Stephen King’s Killer Cars

From CHRISTINE to MR. MERCEDES, Stephen King's had a longstanding infatuation with vehicular manslaughter.

Like vampirism, evil kids, addiction and boners, cars pop up on the regular in the work of Stephen King. They're central to his short stories (Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, Trucks), integral his novels (Mr. Mercedes, Cujo, From A Buick 8), and have even made the jump to film on a few occasions (Christine, Maximum Overdrive). Hell, one of them even came very close to ending King's life back in 1999 (Reckless Minivan). Once you start looking for a sinister vehicular presence in King's life and work, the goddamn things are everywhere...but I think three stand out as more memorable than the rest.

In Christine, the car in question's a 1958 Plymouth Fury. After being purchased by one Arnold "Arnie" Cunningham, the Plymouth begins to impact this nerdy teenager's life in a number of ways, some of them positive, some of them negative. One the one hand, owning Christine makes Arnie cooler: he's inspired to overhaul his outward appearance, to quit being such a pusharound. It even allows him to score a date with the purtiest girl in school. On the other hand, Arnie becomes a temperamental asshole, and his infatuation with the car destroys his relationships with his family, friends and his newly-acquired girlfriend.

Of course, Arnie's car also kills more than a few people. In both the novel and John Carpenter's 1983 adaptation, Christine is possessed by the vengeful spirit of its former owner, a dude by the name of Roland LeBay. Arnie's recently possessed ride has the ability to repair itself on the fly, drive itself anywhere it wants to go (including through walls and directly over your screaming body), and ultimately proves to be unkillable. There's a heavy supernatural element to Christine, in other words, and taken at face value that's exactly what Christine is: a killer car story. But King's also using the car symbolically. Arnie's purchase and restoration of that 1958 Plymouth marks his movement from adolescence to manhood (a young man's two most formative experiences: buying his first car and getting laid), while also serving as a nod to classic Americana, one of the most oft-revisited elements of King's work (ask a "Constant Reader" how often diners, rock 'n' roll and Pepsi make appearances in King's oeuvre).

 

King also likes to play with the idea of cars as "modes of transportation." We build cars to take us from A to B, but in a number of instances, King uses cars to transport characters from A to X. In Riding The Bullet, college student Alan Parker is forced to hitchhike home from school after his mother has a stroke, and ends up riding in a literal ghost car. In Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, a woman with a passion for finding the quickest route between two points discovers a way to use her car to fold reality like a map: she drives out of our world and through another, arriving quickly and shaving years off her age in the process.

The Queen Mother of Stephen King "Transportation" tales, however, has to be From A Buick 8. In that novel, a bizarre traveler (Dark Tower fans will instantly recognize the dude as one of the Crimson King's "Low Men") abandons his 1953 Buick Roadmaster - or something that looks very much like a 1953 Buick Roadmaster - at a roadside gas station in western Pennsylvania. Once recovered by the local highway patrol unit ("Troop D"), the Buick's stored in a shed, where it begins to exhibit strange behavior. It unleashes silent blasts of purple light. Its trunk opens up and spews out alien creatures. People start to go missing. Ultimately it's revealed that the car is actually a portal of sorts, a conduit that pulls people (and things!) in between our world and the next, seemingly at random. Eventually, the Buick's shenanigans peter out, but the troopers who've spent years hovering around the thing never get any closer to figuring out where it came from or why it was left here. In the end, it's as fundamentally inexplicable as it was on the day it rolled into the Troop D shed.

 

It's also interesting that Stephen King's first and only directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive, revolves around vehicular manslaughter. After a mysterious comet passes the Earth, all previously inanimate manmade objects - toasters, lawnmowers, arcade cabinets, ATM machines, what have you - spring to life and start wrecking havoc on humanity. This proves especially problematic for the motley crew of ne'er-do-wells inside the Dixie Boy truck stop: they're surrounded by homicidal 18-wheelers, and are forced to band together to take out the vehicles one by one. Luckily, they have a cache of automatic weapons and Emilio Estevez on their side.

Maximum Overdrive is based on the short story Trucks, from King's Night Shift, and it's just as terrible as its reputation suggests. The staging is awful, the actors mostly perform their lines in a full shout and, contrary to promises made during the film's marketing campaign, it isn't even remotely frightening (if anything, it's goofy). But if we're going to give credit where credit's due, we have to give a shout-out to the film's primary antagonist, a big rig with a Green Goblin mask affixed to its grill. Shit's iconic. Iconic for the wrong reasons, perhaps, but let's not get hung up on the negative. It's a bananas design choice, but one that's instantly recognizable to any horror geek worth their salt. I don't like Maximum Overdrive (say sorry, Sai King), but I'd be lying if I said I didn't like the Goblin.

 

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg; there's plenty more car-related hijinks in Stephen King's work (we haven't even touched on the truck that runs down Gage Creed in Pet Sematary, the Ford Pinto that serves as the main setting for Cujo or King's most recent murder-by-car novel, Mr. Mercedes), but we'd be here through next week if we tried to catalogue 'em all. These are, instead, the examples I'd consider the most iconic, the most memorable or "classic." But what say you, my fellow King nerds? Which rides deserve to join Christine, the Buick Roadmaster and the Green Goblin as King's most memorable killer cars?

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