Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
And there is, of course, the knowledge that Carrie went home on Prom Night. Why? It is hard to tell just how sane Carrie’s motives were by that time. She may have gone for absolution and forgiveness… In any event, the physical evidence seems to indicate that Margaret White was waiting for her.
In the middle of her school locker room, following Period One gym class, sixteen-year-old Carrie White has her first period. Unprepared, Carrie believes she is bleeding to death as her classmates shout abuse and throw tampons at her. Feeling guilty for her part in the debacle, Sue Snell convinces her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom. But when Carrie finds herself, once again, the butt of a joke involving two buckets of pig’s blood, she seeks vengeance on those who have wronged her. Bringing to bear the full force of her newly-reawakened telekinetic powers, Carrie White is about to teach the town of Chamberlain, Maine a lesson it won’t soon forget.
When we first meet Carrie White, she is suffering the traumatic experience of thinking she is bleeding to death in the middle of the school locker room. Carrie is an outsider, the school oddball, the bottom of the pecking order that is the American high school. King takes no time in making this apparent to us, as we watch the reaction of Carrie’s classmates. Cries of “PER-iod” and “Plug it up” fill the space as a kind of mass hysteria overtakes the girls. There is something about Carrie White that makes her unlikeable, though it’s an indefinable thing that leaves at least one of the girls wondering why, exactly, she is taking part even as she is throwing sanitary napkins along with the others.
Like Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher, we are left wondering how a sixteen year old girl can believe she is bleeding to death when she is, in fact, menstruating. As we follow Carrie home, and meet the imposing figure of Margaret White, it becomes clear why this poor girl is much more naive than a young girl her age should be. Margaret White is a religious zealot who practices her own weird form of religion that involves locking her daughter in a blue-lit closet to commune with God and ask for his forgiveness. Breasts, in the mind of this woman, are “dirtypillows” and menstruation is a punishment from God:
“Show her that if she had remained sinless the Curse of Blood never would have come on her. She may have committed the Sin of Lustful Thoughts. She may have been listening to rock ‘n roll music on the radio. She may have been tempted by the Antichrist.”
With womanhood comes another, altogether more dangerous gift: telekinesis. Carrie first discovers this strange power in the shower room (although there is evidence that it may have lain dormant inside her for most of her young life) and spends the long lonely evenings at home practicing until she can move things with little or no strain or effort. Despite this gift, Carrie is not a novel of the supernatural; this ability is what enables Carrie White to take her revenge on the people who have laughed at her all of her life. At heart, Carrie is the story of an outsider, a simple tale of everyday cruelty that, had it been published in the past ten years, would most likely have wound up on the Young Adult shelves of your local bookshop. More than anything, though, it is a story about the darkness at the heart of the human soul, and the varying degrees to which it exists. Witness Chris Hargensen, the instigator of the events in the shower room, and the person who sowed the seed that would become “Prom Night”, a young girl with a sense of entitlement that causes her to act without thought for consequences, either for herself or for others. Yet Chris is an angel next to her boyfriend, Billy Nolan, who takes Chris’ idea to the next level, happy to carry out the ultimate practical joke despite the consequences. For Billy it’s a calculated risk, a risk worth taking because of how much satisfaction it will give him.
On the other side of the coin are Sue Snell and Tommy Ross, faint glimpses of “good” in this otherwise dark tale. In the background are the adults – Miss Desjardin and Henry Grayle, the school’s headmaster (whose defining moment comes in a tense standoff with Chris Hargensen’s lawyer father) – who, King recognises, do their best to stand on the side of good and right, but who are so far removed from the reality of the situation that they are practically useless to the young people in their care.
Stephen King’s first published novel – published forty years ago today – is a short epistolary tale which is an often-overlooked part of the author’s canon. Set in near-future (at the time) 1979, the story intertwines multiple viewpoints (each of the core characters takes centre stage at some point during the proceedings) with flashbacks, news reports, newspaper articles, excerpts from a number of books supposedly written in the wake of Prom Night and a few colourful pieces of graffiti (“Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, but Carrie White eats shit.”) to give a complete picture of the havoc wreaked by the story’s central character. It’s obviously an early effort, but there are already hints of the stylistic tics and character traits that we will see again and again in Stephen King’s works: the outsider, the religious maniac (I always think of “The Mist’s” Mrs Carmody, but Margaret White forged the way almost six years earlier), a horror that is rendered so utterly plausible because of its ordinariness, and an ability to get inside the heads of his characters that allows him to paint them so vividly and empathetically.
In an age where school shootings occur on an all-too-frequent basis (which King touches on more directly in his 1977 novel, Rage, written as Richard Bachman), Carrie is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. I have been surprised, during the undertaking of the #CarrieAt40 project, by how many people have never read this slim volume (something I’ll touch on in more detail in my own post at some point next month), and would urge everyone to do so. “[A] tasty enough [cookie], but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom” (in King’s own words) it may be, but it’s definitely a satisfying and thought-provoking read.
As part of the #CarrieAt40 Project, I have invited others to read Carrie and post their reviews on their own blogs. I have collated links to these reviews here, and would urge you to check them out.