Monday 7 April 2014

Carrie, by Stephen King

As astonishing as it might sound, Saturday 5th April marked the 40th anniversary of "Carrie" being published.  For various reasons, it was one of King's novels that I'd never got round to reading so when I was approached by Matthew Craig ( to take part in his Carrie At 40 celebrations, I decided now was as good a time as any.

My article on the book will appear on Matthew's site on Wednesday 16th April (don't worry, I'll remind you...), but in the meantime, to celebrate the occasion, here's my review of Stephen King's debut published novel.

N.E.L. paperback (1986 edition)
“Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.”

“Carrie” is a deceptively simple novel, told in an epistolary format that takes in accounts from academic textbooks, a commision report and Sue Snell’s autobigraphy (“My Name Is Sue Snell”, published in 1986) and set in the then near-future of 1979 (though I couldn’t work out why).  There are no chapter breaks but the book is broken into three parts.

Part 1 – Blood Sport opens on Carrietta White, who has lived her life abused not only at home (by her unstable, religious zealot mother Margaret) but also by virtually everyone she comes into contact with, from classmates, to passers-by and teachers.  Carrie is 16 and, to everyone’s disbelief, is experiencing her first period, which terrifies her.  Not quite understanding why, her classmates taunt and jeer at her, throwing tampons and sanitary towels at her (“Plug it up, plug it up!”) to cover their own disgust.  Her teacher, Miss Desjardins (perhaps the most sympathetic adult in the book), tries to help but Carrie is sent home where her mother beats her, locking her away to pray for forgiveness.  But the start of menstruation seems to have also unlocked a latent talent in Carrie (which she has been able to harness, briefly, in the past) for Telekinesis.  As her classmates are put into detention, one of them - a bully called Chris Hargensen - plots revenge and the course of the story is set in that one moment, with everything afterwards leading inexorably to destruction.

Sue Snell, another classmate who was involved in yelling “Plug it up!” feels terrible about the incident and asks her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom.  And this act of simple friendship and making amends, seals their fate.

Part 2 - Prom Night.  Chris and her greaser boyfriend Billy Nolan go to a local farm and kill two pigs, collecting their blood and placing it in buckets over the stage.  They rig the vote for Carrie and Tommy to win “Prom King & Queen” and as they sit on their thrones, all hell literally breaks loose.

Part 3 - Wreckage, follows the devastation that comes to the town once Carrie has left the Prom.  I won’t give away what happens but since the ending is alluded to through the course of the book, it’s safe to say that Carrie makes her feelings of injustice felt and no-one is safe.

King himself has commented that he finds the book to be "raw" and "with a surprising power to hurt and horrify” and I’d agree, it’s a harsh novel that looks at high school life with an eye for the viciousness that’s present in everyone (King was teaching at the time, so we can assume he was writing what he saw).  He paints the outsider well, the desperate need to close in on yourself as the world gathers around you, joking and taunting and life seems full of things that you don’t quite understand.

Sue Snell is essentially good and does what she does for the right reasons, though she pays the price of losing her boyfriend and his unborn child.  Tommy is a good kid, a jock with heart who isn’t actually hurt by Carrie though I found it troubling that she spent the last part of the novel thinking that he’d set her up.  The real horror, though, is in the characters of Chris and Billy.  She is very manipulative, using sex to get what she wants but in Nolan she’s finally met her match, since he’s not one of the frat boys who will roll over and do everything she wants him to.  In fact, I think he’s the real monster of the story and his casual violence is key to that.  On nights when his Mum and her latest boyfriend are arguing, he takes off cruising for stray dogs, later putting his car away with “its front bumper dripping”.

But everything, of course, centres around Carrie.  In my minds eye she looks, obviously, like Sissy Spacek but that’s not the picture King paints.  His Carrie is “a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her (wet) hair completely without colour.  She looked the part of the sacrificial goat, the constant butt” and at one point, she “looked around bovinely”.  She wants to get on with her life and fit in, she craves for normality and tries to be rebellious but nothing ever really seems to work.  Her menstruation not only brings her powers to a level she can control, it also opens the world up to her a little more, even if it’s just teasing glimpses.  She feels stronger, she takes a stand with her mother but part of the novels cruelty is that she never quite achieves what she wants to.  It changes her though and other characters, as well as the reader, sees this.  When Tommy asks her out, she seems different and he can’t quite work it out and when he goes to pick her up (in a beautifully written moment), she seems comfortable in her own body for once.

Margaret White looms over the whole book, cruelly abusive and living in fear of God in a house chock full of gruesome religious imagery.  Adding to the overall feel of unease are little throwaway moments that impact heavily, from Margaret’s actions to Billy Nolan and his dripping bumper.  There’s also a quick line about a character seeing a drunk in New York, saddled with a goitre who is leading away by the hand a little girl with a bloody nose and I found that image heartbreaking.

King is quoted as saying of the book “it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom."  As a seasoned horror reader, coming to this fresh, I would say that it’s a pretty damned good cookie.

Strikingly well written, with a wonderfully tight plot that runs like clockwork as the pieces fall into place, this is a terrific read that I wish I hadn’t waited forty years to get to.  Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! The fact that you waited 40 years meant you got to make the young Stephen King who wrote it, live again! As he once memorably put it - reading IS mind reading - across space and time.
    cheers to that miracle!