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Picking the Bones

Carrie (1974)

by David Carroll

First Appeared in SKIN#1.11

Carrie was not Stephen King's first novel, but it was the first one accepted by publisher Bill Thompson for Doubleday, the first one that hit the bookshops and earned its author $2,500 advance and, a little later, $200,000 for the paperback rights from NEL (a sum some thirty times his annual salary as a teacher). A little while after that Brian de Palma's film adaption came out, and he became really successful.

This is the first article in a series looking at the work of Stephen King as it was presented to the public, book by book. I will cover the short stories in their appropriate anthologies, and the Bachman books on their original publication. I am going to assume you know the stories (or you wouldn't be reading this newsletter, yes?), but everything else is fair game. It's a long list, if we get to the end of it, and we'll see if we can't shine a bit more light (in the already brightly lit arena) of Mr King's 'marketable obsession'.

Carrie was the fourth novel submitted to Doubleday, the publisher chosen because King recognised similarities of tone with Loren Singer's novel Parallax View. It was a short story that got out of control, with a subject that would have been a hard sell to King's normal market (the Men's magazines), and then far too long in the bargain. But he persevered (because Tabitha liked it, and indeed his wife rescued it from the waste basket at one stage) and finally padded out the novella with a series of articles and reports to make it into a novel. It wasn't a manuscript King was particularly happy with, and even today regards as one of his lesser works, but it made the Doubleday rights director's eyes gleam. Maybe he was psychic.

One of the most promising signs in Carrie of the author's durability was the maturity with which he approached the subject. Not just his usual unflinching and honest characterisation of a generation breaking the taboos of its parents, but in the way he put the whole incident into context, the support documentation that swallows the disaster into the normal politicking and confusion of the world at large. Not satisfied with a purely supernatural story, we are given both a scientific basis for Carrie White's talent (a trend inherited from Richard Matheson, whom King admired greatly) and a self-consistent and well-realised portrayal of that talent (I love the line about 'the blank, idiot frequency of the physical nerve endings that would take hours to die').

The support documentation shows something else as well, a writer (even at twenty four) confident in his ability to write. We know from almost the very beginning it will all end in tragedy. It is only a third of the way into the story that we learn the entire town of Chamberlain, Maine, will eventually be destroyed. While this foreshadowing can be used to generate suspense (along the familiar lines of  'he and George and Frieda had less than two hours to live') it curiously does the opposite here. The outcome being certain, it is the portrayal of the events that becomes important. It allows us to concentrate on Carrie and Sue and Tommy and Billy, what the novel is really about.

If there is some dissatisfaction with the novel, and certainly it isn't my favourite of them, it is perhaps that the whole is too clinical, without much space for the characters to move about in. This is perhaps the 'certain heaviness... a feeling of Sturm und Drang [storm and stress, according to my dictionary]' that King speaks about in Danse Macabre (and just to nitpick, answer this one: if the electric cables along Carlin Street were all ripped down into the road, why were they all live, instead of just the one at the end of the row?)

There are of course some surprises along the way. Of most interest is Carrie's final thoughts, of vengeance for Momma, of the Angel's Fiery Sword. One of my favourite scenes, just incidently, is school principal Henry Grayle's seven clip conversation with Chris Hargensen's father. And another of the surprises is that Tommy Ross wasn't killed in the fire that engulfs the school, but by the falling bucket placed by Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan. In a way this lays the book on easier moral grounds, in that theoretically Carrie only kills those antagonistic to her and not the boy who wanted to help her as best he could. We know, however, that her rampage is quite understandably far more indiscriminate. Still, Steve is long noted for having an unblurred line between his 'good' and 'evil', and this is an early example.

There is an emphasis in the novel, and more markedly in the various discussions on and adaptations of the story (which are legion, if you count the Prom Night movies and those of similar theme) on the actual night of the prom, and Carrie's atrocious treatment by her fellow students. What is also brought out stongly, and not followed up on as much, is Carrie's own upbringing. In a way, Margaret White's stance is justified by the story. Carrie's menstruation is delayed, held off by prayers, it could be argued, some five years past normal. And when the curse of blood descends, it only brings misery and disaster ('I might have known it would be red'.) But Carrie's mother doesn't deserve to be right. Her treatment of the girl is not so much an upbringing as an extended period of severe emotional and physical abuse. If then we are speaking of good and evil, what are Carrie's options? Between her home and the school ('the devil', as Sissy Spacek says to William Katt in the simplified but extremely effective movie), there is nothing for her. Only the abyss of destruction and the final idiot frequency.

One thing the movie is noted for is its conclusion -- a simple cry of 'Boo!' at the audience that nevertheless preceded all the now-familiar monster reawakening scenes of the modern genre. The novel itself has a different shock ending, arguably less effective in that we know Carrie's tragedy wasn't caused by her telekinesis -- the stance taken by most of those in the supporting documentation -- but by her situation. But of course the tragedy is all-pervasive, and not limited to her alone.

Carrie is a novel about women and the traps set for them. 'And God made Eve from the rib of Adam', as Margaret White is undoubtedly fond of quoting. If Carrie had been accepted by the school she would have come up against Sue Snell's frustrations: 'the word she was avoiding was expressed To Conform, in the infinitive, and it conjured up miserable images of hair rollers, long afternoons in front of the ironing board in front of soap operas while hubby was off busting heavies in an anonymous office'. If she had rebelled from that, she would have come against Chris Hargensen's own problems, as defined by Billy Nolan: 'he thought she would start to look less like a goddess and more like the typical society bitch again, and that would make him want to belt her around a little. Or maybe a lot'.

It is a tragedy, and if Stephen King would go on to make a living out of portraying the trials of a boy coming of age (usually in rural Maine, usually a writer) this novel is a brilliantly written and atypical start to that career.


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