Carrie by Stephen King
Publication Date: April 5, 1974
Synopsis (from Goodreads) – “Carrie knew she should not use the terrifying power she possessed… But one night at her senior prom, Carrie was scorned and humiliated just one time too many, and in a fit of uncontrollable fury she turned her clandestine game into a weapon of horror and destruction…”
Welcome to part one of A King’s Ransom. This series of articles is a look at the full Stephen King library, including re-reading all his books from the start in chronological order, as well as watching the movies that came from his incredible career – both those adapted from his novels and short stories and those original films that King had a hand in creating.
I am starting back from the beginning, but I will only deal with short stories when they arrive in collected editions. Also, for King’s movies, I am just dealing with films adapted from his novels and short stories (or his original creations) and not any sequels – so don’t expect me to watch and talk about Children of the Corn 42.
With that said, I start out with Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie.
While Carrie wasn’t his first attempt at writing a novel, it was the first he published. The old story goes that Stephen King wrote the opening to Carrie, and when he finished those pages, he thought it was terrible and threw it in the trashcan. However, his wife Tabitha pulled it out of the trashcan and read it and demanded that King finish the book and submit it to his agent. Tabitha helped him write the female perspective of the characters, and he finished the novel – which he said was about “the world’s all-time loser.”
There is one fascinating thing to consider when looking at the story for Carrie, especially when comparing it to a later novel King wrote under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman called Rage. The story in Rage centered on a boy in a high school – a loser – who one day couldn’t take the bullying both inside and outside the classroom. He brought a gun to school and held his class hostage. After all the school shootings in America, King pulled Rage from publication.
However, Carrie tells the same story except with a protagonist/antagonist pushed to extreme lengths instead of the tragic final undertaking that Charlie Decker chose. At the end of the day, Carrie is a novel about a bullied high school student pushed to the limits – a school shooting without guns, but deadlier.
Carrie White is “the world’s all-time loser” because of her upbringing and the baggage she carries due to her mother, Margaret. While the novel paints the character of Chris Hargensen and her sociopath boyfriend Billy Nolan as the antagonists, and they are the individuals that finally sets off Carrie’s murderous rage, it is Margaret White who serves as the real antagonist of this story. Margaret is a religious fundamentalist who preaches hate and intolerance rather than love and understanding.
From the time that Carrie White was a young girl, Margaret treated her horrifically. These horrific actions are because Margaret believed herself unclean when she had Carrie and saw her daughter as a result of her sins – a punishment rather than a blessing. Margaret then developed a reputation around town as a slight lunatic, and that displayed itself when she caught her toddler daughter looking at a neighbor sunbathing and almost cut her own child’s eyes out.
That resulted in the first significant showing of Carrie’s telekinesis powers when she brought rocks down on her home. The next time her powers substantially manifested themselves came during her first period, and the most destructive manifestation occurred at the Black Prom.
It had been almost 30 years since I first read Carrie and upon re-reading this first Stephen King novel, I realized that I remembered very little about the story – including how King set the book up.
Stephen King told this story in a fascinating and unusual format. Scenes with excerpts from scientific journals, transcripts of hearings into the prom deaths, findings of the “White Commission,” and excerpts from a book written by Sue Snell break up the action in the story. King breaks a lot of rules of writing in this book. Whether it is adding excerpts spoiling the upcoming events to switching characters almost at a whim, it all works out perfectly. The tension and intrigue never let up until the explosive climax.
While Carrie White remains the focus of the story, it is not Carrie that the audience focuses on the most. Characters like Sue Snell, the high school girl who feels guilty about what happened to Carrie during her first period, and the duo of Chris and Billy get as much time, if not more than Carrie does. Margaret remains a frightening character, making Chris and Billy seems so insignificant in comparison, despite those two causing all the deaths at the prom with their pig’s blood prank.
If there is any slight to the story, it is that Chris, Billy, and Margaret seem to get quick deaths in comparison to their sins throughout the book. Carrie is a story about a girl bullied by her mother and all her classmates, a girl who ends up lashing out at the world. The sole survivors are the lucky ones but there are so many deaths that Carrie (by way of Chris, Billy, and Margaret) causes that seem wrong – and that is King’s point here.
Is anyone in this story innocent? Even the sympathetic characters like Miss Desjardin and Sue laughed and ridiculed Carrie – one on the inside and the other outwardly. Tommy, the most honest of all, seemed only to be humoring Carrie – at least until the night of the prom. His motives were selfish as well. No one in this entire book – including Carrie – had her best interests at heart.
The saddest moment in this book came when Carrie and Tommy walked into the prom together. She was beautiful, and while nervous, realized that there was hope. Kids who came up to make fun of her realized they couldn’t. Tommy was happy by her side. His friends marveled at the dress she made. There was a happy ending here waiting to happen. Then, Chris and Billy ruined everything, and the novel had the gut punch final climax.
The one area in Carrie where Stephen King coldcocks the reader takes Carrie White and makes us feel so sorry for her that when she makes the conscious decision to become a monster, the reader is on her side. Carrie chooses to kill everyone, and the readers are behind her in this mission, even though she is killing innocent people, kids who never slighted her, kids who just happened to be at a school dance but never bullied her. Carrie lived such a horrible life than King made us an accomplice to her disastrous reign of terror.
Carrie White was the victim in this novel. She was also the monster.
That is what makes Carrie a masterpiece.
** Check back later as I talk about the 1976, 2002 and 2013 adaptations of Carrie