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Brian J. W. Lee is a writer. When he's not writing, he's plotting to plunge the world in a deep chasm of terror, darkness and screams. Sorry, did I get carried away?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Brian Reviews #2: From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Disclaimer: There's going to be a whole glut of spoilers. You have been warned!

It's a Stephen King book, so of course the car's gonna eat cha!

Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

The first time I heard about this book wasn't quite of an auditory nature at all. I found it nestling deep in Stephen King's bibliography. For many years, it lingered, despite my near-ignorance to its contents. See, I saw the synopsis, and thought it was great - a Stephen King book, that of course, would never fail to impress.

It'd been something like 5 years before I finally got around to purchasing it through a homegrown online mega-bookstore, opentrolley.com.sg. It'd been one of my Stephen King moments. I bought three books in a bundle, and this is the first book of the three that I read, owing to its history with me.

Needless to say, I am slightly disappointed. But it isn't an entirely wasted effort. The potential is there, and I believe Stephen King did his best with it. Only problem is, he couldn't quite see it through to the end.

The specific book cover I had received, which is exactly like the one above, tells me everything I need to know. It's about a car, and in retrospect, it's about a young man who'd lost his father to the Buick (notice it behind the shadowy figure?). But scratch that bit about losing the father to the Buick though, because that's not quite what happened, but that's the impression.

So the packaging is good, now let's move on the to meaty bits of this guy. Let's dissect him, shall we!?

The novel starts with the death of Curtis Wilcox (nice name, by the way, he's the kind of state trooper who will comply, I bet), and his son visiting the barracks of a Pennsylvanian State Trooper unit as a way to grieve his loss. That's how it begins. I think the initial chapters hooked me well and good, I continued reading with no difficulty from there.

And from thereon, the novel sure took a ride to the top of the bell curve (with the Buick, hee-hee). The overall frame structure of the novel is amazing. With a frame story set in the present, encapsulating a series of accounts from members of the State Troopers, the form of the story never fails to satisfy. It shakes things up with different personalities and backstory each time as the story shifts perspectives.

That said, the characters, as is usual of Stephen King, who have been said to be the Charles Dickens of the 21st century, are very, very well defined. They are life-like, larger than life even. But they are written to be human, very believable.

Each character, even the minor ones, have a detailed backstory of their own, and most of the time, the story doesn't use an info-dump to flesh them out. That's some premium writing right there - good writing isn't just about putting intricate descriptions on a page, as much as physically and literately possible, it's also about engaging the reader's imagination, and getting them to fill in the blanks frequently. Even the local janitor, gas pump attendant and punk-girl, minor characters all, are better defined than some main characters I've seen elsewere. They are amazingly described right down to their personal twitches and secrets - good stuff. A lesson to all writers, no doubt.

Then there's the main antagonist itself, the titular Buick 8, and the creatures that emerge from it. Despite being a car (at least as it appears to the characters) and sitting around in a garage most of the time, its presence is felt, and the threat it presents is constant. The frequent descent into the uncanny valley that both the Buick and the creatures, from the 'man' who apparently drives it into our world to even the leaves, 'bird' and finally, the three-handed 'alien', are quite effective, putting me on the edge of my seat.

But it is from the near-mid-point of the novel that this book starts slipping off the bell curve, said creatures notwithstanding. It's where the novel's strength turns into its weakness. Basically, it's as if he's missing a few tools in his literary toolbox, and he kept using the same ones over and over. When first used, his tropes of an unknown horror from a neighbouring dimension works, but then he kept doing it over and over. Even as he fleshes it out, and made the consequences of inter-dimensional visitation felt, it eventually got old. This is only revitalised slightly at the end of the novel, when something more substantial came through the Buick, and we get a glimpse of the other side.

That said, there's a sense of 'antagonistic threat elitism' going on in the novel. Only the Buick itself was dangerous. Sure, the King threw a bat-thing and some leaves at us to scare us with the potential of great hazard for our beloved Troopers, but he didn't quite follow it up with any real danger. The final (barely) humanoid being that came through the Buick-portal device is supposed to be it, but it is emphasised that it is just as afraid of people as the people are afraid of it, maybe more so since it is outnumbered. It tried to run, and killed a dog by accident. I know what Stephen King is trying to do here, but it doesn't quite work out in terms of the horror part of the book, in the terms of the cosmic horror he's trying to evoke.

That said, remember when I say that Stephen King is regarded as this century's Charles Dickens? Yeah, I think that part of his writing kind of overshadowed the darker half of the novel, and when two parts of a novel clashes to gain the attention of the reader, the result isn't quite pretty. This time, as it usually happens, there's only one victor, and I think it's the Charles Dickenesque portrayal of the Pennsylvanian State Troopers that won out. It feels as if the horror aspect was just thrown in there to shake things up. And when it's done so blatantly, it loses much of its effect after the shock.

All in all, it's still enjoyable for what it is. Just that the horror in this book has been shooed off by the ghost of Charles Dickens.

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