Revisiting Christine by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN… & THIS IS NOW…
Something a little different this time around.
Peter Crowther, head honcho of the magnificent PS Publishing – look em up on the internet, folks; you’ll thank me later – was kind enough a couple years ago to ask me to write the Afterword for his special anniversary edition of Stephen King’s Christine.
I was flattered and thrilled—and scared to death.
But, of course, I said yes.
I’ve decided to reprint my Afterword here in its entirely. Not because I’m being lazy, but because it covers my reading experiences regarding Christine in significant detail—and brutally-honest emotion.
(Okay, maybe I’m being just a tiny bit lazy—but I really like how the Afterword turned out, and I’m doubtful I could improve on it very much in a new essay).
I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Like many longtime readers, I can chart the course of my life by when and where I read most of Stephen King’s books. Bag of Bones was sitting by a friend’s hospital bed every day for a week. Insomnia while laying in a hospital bed myself. Black House in a three-day frenzy at the beach after a surprise phone call from Akiva Goldsman asking me to help adapt the novel into a screenplay. And IT, as a college junior, the week after I walked away from a collegiate lacrosse career that I believed at the time defined me as a human being. In that regard, IT may have just saved the life of a very lost and very confused young man. At the very least, it carved the path for my writing and editing career and gave me something to dream about again.
Pretty much all of Steve’s books are like that for me. Personal. Meaningful. Special. Most of the early ones seemed to magically come along at just the right time for me. I’ve listened to many other readers, writers, and editors tell me the same thing about Steve’s books and their own lives.
And then there is Christine…
Originally published in hardcover in the Spring of 1983, I was just about to graduate from high school and my world consisted of sports, girls, and friends. Not necessarily in that order.
In other words, I was the exact same age as Arnie, Dennis, and Leigh, the main characters of the novel. I was closer to Dennis than Arnie, thanks to my position on a State Championship lacrosse team, but there was plenty of Arnie in me, too. I never went anywhere without a book in my hand or backpack. I was a pretty quiet guy. I liked girls, but was usually shy around them. I didn’t suffer from acne as Arnie did, thank God, and I didn’t share his passion in old cars, despite the fact that my father practically lived in the garage tinkering with our family cars. But my point is…I knew these three characters. Just as I knew the Buddy Repperton’s of the school and neighborhood. Intimately. Parts of them were either inside myself, or inside the friends and classmates I walked the halls with each and every day at Edgewood High School.
I remember reading Christine over the course of about two weeks. Not real fast, but as I mentioned earlier, I was pretty busy with sports and friends and girls. I remember loving the book, being scared by the book, and most of all feeling sad because of the book. Why? Because there was so much truth in the book.
I think that’s the main reason why most of Steve’s stories are so memorable. Whether it’s a flat-out scare-the-shit-outta-you horror story (Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining) or a story that tiptoes more on the mainstream (The Body, Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), there is always truth inside his words and characters. That’s why they live.
For me, Christine is probably the most melancholy of all of Steve’s novels, especially those last 50 pages or so (with The Dead Zone and a couple others nipping right at its heels). Sure, for some people, it’s about a haunted car and a loser and his controlling mom and pretty girlfriend. But for me, it’s a story about growing up and how you do it alone no matter how close you are to your parents and your best friend, and a story about letting go…of your youth and innocence, the pedestal some of us—if we are lucky—put our parents upon, and maybe hardest of all, letting go of some of our friendships that we believed would last forever. I know that is what reached the deepest inside me at the time. You see, I had best friends like Arnie in my own life at age 17, and it was just occurring to me—even as I was reading Steve’s novel—that as each day of that Spring was passing, those friends and I were growing further and further apart. And there was nothing I could do to stop it from happening. It was…life.
There is a passage very late in the book that I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I first read it. It broke my heart then, and it breaks my heart now.
So that’s my story. Except for the dreams.
I’m four years older, and Arnie’s face has grown hazy to me, a browning photograph from an old yearbook. I never would have believed that could happen, but it has. I made it through, made the transition from adolescence to manhood—whatever that is—somehow; I’ve got a college degree on which the ink is almost dry, and I’ve been teaching junior high history. I started last year, and two of my original students—Buddy Repperton types, both of them—were older than I was. I’m single, but there are a few interesting ladies in my life, and I hardly ever think of Arnie at all.
Except in the dreams.
It broke my heart because it was going to happen to me, too. It already was. And, man, it hurt.
I look back now, some 30 years later, and I can still remember their names. The friends of my childhood. Some I still see on a regular basis, and I am beyond grateful for that. Some are the occasional text or email. Some are no longer living. And some of their faces are lost to me forever, just as Arnie’s face was lost to Dennis.
But you know what? I can still see and hear and feel Arnie and Dennis and Leigh. Right now today. Right here today. That is the gift of a special story. That is the magic of a special story.
I’m grateful to Steve for writing Christine and to Pete Crowther for asking me to write this Afterword. It hurt to remember. And it hurt a little to write this. But it was worth it.
March 3, 2013
* * *
There are an awful lot of moments in Christine that could be spotlighted here, but for me it’s the nightmarish drive home on New Year’s Eve (Chapter 45) that takes the ribbon:
There is no way to be objective about it; just sitting here and trying is enough to make me feel cold and hot at the same time, feverish and ill. There is no way to separate what was real and what my mind might have manufactured; no dividing line between objective and subjective, between the truth and horrified hallucination. But it wasn’t drunkenness; if I can assure you of nothing else, I can assure you of that. Any mild high I retained from the beer evaporated immediately. What followed was a cold-sober tour of the damned.
We went back in time, for one thing.
For a while Arnie wasn’t driving at all; it was LeBay, rotting and stinking of the grave, half skeleton and half rotting, spongy flesh, greenly corroded buttons. Maggots squirmed their sluggish way up from his collar. I could hear a low buzzing sound and thought at first it was a short circuit in one of the dashboard lights. It was only later that I began to think it might have been the sound of flies hatching in his flesh. Of course it was wintertime, but—
At times, there seemed to be other people in the car with us. Once I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a wax dummy of a woman staring at me with the bright and sparkling eyes of a stuffed trophy. Her hair was done in a 50s pageboy style. Her cheeks appeared to be wildly rouged, and I remembered that carbon monoxide poisoning was supposed to give the illusion of life and high color. Later, I glanced into the mirror again and seemed to see a little girl back there, her face blackened with strangulation, her eyes popping like those of some cruelly stuffed animal. I shut my eyes tight and when I opened them it was Buddy Reperton and Richie Trelawney in the rearview mirror. Crusted blood had dried on Buddy’s mouth, chin, neck, and shirt. Richie was a roasted hulk—but his eyes were alive and aware.
I closed my eyes once more. And after that, I didn’t look into the rearview anymore.
I remember rock and roll on the radio: Dion and the Belmonts, Ernie K-Doe, the Royal Teens…
I remember that for a while red Styrofoam dice seemed to be hanging from the rearview mirror, then for a while there were baby shoes, and then there was neither one.
Most of all I remember seizing the idea that these things, like the smell of rotting flesh and moldy upholstery, were only in my mind—that they were no more than the mirages that haunt the consciousness of an opium-eater.
There’s more, but you get the picture. That right there is nightmare country, people—and this scene haunted my dreams for many long nights.
I’m betting I’m in the minority here, but I really like the opening chapter when Arnie first stumbles upon Christine in LeBay’s weed-choked front yard. Yes, this chance encounter—okay, maybe not so chance—sets the table for all the tragedy to come, but at least we get to see Arnie excited and happy; something rarely glimpsed for the rest of the novel.
Close second goes to Chapter 12 (“Some Family History”). Fascinating and creepy as hell—and something that could have only come from the mind of Stephen King.
He was a loser, you know. Every high school has to have at least two; it’s like a national law.
Okay, technically, that’s two lines. But they’re my favorites, and I think they perfectly illustrate why King is as popular as he is. He finds just the right words for what so many of us are thinking or have thought at various times in our lives; it’s almost as if he is reading our minds.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Chapter 34 (“Leigh and Christine”), otherwise known—to me, at least—as the choking scene. When Leigh takes that fateful bite of hamburger and the hitchhiker is forced to step in and save her, all hell breaks loose between Leigh and Arnie. Harsh words are spoken, definitive sides are chosen—and nothing is ever the same between Arnie and Leigh again.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Dennis Guilder, although I’m not so sure I would enjoy finding out the answer.
After all, as Dennis himself wonders at the close of the novel (after reading in the newspaper about Sandy Galton’s mysterious death in California):
Of course it’s impossible, but it was all impossible to start with.
I keep thinking of George LeBay in Ohio.
His sister in Colorado.
Leigh in New Mexico.
What if it’s started again?
What if it’s working its way east, finishing the job?
Saving me for last.
His single-minded purpose.
His unending fury.
START DATE – October 2, 2015
FINISH DATE – October 23, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Great post. I’ve always said SK is at his best writing about teens and preteens. I picked up Different seasons in 1984 and then devoured everything he’d written up to that point. I was a bit young to truly appreciate the late high school life situations at the time, but upon rereading (5x and counting, now) it makes me more nostalgic than any other King book. Definitely in my top 10 SK novels, probably top 5. Thanks, Richard. I am really enjoying this whole process.
I got into Stephen King when I was in high school. I read Salem’s Lot and it scared the heck out of me and I was hooked.
Hello Richard Chizmar,i Really Enjoy Your Great Posts and Your Reading Of and Giving Your Opinion and Views On Stephen Kings Books.”Thank You,and Keep Up The Great Work.” Steven. G.
Ive always loved the story of Christine but somewhere between my first read of the novel (20+ years ago) & watching the movie countless times it became muddled in my memory. I mean, why reread a story you already know so thoroughly, right?
Well, let me tell you…I am so glad that I did. My revisit to Christine was eye opening (THIS IS WHY I LOVE STEPHEN KING SO MUCH) & heart wrenching (DID THAT BABY REALLY JUST DIE BESIDE THE SIDE OF THE ROAD?) & terrifying (FIGHT THAT EVIL BITCH, ARNIE).
From start to finish I was hooked and read through it at a feverish pace and wallowed in the aftermath for days. This my friends, to me, means.. a terrific book & masterful storytelling. One of the best…ever.
Thanks go to the folks at Cemetery Dance for resparking my Desire & Love for Mr.King & his wonderful stories.
Long days & pleasant nights, Constant Readers!
Christine was my first “grown-up book” and it changed my life. I know that the term “changed my life” has been used a lot, especially since the movie Garden State, but it works perfectly here. The 1, 2 punch of falling in love with Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and then losing myself in Christine altered the trajectory of my life. Would not give those reading experiences up for all the money in the world. Priceless memories. 🙂
I loved Christine! Chilling story beautifully told…and so much better on paper than the movie version ever could be. I wrote to Mr King back in 1984 right after I had finished reading the book. I wrote to him regarding the abrupt change from Dennis as 1st person narrator to a 3rd person narration in chapter 28. Mr King wrote back explaining that it was not a publishing error..just a style choice he made…but I’ve always remained credulous 😉 Despite that..it remains one of my favorite SK novels.
Middle of the pack book for me. But that’s in an amazingly awesome stable of high breed books.
Wonderful job, Richard! I started reading SK right after high school. The car itself is what scared me. It was the way the music would always start up. And then, After each accident, the car would come back all shiny and new. Then there was Arnie and his evil grin. After each accident he was like the car was controlling his every action. Taking control of him mind and soul. I can still see that grin. Scary. Great book “Christine.” One of my all time favorites. I loved it. I am really enjoying this journey.
Christine is one of Kings’ early novels I haven’t read. I did see the movie and thought it was OK. Your descriptions of the story and characters make me want to go find my copy and add it to my pile books to read soon. I appreciate your work, Richard, and the role you play in bringing readers and writers together. Thank you.
Curt…the novel is 1000 times better than its movie adaptation.It is must read!
Christine was a book I always underestimated. So rather than a revisiting, this was the very first time I read the book and was I ever wrong about underestimating it. I never thought that the idea of a haunted car was a very scary idea or intriguing either, but I had tried reading this book a few times throughout the years and would always get around a hundred pages into it, or until Arnie finally finds a place to work on Christine, and then I would just put it down to go onto reading other things and I never picked it back up each time.
Not only did I underestimate this book, but I think it was one hell of a scary novel. Maybe even one of King’s scariest so far on the Revisited journey coming only second to Salem’s Lot. I think it straight up terrified me so much because I let my guard down not thinking it would scare me, and then it did many times. One of my favorite scenes in the book (and there are many) was when Arnie finds out that Leigh is having an affair with his best friend Dennis and he gets back into Christine shouting at them that they deserve each other and that they are both going to pay and then Leigh and Dennis see that Arnie is no longer Arnie behind the wheel, but instead they see the skeleton of the dead Roland Lebay. Man, that was creepy!
This book is also a very sad one. I kept hoping that Arnie would find a way to snap out of it and get out of Christine and Lebay’s clinches, but it never happened and the book came to a very sad conclusion with not only Arnie dying, but his parents as well. But as depressing as it turned out for them, I still love this book and was sorry that I had not read it sooner.