On the web: www.markwest.org.uk
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As a kid of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I grew up with Stephen King and was aware of him – and a certain book – before I really knew who he was or what he did. During the ‘70s, my Dad was a fan of paperback horror and he had a small bookcase in his and my Mum’s bedroom. Sometimes – not often – I’d go in and look at the spines on the shelves, daring myself to look at the gloriously gruesome images that adorned the covers. One book that killed me was The Fog by James Herbert – the hand holding the woman’s head – but the cover that got me every time I looked at it (and it still has the power to unsettle, since my own 8-year-old son doesn’t like it either) was the New English Library edition of “Carrie”. I have the 1986 ‘sixteenth impression’ so mine has “author of Christine and Pet Sematary” on it but otherwise the image is the same – a well painted portrait of a young woman with wide, staring eyes, a snub nose and a small mouth, opened slightly to show her incisors. Blood seems to run from her hairline, making trails down her face to drip off her chin. I was too young to appreciate it properly, too young to read it but that image succeeded in scaring the crap out of me.
Stephen King – whether you’re a fan of the genre or not – is a byword for popular horror. Even if you’ve never read any of his novels, you’ve probably seen one of the films based on them and even if you haven’t succumbed to that (and if so, where the hell have you been?), you will know the name. Stephen King, yeah, he’s the bloke who writes the scary stuff.
He’s been writing it for a long time. Carrie, his first published (though by no means his first written) novel is 40 years old on April 5th, 2014. As mentioned above, I’ve been aware of it for a good chunk of that time but it was only when Matthew Craig – Reader Dad – asked me to be involved with joining in his #CarrieAt40 series of posts that I realised I’d never actually read it.
How could that be? I am a big Stephen King fan (though I tailed off somewhere after Misery, revived briefly with Bag Of Bones and then dropped off again until last years truly excellent Joyland), I read everything he wrote during the ‘80s and yet I hadn’t read his first novel? What on earth had I been playing at?
The story behind Carrie has been told often enough to have become a legend but probably the best example I’ve found was in King’s memoir-cum-how to book On Writing (which is well worth a read). At the time, he was living in a trailer with his wife and their son Joe (with another child on the way), teaching High School English and barely making ends meet, writing with his wife’s portable typewriter balanced on his knees. The story, inspired by girls he knew from school and recent reading on Telekinesis, was intended as a short story (focussing on the shower room sequence) for Cavalier magazine, but he didn’t like it and threw it away. Tabitha, his wife, rescued it from the bin and encouraged him to finish it (the books dedication reads; "This is for Tabby, who got me into it – and then bailed me out of it”). He wrote it in two weeks and it was picked up by Doubleday for $2,500 (the hardback sold 13,000 copies) and then New American Library bought the paperback rights for $400,000, which was split (as per the contract) between Doubleday and King himself. He resigned as a teacher at that point.
I first got into King with ‘Salem’s Lot, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop as I was waiting for my Dad to choose something. I liked the cover (whoever that artist was, working for NEL in those days, I’d like to thank him) and I decided to give it a chance. This would have been in the early ‘80s and I was hooked, instantly. By this time, of course, our prolific hero had been busy and I snapped up all the books I could find – Night Shift, The Stand (both versions, though I had the unexpurgated in hardback which made it a tricky read), The Dead Zone (still one of my favourites), Firestarter, Danse Macabre (the book that really led me onto the path of horror, as I followed the recommended reading lists in it and never looked back), Cujo, Different Seasons, Christine, Pet Sematary, Thinner, Skeleton Crew, The Bachman Books, IT, the list goes on (and that’s only up until 1986!)
Looking at it now, I think the reason I never went back to Carrie was because there was always something new coming out. That run of books is tremendous, great and gripping stories that not only involved the reader but provided essential touchpoints for pop culture going forward (not to mention some of the terrific films they inspired). Soon, Carrie felt too far back in the past, a slim first novel (though I would, without irony, go back and read all of The Bachman Books) about a girl with menstrual issues. There was also the small matter of the DePalma film version – a grinning William Katt, the oddly pretty Sissy Spacek, the blood, Nancy Allen and John Travolta looking mean, that ending – which was strong in my mind.
But I had a copy of the book, that survived various culls and sat – as quietly as Carrie herself might – watching as I picked other books to read. Then Matthew approached me, asking for this article and I took the opportunity gladly and I’m really pleased I did.
“Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.”
Carrie is a deceptively simple novel, told in an epistolary format that takes in accounts from academic textbooks, a commission report and Sue Snell’s autobiography (My Name Is Sue Snell, published in 1986) and set in the then near-future of 1979 (though I couldn’t work out why). There are no chapter breaks but the book is broken into three parts.
Part 1 – Blood Sport opens on Carrietta White, who has lived her life abused not only at home (by her unstable, religious zealot mother Margaret) but also by virtually everyone she comes into contact with, from classmates, to passers-by and teachers. Carrie is 16 and, to everyone’s disbelief, is experiencing her first period, which terrifies her. Not quite understanding why, her classmates taunt and jeer at her, throwing tampons and sanitary towels at her (“Plug it up, plug it up!”) to cover their own disgust. Her teacher, Miss Desjardin (perhaps the most sympathetic adult in the book), tries to help but Carrie is sent home where her mother beats her, locking her away to pray for forgiveness. But the start of menstruation seems to have also unlocked a latent talent in Carrie (which she has been able to harness, briefly, in the past) for Telekinesis. As her classmates are put into detention, one of them – a bully called Chris Hargensen – plots revenge and the course of the story is set in that one moment, with everything afterwards leading inexorably to destruction.
Sue Snell, another classmate who was involved in yelling “Plug it up!” feels terrible about the incident and asks her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. And this act of simple friendship and making amends, seals their fate.
Part 2 – Prom Night. Chris and her greaser boyfriend Billy Nolan go to a local farm and kill two pigs, collecting their blood and placing it in buckets over the stage. They rig the vote for Carrie and Tommy to win “Prom King & Queen” and as they sit on their thrones, all hell literally breaks loose.
Part 3 – Wreckage, follows the devastation that comes to the town once Carrie has left the Prom. I won’t give away what happens but since the ending is alluded to through the course of the book, it’s safe to say that Carrie makes her feelings of injustice felt and no-one is safe.
The book closes with a letter written by a woman in Tennessee, whose daughter is developing telekinetic powers.
King himself has commented that he finds the book to be "raw" and "with a surprising power to hurt and horrify” and I’d agree, it’s a harsh novel that looks at high school life with an eye for the viciousness that’s present in everyone (King was teaching at the time, so we can assume he was writing what he saw). He paints the outsider well, the desperate need to close in on yourself as the world gathers around you, joking and taunting and life seems full of things that you don’t quite understand.
Most of the adults – Margaret White excepted – are generally well-meaning but effectively powerless. Miss Desjardin, in making up for her own shortcomings in helping Carrie in the shower and punishing the group, pushes Chris Hargensen’s nose out of joint, compounded by the principal making a stand against her father – a lawyer – who then can’t make things right.
Of the kids, Sue Snell is essentially good and does what she does for the right reasons, though she pays the price of losing her boyfriend and his unborn child. Tommy is a good kid, a jock with heart who isn’t actually hurt by Carrie though I found it troubling that she spent the last part of the novel thinking that he’d set her up. The real horror, though, is in the characters of Chris and Billy. She is very manipulative, using sex to get what she wants but in Nolan she’s finally met her match, since he’s not one of the frat boys who will roll over and do everything she wants him to. In fact, I think he’s the real monster of the story and his casual violence is key to that. On nights when his Mum and her latest boyfriend are arguing, he takes off cruising for stray dogs, later putting his car away with “its front bumper dripping”.
But everything, of course, centres around Carrie. In my minds eye she looks, obviously, like Sissy Spacek but that’s not the picture King paints. His Carrie is “a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her (wet) hair completely without colour. She looked the part of the sacrificial goat, the constant butt” and at one point, she “looked around bovinely”. She wants to get on with her life and fit in, she tries to be rebellious but nothing ever really seems to work. Her menstruation not only brings her powers to a level she can control, it also opens the world up to her a little more, even if it’s just teasing glimpses. She feels stronger, she takes a stand with her mother but part of the novel’s cruelty is that she never quite achieves what she wants to. It changes her though and other characters, as well as the reader, sees this. When Tommy asks her out, she seems different and he can’t quite work it out and when he goes to pick her up (in a beautifully written moment), she seems comfortable in her own body for once.
Margaret White is the character that looms over the whole book, as Carrie is thinking of her right to the end. A ‘big woman’ who works in a laundry (I wonder if that’s based on the one King worked in?), she has embraced a bizarre offshoot of Christianity and made it her own, constantly fighting against the very thought of sin even though she’s wracked with guilt because she had intercourse to have Carrie (though it appears she didn’t connect sex and pregnancy at the time). Making her house a horror show of gruesome religious imagery, which only adds to Carrie’s disturbance, she’s often cruelly abusive, however much she tries to justify her actions. At one point, Carrie is put in the closet to reflect on her sin and atone for it – surrounded by more terrifying religious iconography – and the sequence is so painfully dark it’s hard to read. Her end is clearly signalled from the moment the pig blood drops and whilst I like how King dealt with it, as someone who had read Carrie’s sufferings, I wanted Margaret to suffer more.
Adding to the overall feel of unease are little throwaway moments that impact heavily. From some of the things that Margaret does (especially before the stones incident, when a 3 year old Carrie is naturally curious about a sunbathing neighbour), to Nolan and his dripping bumper, there’s also an excerpt from an Esquire interview (dated as 1980). In this, Estelle Horan (the sunbather) is interviewed but she has a quick line about seeing a drunk in New York, saddled with a goitre who is leading away by the hand a little girl with a bloody nose and I found that image heartbreaking.
On the lighter side, I liked a couple of little moments that would echo back in later King works though they can’t be called in-jokes. Carrie’s 7th grade English teacher is Mr Edwin King (King’s own father), who also makes an appearance in The Stand and Teddy DuChamp (from “The Body”) owns the Amoco that blows up. There’s also the nice touch that Billy lives above a bar called “The Cavalier”, the magazine King was aiming for with the short that started this off.
I can’t say that, looking at it now, I can understand why the book took off though it is better than his earlier novels (or, at least, the four I read in The Bachman Books) and neither, it seems, can King himself. In a talk at the University of Maine, he is quoted as saying “it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom." As a seasoned horror reader, coming to this fresh, I would say that it’s a pretty damned good cookie.
Strikingly well written, with a wonderfully tight plot that runs like clockwork as the pieces fall into place, this is a terrific read that I wish I hadn’t waited forty years to get to. Very highly recommended.
Mark West is in his mid-forties so has been aware of Stephen King for a long time. A horror nut, he writes fiction and reviews, reads a lot and watches ‘odd films’, enjoys walking, cycling and going to the gym (one of those might be a lie) and, thanks to his 8 year old son, is a crack shot with a Nerf gun. More info can be found at his blog, where he spends as much time talking about books and films as he does his own writing.