car story before almost dying in a hit and run accident - people thought this was a product of King's PR department. I was very much of the opinion that King was writing about his own experience while weaving another Christine type story - how wrong was I?

FAB8 is a book that spans 23 years in a couple of hours. It tells the story of something so remarkable that it becomes mundane and how rational men can allow the irrational to co-exist next to them while simultaneously getting on with getting on. The thing that makes this book possibly one of the best stories King has ever told is how utterly believable a story it becomes despite being possibly the weirdest idea he's ever had. If a story about something that resembles a car from another dimension can be even considered 'believable' it's made even more unlikely by the fact that it is set almost entirely in the grounds of a Pennsylvania Police Station, inhabited over those 23 years by over 100 State Troopers, who all managed to keep the story of the Twilight Zone Car From Hell under wraps and a subject that was never spoken about outside of the 'family' of officers.

I am now going to go off on a big tangent, but it is ultimately important.

I touched on an idea in my recent review of Lisey's Story that suggested that sometimes King plays with 'other worlds' just outside of 'our' world and the world of Roland of Gilead, which many believe most of King's novels are linked to, either directly or indirectly. I actually think there is another underlying theme, less dynamic but still there all the same. Bare with me for a second... Investigate Kings books and stories and you'll find links galore, most people know this - whether these links were direct: an actual mention of Roland or his world in a story; or indirect: a character or event from a direct story turning up in a definite indirect story. Yet sometimes things didn't quite... fit. Take Rose Madder as an example - what appear to be definite links to the Dark Tower saga, but equally the links might not really be links at all, they could be links to another, different, just-as-important-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things reality. The point is there is a character in Rose Madder who later turns up in Desperation and therefore in The Regulators. These two - linked - books might be associated to The Dark Tower but this particular avenue King went down might just possibly be a red herring. While there appear to be distinct links between Rose Madder, Desperation and The Regulators it might also be possible that because King has created all these vast array of different realities, these books might just be similar in theme because of their close proximity to other King novels. The point I'm trying to make is even though there is a definite Dark Tower 3 reference in Rose Madder - a mention of a city called Ludd - and there is a similarity between the fantasy world that Rose escapes to and the world of Roland - they might be Ludds from different realities as there were cities both called Topeka in different realities in the Dark Tower books.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The point I'm trying to make, but failing dismally, is that I think King has/plays with a number of 'realities'; he uses the multiverse card while suggesting that some realities are more important than others. This is perfectly illustrated in The Dark Tower finale when Susannah is reunited with her (slightly different) loved ones in a reality that isn't any the ones she'd previously been to. If anything positive comes from the Dark Tower series of books it's the almost cast iron admission that there are untold realities and dimensions.

While the Dark Tower story tries to big itself up as kind of the second most important one after the reality that we, King's constant readers, live in, there is weirdness that lurks in those pages that has lurked in the pages of other King stories. A weirdness that might be so alien that even Roland of Gilead and his gunslingers would run scared. In the Dark Tower stories there are often references to 'Thinnies' - areas where the walls of reality are thinnest and it allows people to cross over, sometimes without even realising it, into different versions of the world they have just been in. However, 'thinnies' are anything but benign portals, some of them appear to be doorways into worlds where the laws of what we call reality don't exist. To further illustrate this, in the dark Tower stories Roland goes to great lengths to keep his ka-tet away from them as much as possible and they are often portrayed as places that border on the totally alien and anything that falls into one will die horribly.

So keeping the contents of these thinnies in mind, let us briefly skirt around the edges of yet another couple of stories before getting back to the business in hand. In the collection of short stories called Skeleton Crew there are two stories that, on the surface, seem completely unrelated, yet I believe have more to do with the jumbled theory above than is perhaps considered. The opening story in that compilation is The Mist and it has always been a damned weird book once you strip away the nastiness of humanity. I always saw that story as a strange juxtaposition between the creatures outside of the supermarket and the creatures a lot of the humans were becoming inside it, but it's when the story avoids its humans that it gets very odd.

You may have seen the film? It's about a big storm followed by a mist which has creatures - very alien creatures - lurking in it that come out and kill anything that moves. The creatures range from very small to unbelievably huge and it becomes very obvious very quickly that somewhere else has been merged with this world and the 'somewhere else' monsters are winning - very easily. Like FAB8 it doesn't really have an ending, just a hanging position that can go many ways and what made it so different from other King stories at the time was its attempt to be 'so different'. It worked. It also should be noted, purely as a bit of fun, that a quarter of the book takes place in cars.

Mrs Todd's Shortcut is a lovely little short story about a woman in her 40s who, like me, has a passion for shortcuts and will try anything to shave seconds or miles off a specific journey. In many respects it is a story about a car, and on the face of it has zero similarities to The Mist or FAB8, except... The two punchlines of the story are that Mrs Todd eventually manages to cut the 180 mile journey down to about 50 miles and that it's a kind of crazy love story; however there are two massive clues in the story about the nature of the story itself. The first is the transformation of Mrs Todd into a kind of younger version of herself - whenever she does the journey she seems to be knocking years off of herself (something touched on in Rose Madder, but more so in Insomnia) and secondly, when the man she eventually runs away with does the journey for the first time, he describes part of it like going through an alien world where the willows were not trees and strange frog-like creatures watched from stumps of things that might not have once been trees. Mrs Todd is obviously driving through a thinnie (but is so pumped up she barely notices). The Mist seems to suggest the government found a thinnie and tried to experiment with it - all these stories probably take place in realities similar to or close to all other King stories.

The Buick in FAB8 (which isn't really a car at all, just a kind of approximation of a car because the people looking at it perhaps wouldn't comprehend what it really looked like), in my humble opinion, is a thinnie made real. Perhaps from a dimension so alien that the only way it could be allowed to be in our reality is by making it look vaguely like something most of the people who would look at it could understand; even if there were so many parts of the 'car' that were off scale or just not right. This theory is constantly backed up throughout the book by the things that get deposited through the car's trunk/boot onto the garage floor, or the strange effect the car had on people, animals and just generally the entire area, especially when it was active.

Briefly (and with spoilers), the 'car' was left at a Pennsylvanian petrol station in 1979 by an odd man wearing a wide brimmed hat. He was never seen again and the local police impounded the car and before long they started to realise that there was something totally wrong with it. It couldn't drive, in fact it looked like a kind of version of a Buick 8 that a kid might produce. Then it started behaving weird (and took a trooper as its first 'meal') and intermittently continued to act weird for another 22 years. Enter Ned Wilcox, son of the car's original 'custodian' who was now dead State Trooper Curtis Wilcox. Ned being a 21st century kid wants to know how an entire police department could live with this most bizarre of receptacles without a) being more than just fleetingly curious and b) without the rest of the world finding out. Over the space of the book, the boy's father's former boss and his compadres try to explain to the boy the truth behind the strange thing in Shed B, the connection it appeared to have with his father and the old CO and while Ned never seems to grasp it, us, the constant reader, has already started to see a connection - the car controls things.

The 'car' is in the best place it can be and because of its very nature, it's totally alien with no real point of reference nature, it is very easy to leave work and get on with the rest of your life - something Ned just can't understand. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear to Ned's father Curt that the car is theirs to protect the rest of the world from and it will never fully be explained, even if the world's most advanced scientists had it. In the end, Curt comes to believe that it falling into the hands of the PSP was the best thing that could possibly have happened to the rest of us.

There is also an irony in the story that only rears its head towards the end; there are so many entwined connections throughout the book - the person who 'finds' the Buick is the person who, while drunk, kills Curt, but much wider than that; the troopers all think it's just sat there and 'performed' every so often, but it could be that it has been responsible for many things that have happened, either at the police station or in the vicinity of where it was originally found and it wasn't until someone sat down and tallied everything up that you saw that the Buick had far more control than is ever suggested.

I also believe this is something of a tip of the hat to Lovecraft in that King is dealing with an almost unspeakably different kind of being. A lot of Lovecraft's stories could have the sub-text 'I haven't got the imagination to describe this' and King addressed this - the world where the Buick comes from and the creatures that eventually spewed out of its over-sized trunk were not like anything ever described by him or other horror writers I've ever encountered. He attempted to paint a picture of something so alien that characters' minds could barely comprehend what they were seeing and even if they did it was so wrong it made their other senses go apeshit. The way that everything that was described throughout the book had the caveat of 'well, that's the closest we can get to it because in reality it was so different it hurt my eyes to look at it' and its this particular subtext that makes FAB8 such a brilliant book. The simple fact that the things that came out of the car were so alien, once they'd gone our minds went out of their way to attempt to expunge all traces/memory of it.

One of the book's other tragic characters explains to Ned that some of things they saw were so wrong that it took months for people to get a good night's sleep, but once they left Troop D and got on with their own lives it was easy because the memories disappeared as quickly as dawn mist; it was only at night when the true alien nature of the car and its contents would go to work on the people who thought they'd forgotten about it. Plus, how do you explain something that is described as being so alien it hurts your eyes to look at and makes your stomach twist in knots because it just doesn't make sense in your head.

In the end what I adore about this book is the inconclusive nature of it because that's how life often is. There are no grand explanatory endings in real life; sometimes things just happen. When someone you love dies you cannot comprehend how the rest of the world can just... carry on - don't they understand your pain? Of course they do, it's just this is a big planet and sometimes there are no resolutions; it is what it is and what good is there challenging it if you're not going to get the answers you want? The book could easily have been called 'A series of weird events in Pennsylvania between 1979 and 2002' except that might not have sold as well. Ned, in this story, represents the rest of us, the people who want answers, especially in horror books, and ultimately he too discovers, with age, that you cannot become too obsessed with something as undefinable as this Buick 8; you have to get on with your life otherwise you would go mad searching for answers you will never find.

It's also very scary, laugh out loud funny in places and deeply sad. In many respects I'm gobsmacked the book is so good considering when it was written, but it also suggests that the pre-accident Stephen King was still capable of doing weird exceedingly well and the post accident King allowed that weirdness to remain.

I really can't recommend this book enough.                                             9/10

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