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A lot of people think of Carrie as Stephen King’s first novel, but it wasn’t—not by a long shot. It was his first published novel, but by the time it came out he had already written over a half dozen books, most (but not all) of which subsequently appeared under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. Blaze was written immediately before Carrie, although it would remain unpublished for nearly 35 years. King had already embarked on his long road to the Dark Tower before starting Carrie, too.
I didn’t begin with Carrie. My first encounter with Stephen King was a used paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot that I picked up on my weekly visit to Back Pages on Queen St. in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1979. I was reading mostly science fiction and fantasy in those days, but I vaguely remembered hearing good things about this book, so I added it to my weekly stack, which probably consisted of Asimov, Heinlein and Piers Anthony.
I was hooked straight away. The storytelling was so immersive that I had to seek out everything else the author had written. In 1979, there wasn’t much to find. I went to the public library in the small town near where I grew up and withdrew the rest: Carrie, The Shining, The Stand and Night Shift. The Dead Zone wasn’t out yet. Hard to imagine a time when that was the complete works of Stephen King, right?
I can’t remember the order in which I read them. I suspect The Stand came next, based purely on its mass and the fascinating cartoonish battle taking place on the front cover. But eventually there came Carrie and, a few years later—thanks to the advent of VHS and “home video,” which allowed me to catch up on all the movies I hadn’t had access to until that point—the movie adaptation.
Pete Crowther, whose PS Publishing will soon release a 40th anniversary edition of Carrie, quotes King as saying this about the book in later years: "It reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader. Tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom." A fair cop, as they say?
It’s arguably a “starter” novel, but it’s hard to downplay the importance of the book to King’s career and to the horror genre to this day. A new movie adaptation came out last year and only the trappings of contemporary high school life had to be updated. The story remains the same: the culture of cliques and peer groups and bullying is as relevant now as it was in the 1970s, alas, rendering this remake pretty much redundant. Pseudonymous author Nick Cutter admits that he was inspired by Carrie in his recent novel The Troop, which uses interstitial newspaper articles and trial testimony to convey information to readers that is not available to the characters, as King did four decades ago. (Imagine a time when King needed to resort to something like that to make one of his books longer!)
Depending on who you listen to, the book and the film based on it were either part of a new wave of horror that was sweeping America or they caught the crest of that wave, which included books like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Those novels and their adaptations lean toward the Gothic side, dark and brooding and draped in heavy curtains, whereas Carrie was set in a real, bright world that everyone is familiar with. High school is one of a very few almost universally shared experiences and King, as a high school teacher, was immersed in it. He was writing about what he knew, but also about what everyone else knew, too.
Carrie is one of a number of King creations that have entered the common consciousness. Say the name and everyone instantly knows what you mean. It’s the revenge fantasy of every teenager, and perhaps more than a few adults.
How much of the book is about the supernatural? I could argue that you could rewrite Carrie without telekinesis and other wild powers and still have the same, powerful story. Her sheltered upbringing is the thing that makes her stand apart from her classmates. The thing that makes her seem weak and vulnerable to others. Her newly discovered power is her way of fighting back—of levelling the playing field and then some. It’s a more socially acceptable weapon. We cheer for her as she lays waste to her high school prom in a way that we probably wouldn’t if she’d ducked backstage, pulled out a machine gun and strafed the gymnasium. That would be almost too real.
It’s hard to imagine, though, that if Carrie White were still alive today, she would be planning for her retirement in a few years. Jeez. That’s almost too real, too.
Bev Vincent is the author of The Dark Tower Companion, The Stephen King Illustrated Companion and The Road to the Dark Tower. He has been writing “News from the Dead Zone” for Cemetery Dance for over a decade.