Pocket, 2003 reprint of 2002 original, 487 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-1768-2
At this stage of his career, Stephen King can take risks that a younger writer wouldn’t dare. Risks like a novel that consciously withholds complete satisfaction from the reader, wrapping everything in a preachy blanket of “there are strange things we’re not meant to understand”. No, I’m not talking about The Colorado Kid, but From a Buick 8, an uncanny novel that does things in ways few genre readers would expect.
Which is just as well, because a very superficial look at the novel immediately summons memories of another King novel: his Christine is the first example that comes to mind whenever talking about “evil car horror novels” for instance. But the similarities end there: In From a Buick 8, things are far more complicated than just a car haunted by evil spirits.
After all, it’s not even a car. When Pennsylvania State Troopers are called to a gas station to pick up an abandoned vehicle, they quickly find out that the object that looks like a Buick Roadmaster really isn’t: Not only do the details don’t match (extra decoration elements, oversized wheel, etc.) but the car won’t even move by itself. Never mind how it got there, or where its driver has gone: Soon enough, the Troopers discover that the materials used to build the car are quite unlike anything they know, and that the car self-repairs when damaged.
But wait: it gets worse. Periodically, the car starts bending reality. Temperatures next to it drop by several degrees and the inside of the car lights up with eerie electrical light. Soon after those events, things either disappear or appear next to the car. One trooper goes missing. Repulsive plants and animals pop up next to the car. Faced with such phenomenon, the troopers safely shutter the car in a shed. Years pass.
Don’t expect a tidy chronological third-person telling of the tale. From a Buick 8, also much like The Colorado Kid, is a novel in which a younger protagonist is told things by older, wiser people who have seen it all happen. In this case, a young teenager, whose recently-killed father knew the secrets of the Buick, prods and asks his father’s colleagues about the car he discovers hanging around the barracks. Their tale goes from 1979 to the early years of the new century, in bits and pieces given how they don’t want to acknowledge all at once the piece of pure strangeness in the back shed. The narration is one filled with regional expressions, jaded details, blue-collar vocabulary and homespun turns of phrase. The teenager wants to know everything as soon as possible, and have it make sense, whereas the older folks know that it’s impossible: The car has been in their lives for decades, and it’s unexplainable as far as they know.
In many ways, it’s a novel about storytelling and how it’s neater than messy reality. The Buick becomes an irrational part of the characters’ lives, to be locked somewhere in a shed and occasionally confronted as it takes out another piece away from their orderly reality, or spits out something that has no right to exist. It’s not a scary novel as much as it’s a quietly terrifying one as the characters come to terms with something that will never be explained. In that regard as well, it’s a precursor to the dirty trick that King would spring on readers with The Colorado Kid, presenting them with a tantalizing mystery that the author refuses to solve.
Yet From a Buick 8 is somewhat friendlier to genre readers than The Colorado Kid in that it does feature a decent amount of chills and thrills even before the conclusion, and that it does offer enough of an explanation and a conclusion to mollify most readers. The central mystery itself remains, but most of the smaller details are tied together in a final vision, and the epilogue offers a surprisingly reassuring way out of the strangeness.
It amounts to a strange and uncanny novel that works in ways that horror novels usually don’t. It’s a pleasure to read thanks to the narration and the accumulation of details about the life of state troopers, but it does eventually leads somewhere with its steady freak show of small-scale terror. The framing device works in large part because the conclusion jumps out of the frame and starts messing with the people telling the story. Writers will recognize the risks taken by King here, but readers should feel blessed to be in the hands of such a good storyteller. From a Buick 8 is not your average horror novel, and it’s all the better for it.