#CarrieAt40: Ghosts of Smoke & Fire by KEALAN PATRICK BURKE


On the web: www.kealanpatrickburke.com

On Twitter: @KealanBurke

When I was eight years old, I snuck into my mother’s bedroom while she was shopping, and swiped her copy of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery from her nightstand. This simple act of thievery opened the doors of horror, writing, and imagination to me in a way that no other book (mostly abridged classics, Hardy Boys, and Alfred Hitchock’s Three Investigators series) ever had. I read the book by flashlight late at night every night for the next week, and by the time I was finished, finally knew without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to be when I grew up. When my mother discovered—as all mothers will when the transgressions of their children are so poorly concealed—that I had read the book, rather than chastise or punish me, she suggested a system wherein she would read the books first and vet them before letting me read them. This progressed to her sharing her adult library card with me, but, being a single mother juggling two jobs, the vetting idea became a chore to uphold. I was reading a book, sometimes two a week, and she couldn’t keep up. So eventually she just let me read whatever I wanted to.

omnibusThe next book I acquired was a three-volume Stephen King collection, one of those NEL omnibus editions so popular back in the day. It contained Carrie, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. I read Carrie first, and found of them all (The Shining would be my favorite), this was the one that struck a chord with me. No, I was not an awkward, ungainly pariah with nascent supernatural powers, nor was I bullied at school. Instead, I was a nobody, one of those ghosts the other children neither picked on nor invited into their cliques by virtue of my nonexistence. I was the wallpaper, the shadow without a presence to cast it. I was simply there, and had I not been, the absence would not have been noted by anyone but the teacher at roll-call. Instead—and maybe this went some way toward explaining my intangibility—I had a head full of fantasies and a wild imagination full of conflicts and characters, motives and monsters. I was the loner and for a while I would go home after school and find myself following poor Carrie’s treacherous journey through her own gauntlet of adolescence, and I felt for her, feared for her, wanted her to have a happy ending. But of course, this is King, and in King’s world, as in life, more often than not there are no happy endings. Instead, Carrie allows her powers to consume her. She becomes wrath, and while I had no desire to wipe out my school (would they even have noticed?) or my fellow students, I understood why Carrie did. Did I believe it right, or fair? I couldn’t say. For me, it didn’t come down to right or wrong. It was more a matter of inevitability, a metaphor for the larger idea of nobodies becoming something, even if that something is monstrous. Regardless of who or what you were as a child or a teen, Carrie White is us. She is puberty, that hostile confusing place where there are more questions than answers, where ugliness wars with beauty, where identity is a shadow in the fog, a time of harsh lessons and terrible truths, a Boschian landscape not all of us survive. Most pull through and become the characters in their own exciting, tragic, terrifying, and wonderful novels. Others…

Others tear the world down around themselves rather than climb that ladder up to an unknowable fate.

For those of us who were in the chrysalis upon our first discovery of King’s novel, we have, unlike Carrie White, endured, escaped intact, but not without a critical and necessary education. Life is hard, childhood is harder, and there isn’t a one among us who doesn’t know the feel of the flames.

Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of five novels, including Kin, and Nemesis, and over two-hundred short stories and novellas. His short story “Peekers” is currently in development as a motion picture at Lionsgate Entertainment.

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