Carrie

Carrie

4 out of 5 Buckets of Pig Blood

4 out of 5 Buckets of Pig Blood

 

StephenKing.com Synopsis: The story of misfit high-school girl, Carrie White, who gradually discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Repressed by a domineering, ultra-religious mother and tormented by her peers at school, her efforts to fit in lead to a dramatic confrontation during the senior prom. 

BOOK ONE

Carrie, First Edition

Carrie, First Edition

Yes, I know I’m toying a bit with the Devil here.

It is with eyes wide open that I endeavor to build a website dedicated to critically reading and writing about the work of an author who has made no bones about his distaste for literary criticism, and who insists there is no deeper meaning to his work than the joy of creation. While I may agree with the Master of Horror on the former, I have to humbly disagree with him on the latter. One cannot simply accept that a writer of “pulp” trash novels can go on to sell over 350 million books, nearly each of them being made into a movie (many of them more than once), and become a cultural mainstay without there being some there there.

Identifying what exactly it is that has so captivated millions of readers and movie-goers is, frankly, one of the primary drives behind the creation of this website. By dissecting every single corner of the King Multiverse, my hope is that some sort of picture will emerge, of an underlying Jungian structure that explains how a random dude from Bangor, ME could go on to become one of the most financially successful and culturally influential writers of all time.

Now, I’ve already read nearly every one of these books at least once over, and nearly 3 decades of fandom have given me a few vague suspicions as to what makes these stories so consistently special.

First and foremost, Stephen King came at a time in the history of modern literature in which there both existed a gigantic literary tradition, spanning centuries, and yet the postmodern habit of recasting old tropes and structures through the lens of realism and modernity was only beginning to take shape. The second half of the 20th century was a weird time, when artists could somehow borrow the prestige and cultural cache of ancient tropes and archetypes, while simultaneously staking claim to them forevermore, forcing all artists afterwards to contend with this new, postmodern version. Tolkien did it with orcs and elves and goblins, even the Medieval period itself. All of these things had existing long before Tolkien’s time, yet his Ring trilogy permanently altered the shape of these mythical creatures forever. All fantasy artists that followed have been forced to reckon with the “original.” The Tolkien effect has been so intense that even now, the fantasy genre can barely keep its head out of the sand trap of medievalism.

The curious thing about this phenomenon is that it’s a trick that can only be performed once. There can only be one J.R.R. Tolkien, and everyone after is only copying or reacting to the impact of this first, ur-artist. The 20th century is littered with them (Pollock, Capote, Lucas, Warhol to name just a few), but no artist has arguably laid claim to as many myths as Stephen King. The man has effectively conjured and vanquished everyone boogeyman in the Western mythological canon, leaving almost nothing for those that have followed in his wake. It’s no wonder, the artist himself sometimes struggles to avoid copying himself; it’s all been done, and in most cases, he’s the one who did it. Telekinesis: Carrie and Firestarter. Haunted houses: The Shining. Rabid fandom: Misery. Vampires: ‘Salem’s Lot. Killer machines: Christine, “Trucks,” “The Lawnmower Man.” Killer fucking clowns! If humans have been afraid of something Stephen King has conjured the definitive modern version of it. No other artist can claim that level of cultural impact; he literally owns our nightmares.

CARRIE BOOK COVERS

And this is why he’s called the Master of Horror, and it’s an easy enough explanation for why he’s been so consistently popular and financial successful, even as his chosen industry has bled out around him. But, if that was all there was to it, I’m not sure he would be held in as high esteem by his peers as he is. After-all Michael Bay is enormously successful, but you don’t find many in Hollywood defending the artistic merit of his films. The stories are great. The monsters are great, and they certainly go a long way to explaining the appeal, but not all of it.

In the end, Stephen King stories are successful for the same reason all great fiction is successful…because he writes damn good characters. More than almost any other author I’ve read, he invests in his characters, giving them cavernous backstories and motivations that inform their actions and make them wholly believable no matter what bizarre supernatural circumstances they may find themselves in. He takes the time to describe the towns and villages through which the characters move, turning these places into characters of their own, capable of sadness, joy, and even animosity. It’s his attention to detail, and worrying over the motivations of his characters that sets a Stephen King novel apart. The story may be about killer trucks, but damn if he isn’t gonna make you care deeply for the victims before the truck eats them. And if he’s feeling especially inspired, he might even make you care for the truck too.

This is, of course, also one King’s biggest faults as well, and one of the most often cited reasons for quitting a novel of his given by the rare non-fan…he writes too much. There’s’ too much detail. But for the King faithful, it’s one of the things we love most, the full immersion in a world that is familiar and lived-in, yet filled with supernatural terrors and almost Jungian nightmares. It’s this combination of fundamental postmodern myth-making and old-school character development that has made King one of the most powerful cultural forces this world has ever seen.

And it’s the interplay between the quotidian and supernatural that makes King’s first published novel, Carrie, a powerful opening salvo in his incredible career.

Released in 1974, Carrie’s plot is so straight-forward it’s basically given away in the tag phrases of the marketing collateral used to sell the book. A lonely girl named Carrie White, unbeknownst to her bullying classmates, develops the ability to move things with her mind. When she’s pushed too far by a vicious prom night prank, she explodes in an orgy of blood, anger, and violence. The description reads like a grindhouse flick, or a pulp novel, but in a turn that would define the entirety of his career, Stephen King takes a thin, but novel, conceit and spins it into pop gold by populating the story with characters that matter, that feel real, that have tragic, but wholly human motivations.

At its heart, Carrie is a classic tragedy, descending from the backbone of an almost Shakespearean ironic turn that makes the last third of the book equally horrific and sad. In the end, none of the characters deserve what they get (well, except for Billy Nolan, who is the first in what’s become a long line of classic Kingian assholes). Not Tommy Ross, who just wants to make Sue Snell happy. Certainly not Carrie herself. Even Chris Hargensen, who might be a spoiled, vindictive brat, but is as much a victim of her circumstances and any other character in the book. Take the supernatural elements out of it, and Carrie could be any other tale of a small, tense town where one small action leads to another and then another, and soon the fireworks start flying before anyone realizes what’s happening. Only this time an entire town is leveled because the one letting off the fireworks can light them with her mind.

It's a trope King would revisit directly nearly 20 years later in Needful Things, but which has been a nearly constant refrain in his work. He’s fascinated (obsessed?) with the machinations of small town life, with the way small lives grind against each other creating sparks that can lead to an inferno. Carrie is no different; the details are why this book is so effective. Each character has a believable motive, drawn from their character and the circumstances they find themselves in, and these colliding motivations realistically set up the final irony and destructive set piece. That every character is not entirely blameless (no matter how small their part), makes the book’s final moments that much more affecting.

A perfect example is the single scene with Chris Hargensen’s father, the bigshot lawyer, and the school principal, in which Mr. Hargensen attempts to bully the principal into letting Chris off the hook for instigating the bathroom incident that sets the whole novel off. On the face of it, this could be a throw-away scene, unnecessarily introducing two characters barely used elsewhere. Yet, in just a few short pages, King shows you everything you need to know about Chris Hargensen, and why her revenge on Carrie becomes an obsession. You see where her arrogance and entitlement come from; you see why she feels she needs to take “justice” into her owns hands. Beyond that, this scene ends up as one of the most critical scenes in the book, a sort of turning point beyond which the events of Prom Night become nearly inevitable. If the principal had caved to Mr. Hargensen’s demands, then Chris would never have felt it was necessary to punish Carrie further, Carrie would probably have still gone to prom with Tommy, and who knows what sort of positive effects would have flowed from that. Surely Chamberlain would still be standing.

This is the beauty of this book, and the beauty of Stephen King’s work as a whole, that such small moments can hold such importance. Characters matter, and sometimes it’s important to show a character’s motivation rather than tell.

Yet, coincidentally, telling too much is the only true fault in the novel. Punctuating the main thrust of the story are flash-forward snippets from news stories, tell-all memoirs, and minutes from something called the White Commission. It’s a postmodern narrative device that probably seemed novel at the book’s release, and was likely meant to build suspense, but is clearly the defense mechanism of a young author not entirely confident in the strength of his story. If one were to take all these snippets out of the book, Carrie would lose nothing. It would be a stronger book, because all the pieces of classic fiction are there: great characters, a driving plot, and tragic ending that leaves the audience heartbroken.

Carrie was an almost immediate smash, spawning a hit movie just two years later, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It was a smash because it was well-written, entertaining, and spectacularly violent, a tale of unexpected sadness and devastation spawned from the most mundane of places, a high school locker room. Yet, over time, the themes which seemed timeless (bullying, high school social hierarchies, small town tempests in teapots, etc.) have become uncomfortably timely in an era of weekly school shootings, #MeToo, and creeping political paranoia. A story that was once a revenge fantasy has now become reality, as nearly every week a new “Carrie” takes out their revenge on their unwitting peers.  

   

BOOK TWO

According to legend, Carrie was Stephen King’s response to readers and friends claiming his work was too masculine, that he didn’t know how to write believable women. Carrie is a book populated almost entirely by women, with most of the men playing the part of evil caricatures, or easily duped buffoons. This is a book about women. But is it feminist? Is Carrie White a feminist icon, even if a bit problematic? Does it prove Stephen King could write believably about women?

The easiest question to answer is the first; Yes, Carrie is at least a soft feminist book. After-all it is a genre book, written by a man, which tells a tale almost exclusively from the female perspective. It’s a book that starts with 20 pages of discussion about menstruation, for goodness sake; That alone nearly qualifies it for the feminist genre canon. It may be a story about women at their worst, and overly focused on the theme of blood (menstrual and otherwise), but it is still a story about women (and it passes the Bechdel test!). It’s an inversion of what would become the dominant horror narrative through the 1970’s and beyond. As Tom Hawking writes for FlavorWire, “instead of a bunch of hapless attractive females fleeing from a predatory male, it’s Carrie wreaking revenge on the boys who have humiliated her. She fills the roles of both protagonist and traditional antagonist, and the neat trick is that instead of sympathizing with the characters fleeing the killer, you end up sympathizing with the killer.”

1976 FILM ADAPTATION

The book’s feminism carries through to its characters, who are all women with agency or are struggling against misogyny to develop theirs. Chris uses her agency to torment other people, and get whatever she wants when she wants it, even if that ironically leads her into the snare of truly deplorable and violent man. Sue and Mrs. Desjardin use theirs to try to find some sort of justice for Carrie. Margaret White uses her’s to uphold an oppressively misogynistic worldview for herself and her daughter. And Carrie simply wants to find some sort of agency for herself. We see five different women using their power in five different ways; we even see women as the primary perpetrators of misogyny. While the story is hardly depicting a feminist utopia, free of patriarchy and misogyny, it does show a variety of women struggling within the bounds of late 20th century patriarchy. It’s very much a product of second wave feminism, and should be judged accordingly. It may not buck the patriarchy, but it certainly depicts women finding their own voices within it.

Margaret White and Sue Snell in particular stand out as extremes in the continuum, warring inadvertently against one another for Carrie’s fate. Margaret is virulently fundamentalist, insisting that only sinful women get breasts or their period, or have sex. She views Carrie as a constant reminder of her own sinfulness, of her weakness in the face of the male libido, and she blames herself for Carrie’s powers. Carrie is a devilish freak sent by God as punishment for Margaret’s sin. As Derry Public Radio points out in the first of their three shows about Carrie, Margaret thought that she was growing a cancerous tumor inside her during her pregnancy with Carrie; she literally thought Carrie was a cancer. Margaret’s self-hating misogyny not only torments her daughter, but also plays a sort of self-fulfilling role in the events of the novel. She hates her daughter for what she represents and so Carrie hates herself, and her self-loathing makes her an easy target for bullies. King alludes to this early on, by showing how even Mrs. Desjardin finds it hard to feel more than pity for Carrie. Carrie is unlovable in large part because her mother has never shown her love, and if Carrie cannot love herself, why should anyone else love her?

Margaret White is the archetype of the self-hating female misogynist. Like the Commanders’ wives in The Handmaid’s Tale a decade later, she is driven by religious fundamentalism to actively sublimate her own agency and the agency of her daughter to the patriarchy. She is unable to reconcile her own womanhood with her faith and so she seeks to tear out everything that reminds her of being a woman, including memories of her own sexual experiences, including her daughter, the result of that sex.

Sue Snell, on the other hand, is a unique inversion of the normal “pretty” girl trope from countless media. She is not merely a braindead pawn in another’s machinations, she takes part in the horrible opening sequence of the book, feels guilt, and uses her power, position, and agency to try to raise up another woman. She’s sexually active (usually a mortal sin for a woman in a horror story), and confident enough in her societal position to risk damaging it by cajoling her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom. As Sarah puts it nicely in her review of the 2013 Carrie film for Cinesnark, “The one character capable of redemption is Sue Snell, who is sexually active, suggesting that female value is determined—gasp—not by sexuality but by one’s sense of personal morality.” Sue’s story arc is driven by her moral compass, and though she is sexually active, and the unwitting architect of the horror that ensues, she is still clearly the best person in the story. Sarah again:

“If Carrie is the fantasy of feminine power, then Sue is its practical application. Carrie can murder her tormentors with mind bullets but Sue’s strength derives from her own internal moral compass. She has done wrong and she knows it, and she sets about atoning for it by offering a uniquely feminine sacrifice—the perfect prom night.”

So, if the structure of Carrie is at least feminist lite, and the characters populating the story exhibit a broad range of female perspectives, it can be fair to say that King at least achieved what he set out to do. He wrote a second wave feminism-tinged genre story with believable female characters. But what about the titular character? Is Carrie a feminist icon, or is she just another witch that needs to burn?

That is a hard question to answer. There is compelling evidence to support either argument. On the one hand, Carrie’s powers are intimately tied to her burgeoning sexual awakening, and a story which draws a line between destructive power and female sexual empowerment sure smacks of the age-old, burn-the-witch mentality of millennia. On the other hand, Carrie can also be seen as a refreshing dash of old school revenge fantasy. After-all, it’s not the witch that burns in this story. Why should a woman finally be granted ultimate power and use it for good? Carrie doesn’t have to be the hero to be a feminist icon; equality means that women can also be the villains.

In the end, I think Carrie is perhaps both of these things simultaneously. She is both an archetypal witch of stories past, whose powers are released as she comes into her womanhood, and a sympathetically tragic character who helped clear an alternate path for female villains in genre stories. Perhaps this was by choice. Perhaps King made Carrie a classic witch so that he could show her transcendence beyond that age-worn archetype. I suppose how much leeway you’re willing to give him stems from your view on male writers of a certain age, or how well you think King has drawn female characters in his other works.     

Or perhaps he was making an even bleaker point, that the only way to truly escape the grasping, oppressive structure of misogyny and patriarchy was to blow the whole damn thing up.

 

BOOK THREE

I first became aware of the “#{Insert Town Here}Strong” meme last Fall, 2017, when Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston, TX wreaking terrible damage across the region, and eliciting panicked comparisons to Katrina. Then, a little over a month later, another sort of American natural disaster struck, a man opened fire through his hotel window on thousands of concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing nearly as many people in less than an hour than Harvey did over days.

In both cases, there emerged an almost knee-jerk Social Media memetic response that proclaimed to the world that there were deep wells of strength in these places, that they would respond, and rebuild, and grow stronger in spite of the tragedies that had befallen them. Similar responses: #NewtownStrong, #ParklandStrong, #HoustonStrong, #LasVegasStrong. These were, are, totemic statements, meant to encourage and reassure, using the language and coding of modern social media to stitch together those who cared or were impacted in a daisy chain of thoughts and prayers, and wails of sadness and horror. It is now a part of the process of healing and then forgetting in these tragic times. First the horror, then the thoughts and prayers, then the “Strong” hashtag and the punditry and arguments, and then finally the next tragedy comes along and we forget and we start the cycle again.

But what if there was no one left to mourn? What if the tragedy was so sudden and complete that no one documented it, no one sent frantic cell phone video to CNN? What if a place just stopped, and no one was left, and no one really cared?

2013 FILM ADAPTATION

These questions run between the lines in Carrie though the book was written nearly 40 years before Twitter and hashtags. It’s a novel so timeless that it could have been released last year without changing more than a handful of details. High school bullying still exists. There is still religious zealotry that destroys families and alienates children. Kids are still brutally cruel to their classmates. The one difference, the thing that is supposed to make Carrie genre fiction, is that the child being bullied has a terrible power she can unleash on her classmates at any time.

But then, that part of the tale is awfully familiar now too.

Stephen King knew how terrible high school can be, that emotional and sometimes physical violence is almost a daily occurrence in most schools. It was true in 1974 when the novel was released, and it’s true now. And certainly the specter of mass violence must have been tossing around in the back of his head; After-all, he was less than a decade removed from when Charles Whitman went to the top of the Main Building Tower at the University of Texas and took 18 lives, including his own. As he wrote Carrie, the Vietnam War still raged on the news, just 4 years before students had been gunned down at Kent State University, and the country was being torn apart by the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. Everywhere King looked, things must have seemed to be breaking down, and he responded (whether consciously or unconsciously) by writing a book in which a small town, the quintessential microcosm of America, is destroyed by a monster of its own creation.

The universality of his destructive parable is part of the lingering horror of the book. From his "aw shucks" Main Street setting, to the constant interjections of the Carrie White Commission, King goes to great lengths to make sure we understand this is a town like any other. That this rot could happen anywhere, and that the emergence of another Carrie White was basically a statistical certainty. The events of the book are like the growth of a hurricane, starting with a flutter of wings an ocean away and ending with utter destruction. No matter how improbable the sequence of events required to make such a horrible thing happen, they still happen multiple times a year. If you have enough flint striking iron, eventually you’ll have a fire.

In the end, by suggesting that another Carrie is not only possible, but likely in the future, King asks the reader whether Chamberlain seems familiar, whether these moments seem familiar, and if we can’t see this all happening again. That one of the key variables is that the bullied victim must possess a superhuman power to wreak horrifying destruction must have seemed like a stretch at the time of its publication, a writerly wink and nudge to the reader that King is only kidding, that we’re all in on the joke. This can’t really happen here. The supernatural as court jester, distracting the audience from the horror of reality. In 1974, Stephen King had to conjure telekinesis in order to give a bully the power to level a town. Nowadays, all King would need to make Carrie work, is a little affluenza and an unlocked gun safe.

Or perhaps he wouldn’t have written the book at all. Maybe it would have seemed a little too on the nose. After-all, that we’re dealing with Carrie after Carrie in real life is part of the ongoing appeal of King’s book, but it’s also why it has such an unsettling legacy. In Carrie, King points toward bullying, a violent and abusive mother, and a deeply flawed system as the prime culprits for Carrie White’s downfall. In real life we know the reasons for mass violence are not so cut and dry. Privilege, racism, bullying, stress, celebrity worship, mental illness. These factors swirl together, mixing with the potent miasma of hormones and social pressure of high school to create unique combinations of the same bitter potion. 24 times this year alone, in fact.

If you have enough flint striking iron, eventually you’ll have a fire.

At the time King wrote Carrie, mass violence was still a Federal thing, a remote thing, something you saw on television and heard about on the radio. It was a novel trick to bring that violence home to Everytown, America, and the hurt and shock of it made his name, sold millions of books, and launched his career. But that national hurt has metastasized over the decades since Carrie’s release, taking root at the community level, and though we may say, “I never thought it could happen here,” we all know it can. If it can happen in Newtown, and Vegas, and Parkland, it can happen anywhere.

Sometimes works of art are ahead of their time, and sometimes they strike at just the right time. For Carrie, it’s both. In the 1970’s, it was the right time to bring our national disgraces home to Main Street so that we could feel it deep in our bones. And now, over 40 years later, we can reclaim this book and see in its pages that not much has changed, except now we know this can happen here.

In a country that seems to produce a new “Carrie” almost weekly, it makes you wonder if #ChamberlainStrong wouldn’t have been a few hashtags ago.

 

READER'S NOTES

  • CM from Derry Public Radio posits that Billy Nolan's car might actually be the titular Chevy from Christine.

  • The novel ends with blood dripping down Sue Snell's leg after witnessing Carrie die. Is this menstrual blood, a miscarriage form the strain of Carrie sifting through her mind, or did Carrie cause the miscarriage as one last bloody bit of revenge? Anyone of these are plausible explanations, but I lean toward it being an accidental miscarriage, the final tragedy.

  • There appear to be two connections to The Dark Tower in Carrie. In both cases, there is reference to "The Black Man," which could denote Randall Flagg, the Man in Black. In the first case, Margaret White mentions a dream in which she ran "The Black Man" out of their house into the street. In the second case, Carrie notes a portrait in her praying closet that has "The Black Man" atop a throne with the head of a jackal.

  • Teddy Duchamp is one of the four principal characters in the novella The Body from Different Seasons, yet a character by the same name also is the owner of the Amoco station in Chamberlain, ME. While it's possible King meant them to be the same person, he says at the end of The Body that Teddy died at 23 in a car accident.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Carrie Pinterest Board
Carrie Spotify Playlist
Derry Public Radio Carrie Podcast
Constant Readers Carrie Subreddit
Carrie Wikipedia page

 

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