Christine: Horror on wheels

Christine's logo plate suggests speeding car
The hood ornament is a human skull

The eponymous character of Stephen King’s 1983 bestseller, Christine, is a 1958 Plymouth who will be responsible for 10 murders before the novel ends.

In 1978 in a town outside Pittsburgh, Arnie Cunningham—a smart kid with pimples and a passion for auto mechanics which his college professor parents reluctantly tolerate—sees a car he is determined to have.

The car, in his best friend’s opinion, is a pile of junk, and the guy selling her, Roland LeBay, is no better.

From the day he makes his down payment, Arnie’s obsession with Christine alienates him from his family and his only real friend, Dennis, the story’s narrator.

Dennis begins to notice odd things. He suspects Arnie is in some kind of trouble, what kind he doesn’t know.

King’s characters are ordinary people who for the most part do predictably ordinary things, which makes the dark forces that seep out of his pages seem especially sinister.

King has a special knack for depicting ’60s and ’70s teens: Their slang, snacks, school life, teachers all are spot on.

If you don’t care for King’s sinister side, you could read the novel as an inquiry into the century-old question: What is it with guys and their cars anyway?

Stephen King sits atop a car like Christine in photo of back dust jacket of Christine.

Christine by Stephen King
Viking Press. ©1983. 526 p.
1983 bestseller #5. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Pet Sematary explores attitudes toward death

Snarling cat below a dark picture of man holding a body in a cemetery.
Above and behind the cat face, a man holds a human body

Although Stephen King is associated with supernatural horror stories, in my opinion King’s really frightening stories are those in which the action centers around people’s all-too-human characteristics.

Pet Sematary is one of those stories.

The story opens with the arrival of Louis Creed and his family in the small community of Ludlow, Maine.

Creed, a medical doctor, has been hired to run the University of Maine student health program. Wife Rachel will have her hands full at home: Gage is still in diapers, Ellie will begin kindergarten in a few weeks, and Ellie’s cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill) has yowled nonstop the entire three-day car trip from Chicago.

The Creeds get a warm welcome from their elderly neighbors across Route 15, Jed and Norma Crandall.

Jed takes the family on a hike up a path on their property. It leads to pet burial ground created years before by local kids—they named it “Pet Sematary”—and still maintained by them.

Rachel’s reaction is bizarre: She doesn’t want her children to even hear the word death.

In the rest of the novel, King explores attitudes toward death.

And horrible things happen because of human weakness.

That’s what’s most frightening.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Doubleday. [Book Club ed.] ©1983. 374 p.
1983 bestseller #3. My grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Different Seasons: 4 novellas

If you think Stephen King is a one-track writer, the four novellas in Different Seasons will change your mind. Each of them deserves a review of its own.

To package the four novellas in a single cover, the stories are linked by what might be thought of as chapter headers that play off the names of the seasons.

A circle divided into quarters, each quarter containing an icon for one of the seasons
Mysterious, almost romantic images

“Hope Springs Eternal” is the chapter heading for Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a story about a man unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit and his eventual escape.

Many readers will recognize it from the 1994 film version, Shawshank Redemption.

“Summer of Corruption” is the header for Apt Pupil, a horrific tale about a 13-year-old who becomes fascinated by World War II concentration camps. One day Todd sees a old man who resembles an SS officer who ran one of the camps and pays him a visit.

Cover art on black background is a circle split into quarters containing icons for the seasons.“Fall from Innocence” is the header for The Body, a story in which four young boys go to see the body of a boy their own age who’d been reported missing in the Maine woods.

“A Winter’s Tale” is the header for The Breathing Method, a story told by a doctor about an unwed woman determined to have her baby.

Different Seasons by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1982. 527 p.
1982 bestseller #7. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Cujo: A shaggy dog story gone bad

The front dust jacket of Stephen King’s Cujo puts the story in one image: It’s about a vicious dog.

Cujo cover features a snarling, slobbering rabid dog
Where’s Atticus Finch when you need him?

At nearly 200-pounds, Cujo, a Saint Bernard, is a gentle giant.

Out chasing a rabbit, Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat. The rabies virus turns Cujo into a killer.

King pads his page count with some subplots , all of which are resolved by the dog’s death.

King has one subplot about four-year-old boy who sees monsters in his closet. Tad’s terror is so real that his father starts imagining he see things in the closet, too.

That’s scary.

Tad’s mother, afraid of losing her youth in backwoods Maine, has had a brief fling with a transient poet/cabinet maker. When she breaks it off, he sends her husband a letter about her infidelity, then trashes her home.

The poet/cabinet maker is scary.

Cujo’s owner, 10-year-old Brett Chamber, and his mother are away visiting her sister. Charity Camber is debating whether to divorce her husband. Joe Chamber is as nasty a redneck as ever beat a wife.

Joe Chamber is scary.

On the whole, I found the men in the novel far more frightening than the dog.

Maybe you just had to be there.

Cujo by Stephen King
Viking Press. 1981. 319 p.
1981 bestseller #3. My grade: C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Firestarter is a nonstarter

.Firestarter cover: gold type on basic black.
This copy of Firestarter had no dust jacket.

On the opening page of Stephen King’s Firestarter,  Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie, 7, are rushing up Third Avenue in New York City at 5:30 p.m.

A green car is following them.

Andy grabs a cab, tells the driver he’ll give him $500 to take them to Albany airport. Andy gives him a dollar, which the cabby accepts as a $500 bill, and they’re off.

The pair have escaped for the time being.

Unlike King’s 1979 bestseller The Dead Zone, which develops from a single premise that readers must take on faith, Firestarter requires readers to accept a whole series of assertions each of which requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

 Girl's haunting eyes seen behind a flame of fire.
Dust jacket that was missing from my copy of Firestarter

Readers learn, for example, that Andy and his wife developed psychic powers after participating in a government-funded test of a hallucinogenic drug while they were college students.

From infancy, Charlie displayed pyrokinetic* power.

The government is now after Charlie.

The feds apparently want to use her instead of nuclear weapons.

Charlie, apart from her psychic powers, acts more like of 21 than a child of 7.

All those elements strain credulity.

But mainly I can’t believe a New York cabbie mistaking a $1 bill for a $500 bill under any amount of psychic push.

Firestarter by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1980. 428 p.
1980 bestseller #5. My grade: B-

*Stephen King coined the word pyrokenetic.

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Dead Zone is superb storytelling

Cover of "The Dead Zone" features photo of man's face partially concealed by a wheel of fortune.
The wheel of fortune sets the novel’s action rolling.

Stephen King begins The Dead Zone with a very ordinary American boy, Johnny Smith, in a small New England town.

Johnny is learning to ice skate in 1953 when he falls, knocking himself out.

Johnny comes to muttering, “Don’t jump it no more” to Chuck Spier, who the next month will lose an eye jump-starting his car.

Years later, Johnny is a high school teacher.

An accident on the way home from taking his girl to a carnival puts Johnny in a coma for four-and-a-half years.

When he awakens, he has months of excruciating physical therapy.

He also has occasional, intense, and unwelcome psychic perceptions.

Johnny unwittingly becomes a target of gullible people seeking answers.

He also becomes the target of skeptics who assume he’s a shyster out to bilk the public.

His teaching contract is withdrawn because he’s too controversial.

His widowed father, who should be retired, has to go back to work just to feed them.

Then one day Johnny shakes hands with a congressional candidate and sees the man’s evil agenda.

Even if you can’t believe a crack on the head in ’53 triggers psychic experiences, you have to admire the skill with which King builds his story.

This is superb storytelling.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1979. 372 p.
1979 bestseller #6 My grade: B+