Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews





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“Shit don’t mean shit.”

In 1978 reclusive American literary great John Rothstein is murdered in the remote New Hampshire farm where he has spent the past 16 years. His safe is emptied, not only of the cash that he keeps there, but also of 150 or so notebooks which are believed to contain at least one new novel and countless short stories and story fragments. Morris Bellamy, the man who has just shot John Rothstein, considers himself the author’s biggest fan, whose only friend during his formative years was Rothstein’s greatest creation, Jimmy Gold. When Bellamy’s friend Andy Halliday refuses to help him sell on the notebooks – once Morris has read them, of course – Bellamy buries books and money in a trunk and promptly finds himself serving life in prison for a drink-fuelled rape that he has no memory of committing.

Thirty years later, Pete Saubers finds Bellamy’s trunk and recognises the value not only of the countless envelopes of money, but also of the notebooks that have remained hidden for so long. Tom Saubers, Pete’s father, is a victim of the recession and, to add insult to injury, is one of the people in line for the City Center Job Fair on that fateful morning when Brady Hartfield ploughs through it in a stolen Mercedes. When Pete approaches Andrew Halliday to try to sell Rothstein’s notebooks, he has no idea that it will coincide with Morris Bellamy’s parole. And Morris has waited thirty-five years to find out what happened to Jimmy Gold after Rothstein’s last published novel.

The first third of Stephen King’s latest novel, the follow-up to last year’s hugely successful Mr Mercedes, alternates between Morris Bellamy in 1978, and Pete Saubers as the first decade of the Twenty-first Century draws to a close, and the second sees a whole new life for his financially-strapped family. As well as giving us an in-depth insight into Morris Bellamy’s obsession, a different type of madness than drove Brady Hartfield, but no less dangerous in the long run, this section allows us to revisit the terrible Mercedes killings, and view the aftermath from the point of view of one of the survivors, and his young family. As always, King’s insight into the mind of Joe Q Public is second-to-none and we feel the pain and stress that threatens to tear the Saubers family apart, and understand the relief they feel when anonymous envelopes of money begin to appear in the mailbox.

Finders Keepers also, of course, sees the return of Kermit William “Bill” Hodges, retired City Police Detective who now runs the eponymous investigation company. He is approached by Pete’s little sister, who believes that the anonymous money has come from her brother, and that he may have done something bad to obtain it in the first place. Finding ourselves in the company of Bill once again – not to mention his unlikely sidekicks Holly and Jerome – is like finding ourselves in the company of an entertaining old friend. Hodges has changed much in the four years since the events of Mr Mercedes, not all for the good, but his mind is as sharp as ever and he is still a believable protagonist in the hands of King.

This second outing for Hodges et al takes a slightly different approach than the first. Instead of the straight crime novel we might have expected, King has injected Finders Keepers with a number of elements that bode ill for our heroes in the third book of the trilogy, and which are of a decidedly otherwordly origin. There are links here to King’s other works that are more overt than Mr Mercedes’ links to the likes of Christine and It: the number on the door of Brady Hartfield’s hospital room, for example, or the strange occurrences reported by the hospital staff, and the unforgettable clack! that will send a shiver down every Constant Reader’s spine. Hodges’ world is maybe not as close to ours as we imagined after reading Mr Mercedes, but is perhaps on a different level of the Dark Tower altogether.

There is a more obvious connection to one of King’s early greats: Morris Bellamy’s obsession with John Rothstein pales in comparison with that of Annie Wilkes for Paul Sheldon, but there are certainly parallels. Both have become so emotionally attached to their respective authors’ creations – Jimmy Gold for Bellamy; Misery Chastain for Wilkes – that any deviation from their idealised view of that character sends them into a murderous rage. Unlike Wilkes, Bellamy shoots Jimmy Gold’s creator in the head and hopes that the character’s salvation lies within the pages of the many notebooks that Rothstein has filled during his sixteen-year reclusion. The fact that Bellamy will have to wait over thirty years before he will get a chance to see what is in those notebooks is the ultimate irony. King is no stranger to obsessive fans, and he channels this knowledge into making Bellamy’s madness not only believable, but extremely frightening. And the appearance of the word “do-bee” will give anyone who has read Misery a severe dose of the willies.

A tale of obsession and family loyalty, Finders Keepers follows a similar formula to Mr Mercedes: a slow start (aside from the first chapter) during which we get to meet the main characters, leading to a fast-paced and intense climax during which nothing is guaranteed and both obsession – Bellamy’s need to see what is in the notebooks a driving force which blots out everything else – and family loyalty are put to the test. This is classic King: a character-driven story that worms its way deep into the reader’s life through the author’s grasp of how people work. Hodges and friends play a less central role than they did in their previous outing – the main story here concerns the parallels between Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers – but King is laying groundwork for the trilogy’s closing chapter, preparing for an epic battle between good and evil that is likely to rival The Stand.

Finders Keepers is yet another unmissable addition to the King canon, a work that focuses on story and character rather than genre. An in-depth examination of the nature of obsession, something that King has looked at many times before, most notably in Misery, this is a beautifully-written novel that makes us empathise with Morris Bellamy while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from him at all costs: “that’s not me!” we tell ourselves, but we’re left with the disturbing question of what we would do ourselves were we in Morris Bellamy’s shoes. This is Stephen King at his best, a writer with no equal producing work that continues to surprise, delight and horrify in equal measure.

#CarrieAt40: The Stephen King Chart

Just when you thought all the #CarrieAt40 madness was over, it’s time to reveal the next phase. To celebrate Stephen King’s 40 years as a published author, we’ve created a survey to try and determine – according to his fans – which are his most important, enduring, or just plain entertaining works.

The survey is split into four sections, for Novels, Short Stories, Novellas and Non-Fiction, and you can choose as many or as few titles in each category as you like. I’ll reveal the top entries in each category later this year.

Thanks to everyone who has responded to the survey so far, and for all of the feedback. I have finally found what I believe to be the easiest way to present the information to make life easier for you, the voter. The latest incarnation of the survey can be found at


Please, if you haven’t done so already, cast your vote, and spread the word.

Many thanks!

#CarrieAt40: Start at the Beginning by ROB CHILVER


On the web:

On Twitter: @robchilver

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, Salems 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.

#CarrieAt40: Forever Young and Bloody by ANDREW PYPER

demonoligst ANDREW PYPER

On the web:

On Twitter: @andrewpyper

Turning forty, that at once arbitrary but inarguable line between youth and mid-life, invites all manner of introspection, almost all of it unwelcome. I know, I had my turn at it a couple years ago. And no matter how strenuously and logically you tell yourself (and others, your fellow timebound mortals, the company that misery loves) that it’s a meaningless designation, that there’s nothing you can do about the ever-accelerating carousel of birthdays so you might as well ignore them, you nevertheless find yourself at some vulnerable moment, staring into the abyss (or the mirror) wondering How the hell did that happen?

How the hell did Carrie become middle-aged? The same way I did. And it only makes sense, seeing as I grew up with her.

The protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel wasn’t in my same year (thankfully so, as I wouldn’t have survived the prom) but she was only a few years ahead of me, cool and forbidden and dangerous. I read the novel that told her story too young, which made the impression it left on me all the deeper. And then, approaching manhood, came Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand. I was growing up. And Stephen King was becoming the most influential fiction writer of his generation as well as mine, the dazzled punks swimming after the brilliant light of his comet tail.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow novelist of a similar age to mine. We surprised ourselves by asking a question you’d think novelists would have had securely answered at the outset, but most have left unanswered – or carefully avoided – the whole way along. What do we wish our books to do? Be written about in serious ways in serious places? Change lives? Sell a ton?

After giving it another round of drinks worth of thought, I landed on something that felt accurate and true to me: I hope my novels create their own world, their own mythology. Redefine the shape of the Western imagination in some necessarily small but undeniable way, so that we can never think of, say, the fear we have of being pulled under the water as we swim alone in a lake, or the suspicion that demons are real and walk among us, in the same way we did before. To create stories that create us.

To do, in other words, what Stephen King has done.

Carrie is forty and the fact that we know this, celebrate it, universally deem it an occasion of note, isn’t just because it’s a famous book, but because it’s part of us whether we’ve read it or not. The rage of adolescent isolation expressed as repressed mental violence that, finally, explodes into fire: this pre-existed Carrie, but now it is Carrie.

As we get older, it’s generally harder to absorb new tweaks and revisions to our formative mythologies. The early novels of Stephen King won’t have the same meaning for a young reader today as they did for me – the world is different, and the imaginative tools we use to see it are different too. But the very idea of “world” is a construction, and fiction has always had a hand in assembling its parts. And now, down there in the dark basement, a brick in the foundation, is Carrie.

We age. But she is forever young.

Andrew Pyper is the author of six novels, most recently The Demonologist, which is a #1 bestseller in his native Canada and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel. His previous novels include Lost Girls and The Guardians. The Demonologist is currently in development for feature film with director/producer Robert Zemeckis and Universal Pictures.

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


On the web:

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.

#CarrieAt40: Bringing the Weird Home by MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH


On the web:

On Twitter: @ememess

There’s no doubt that horror fiction — and commercial fiction in general — would have been very different without the novel Carrie. Of course there were writers who’d blazed the trail — Richard Matheson and Ira Levin are two obvious examples — but in terms of bringing the weird home to where real people live, into recognisable places and spaces, King has been a game-changer with no equal. Carrie managed a double cultural whammy, too, as Brian de Palma’s engagingly flashy movie version was a striking encapsulation of the times, and the iconic image of the ethereal Sissy Spacek drenched in blood is hard to forget.

Carrie was actually nothing like the first King I read (I joined at The Talisman, and then worked back) but without its runaway success it’s unlikely he’d have written those later works — and without them, I very likely wouldn’t be a writer. One of the truly scary things about life is how your own can be wholly turned around by things outside your control…

Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter, and the only writer ever to win the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story four times. His novel The Intruders is currently in production as a TV series with BBC America, starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son.

#CarrieAt40: Fear by LOU SYTSMA

skpodcast LOU SYTSMA

On the web:

On Twitter:  (Lou Sytsma) @OldDarth
                  (The Stephen King Podcast) @SKingPodcast


For over four decades, Stephen King has been the choice of many a Constant Reader to be our Guide into our deepest fears. But we didn’t put our trust in King freely. He earned it.

With each new work, King spun another engaging tale of fiction. They are often tales of impossible events. But they are rooted in the lives of everyman characters living in everyday worlds we could relate to.

Like many other posters here, my first introduction to King was not via Carrie but Salem’s Lot. My recollection of earlier years is a fog shrouded landscape akin to what King described of his own memories in his On Writing book. Many cherished memories that stay with me today are stranded islands in a sea of fuzzy ones. One of the few true memory beams that run between them is that of being one of King’s Constant Readers. Just knowing that King knew we were out there made me feel part of a special group.

I read mostly Science Fiction back then with the occasional foray into Fantasy and Horror. Most Horror fiction I cannot relate to. There is either a lack of plausibility or believable characters. Or both. My belief is that Horror is the hardest genre to write for. I also believe the best horror is about the monsters inside each of us. King wrote about the type of horror I was interested in and in a manner that made his stories and characters seem almost real. He is one of the few writers that makes the pages disappear and swallows me whole into the story.

Carrie’s need to establish her own identity and to be acknowledged during a time of great personal change struck a chord with me and many others. It was also about how the forces of prejudice and bullying can forever thwart or extinguish such growth. Carrie is a book about universal themes that exist not only in the past, but today, and will continue to do so in the future.

When I got to Carrie, I don’t remember if it came after The Shining or not. I want to say before but it doesn’t really matter. Between those three early books, King established his amazing ability to create indelible characters and tell stories of fiction that carried a never spoken but always felt core of truth to them.

CujoAnd King repeats that trick in book after book. Most people know who Carrie is. The Dead Zone has been coined into the popular lexicon. Cujo has become the go to name for menacing or rabid dogs.

The Stand blew me away with the scope and the character juggling act King pulled off, but it was Dead Zone that cemented his ability, in my mind, to mix the fantastic with reality because it was so intimate. To create an everyman character with the ubercommon name of John Smith, take away his normal life path and replace it with one where he can stop a modern day Hitler from launching Armageddon; that blows my mind. The arc from the commonplace to the fantastical is brilliantly done as Johnny follows his tragic arc with the seams between the two masterfully blurred. Dead Zone is an amazing mix of the epic and the personal.

I mentioned Fear in the opening because that is what King is best known for. But it is the exploration of what Fear does to people that has made him the enduring writer he is. Fear cannot exist without Love. And those two feelings drive everything else that we feel and do. That is what King writes about. Plus he always adds a dash of fun and/or humor to his writing. Often overlooked but very important.

What does the forty year anniversary of Carrie mean to me? It marks the start of a forty year open invite from Stephen King. An invite to his Constant Readers to join him around his story telling campfire to spin us a new yarn. This year, like last year, King has put that invite out twice. Upcoming are Mr. Mercedes and Revival. These are great times for King fans as King rarely disappoints.

Thanks to Matthew Craig for giving me this opportunity to do some fan gushing – King Style!

Lou Sytsma has been a King Constant Reader for forty years. For more Stephen King thoughts check out his podcast – The Stephen King Podcast – jointly presented with Hans Lilja over at the Lilja’s Library Website. A website dedicated to Stephen King that has been running since 1996. You will not only find all the episodes of the podcast there but lots of Stephen King related material.

#CarrieAt40: Dancing to Stephen King’s Tune by SIMON TOYNE

The-Tower-Simon-Toyne SIMON TOYNE

On the web:

On Twitter: @simontoyne

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.

DeadZoneMy 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.

#CarrieAt40: We Know These People by NEAL MUNRO

Johannes_Gutenberg NEAL MUNRO

On the web:

On Twitter: @GutenbergsSon

200px-EyesofthedragonCarrie 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.

Neal Munro (Gutenberg’s Son) is an amateur blogger lazily posting random book reviews (randomly) in the fields of Science Fiction and Mystery and Horror.

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