In my rural public school, 7th-12th grade students used the same library. So in 2007, at 12 years old, I checked out my first book from the high school library. It was THE REGULATORS by Richard Bachman, and at the time I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was a library-bound copy of a worn-out paperback, and the cover was interesting but gave me very little to go off of. It wasn’t the name Bachman that had pulled me towards the story, at the time I had no idea who, or what, Richard Bachman was, but instead, the title. At the time, I knew the word regulators in reference to the western film YOUNG GUNS, and assumed that the story must have some connection to that idea.
Instead, what waited for me was a wild book about death, unknowable terror, small town darkness, and incredible violence. Within the first chapter of REGULATORS, there is an explicit description of a teenage boy's early encounter with wet dreams. By the end of the book so much horror and death has been doled out that the REGULATORS/DESPERATION duology (which at the time I didn’t know was a thing), is often considered some of King’s most depraved work. It was the first real novel that I read, and the first one that I fell in love with. I reread it, even lingering, in a way preteens seldom do, to read the author’s note. Which, of course, is where I found out that Richard Bachman was really Stephen King. And that changed things.
My library had no other novels by Richard Bachman, I had asked three times to be sure, but they had a LOT of King. I was already familiar with him because of my father’s love for both MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and the CHRISTINE movie (our mutual love for cars will become very relevant, very soon), and that familiar name pushed me straight to the K’s during my next visit. I devoured CHRISTINE, IT, MISERY, and a half dozen more all throughout my seventh grade year. By halfway through eighth I had read everything by King in my school library, but that was fine. I reread books with an abandon only teenagers are truly capable of. Before I understood what had happened, I became a Constant Reader.
That moment, when I picked up THE REGULATORS, shaped me in more ways than one. It made me a fan of horror. It made me a lifelong Constant Reader. It made me love books in a way I can never love any other medium. I read REGULATORS before I read Goosebumps. Before I read Harry Potter. For me, it all started with King. So that’s what’s brought me here. This series will be a book by book read through of Stephen King’s entire bibliography, starting with 2002’s FROM A BUICK 8.
But there’s a bit of housekeeping, ya ken?
A Handful of Notes on Format:
1. This is not a spoiler-free review. If you made it this far, but don’t want to spoil FROM A BUICK 8 for yourself, I appreciate your time.
2. I am making the assumption that you, the reader, have come to this with some knowledge of King’s universe. Throughout this series there will be many references to other works, especially THE DARK TOWER, with no explanation.
3. This is not a rated review. As my nostalgic glance back at my preteen horror awakening shows, Stephen King is not an author about whom I have the ability to remain objective. This will not be an unbiased review where I criticize points of the book and then give it a 3.5/5. This is an essay on FROM A BUICK 8 written by a man who is blindly in love with anything King writes. Assume I give any King book a 5/5 unless I note otherwise, which will not be often, and certainly not here.
Anyway, let's move on along this long road. There’s a lot of ground to cover.
“It's funny how close the past is, sometimes. Sometimes it seems as if you could almost reach out and touch it. Only who really wants to?”
I suppose at first a central question must be addressed: Why start with FROM A BUICK 8? To me, that question elucidates most of my reasons on its own. I did not want to do this chronologically, because that encourages a look at King’s bibliography as a progression (which I do not agree with, as his writing and themes are mostly consistent throughout his career). I also did not want to do this in any kind of order connected to my own experience (such as starting with THE REGULATORS), because I felt that would force me to start each of these reviews with a long aside about my own personal connection. Nobody wants that, myself included. So instead, I decided to approach this series from the same way I view King’s body of work: frenetic, unusual, and unbeholden to how anyone else sees it.
FROM A BUICK 8 tells the story of Troop D of the Pennsylvania State Police and the story of the 1953 Buick Roadmaster they keep locked in a shed behind the station. The Buick, abandoned by a strange man at a gas station, turns out to be a little more than unusual. It doesn’t run, it doesn’t function as a normal car should, it doesn’t have all the parts it should. Its body style doesn’t look quite right, the toothy, personified grill of the car not even being from the correct year model. King’s love for old cars is in full force, with the lines of the Roadmaster described in intimate detail in a way that makes it clear that something is unsettling about Troop D’s Roadmaster. It looks right enough to seem like a Buick Roadmaster if seen from a distance, but when people get an up-close look, they all agree: Something isn’t right.
King explores the oddities of the Roadmaster with two alternating timelines. One focuses on troop commander Sandy Dearborn’s recollection of the troop’s time with the Roadmaster, and the other focused on Ned Wilcox, a young man working part time for the troop, and his growing obsession with the car in the present day. King paces the story in a way that forces the reader to sit in the same seat as Ned. With each shift back to the present day, the reader is left wanting more. They want to know what happened next, what horror the Buick unleashed on the troop, and more than anything they want to know where it is all headed. Ned facilitates this, vocalizing those emotions in a very personal way, all framed through the death of his father, Trooper Curtis Wilcox. Because, it turns out, Curtis was also obsessed with the Roadmaster.
This obsession, from Ned and Curtis as well as from the reader, comes from the fact that the Buick is, well, alive.
“It must have been around six o’ clock, while Sandy was parked around the side of Jimmy’s Diner on the old Statler Pike, drinking coffee and watching for speeders, that the Roadmaster gave birth for the first time.”
The Roadmaster stored in a shed behind Troop D’s barracks is not, it turns out, just a strange car left behind by a strange man. It is instead a living, breathing…something. King frames the Buick in the explicit literary language of Eldritch Horror. There are many instances of indescribable horrors (followed, as is tradition, by an immediate description of said horror), a lot of squelching, and plenty of things-that-aren’t-quite-things (lightning storms that aren’t lightning storms, flowers that aren’t flowers). The police officers exploring the Buick, both in past and present, are skeptical and analytical, with Curtis filling the traditional role of obsessed investigator determined to get to the bottom of the mystery no matter the cost. That cost, of course, being his life.
The Buick’s true horror is that it “gives birth” to more common-feeling eldritch horrors. Writhing masses of tentacles, strange bat-like eyeballs, and flowers that reek of death. All the while Curtis puts himself and his coworkers in mortal danger as he tries to discover the origins of both the Buick and its children. In the present-day timeline, the reader follows Ned on his own fast-tracked path towards obsession, fueled by a desire to understand what role the Roadmaster played in his father’s death. Buick 8 reaches its climax as, again in the tradition of eldritch fiction, Ned attempts to sacrifice his own life to do what he saw as his father’s failure: destroy the Buick. Sandy saves him, but it triggers a series of events that ends with the Buick’s purpose revealed: it is an extra dimensional portal to another world, its children really just travelers from some place very much unlike rural Pennsylvania.
As the book resolves, the fallout of the Roadmaster’s influence on Troop D is explored in a sort of meandering, matter of fact way. Ned becomes a trooper, because what else could he be? And at the end it is shown that the car, still resting in the shed out back, is beginning to age. It is beginning to die. And that’s where it ends. No exploration of the world on the other side. No decided conclusion about where the portal leads. No final total destruction of the Roadmaster. It just ends, the reader forced, just like Ned, to come to terms with the fact that some things are just never answered. No matter how badly you want them to be.
“Passion is the hardest taskmaster.”
FROM A BUICK 8 is a short book, one of King’s shortest full-length novels. Often the criticism it gets focuses on the ending. Sure, it isn’t necessarily the most climactic, satisfying ending, but here's the thing: If I decide to dive into the criticisms of each of his books, then the end of these essays are all going to be pretty similar. King isn’t known for writing great endings. To go into any King book expecting anything better than thematically sound is, quite frankly, a mistake. So I’m going to do it just this once and then never again. Perhaps that is my real purpose with choosing Buick 8 first, because I can use it as a vehicle to get this ending discussion out of the way. Mayhaps that be the truth, but who knows. Ka like a wind and all that.
Speaking of the Dark Tower, the book is layered with references and connections to the wider Tower universe, but exactly what those connections are is hard to explain. King is coy, refusing to give clear nods to anything unless he intends the connection to be explicit. It is likely that the stranger that abandons the Buick, who is described as pallid and strangely featured, is a Low Man, a type of creature that appears throughout the second half of the Tower and in 1999’s HEARTS IN ATLANTIS. Sandy Dearborn’s last name is a reference (or a connection, ya ken?) to Roland’s alias from WIZARD AND GLASS. There are mentions of Maturin, the great turtle (see his enormous girth!), and many others, but at the end of it they affect the story very little. Instead, the deepest connection to the tower is not so overt. It lies, of course, in the ending.
King has always been a writer focused on thematic motifs. For many years he dialed in on a lived-in, small-town aesthetic, at no point more prevalent than the many, many novels set in Castle Rock. He also has a penchant for the exploration of childhood trauma, something that persists well into today with novels like THE INSTITUTE and FAIRY TALE (may I reiterate again that the idea of classic and modern King is about as accurate as a two-dollar pistol). Despite all that, FROM A BUICK 8 shares its two biggest themes squarely with THE DARK TOWER, the final three books of which were released in the two years following Buick 8’s publication. Both works focus on the broad exploration of multiple universes and the necessary acceptance of the unsatisfying nature of reality.
FROM A BUICK 8 represents a story about multiple universes where nothing is known about the universe on the other side. It is not a thousand-page epic that transitions into a portal fantasy in the back half. It is not a sci-fi epic where the men of Troop D become explorers of a hostile and strange land. It is the story of a group of state troopers who are tasked with doing one thing: making sure the Roadmaster does not hurt anyone. Like the end of Roland’s story (oh do not worry, that time will come for us, but that is far, far down the road), the end of Buick 8 could never be satisfying. Sandy is not an explorer, he’s a lawman, and the story ends with his job still in progress. Ned’s curiosity is satisfied as much as it ever can be, with him accepting that he can never know where the portal leads. It ends in the way most of our lives will end. Suddenly, without notice, and with no interest in resolving the many mysteries we encountered therein. The story of FROM A BUICK 8 ends without a resolution beyond the simplest statements. A statement Curt Wilcox never truly accepted, but his son had to. A statement that I think is mandatory for any King reader to internalize. A feeling that encapsulates how well King understands his readers, but at the same time how little he cares about our wants and desires. The same story rests in Roland’s journey. The origin of It. The final battle in Vegas. It is something you, dear reader, need to understand if you are going to go on this journey with me.
What’s on the other end of that portal is none of your goddamn business.
Thanks for reading.