Sunday, April 07, 2024

Happy 50th Anniversary to Stephen King's Carrie!


The original hardcover jacket art for Carrie. 
[image courtesy of @from__my__bookshelf]

When a Boston Globe reporter contacted me in early March 2024, and asked if I could chat with him about the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Stephen King’s Carrie, I was thrilled.  I was also amazed – 50 years!  How wild (and how significant) that this seminal King book is at the half-century mark – it’s kind of unbelievable.

At any rate, after talking to Mark Shanahan of the Boston Globe, and thinking more about the book, I wanted to sit down with my notes and write out some of my responses to Carrie to mark the occasion of her anniversary. {NOTE: I’m posting this on both the Strange Maine blog and the Green Hand blog.}


In preparation, I tore through the book in two sittings overnight.  By a strange coincidence, a friend had just randomly given me their spare copy the week before, so I had one handy (thanks Amanda!!). I also had this silly image from back in Sept. 2012 when I posted about how September 21st is Mr. King's birthday -- and it is also Carrie White's birthday! (Talk about a fire hazard!!!)

I found Carrie far more stunning during this re-read than when I first read it.  This is for a couple of reasons.  1)  I didn’t first read it when I was a kid.  That didn’t happen until I was around 30 years old.  (No judgement, please!  I was terrified of horror books as a kid, because I had a way-too-active imagination.)  I can’t even imagine how primal and disturbingly real I would have found it as a teenager – I certainly saw and experienced elements of it in too-close real life.  2)  When I did finally read it, it was as an audiobook, which loses a huge amount in translation.  I’ll talk more about this below. 


What makes Carrie so special?  Above all, it is Stephen King’s first published novel, infamously saved from the trash bin by his wife, Tabitha.  It is very clearly a harbinger of major things to come.  Even if it had been his only book (imagine that for a minute!), it would still have been a stunning debut. 


Mixed into the vast pile of “paperbacks from Hell” that was strewn across checkout lanes and bookshops beginning in the 1970s, its contents differed particularly from most of its peers in one significant way: its main character was a powerful young female.  If you have read a sampling of other horror novels from this time period, you will have noticed that very few female characters are employed by authors that move beyond the basics.  Most are simple placeholders, reflective characters, stereotypes (notably the slut or bitch). 


An early printing in paperback.
But one of the first things I noticed when re-reading Carrie was that within the 1st fifth of the book alone, we are introduced to at least a dozen women, and at least half of those have noticeably complex personalities.  They are not cookie cutter characters.  Especially in comparison to his peers, this is a phenomenal achievement.


The other reason these multi-layered characters are possible is because King writes Carrie in a way that is already cinematic.  Narration cuts between characters seamlessly, with no confusion about the fact we are hearing from a new character.  The story is told from a multitude of different viewpoints, each cleanly building on the last, rather than muddying the chain of events.  Each of these threads also paints a picture of the small town world that Carrie is a part of, however isolated from it she might be by her mother’s obstructive tendencies. 


Not only does the telling shift between the people in the story, but also it shifts between their internal dialogue and what they are saying verbally, in the real world.  Layers upon layers build up quickly.  To fully experience the graceful formatting of text that allows this to unfold, I recommend reading the real paper-and-ink version, rather than listening to the audiobook.


King drops in segments of other works – articles from clinical publications, medical reports, excerpts from autobiographies, even snippets of graffiti documented from various small landmarks left behind during Carrie’s painful academic and social path.  His incorporation of these snippets informs us early on that the journey we are embarking on has both deep roots in the social past, and also has vast implications in the near future.  It is all done very neatly.  Nothing feels extraneous. 


It gives the novel an epistolary feel, but each interjection is brief enough that it feels more like the beginning of insight rather than interrupting the flow.  It also makes one want to find and read these other works – to go down the rabbithole of The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Carietta White, Black Prom: The White Commission Report, My Name Is Susan Snell (1986), Carrie: the Black Dawn of Telekinesis, Ogilvie’s Dictionary of Psychic Phenomena  - to hunt down articles like “We Survived the Black Prom” and “Telekinesis: Analysis and Aftermath”.  [NOTE: The efficacy of these inclusions are something that gets lost when the book is read via audiobook.]


The book is painful, and a terrifically fast read.  But somehow the little details are laid in sharp focus, and like the best slow horror, these tiny ghosts come back to you later in the quiet hours when you find yourself alone, thinking about Carrie.  For myself and many others, this means thinking back to when we were in school.  How others treated us.  How we treated others.  If you were an outsider, like I and many of my friends were, there are noticeable parallels, both experienced personally and observed as others nearby were attacked around us over the years. 


There is also, oddly and importantly, an appreciation of how perhaps not every popular girl is as perfect or as set on conformity as her peers.  It goes both ways.  This book is a good reminder of that.


It also excels at noting the often deadly power of silence.  Of not speaking up.  The silence that represses, until a multitude of small sad or horrible things explode under pressure, launching sideways out into the world, publicly and without chance of avoidance.  It’s too late.  Yet it happens over and over again. 


We don’t act on these warnings, we simply continue on, and forget.  As Susan Snell says ominously, a mere 7 years after the events in Carrie: “They’ve forgotten her, you know.”  It doesn’t take long before the cycle starts all over again.  We humans are pretty terrible at learning from our mistakes.  Even in the interleaved snippets in Carrie, this missing-the-whole-point occurs, as pundits and analysts focus on tracking down the genetic markers of the next Carrie, rather than on reminders that maybe we humans should treat each other with more compassion, and thereby divert ourselves from causing volatile eruptions.


As horrifying as Carrie is, it somehow doesn’t feel exploitative.  There are moments when King could have really put the screws to us and he chose not to.  Unbearable moments that are glimpsed in merciful fragments.  And tiny details tie back to earlier omens, right down to the beating of water on the shower room tiles, and are transformed, rooting and blooming into something horrible and new.


At the end of the book, forced by this sequence of small-but-terrible events, Carrie has truly come into her own, and everyone – everyone in town knows her at last, though they never wanted to.


One of the questions the journalist asked was what influence I saw in modern culture from Carrie.  I really struggled with answering that.  In looking back over those 50 years, few came in King’s footsteps who dared unleash on their readers that very real element of female power and the hazard of its incandescent rage.  It is possible that it is truly too terrifying for most people to handle.  Too real. 


Only in the last 10 years am I seeing horror which regularly features this complex female element, and many of these books are coming out of the current “new horror” wave, emerging as publishers such as Tor Nightfire hit their stride and push out some extraordinarily fierce female-driven horror.  In discussing it with my husband, it’s also so obvious I don’t even need to mention that the “final girl” trope, which has finally come into its own in both film and fiction, harbors more than strong echoes of Carrie.


Reading Carrie again made me wonder a few things.  King wrote ahead of his time.  The book, released in 1974, chronicles events that were set in 1979, witnessing also their ripple effects in the years directly afterward.  Was he trying to point out how human stresses in our schools among our children might play out, if something wasn’t done to alter our trajectory?  Or was he just eerily prescient of a trend in school violence to come, killing hundreds of children between 2000 and 2021? 


At any rate, intentional or not, Carrie’s story reminds us that the ability to hurt each other and to ignore the pain of our fellow humans is still something we haven’t learned to improve yet.  And King doesn’t create this larger story.  We continue to do that, all by ourselves.


On a more curious note, I also wondered about King’s appraisal of telekinesis, and whether he hoped that someday we would find proof that it and other psychic abilities are amongst our hardwired heritage as human beings.  A terrifying and exhilarating prospect, and one which I have pondered myself, ever since I was a little girl – long before I read Carrie (that would have been when I was reading The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts!).  And access to that ability is something that scares as much as it empowers, even from the point of view of whoever wields it.


I hope that those of you who haven’t read Carrie in many years will consider picking up the book again for a quick re-read, and those of you who haven’t met Carrie White might take this opportunity to get to know her.  After all, she’s just the girl down the block that you’ve never paid any attention to before.  What could possibly go wrong?

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