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When I was asked to write a piece about when I first read Carrie I had to fess up that I had never actually read it. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it was because somehow I knew what the story was about and had seen pictures of Sissy Spacek drenched in blood and was probably a bit scared. It’s odd that it slipped through the net as, like most writers of my generation and most readers too for that matter, Stephen King is the benchmark. Even people I knew at school who didn’t read, read Stephen King. I’ve read tons of King, I read The Stand twice and it’s over a thousand pages long – and yet I never got round to Carrie.
My own introduction to the court of the King happened aged around ten or eleven via a second-hand copy of The Dead Zone that my local library was getting rid of it for 10p. It had a picture of an American style license plate on the cover with the name of the book spelled out in embossed letters. [Editor’s note: Google is being singularly unhelpful with regards tracking down this cover, so here’s the US first edition cover instead.] The plate was bashed and a little burned and hinted at violence, as did the title whereas Carrie was a girly girl’s name and I can’t remember what the cover looked like. Maybe if the library had been selling an old copy of Carrie I would have read it then but it was The Dead Zone that got me first and Carrie just slipped through the cracks somehow until it became one of those books that sort of missed its slot, one that I knew I should read and would undoubtedly enjoy but just never got round to. The Secret History is another one of those for me, but that is, quite literally, another story.
Also Carrie became much bigger to me than just a book. I picked up so much lore about it that maybe I became worried that the thing itself would be a disappointment. I knew, for example, that when Brian De Palma was looking for young actors for his film version he shared casting sessions with another young director needing unknowns for a little space opera he was prepping called Star Wars. I’ve often wondered if the other Carrie (Fisher) auditioned for Carrie White and if John Travolta tried out for Han Solo and whether if he’d got the part we might all have been spared Battleship Earth. One can dream…
I also know that King’s wife Tabitha fished the first two or three pages of Carrie out of the bin after he had decided it wasn’t working. I know he then sold the paperback rights for $400,000 dollars and this was in the mid 70’s when that was a LOT of money rather than just a lot. I know that when he sold it he was living with his young family in a trailer and struggling to make ends meet. Maybe I was so weighed down with baggage that I felt like I’d already read it or didn’t need to.
Anyway, now I have read it.
And it’s good.
It doesn’t feel like a forty year old book at all. The collage technique of using different narrative scraps to tell the story feels very modern and assured, like a literary pre-cursor to the found-footage movies that squeeze their scares out of the notion that all of it might just be real. Some of the scraps that make up the collage are slightly less successful than others, it has to be said, particularly the extracts from memoirs of the survivors that read more like diary entries than genuine autobiography. These fragments are so short, however, they never derail the pace. In fact in the main it’s a very spare book, especially for a writer known for his doorsteps. There’s almost no fat in it, like it’s been very carefully crafted then edited really tightly, something many of his later books lack I think. Don’t get me wrong I still love the man and worship at his hem etc. but I do tend to find myself skipping great chunks of some of his later books. I do the same in Dickens so it’s not exactly a diss. I just find, sometimes, I’m not quite as enthralled by the architecture as the author is and am just hungry to find out what happens next.
What really struck me about Carrie, though, reading it forty years after it was published, is that it is so obviously a Stephen King book. His voice is already there, fully formed or formed enough so that you can hear who it is straight out of the blocks. He’d written three other novels before Carrie and it shows. There’s a sure-footedness to the voice that feels bedded in and comfortable. He’d already found his rhythm and the book hums along with it. And we’ve all been dancing to his tune ever since. Amen to that.
Simon Toyne was born in the North East of England in 1968.
After nearly twenty years working in commercial television he quit his job and took seven months off to write a novel. It took two and a half years to finish it. Fortunately Sanctus got picked up by an agent and then by lots of publishers all over the world. He has no idea what would have happened if it hadn’t. He is now regularly compared, both favourably and unfavourably, to Dan Brown, even though he does not possess a tweed jacket.