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I’m looking at the copy of Carrie that I bought in 1981. It’s the New English Library paperback edition. On the front is a picture of a girl with blood running down her face, in front of a bolt of lightning. On the back are three pictures from Brian de Palma’s film of the book, including the creepiest image of them all – Carrie’s mother suspended in mid-air, knives protruding from her old-fashioned cotton nightdress.
I don’t remember where I bought it, but I do remember reading the first few pages. I was 14, and in those first pages I read, for the first time, about periods. ‘For God’s sake, Carrie, you got your period,’ says the girl who will become not-quite Carrie’s friend, Sue Snell. ‘Plug it up!’ yells someone else. For a 14-year-old boy with no sisters at home and no girlfriends anywhere on the horizon, the first few pages of Carrie are an eye-opening education, as well as being an example of seriously powerful storytelling.
Carrie was the second Stephen King book I read. The first was The Stand, earlier that summer, a gift from my Auntie Susan and still the most potent book gift I’ve ever received. After Carrie I read The Shining, then I read Salem’s Lot, and then I read every damn thing the guy wrote from then on. During an immature rebellious stage at university, I spent an academic prize on new editions of every Stephen King book that had been published up until that date. At the time I thought this would annoy the Fellows at my college; now, I would do the same, but I’d argue, seriously, that Stephen King is as good a writer as any of the greats on their syllabus.
The reason why he’s so great is all in those first few pages of Carrie. He locates horror in the everyday, the real everyday, the real that’s so real that even the literary giants I was reading at university and at school did not go there. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read about a woman’s period in a book by a male writer since then, and if I have it didn’t resonate with me at all. Did Graham Greene write about periods? I don’t think so.
But imagine being Carrie White. Imagine no-one’s ever spoken to you about periods, and imagine starting to bleed in a school shower, and imagine everyone laughing at you, being disgusted by you. Isn’t that horror? Horror of the very worst kind?
In King’s books, horror always comes straight out of the personal, and in order for that to work King has to write characters who are vivid and believable. He’s the ultimate, maybe the finest, character-driven writer I know of, as great as Dickens. Recently he reviewed The Goldfinch in the New York Times (he liked it, a lot) and now, having read The Goldfinch, it strikes me how similar to a King protagonist Donna Tartt’s protagonist Theo Decker really is. Yes, the language might be more high-falutin’, and there are no werewolves or vampires or flying saucers hidden in the backyard, but I truly believe King could write a Donna Tartt book if he wanted to (and I wonder if he sort of did, in his novella The Body, which became the film Stand By Me).
Carrie isn’t my favourite King book (that honour goes to The Shining). But tellingly, my NEL edition of the book is the only original King book I owned – all my other King books have been replaced over the years, most of them lost during a rush of dumb pretentious blood to head in my mid-twenties when I gave away most of my King books in an attempt to show I had outgrown them. Outgrown them! What an idiot. But Carrie stayed. Carrie wouldn’t be discarded so easily. I had been inside Carrie’s head, you see, and I’d felt the terror in there.
Lloyd Shepherd has worked as a trade journalist and a digital product manager for the likes of the Guardian, the BBC, Yahoo, Channel 4 and Financial Times Newsletters.
He’s the author of the historical thrillers The English Monster and The Poisoned Island.