As part of my new disciplined approach at reading more books this year I decided to revisit Stephen King’s back catalogue. I’ve read many of his books but have some glaring gaps.
I went right back to where it all started for King in 1974 with his debut novel Carrie.
Before I came to this book, like many people I had seen the film starring Sissy Spacek so I was already familiar with the story, but I was initially surprised by the difference in format.
I’m not going to do a full run down of the plot here as I suspect most humans on Earth have either seen the film, read the book, or by social osmosis are familiar with the story, but if not, I’ve linked to the plot at the bottom of this post.
Unlike the single narrative of the film that follows Carrie through her various, and numerous, experiences of habitual humiliation and degradation by her cruel peers, the book shapes the narrative through multiple points-of-view, which isn’t unique by any means. An added dimension to this, however, was the inclusion of after-the-fact testimony throughout the story (even before the dance hall climax) via news reports, inquest documents, documentaries, and in the case of Sue Snell (a guilt-ridden peer of Carrie) a personal recital of her view of the events as they unfolded.
I think it’s very much a personal decision to whether this fragmented view of the story works. In terms of publishing and launching a career it clearly worked, and to great success. But now reading it after all this time, and with the colouring of my opinion by the film (which I enjoyed a great deal), I have to say I wasn’t enthralled by the constant interruption of the timeline by these reports and inquiry excerpts.
I wanted to get into Carrie’s head and follow her journey through the miasma of second-hand religious guilt from her zealous and pious mother, the discovery and subsequent training of her telekinetic ability, and the righteous revenge she sought (eventually) for the crimes done against her, but every time I was getting deep enough, one of those out-of-time reports would jump in and pull me out of the story.
Great Characters and Slice of Small Town Americana
Well, duh! That’s King all over. Few writers sum up the feel of a small, insular American town like King, and he does it brilliantly here. From details of Carrie’s Mother’s textiles employer (which I suspect is born from King’s own personal experience. In ‘On Writing’ King’s part-biography, and part writing book, he talks about his job in a textiles company.) to the small, police station, the fruit juice store, and later the dive bar.
We get to see a great deal of the town later on *SPOILER* when Carrie finishes her melt-down at the school dance and goes on a rampage through the town burning half of it down after opening fire-hydrants and the gas-lines as the gas-stations and bringing down electricity cables to ignite the river of gas.
In terms of characters, there’s a few that really stand out. Other than Carrie, there’s really none that you can sympathise with. Carrie’s Mother is one of the greatest nutters in fiction. A vicious and self-righteous religious fanatic who would often bully and chastise Carrie for every ‘sin’ imaginable. This constant abuse—along with the abuse from her school peers—was the catalyst for her to finally take the shackles off her ability and unleash her rage.
Then we have the girls at the school who bullied Carrie. I’m sure we’ve all known that group of ’cook kids’ who centred around a bully and an entitled little swine. It’s this group that plague Carrie with years of persistent psychological, and often physical, torment. It’s the final humiliation at the dance that finally pushes poor Carrie over the edge, and it’s not just those hyena-like kids who get their comeuppance, but the entire town of Chamberlain (Maine, natch) that is on the receiving end of her endless fury.
This was King’s debut novel, but not the first that he wrote. He wrote in a 2 week period, and had to trust his wife Tabitha’s opinion on it. He thought it was garbage. It turned out that his publisher ‘Double Day’ took it on, and later sold the paperback writes for $400,000 which was a huge amount back in 1974. It’s that break-through that enabled King to write fulltime.
Is this is a great book? I don’t think so. It’s still very good, and that it launched Stephen King’s career is a great thing. Who knows if we would have the great Stephen King of today if this book didn’t get published?
It’s a relatively quick read, and there’s some truly memorable scenes, both with iconic imagery and grimace-inducing detail.
What this book does show however is the start of King’s immense talent for vivid characters, the small-town feel, and a great yarn.
I have my own horror novella out at the moment. It’s a gothic horror set in the 1800s and an homage to the Frankenstein myth. ‘Heart for the Ravens‘ is published by Fox Spirit Books. More details here.
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