Stephen King is perhaps the most widely known American writer of his generation, yet his distinctions include publishing as two authors at once: Beginning in 1966, he wrote novels that were published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. When twelve, he began submitting stories for sale. At first ignored and then scorned by mainstream critics, by the late 1980’s his novels were reviewed regularly in The New York Times Book Review, with increasing favor.
Beginning in 1987, most of his novels were main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which in 1989 created the Stephen King Library, committed to keeping King’s novels “in print in hardcover. ” King published more than one hundred short stories (including the collections Night Shift, 1978, Skeleton Crew, 1985, and Nightmares and Dreamscapes, 1993) and the eight novellas contained in Different Seasons (1982) and Four Past Midnight (1990). King has published numerous articles and a critical book, Danse Macabre (1981).
King’s detractors attribute his success to the sensational appeal of his genre, whose main purpose, as King readily confesses, is to scare people. Like Edgar Allan Poe, King turned a degenerated genre — a matter of comic-book monsters and drive-in films—into a medium embodying the primary anxieties of his age. He is graphic, sentimental, and predictable. His humor is usually crude and campy. His dark fantasies, like all good popular fiction, allow readers to express within conventional frames of reference feelings and concepts they might not otherwise consider. is vision articulates universal fears and desires in terms peculiar to contemporary culture. King is “Master of Postliterate Prose,” as Paul Gray stated in 1982—writing that takes readers mentally to the films rather than making them imagine or think. On the other hand, King’s work provides the most genuine example of the storyteller’s art since Charles Dickens. He has returned to the novel some of the popular appeal it had in the nineteenth century and turned out a generation of readers who vastly prefer some books to their film adaptations.
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He encountered two lasting influences, the naturalist writers and contemporary American mythology. Stephen King may be known as a horror writer, but he calls himself a “brand name,” describing his style as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s. ” His fast-food version of the “plain style” may smell of commercialism, but that may make him the contemporary American storyteller without peer. From the beginning, his dark parables spoke to the anxieties of the late twentieth century.
King’s fictions begin with premises accepted by middle Americans of the television generation, opening in suburban or small-town America—Derry, Maine, or Libertyville, Pennsylvania—and have the familiarity of the house next door and the 7-Eleven store. The characters have the trusted two-dimensional reality of kitsch: they originate in cliches such as the high school “nerd” or the wise child. From such premises, they move cinematically through an atmosphere resonant with a popular mythology.
King applies naturalistic methods to an environment created by popular culture. This reality, already mediated, is translated easily into preternatural terms, taking on a nightmarish quality. King’s imagination is above all archetypal: His “pop” familiarity and his campy humor draw on the collective unconscious. As with his fiction, his sources are the classic horror films of the 1930’s, inherited by the 1950’s pulp and film industries. He hints at their derivations from the gothic novel, classical myth, Brothers Grimm folktales, and the oral tradition in general.
In an anxious era both skeptical of and hungry for myth, horror is fundamentally reassuring and cathartic; the tale-teller combines roles of physician and priest into the witch doctor as “sin eater,” who assumes the guilt and fear of his culture. Christine • In Christine, the setting is Libertyville, Pennsylvania, during the late 1970’s. The monster is the American Dream as embodied in the automobile. King gives Christine all the attributes of a fairy tale for “postliterate” adolescents.
Christine is another fractured “Cinderella” story, Carrie for boys. Arnie Cunningham, a nearsighted, acne-scarred loser, falls “in love with” a car, a passionate (red and white) Plymouth Fury, “one of the long ones with the big fins,” that he names Christine. An automotive godmother, she brings Arnie, in fairy-tale succession, freedom, success, power, and love: a home away from overprotective parents, a cure for acne, hit-andrun revenge on bullies, and a beautiful girl, Leigh Cabot.
Soon, however, the familiar triangle emerges, of boy, girl, and car, and Christine is revealed as a femme fatale—driven by the spirit of her former owner, a malcontent named Roland LeBay. Christine is the medium for his death wish on the world, for his all-devouring, “everlasting Fury. ” LeBay’s aggression possesses Arnie, who reverts into an older, tougher self, then into the “mythic teenaged hood” that King has called the prototype of 1950’s werewolf films, and finally into “some ancient carrion eater,” or primal self.
As automotive monster, Christine comes from a variety of sources, including the folk tradition of the “death car” and a venerable techno-horror premise, as seen in King’s “Trucks” and Maximum Overdrive. King’s main focus, however, is the mobile youth culture that has come down from the 1950’s by way of advertising, popular songs, film, and national pastimes. Christine is the car as a projection of the cultural self, Anima for the modern American Adam. To Arnie’s late 1970’s-style imagination, the Plymouth Fury, in 1958 a mid-priced family car, is an American Dream.
Her sweeping, befinned chassis and engine re-create a fantasy of the golden age of the automobile: the horizonless future imagined as an expanding network of superhighways and unlimited fuel. Christine recovers for Arnie a prelapsarian vitality and manifest destiny. Christine’s odometer runs backward and she regenerates parts. The immortality she offers, however—and by implication, the American Dream—is really arrested development in the form of a Happy Days rerun and by way of her radio, which sticks on the golden oldies station.
Indeed, Christine is a recapitulatory rock musical framed fatalistically in sections titled “Teenage Car-Songs,” “Teenage Love-Songs,”and “Teenage Death-Songs. ” Fragments of rock-and-roll songs introduce each chapter. Christine’s burden, an undead 1950’s youth culture, means that most of Arnie’s travels are in and out of time, a deadly nostalgia trip. As Douglas Winter explains, Christine reenacts “the death,” during the 1970’s, “of the American romance with the automobile. ” The epilogue from four years later presents the fairy-tale consolation in a burnedout monotone.
Arnie and his parents are buried, Christine is scrap metal, and the true Americans, Leigh and Dennis, are survivors, but Dennis, the “knight of Darnell’s Garage,” does not woo “the lady fair”; he is a limping, lackluster junior high teacher, and they have drifted apart, grown old in their prime. Dennis narrates the story in order to file it away, all the while perceiving himself and his peers in terms of icons from the late 1950’s. In his nightmares, Christine appears wearing a black vanity plate inscribed with a skull and the words, “ROCK AND ROLL WILL NEVER DIE. From Dennis’s haunted perspective, Christine simultaneously examines and is a symptom of a cultural phenomenon: a new American gothic species of anachronism or deja vu, which continued after Christine’s publication in films such as Back to the Future (1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and Blue Velvet (1986). The 1980’s and the 1950’s blur into a seamless illusion, the nightmare side of which is the prospect of living an infinite replay. The subtext of King’s adolescent fairy tale is another coming of age, from the opposite end and the broader perspective of American culture.
Written by a fortyish King in the final years of the twentieth century, Christine diagnoses a cultural midlife crisis and marks a turning point in King’s career, a critical examination of mass culture. The dual time frame reflects his awareness of a dual audience, of writing for adolescents who look back to a mythical 1950’s and also for his own generation as it relives its undead youth culture in its children. The baby boomers, King explains, “were obsessive” about childhood. “We went on playing for a long time, almost feverishly.
I write for that buried child in us, but I’m writing for the grown-up too. I want grownups to look at the child long enough to be able to give him up. The child should be buried. ” “sometimes ownership can become possession” The story is set in a middle-class suburb of Pittsburg, in 1978. Dennis Guilder and Arnie Cunningham vie for the attentions of the new girl in town, Leigh Cabot. But when Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury, enters the picture, the course of action changes drastically. As Leigh neatly observes, “cars are girls”.
Arnie’s love affair with Christine turns from a love song to a death song.
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