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As a bookseller, I often see young teenagers hovering around the horror section shelves. On some occasions they stride confidently towards them, certain of what book to pick while at other moments, they waver halfway, around the ‘K’, a wide expanse of books to choose from, unsure which to select. With Stephen King, his many, many books have becomes household names – The Stand, IT, Pet Semetery, Salem’s Lot, but with a career so vast and varied, where in his back catalogue do you start?
For me, you always start at the beginning. You always start with Carrie.
I first heard about Carrie while at school; its reputation spreading from class to class almost telepathically (but fortunately not telekinetically). It was a book that had to be read for what horrors lay within its pages. Already before reading it, it came with built-in scares and as I approached the desk at my local library, clutching the highly in-demand paperback and sliding it over, would the librarian let it out to me? Would its reputation prevent me from reading it? Would I even like what I found inside? Fortunately the date stamp hit the card and I had two weeks to enter Carrie White’s world before the next reader requested it. What a time I had…
Thinking back now, Carrie spoke to us all at my secondary school. My fellow young readers had seen enough American television to get around the differences between ours and the Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School and could see the similarities between ourselves and Carrie. School is a time when as a teenager you are often struggling to find yourself, wanting nothing more than to fit in and Carrie White is an outcast from the beginning. But what was also scary about Carrie was that even at home, when you are supposed to be safe, her home life was unnerving and unsettling. Our parents are supposed to love and protect us but in Margaret White, she becomes a terrifying figure of authority that should be guiding and protecting us in our formative years. Nothing feels safe as Carrie’s story unfolds.
King also dazzles us with his varied storytelling technique, one that I had not seen before. Told with a mixture of newspaper clippings, letters, magazine articles and excerpts from other books, the narrative technique adds another sense of realism, cementing us firmly in Carrie’s world and Chamberlain in Maine. Suddenly telekinesis and pig’s blood becomes all the more real.
For such a slim book, Carrie packs in a lot of scares within its pages and even today still resonates with its readers. If you are looking where to start with Stephen King, start with Carrie as it is one hell of a beginning.
Rob Chilver works as a senior bookseller at a university branch of Waterstones. While this is great for getting an inside track on new releases, it goes without saying that his views are all his own and not those of his employer. He’s also the web wizard and editor of the Adventures With Words weekly podcast. He’s a big fan of James Bond and thrillers as well as American literature, which he studied at UEA and the University of Kent.