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Carrie was not the book to introduce me to the writings of Stephen King. That honour went to Eyes of the Dragon, discovered in our high school library. Nor was it the second I read (The Dead Zone), nor the third (Christine) nor even the fourth (The Stand). When I finally got around to reading Carrie—my copy says it’s the ’88 edition, but I’m sure I bought it in the early 90’s—I was in my early twenties, and already exposed to much of Stephen King’s writing, both short and long form. Why it took me so long to read Carrie I can’t say, but it stuck with me afterward as a favourite. To think that Carrie wouldn’t have been written but for the persistence of Tabitha King and her confidence in King’s ability seems ludicrous today, but to a novice writer in his early twenties who had yet to truly break into the field, that confidence must have counted for a lot, and it’s as much to her credit as his that this seminal novel of the horror genre has been such a success.
Reading Carrie at much the same age King was when he wrote it, what resonated with me was that the experience of high school doesn’t change much across generations. Sure, the music is different, the clothing styles, the slang—all different—but the essence of high school is constant, that of a bunch of kids trying desperately to be accepted by their peers, conforming to whatever customs they think will raise their standing in the game of teenage status. Everyone wants to be popular, and sometimes we go to extreme lengths, whether trying out for the football team or school council, or more nefariously, joining in the ridicule of those who don’t seem to fit in in the hope no one will notice our own peculiarities.
Of course, for every jock or cheerleader you meet, there’s a geek or misfit in the background. Every school has a Sue Snell or Tommy Ross, a Christine Hargensen or Billy Nolan, and yes, even a Carietta White (minus the telekinesis). And that’s what I think is the essential appeal of King’s first novel.
We know these people.
They are us.
His tales are about us.
Carrie resonates so much with readers because we can relate to his characters. We went to high school with them—they just went by different names. We see shadows of ourselves in them. Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a bully at one time or another, or conversely been that bully to someone we didn’t like? Whether it was how they dressed, or talked, or what we saw as their annoying quirks, we’ve all got a shameful moment in our past, or been the subject of someone else’s less than finest moment. Carrie White is the embodiment, the archetype, the template of that misfit you’ll find in any school across the nation. Only in her case, she had the means (man did she have the means) to put her tormentors in their place. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, it gives us a little satisfaction
Misfits and outsiders inhabit all of King’s novels, and I dare say misfits and outsiders are what Stephen King does best. Carrie White, Arnie Cunningham, Harold Lauder—all outsiders destined to a bad end, and yet characters for whom the reader is still able to find compassion. Each has their moment when redemption—or perhaps rehabilitation would be a better word—is in their grasp, only to make that one decision that condemns them to infamy. And that’s what King does. He offers his misfits a choice, a temptation that will either lead to salvation or damnation. More often than not, it leads to the latter.
Carrie White, for one shining moment is accepted by her peers. Arnie Cunningham is the cool kid with a cool car—for a while. Harold Lauder becomes a leader among men—until he betrays them while seeking the very thing he already had. They become these things only so long as to let King set them as characters and us as readers for a fall. He makes us care for them so that we feel it all the more when they fail. And that’s quite the neat trick.
So, how has Stephen King’s body of work influenced my own reading habits? I’ve always enjoyed stories of the underdog, the misfit, the inherently flawed, and as I’ve said, that’s what I think Stephen King does best. He makes you care for those you normally wouldn’t. Carrie destroyed a town, killed hundreds, most of them innocent, and yet it’s a tribute to King’s skill that I as a reader still sympathize with her.
How different might the face of genre publishing might look today had Tabitha King not fished his manuscript from the trash and encouraged King to persevere? Honestly, I think it would look pretty much the same. Sure, it might have taken King a bit longer to gain a foothold in the industry, but the quality of his work is simply too good to think that he would have packed it in and remained a frustrated English teacher at a public high school. After all, The Shining followed a mere three years later, The Stand the year after that and so on. I find it inconceivable that without Carrie these other novels wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Reading the relevant section of King’s memoir reinforces the idea that Tabitha would have pushed him to pursue his passion whatever the manuscript at hand. Carrie just happened to be the catalyst.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but it’s something we’ll never have to worry about. Fate, a little luck, and a lot of perseverance has made Stephen King a giant of the genre and we all owe Tabitha a debt of gratitude for lending him that perseverance just when he needed it.