Reading Stephen King’s Carrie 40 years later

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The problem (if one can call it that) with reading Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, 40 years after it originally published in 1974 is you know what happens. The bloody parts, anyway.

Carrie White, an introverted, sheltered teenage girl genetically gifted with telekinetic powers, has her first menstrual period (not realizing what it is at the age of 16) in a high school shower stall and falls prey to her classmates’ ruthless bullying. When Carrie isn’t being tormented by her peers in Maine, she’s mentally victimized at home by her religious fanatic of a mother, Margaret White, who currently polls first among Maine Tea Party candidates who are vying for an open state Senate seat.

SPOILER ALERT: Wait! I’m sorry, I think the two preceding sentences might have divulged important details to someone who hasn’t read the book and who now is saying, “Oh, man! Why’d he go and write that?” And if that’s the case, where the hell have you been for the past 40 years? Seriously, you didn’t have any inkling of an idea about Carrie’s travails? You didn’t, like me, see bits and pieces of the original movie adaptation starring Sissy Spacek as Carrie? Really? Now, I don’t recall seeing the movie straight through, but I remember the classmates setting Carrie up as the
high school prom queen, only to have Vinnie Barbarino dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her to humiliate her, and then blood-soaked Carrie flashes open her eyes, locks down the school with her telekinesis, sets the building ablaze, and essentially commits one of the first mass murders in
an American high school without bringing a gun. Anyone who’s nearing 40 and doesn’t know that is probably pulling the lever for Margaret White.

So, if you already know what happens in Carrie because of the movie (and the one that came out last year), why bother reading King’s first book?

Because it’s always nice to see how the greats started their careers, to read King’s work, knowing it was written at a point in his life when he was living paycheck to paycheck, hoping to be able to make a living that could support his family.

Now, I wasn’t expecting King to write the book in third-person narration interrupted by scientific journals discussing the Carrie White phenomenon, or witness testimonials to the Carrie White Commission, or novel excerpts published by surviving classmates. Had I not already known what happened at the high school, the way King teases up to it, I would know Carrie’s responsible for something awful that laid waste to many people. But what? And we know it must be bad. Commissions aren’t typically convened to discuss why ice cream tastes yummy.

Thinking back, King was in his early 20s, not far removed from his high school days, a time when we all either witness bullying or are victimized by it. So the material was brutally fresh in his mind. Now, Carrie isn’t “boo!” scary, nor is it gory. King spills blood with purpose, never in irrelevant excess. Carrie’s disturbing because of what we all witnessed in high school. We identify with the characters (sometimes wishing we didn’t). It’s not unusual for impressionable teens desiring to smite their enemies, but rarely do they act on it in ways that grab headlines. King delves into Carrie’s mind and her classmates’, and we get the creeps because the warning signs were there, but ignored. A teacher laments that she didn’t try to help Carrie sooner. No doubt the same has been said for the murderers of school children we’ve read about for far too long.

Carrie’s a sad book more than anything–a sad but great introduction by a novelist who knew what he was doing way back when. And for the record, I couldn’t have read Carrie when it was released. I was a year away from birth. And, fortunately, telekinesis skipped over me.

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