Baby You Can Drive My Car by Bev Vincent
The roaring engine that became Christine rolled off the assembly line as a short story idea inspired by the old, decrepit red Cadillac Stephen King owned in 1978. “One night as I was turning into my driveway, I saw the odometer numbers on my car turn from 9999.9 to 10,000. I found myself wondering if there might not be a story in an odometer that ran backward.”
The book was written in the late 70s (the same era during which the novel is set), before King spent time in the greater Pittsburgh area working on Creepshow, but its location is an homage to his friend, director George Romero, to whom the book is dedicated. King decided to use a 1958 Plymouth Fury because they were “the most mundane fifties car that I could remember,” he told Randy Lofficier. He didn’t want to use a vehicle that had a legend already attached to it.
He thought that the car (and perhaps the kid who owned it) would get younger. As he told Douglas E. Winter: “The kicker would be that, when the odometer returned to zero, the car, at the height of its beauty, would spontaneously fall into component parts. It would echo that Lewis Padgett story, ‘The Twonky’—really funny, but maybe a little sinister, too?”
King says that if you ignore the prologue, the first chapter gives an indication of what the short story was supposed to be like. “As I worked on it I became more and more interested in the interaction between Arnie Cunningham and Dennis, and the difference in their lifestyles. I got entranced with Dennis’s Happy Days sort of lifestyle. In fact, Arnie’s name was originally Randy something, and I changed it to Arnie Cunningham because it was a Happy Days name!”
Christine was also inspired (although perhaps subconsciously) by the hot-rod novels of Henry Gregor Felsen, which King read as a teenager. He was inspired, too, by American Graffiti. He observed that there were no parents present in that movie and he wanted to explore the relationship between his teenagers and their parents as part of the story.
In addition to being a book about a haunted car, the novel is fueled by the rock and roll music King has listened to all his life. He forked out roughly $15,000 to obtain the permissions to use song lyrics at the beginning of each chapter, something he added after finishing the first draft. As he told Charles L. Grant, he was often quoted $50 for the use of a song per thousand copies printed. It didn’t sound like much until he realized there were going to be 300,000 hardcover copies and even more paperbacks.
King considers it his first true horror novel since The Shining because it offers no rational explanation for supernatural events. He surprised himself with how dark the story turned out. “I didn’t like it very much because the whole thing started out to be sort of a joke. It was like Happy Days gone mad: Boy gets car, boy loses car, boy finds car. I thought it was hilarious until the kid started to run people down. Because some stories get out of control and they are like the car itself: They start to run by themselves and they don’t always turn out the way you think they are going to turn out.”
In response to several articles about the huge advances he was getting for his novels, King sold the North American publication rights for Christine to Viking Press and New American Library in the spring of 1982 for an advance on royalties of one dollar from each publisher: “I’ll take the royalties, if the book makes royalties, but I don’t want to hear any more about Stephen King’s monster advances,” he told Douglas E. Winter that same year.
The book has an interesting structure. The beginning and the end are told in first person from the point of view of Arnie’s best friend, Dennis Guilder. However, the middle section is told in third person after Dennis is injured playing football. This was not a stylistic decision. King painted himself into a corner that almost killed the book. At first he attempted to narrate the middle section as “hearsay evidence,” but that didn’t work. After a number of other failed attempts, he finally decided on the published approach—to write it in third person. “I tried to leave enough clues, so that when the reader comes out of it he’ll feel that it’s almost like Dennis pulling a Truman Capote. It’s almost like a non‐fiction novel. I think that it’s still a first‐person narration, and if you read that second part over, you’ll see it. It’s just masked, like reportage.”
In an appreciation King supplied to Locus magazine for Alan D. Williams, his editor at Viking, he recalls his insecurities about the book. The two men were canoeing on the lake at King’s summer house. “I told Alan that I didn’t like the way the book had turned out and said I was afraid no one would like it…I thought the combination [of first and third person] ugly and awkward. I suggested we think about not publishing the book.” Williams, who had originally acquired The Dead Zone for Viking, saw Christine as a love story. “The kids will get it,” he reassured King.
For a number of years, King cited Christine as one of his worst-reviewed novels. “I’ve been very lucky with reviews over the years with the exception of Christine which was just roasted!” he told Lynn Flewelling in 1990. “I must have been totally wrong about that book. It’s like one of those dreams where you’re in a public place and you suddenly realize you don’t have any clothes on. That’s what that experience was like. And I still don’t understand what’s wrong with that book, if anything is…”
Movie rights to Christine were acquired while the book was still in manuscript, and production began four days before the novel’s publication date in 1983. Contrary to his approach with his publisher, King received approximately half a million dollars up front for the adaptation rights. “If you tie them down to a lot of money, you’ve got more assurance that the movie will be made, because somebody wants to get their money back,” he told Paul Gagne.
The proximity of the film’s premiere date to the book’s release was a cause of some concern to his publishers, especially to his paperback publishers who were dealing with a number of other movie tie-in projects at the time.
A signed edition, limited to 1000 trade copies and 26 lettered copies, was published by Donald M. Grant with a wraparound cover by Stephen Gervais.
 Interview with Stephen King on Christine, 1984.
 The author photo that appears with the hardcover of King sitting on the hood of a “Plymouth Fury” was taken by Andrew Unangst, who liked the car so much he purchased it from the Pennsylvania company that loaned it to them, a business that handled vintage cars for movies. In an interview with Charles L. Grant, King says that he learned through letters he received that the car in the photo was actually a 1957 Plymouth Savoy.
 Interview with Paul R. Gagne, reprinted in Feast of Fear.
 Soon after the novel was published, King purchased a radio station in Bangor and rebranded it WZON, one of the few hard-driving rock-and-roll stations in the US on the AM band at the time.
 He was assisted in this work by Dave Marsh, a former writer for Rolling Stone who would become part of the band The Rock-Bottom Remainders.
 Banned Books and Other Concerns: The Virginia Beach Lecture, Secret Windows.
 Interview with Stephen King on Christine, Twilight Zone, Vol. 3 No. 6, February 1984.
 Interview in Bangor Daily News, Sept 1990.
I for one love Christine. It’s has always been one of my favorites of the truly “horror” books King has written. When I was a teen he grasped that experience of being the A student loner with the academic parentage who longs for the girl (or in my case the boy) and the sex and the cool factor. He crafts a great sell your soul to the devil novel and the love story is brilliant! Tell King that this one hits all the right notes for me, from the music, to the angst, to the machine, to the lust, to the fear. Thanks again!
You said it !
Christine ranks in the top 5 of my favorite of King’s horror novels. Not sure why some believe that the 1st-person-to-third-and-back is any kind of detriment. It adds texture, in my opinion, to the overall fulsomeness of the novel.
I love this book. In my top three along with Pet Sematary and Cujo. I avoided it because of the bad reviews so didn’t read until I was in my 30s. It’s a hard driving scary story and quite masterful.
Never realized Christine got bad reviews. It’s easily in my Top 10 and possible top 5 all time for the master… SK is truly at his best when writing about teenagers (and preteens…. IT and The Body are absolute masterpieces…). I’ve never understood just why that car is one of the scariest antagonists King has ever placed in a novel, but that Plymouth Fury has kept me up many nights when I’m reading that book. I’ve read Christine 4 times in my life and the most recent reading was at least as horrifying as the previous three….
I have always loved that book!
Loved this essay, Bev! I’m currently reading this book for the very first time.
Keep bringing us more Bev! We love it!!!
It is important that all of our young fans do research and watch some Creepshow episodes to get a feel for what was going on at the time and how horror was evolving. One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits, The Invaders, The Prisoner, Route 66 were all TV shows that brought out tremendous emotion and feeling from their viewers. Christine is a Masterpiece. Professor King hit it perfectly. Your essay is just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you Professor Vincent for bringing those great memories back and sharing them with the new generation of thinkers, poets, and educators. Never stop Rocking!
Great essay Bev. You have brought back so many memories today. I loved it, and I loved the book!
I fell in love with this book as a teenager; it speaks to the teenage mind. When I reread ‘Christine’ a few years ago as a more discerning adult, however, I could better understand where the critics were coming from. The middle section of the book seemed self-indulgent to me and the ‘evil attracts evil’ theme (which King had already used in ‘Salem’s Lot’) over-complicated the haunted car concept. It’s a good book, but nowhere near the caliber of ‘The Shining’ or ‘The Dead Zone’.
Baby, you can drive my car.
Guess I’m gonna be a star.
Beep! Beep! Yay!
Well, mark me down as one of those people. I like Christine well enough for the character stuff but the evil car possessed thing never revved up my engine.
Maximum Overdrive/Trucks was a much more entertaining romp for me.
It’s somewhere in the middle of my fav King books.
I loved and reread CHRISTINE many times as a young teenager in the mid 1980s! However, upon reading it as a more, er, seasoned reader just a couple years ago, I found the novel lacking: overstuffed, cliched, sometimes trite and obvious, while the backstory of Roland LeBay just wasn’t as evil as I’d remembered (the scene in which his corpse is Arnie’s co-pilot just made me think of a kinda similar scene from PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES!). Although this time I actually knew most of the classic rock’n’roll songs King quoted from (the copyrights to which cost the publisher some serious change)!
It was King who had to pay for the right to use those lyrics, not the publisher.
There ya go! Just the kinda thing I need to know.