Loss and grief in a ghost story: Techniques used in 'From a Buick 8'
From a Buick 8 is a supernatural horror novel by Stephen King which deals with themes of loss and grief. After the death of his father, a state police officer in Western Pennsylvania, teenage Ned Wilcox volunteers at the Troop D barracks and comes across a mysterious vehicle stored in Shed B resembling a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, which the officers call “Buick 8.” In recanting the strange tale of Buick 8, the officers also share memories of Ned’s father who was one of the main caretakers of the bizarre entity. The narration style of From a Buick 8 is close to a traditional ghost story as it uses a group of people to tell an unsettling tale. In this form, Stephen King uses two writing devices successfully in the novel: multiple character point of views and flash backs. When dealing with themes of loss and grief, these two techniques mirror the way people may deal with these issues in real life, such as: listening to various people tell tales of the lost loved one and reliving those memories. Each chapter in the novel is titled with the narrator’s name and whether the story takes place “then” or “now.” Although this style may sound confusing, it is successful and endearing, since the characters are telling the stories to Ned, the grieving son of their fallen officer. With this “ghost story” style and flashback writing techniques, King effectively weaves a story not only about an unusual and dangerous artifact, but also about the life and relationships of a co-worker, friend, and father.
Sandy Dearborn, the commanding sergeant of Troop D, serves as the main narrator of the novel and is the person who decides to tell the story of Buick 8 to Ned. Sandy narrates most of the chapters, “then” and “now,” and enrolls the other officers to speak their share on the subject. Sandy’s voice is the most prominent in the novel. This is effective as figuratively (as the main narrator) and literally (as the sergeant) he is the leader. His role is reminiscent of fictional storytellers who, like Rod Serling’s unnamed narrator in The Twilight Zone, introduce the story and/or themes. “Curt Wilcox’s boy came around the barracks a lot the year after his father died, I mean a lot, but nobody ever told him get out the way or asked him what in hail he was doing there again. We understand what he was doing: trying to hold onto the memory of his father. Cops know a lot about the psychology of grief; most of us know more about it than we want to” (King 2002, 1). Having Sandy as the main narrator is a successful way to keep the other storytellers organized and gives a stable narrative foundation to the novel.
In the traditional “ghost story” style, other characters chime in to give their account of what happened, unfolding the bizarre tale of Buick 8. Shirley, the dispatcher, is one of the more vocal characters. While others at times hold back telling their stories, Shirley readily offers up her experiences. “I felt Huddie put his arm around me and I took his hand. I had to. I had to have something human to hold onto. The way Eddie tells it, the Buick’s first livebirth sounds too close to human: it had a mouth inside all those writhing pink things, it had a chest, it had something that served for eyes” (King 2002, 363). She does this as if she understands the stories about Buick 8 are also about Ned’s father. Shirley is sensitive to Ned’s situation and takes him under her wing, training him in dispatch and solidifying his presence at the barracks. Her part of the “ghost story” mirrors a real life role someone might play to the grief stricken: a caretaker.
As the other officers join the discussion and give their accounts, the story of Buick 8 grows, yet becomes more mysterious. Officer Eddie says, “It was better outside, so much better I almost felt, as I hurried along after George, that the whole thing in Shed B had been a dream. Surely there were no monsters with pink strings growing out of their heads and trunks with eyes in them and talons with hair growing out of them” (King 2002, 387). Much like trying to understand the loss of a loved one, sometimes talking the memories and feelings out don’t necessarily shed light on the situation, but complicate matters. This design rings true and works well for a supernatural horror novel.
Yet, reliving the memories is cathartic for many people. King’s use of flashbacks as entire chapters is helpful in narrating the past while intertwining them with the present. Whenever there is a time shift, the chapter will be labeled with the narrator’s name and whether the story is taking place “then” or “now.” Also, as it sometimes happens in real life, when someone is telling a story, another person may break in and continue the tale. When King uses this technique, the story blends together, but the reader never loses track of who is speaking: the chapter titles change with the narrator. For example, at one point Shirley begins a story and Eddie and Officer Huddie take over to give their input and details. These particular accounts happen in the past, so as the chapters switch only the names show up as chapter titles. Yet, at some point Shirley takes over and speaks in the present. The chapter title then changes to “Now: Shirley” (King 2002, 399). But the next chapter switches to the past again with Eddie, thus the chapter title is “Then: Eddie” (King 2002, 401). Being able to jump in and out of the past is effective for From a Buick 8, as it characterizes the way people may reminisce, especially in groups.
Themes of loss and grief are explored in From a Buick 8 with Stephen King’s intelligent and creative use of writing techniques. Multiple person point of views, á la traditional ghost stories, and flashbacks are used to mimic the way people may communicate when grieving. Multiple character point of views mirror how people may gather and retell stories of their lost loved one. Flashbacks mirror how people relive those stories and memories to feel closer to the person who has passed. Masquerading as a supernatural horror story, From a Buick 8 is an interesting and heartfelt study on the psychology of grief.
King, Stephen. From a Buick 8. New York: Pocket Books, 2002.