By the time you reach the end of this article gas prices will probably have increased another five pence. Filling up is getting us down. However, the humble petrol station has been a focal point of American culture for more than 75 years and not just for drivers - novelists and screenplay writers have been pumping gasoline for years.
Gas stations started to appear in books and movies in the 1930s and quickly became a popular narrative tool for writers as American culture developed around the car. The price of gas has never been a theme but writers love to stage drama under the Shell, Chevron and Texaco signs. Usually we are served spicy dialogue between protagonists on a journey but there are also desperate pleas for help, confrontations across the hood, robberies, explosions and deaths.
Filling stations are up there with seedy motels, all-night diners where world-weary waitresses chew gum, and drive-in movie theaters filled with angst-ridden teenagers as useful locations for sustaining a story. You can find gas stations in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog and so many more. Joseph Torra even set an entire novel around the pumps in his 1996 book, Gas Station.
Stephen King appears drawn to gas stations more than most. In From a Buick 8, a gas station plays a vital role as the scene of a man’s disappearance. Christine is a novel about a car possessed by a supernatural force and features a violent death scene at a gas station. Trucks is a 1978 short story revolving around a gas station truck-stop published in the King compilation Night Shift – it eventually became a movie called Maximum Overdrive that King directed himself. The Stand – King’s end of-the-world science fiction epic – has many mentions of gas stations. King twists the mundane into the dramatic and the horrific.
Most writers use filling stations to keep a car journey from becoming tedious and claustrophobic. Gas stations can probably be divided into two camps – the independent station, often in a dusty, desert location, with a chatty old guy in dungarees pumping the gas and then the modern soulless stations with a spotty Generation Y McKid behind the glass. Old-style gas stations provide better dialogue but the newer ones have more action – particularly in the movies where combustible liquids are extremely appealing to today’s directors. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men has a memorable coin toss scene in a dusty Texaco.
Moviemakers love gas stations. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds we had one of the early exploding gas stations. Baz Luhrmann’s modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet opens with a fight scene around the pumps. Zoolander’s clueless male models have a gasoline fight with disastrous consequences. Some nasty British zombies feel the heat in a filling station in 28 Days Later. The gas station in The Hills Have Eyes is not recommended even if you are on empty. Flight of the Navigator sees a space craft land in a gas station and activate the pressure-sensitive bell. Steve McQueen’s Bullitt has a gas station crash. The Hitcher has an exploding gas station. In Tim Robbins’ Nothing to Lose, there is a gas station robbery. In Little Miss Sunshine, the nightmarish family drives away from a gas station and leave behind a child. Robocop begins his crime fighting career at a gas station robbery, and so on and so on.
In almost any novel based in the US where there is a car journey – and, let’s face it, that’s most of them – a gas station will crop up. At the very simplest level, gas stations break up the narrative and provide an opportunity for reflection on the journey or a dilemma. However, gas stations also act as scenes of sanctuary (the washroom), conflict (pity those poor attendants), and communication (they had pay phones long before cell-phones existed).
And it’s not just American writers who use gas stations. In Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, Danny’s dad works at a filling station during the day and poaches pheasants at night. Even the self help genre has had its gasoline moment - Dan Millman’s 1980 Way of the Peaceful Warrior tells the story of a gas station attendant who becomes a mentor to a reckless young gymnast.
Many authors have pumped gas, including Charles Bukowski who probably endured every dead-end job known to starving writers. At the very least, the position offers the opportunity to read on the job during quiet moments – author Nelson Ahlgren actually wrote his first story, So Help Me, while working at a sleepy Texas gas station in 1933.
Hubert Selby, author of The Last Exit to Brooklyn, worked in a gas station at the start of his writing career as did short story writer and poet Raymond Carver and also novelist James T Farrell. Thriller writer Sarah Lovett, who created the Dr Sylvia Strange books about on a forensic psychologist, is another former gas jockey. David Allen, who wrote the successful time management self help book Getting Things Done, used to be a gas station manager and always opened the station on time.
America’s No.1 expert on gas stations and their contribution to folklore is Michael Karl Witzel, who has written three books on the subject – The American Gas Station, Gas Station Memories and Gas Stations Coast to Coast.
“Gas stations are commonly seen in books and movies because they are centralized places where a wide variety of people converge or meet,” said Witzel. “As a nexus for everything involved with automobile travel, they are the crossroads of myriad cultures in America. They make a perfect backdrop for all kinds of stories and are a great vehicle for getting the plot going.” Click here to read our full interview with author Michael Karl Witzel.
Photographers seem drawn to those old-style gas stations eager to capture a disappearing slice of America. Roadside Memories: A Collection of Vintage Gas Station Photographs by Todd P. Helms, "Fill 'er up": An Architectural History of America's Gas Stations by Daniel I. Vieyra, and Fill 'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations by James Draeger and Mark Speltz are three typical examples. Pump And Circumstance: 30 Gas Station Postcards by John Margolies has perhaps the best title in this genre.
There are also gas station-themed children’s books including Pete, the Pup and The Gas Station Man by James L Hymes and Gas Station Gus by Dorothy Kunhardt. Gas Station Charlie by Karen Grassmuck Kraushaar is a non-fiction children’s book about a lovable golden retriever who helps out around the pumps – is that legal?
And, of course, if it exists then people collect it, so there is also the Value Guide to Gas Station Memorabilia by B. J. Summers, Gasoline Treasures by Michael Bruner and the unforgettable Guide to Gasoline Logos by Wayne Henderson.