Stephen King’s first release was actually the fourth written. He binned his only copy, and it was at the bequest of Tabitha, his wife, that he dug it out, wiped it clean, and sent it to the publishers. The three manuscripts written before Carrie have all, since, been published too.
These are three facts about King’s work that you do not need to know, but are bandied around frequently when talking about Carrie.
Carrie is a short book, by King’s standards, but sets the template that pretty much every one of his stories will adhere to from there onwards. It is by no means the best book he has ever written – it is tainted with a touch of inexperience, of an author trying to find his feet which remains apparent in his first few stories, but the Kingisms, the stylistic traits apparent throughout his writing, are there. He is testing the water, trying new and inventive methods of storytelling. The story, however, is magnificent. That of an outcast, a young girl forced through her mother’s religious mania and inexperience of the outside world, who is pushed to the brink by bullying and ridicule, but who contains in her a power strong enough to wreak revenge.
One of the few failings of the book is his use of ‘extracts’ from other books. All of these extracts, whether taken from autobiographies of survivors or scientific studies into the phenomenon, are written in King’s own voice. His standard narrative is a third-person, the reader’s eyes and ears into what is happening, occasionally interrupted by the thoughts of a character in (brackets) and he writes effectively. However, when he adopts the tone of a professor, or a specialist, one can still sense his tone creeping through. Use of rough allegories to prove a point do not ring true with the formal format of the text. In some of his later works, most notably Dolores Claiborne, he writes as a continual monologue from one character’s perspective. In these works, the format works. In Carrie, however, and particularly noticeable in the autobiography by Sue Snell, the text reads as though it is spoken. The reader struggles to believe that a book would ever be published written in such a rambling prosaic style.
Similarly, when the text is written from the perspective of Carrie herself, there are times when her pop culture references do not ring true – in a reference to the game of Monopoly, where she makes a flippant remark about “Lose all your points, go to jail”, it is difficult for a reader to connect this with the image drawn of the eponymous hero/villain of the piece. A girl denied even a full length mirror – for “vanity” is a sin – and who spends her free time at a sewing machine, with no television, and only the ‘Vic’ for music – exclusively hymns, of course – it is difficult to picture her understanding the rules of a board game like this, which surely Margaret White would liken to Jesus and the cash lenders.
King’s use of metaphor and simile throughout are painfully well-managed, and the reader is instantly able to draw an image of Carrie White, the victim throughout, with the animal imagery he uses – “a patient ox”, “bovinely” staring about her, “an ape” and, most aptly, like “a hog in the slaughtering pen”. Indeed, that her downfall and subsequent retaliation comes because of the “pig blood for a pig” seems somewhat portentous. Throughout the first section of the book, we are drip-fed information – we know who dies, that Sue Snell survives, that there is a ridiculously high body count, that Carrie is responsible – but not the precise how of it all.
This is precisely where King comes into his own. This gradual release, this slow-burn of information, begs the reader to keep up with him. It is how, over the many, many years in which he has been published, King has managed to engage so many committed readers. What may seem like irrelevant references tend to come back to the fore at some point. Little of what is written is irrelevant. In fact, the entire second section of the book – “Prom Night” – mixes events up, chronologically, asking the reader to connect the events. A second explosion is caused, it turns out, by another gas station exploding, witness accounts show information which, in Carrie’s line of events, hasn’t yet happened.
His use of punctuation may, on one hand, be seen as inexperienced too. Like with narrative voice, we could be forgiven for thinking that some of his sentence structures are somewhat slapdash. But it is in these rushed, flowing accounts, post-modernist in style, that really create a sense of justice for Carrie’s actions. As they are throwing sanitary towels at her, chanting “plug it up!”, Carrie shrinks into herself, reliving “All those years...” and, for two pages, there is simply a list of events, of horrific incidents of bullying and victimising, listed one by one in vague detail, but precise enough for us to want to reach out and hug her, much like Miss Desjardin.
A key question, one which is morally ambiguous, is who exactly the ‘villain’ of the piece is. In the clique world of High School, there is always an outcast – usually ungainly, unattractive, whose habits or hobbies make them socially reprehensible. In Carrie, this is Carrie White, whose oppressive mother has drilled all of her disgusting, religious xenophobia into her daughter – all those who do not follow her religion (one so vehemently against everything that they no longer go to any church, as their faith is not devout enough) are sinners. This means that everyone is bathed in sin, and hold no hope of salvation. The world is a corrupt pit of iniquity, deviance and corruption. So solid are her beliefs that Carrie has no friends, no one to talk to. She cannot socialise, interact, function, in society. Margaret White is so steadfast in her beliefs that she emotionally, and physically, abuses her daughter frequently to scourge the sin from within. So thorough is her mother’s negligence that she is unaware of menstruation, and the book opens with the sanitary towel incident as she screams that she is “bleeding to death”. It is painful to read, impossible to imagine, yet King manages to balance this evocation of negligence with the disgust felt by the teacher. Carrie is a victim, not a villain, in every sense of the word.
Margaret White is presumably the villain, the evil mother whose own religious ideals are what force her to act as she does. That said, as we find out moments before her death, she was a victim of rape, resultant in her husband drinking. Her fears of nightclubs and bars, hothouses of iniquity, are, to some respect, justifiable. Whilst her treatment of her daughter is abhorrent, one almost pities her, seeing her behaviour as a method of coping with what the Lord has decided are her sins. To have been given a daughter as a result of the forced sexual act, but one cursed with the gift of telekinesis, is a bitter pill to swallow.
Chris Hargensen is likewise villainously drawn, an evil caricature of the Popular Girl at school, vindictive and nasty, and disgusted by anyone from outside of her social sphere. That she is in a relationship with Billy Nolan, a sadist of the highest order who, for kicks, drives his car, “his God”, into stray dogs, is what makes her also pitiful. He is a despicable creature, a woman-beater, high school dropout, who lives fast and plays hard. It is his idea to bleed the pigs at the farm – “pig blood for a pig” – yet he doesn’t even know Carrie White. Indeed, he doesn’t even care who he hurts. He feels no remorse over the news that the entire town is being destroyed around him – he even hopes that those he hangs around with get caught because they were stupid enough to leave finger prints on the buckets. That he and Chris die in his ‘God’, his car, whilst attempting to run Carrie down in the parking lot is fitting – the bumper, which has so often dripped with the blood of the innocent, ploughing into the front of the bar would no doubt seem a fair act to Margaret White.
The only virtuous, utterly innocent person in all of this is Tommy Ross. Tommy is created as a wholesome, bright, Popular boy, one willing to extend a caring hand to those in need. He is willing, at Sue’s request for her atonement, to take Carrie to the prom, to forsake his loved one to make another human being feel accepted. As we see, through his eyes, Carrie’s acceptance and then her appearance for the dance, we feel elated. Whilst we know what is to come, that she feels happiness, however briefly, touches the reader. As he realises that she was “far from unattractive”, it pulls on our heartstrings. It is therefore a bitter irony that the first person to be injured and killed – although not by Carrie herself, importantly – is Tommy, as the bucket falls, the rim splitting his head open before fire engulfs his unconscious body.
The event, the dousing of blood, is one of those truly iconic moments, one which almost everyone knows of – in De Palma’s film, the image is truly terrifying, but in the book, it is made so much worse. So much more real. And this is because of the different perspectives. At first, we see nothing. It is told to us from Chris’ perspective, a jolt on the wire, the silence, and then the laughter. Next is a witness, telling of the laughter, and then the fear. The image of Carrie, coated in blood, eyes closed, before opening them and creating a ludicrous yet horrifying image, the whites of her eyes standing proud from her slicked face. The description of the stench. And finally, Carrie tells us from her perspective. The pent up ridicule, the thought that they ‘got her’ again. What strikes me about this scene is that, again, it would seem appropriate to Margaret White – she has been espousing the virtues of sins “drowned in the blood of a repentant heart” from the beginning.
Margaret’s death is almost touching – despite the years of pain and misery Carrie has suffered at her hands, and the fact that she has just buried a knife up to the handle into her shoulder, she elects to allow her mother a soft passing, intoning “slower...and slower...” as her heart stops beating. This is a far cry from the martyrdom and crucifixion in the film, but somehow it feels more apt, I think. When Carrie begins to think of her gift, unsure of the origin of her telekinesis, she makes a decision – whether it is from “the lord of light or the lord of darkness, she did not care which.”
The book starts and, excluding the faux reports in the epilogue, ends with blood. Carrie’s telekinetic powers realising their full potential with the onset of puberty at the opening, and her death, covered in the blood of the innocent, and “now much of it was her own” blood, leave a nasty taste in the mouth... and that’s just how it should be.
Next Time – Vampires and authors in ‘Salem’s Lot