The Christine of Stephen King's title is not a woman but an automobile, "a 1958 Plymouth Fury, one of the long ones with the big fins." Now two full decades old, the car is a near wreck, the property of a loathsome old party named Roland D. LeBay. But when Arnie Cunningham chances upon the car with its faded "For Sale" sign, it is love at first sight--kismet, if you will. He shells out $250 for it, and then the trouble begins.

Arnie is 17 years old, the wimp of his class in the western Pennsylvania town of Libertyville. His friend Dennis Gulder says, "He was a loser, you know. Every high school has to have at least two; it's a national law." His face, festooned as it is with pimples, looks "like a loaded pizza," and just about his only claim to fame is membership in the chess club. But his purchase of the battered old Plymouth arouses dormant passions in him: "Let's go for a ride, big guy, Christine seemed to whisper in the hot summer silence . . . Let's cruise."

Arnie parks his heap in a garage owned by a fat, cynical crook named Will Darnell and sets about restoring his dream machine to its original condition. One day Dennis drops by to check on Arnie's progress: "It was as if I had seen a snake that was almost ready to shed its old skin, that some of that old skin had already flaked away, revealing the glistening newness underneath . . . a newness just biding its time, waiting to be born." You guessed it: Christine is more than just any old car; she is "a case of spontaneous regeneration," an evil machine that is performing her own repairs on herself and that, once restored to full roar, will have nothing but bad business to do.

Yes, Christine is--sssh!--a killer car. She killed old Roland D. LeBay's wife, and she killed his daughter, and now that she has been granted a new life she is going to kill some more folks. In the dark of night she fires up her fat engine and speeds off driverless in search of victims, whom she dispatches in a singularly emphatic and gory fashion. She's turned seven people to mush by the time the novel reaches its climax--and the count goes on.

And on, and on, and on. Had King chosen to tell Christine's tale in 300 pages or so, he might have come up with a taut, entertaining horror story. But there is nothing taut about "Christine"; it's a great blob of a book that reaches its surprisingly unsurprising conclusion at a maddeningly leisurely, discursive pace. King is enough of a veteran of the best-seller lists to know that short novels rarely make them; but, in "Christine" at least, he is not enough of a craftsman to make the novel's length anything except, well, long. And what that means is not entertainment but exhaustion.

To be sure, he goes through all manner of motions in hopes of arousing and maintaining the reader's interest. There is an elaborate relationship between young Arnie and old LeBay, who dies almost immediately after unloading the car: "LeBay had gotten in him. Somehow, dead or not, LeBay was in him." There is Arnie's unlikely romance with the beautiful Leigh Cabot, a romance that founders because, of course, he loves Christine more. There is a lot of funny business--though whether it's intentionally funny is far from clear--having to do with the car's radio only bringing in a 1950s pop station and its odometer running only backwards.

There is also, because King makes claims to being more than a mere commercial novelist, a certain amount of thematic cud-chewing. The whole business about the American male's love affair with the automobile gets quite thoroughly if predictably raked over, as do the difficulties of being a teen-ager and the doomed innocence of youth:

"I was 17 years old, bound for college in another year, and I didn't believe in such things as curses and emotions that linger and grow rancid, the spilled milk of dreams. I would not have granted you the power of the past to reach out horrid dead hands toward the living.

"But I'm a little older now."

That passage is characteristic of King's prose: competent but melodramatic, and heavily weighted with foreshadowing. Considering he is the author of what is said to be an authoritative pronunciamento on horror fiction, King himself can be surprisingly maladroit at it, especially when it comes to tipping his hand. Worse than that, in "Christine" he commits the horror novelist's cardinal sin: he is boring.