Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Carrie by Stephen King (1974): Her Long-Time Curse Hurts But What's Worse Is...

What happens if there are others like her? 
What happens to the world?

So asks a survivor of Prom Night, the name the media has given to the tragedy that befell Chamberlain, Maine, on the night and early morning  of May 27/28, 1979. Despite all the investigations and interviews and biographies and memoirs about that unbelievable event, it's a question no one can answer. It's a question that leapt out and haunted me deeply when I read it, because it is an innocent, honest question, one that intuits the unimaginable changes and dangers humanity faces if the powers that Carrie White had at her command are also shared with unknown people the planet over. With no answer forthcoming, both its terror and its perception are enhanced. With such invisible forces at the hands of our fellow man, what hope would any of us have to survive such rage? Always at the mercy of someone who can... well, as an academic commentator on the Prom Night horror posits: For if Carrie White is the truth, then what of Newton?

I read Stephen King's debut novel Carrie 25 years ago when I was in high school - when I read the bulk of his then-published works - but found it mitigated by its classic '76 De Palma film adaptation, so it's always been at the bottom of my list of King books to reread. But with the release of this new movie version I knew it was time for a revisit. And found the novel was spectacular.  I was pleasantly surprised, nicely creeped out, at the power and conviction this little book still has. Had King written it later in his career, I imagine he would've expanded on the characters - the home lives of Carrie's classmates Chris Hargensen and Sue Snell, Principal Grayle, and even that half-assed '50s-style greaser Billy Nolan would've been fascinating reading - but as it is, Carrie is a lightning-paced unassuming thriller that has moments of real electric shock and real human emotion.

The infamous opening gym shower sequence alone, of menstrual blood and sanitary napkins and the horrifying chant "Plug it up, plug it up, plug it up" is surely one of the most humiliating moments in horror, and still taps into that cringing shadow in us that is both the bullied and the bully. Fewer than 10 pages into his first novel and King has given us one of the greatest imaginings of abjection in pop fiction.

Like Bram Stoker did in Dracula, King uses a variety of sources to tell his story: there are AP teletypes and passages from science journals, academic books like The Shadow Exploded, transcripts of court depositions, popular magazine interviews with Carrie's neighbors, Sue Snell's own memoir. None has the complete truth; only King's omniscient voice fills in the gaps and satisfies the ignorance and unknowns all the other documents ultimately labor under. Nor does he disguise the tragic climax; we know right away that many people died and the town destroyed in a massive conflagration from these sources. The uneasy suspense this generates, as we wait for all these accounts to converge, is masterful.

A staple of King's fiction to come, class conflicts are prominent at the outset. King clearly delineates the economics of his characters and the town. Lots of talk about adults joining country clubs and living in the right neighborhood - the hypocrisy of the middle-class, the bourgeois values that are ultimately a facade for the same hatreds found in someone like teenage queen sociopath Chris Hargensen. Once a high school teacher, King's depictions of the ins and outs of the teenage social cliques feels real, as do the administrative politics of principals and teachers.

The girls who assaulted Carrie are given a week-long detention - avoidance of which will result in suspension and loss of prom tickets. When the girls' gym coach, Miss Desjardin, pushes Chris and screams at her when telling the girls how far over the line the girls went and gets personal ("if any of you girls think I'm wearing my teacher hat right now, you're making a bad mistake"), Chris Hargensen thinks her lawyer father will sue the school and fire the coach. But in the novel's most satisfying scene, slick legal eagle Daddy Hargensen is sent packing by Principal Gayle after Gayle states the school can easily sue Chris and her cohorts for criminal assault on Carrie White.

"You apparently haven't realized all the implications of in loco parentis in this matter, Mr. Hargensen. The same umbrella that covers your daughter also covers Carrie White. And the minute you file for damages on the ground of physcial and verbal abuse, we will cross-file against your daughter on those same grounds for Carrie White." 
Hargensen's mouth dropped open.

Daddy can't do anything for Chris now. This enrages her, of course, so she turns on the one girl who wants to be an adult and accept her punishment and move on: Sue Snell, the novel's ambivalent heroine. This tension is explicated perfectly in a soda shop confrontation:

"Aren't you getting to be the Joan of Arc around here? I seem to remember you were in there pitching with the rest of us." 
"Yes," Sue said, trembling. "But I stopped." 
"Oh, aren't you just it?" Chris marveled. "Oh my yes. Take your root beer with you. I'm afraid I might touch it and turn to gold."

How dare Sue think she's better than the rest of the evil children who assaulted Carrie White? This pecking order of high school society, so often a mainstay of popular entertainment even for people decades removed from the setting, is seen in sharp relief. While Chris gets an almost erotic thrill - probably no "almost" about it from the vibe of her and Billy's trysts - from doling out "punishment," Sue is ashamed, even mystified, of her involvement with the shower incident, and this is the impetus for her getting her boyfriend Tommy Ross to ask Carrie White to the senior prom. Poor doomed good-kid Tommy, huh? No good deed, etc.

Still, Sue is uncomfortable about her own motives and afraid to examine them too deeply, lest she discover a jewel of selfishness glowing and winking at her from the black velvet of her subconscious. Does she enjoy a manipulative power over Tommy, as Chris does over Billy? Tommy comes across as utterly sincere in his brief relationship with Carrie White. But Sue must protect what she has: And having something she had always longed for - a sense of place, of security, of status - she found that it carried uneasiness with it like a darker sister. Ah-ha! the reader should think, and this darker sister has a name, it's right there.

The Black Man grinned at her with his jackal mouth, and his scarlet eyes knew all the secrets of woman-blood.

Mother Margaret, our true villain, is almost unbelievably deranged. Her religious hysteria is her sole characterization, and even in her back story we find that she was always maniacal. Carrie's powers have exposed themselves when she was a child, and the infant was only saved by her late father. Their arguments are exhausting, leaving you drained, despairing even. What adolescent could live in such choking insane environs? In times of stress and rebellion, Carrie makes her talents known as she flexes flexes FLEXES and terrifies Margaret with whirling dervishes of plates, tables, knickknacks, bursting lightbulbs, etc....  except now Carrie is practically an adult, and Margaret has little say any longer. No more will Carrie be dragged into the prayer room, the altar, the worst place of all, the home of terror, the cave where all hope, all resistance to God's will - and Momma's - was extinguished.

And what of Carrie herself? King is sympathetic but not sentimental. Her thoughts and impressions are scattered everywhere, in parenthetical snippets and well-drawn passages of her inner life: her utter fear of being tricked again, her bewilderment about the most basic facts of physical life, her growing confidence in her skills - her dressmaking and her unfathomable power - as well as her growing distrust of her mother... and perhaps a tiny hopeful glimmer that her prom night with Tommy Ross will be no trick. Carrie is no freak, but desires a normalcy she knows she'll never have; in a school notebook she sadly quotes Dylan: "Till she finally sees that she's like all the rest." No, her mother is the freak; Chris Hargensen might be one too, but Carrie is the one with the tragic flaw, that power that allows her an otherworldly vengeance upon the guilty and the innocent alike.

And finally: the devastation that has been foretold rolls out in the final third of the book and it's breathtaking. King fills in his climax with interviews from survivors, ordinary men and women in the thrall of unimaginable powers; in bold-faced objective AP wire reports; more quotes from his academic sources. Fires burn out of control with no firefighters available, nearby towns send in equipment and men but much too late, and if we look at these flash points on a municipal map, we can pick out Carrie's route - a wandering, looping path of destruction through the town, but one with an almost certain destination: home....

Many of the surviving townspeople inexplicably know Carrie White was responsible, even though they did not know her on sight. As they saw her on the streets wreaking her havoc, they knew. How did they know? the investigators ask; how did they know Carrie if they'd never seen her before? They knew it. They just did. Her psychic emanations, her desperate flailing about in pain and despair, impress themselves upon the besieged and innocent townsfolk. And when Sue finds the pig-bloodied and mortally wounded Carrie and is overwhelmed by the swirling images psychically transmitted... Sue still can't help but think the bleeding freak on this oil-stained asphalt suddenly seemed meaningless and awful in its pain and dying. She thinks that, and she stumbles away, screaming, and then of course, oh but of course, she feels the slow course of dark menstrual blood down her thighs.

We actually do find out that the origin of telekinesis is genetic, so perhaps not all is lost in confronting it. But perhaps all is, as a science journalist ponders: If overt TK ability occurs as a part of puberty, and if this hypothetical TK test is performed on children entering the first grade, we shall certainly be forewarned. But in this case, is forewarned forearmed? If the TB test shows positive, a child can be  treated or isolated. If the TK test shows positive, we have no treatment excpet a bullet in the head. And how is it possible to isolate a person who will eventually have the power to knock down all walls?

If this is truth, what will happen to the world? What of Newton?

In a recent New Yorker article that refreshingly refrained from the sort of backhanded complimentary tone which that mag often adopts when talking about bestselling writers of pop fiction, the perceptive author writes "Carrie succeeds because it feels accurate about things that are unreal... There are lots of writers who tell it like it is, but only a few who, with such commitment and intensity, tell it like it isn’t." Goddamn right. Commitment and intensity, that's what I want!

And there's a comfort I find in revisiting King's prose and storytelling - for better or worse - a feeling of settling back with old friends, with his familiar stylistic tics and peccadilloes, the warmth of his humanity and the coldness of his horrors. You can trust King. Sure, he may get some of the details wrong - a slip into cliche or a banal metaphor, a weak phrasing, a character from central casting - but as we all know, when King is good he's great, his commitment paramount, and you can read it, see it, fucking feel it, from the very first pages of Carrie, his very first book. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Joe R. Lansdale Born Today, 1951

Happy 62nd to the one and only Joe R. Lansdale! As you can see by these paperback covers, Joe can do it all: splatterpunk, thrillers, westerns, crime, dark fantasy, science fiction. If you haven't read Lansdale... what are you waiting for?!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Guy N. Smith Sucks

Well, he doesn't really. But you know what I mean.

I had such high hopes for October - a classic King review, a classic Bradbury review, some vintage pulps and '80s anthologies - but alas, they will not be. Instead, I'll postpone them till after the Halloween party the GF and I are preparing, which is occupying most of my time this month. So for now, enjoy these lurid and lovely Guy N. Smith covers!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror, ed. by Olson & Silva (1992): Come and Die with Me Forever

I don't believe in ghosts. And yet... ghostly doings in horror fiction tend to work their chills on me. What I find particularly effective are the emotions and psychological states the ghosts often represent: guilt, unrequited love, vengeance, regret, loneliness, grief, rage, even sexual longing. Becoming the external manifestation of characters' repression is an essential part of any ghost's (albeit fictional) existence. Same goes for haunted houses, which function as geographic representations of the mind and all its tortures. I'm a sucker for that stuff, even if my readings in the classic ghost stories of antiquary is rudimentary; it's those ideas I find satisfyingly creepy. 1989's Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror (Dell/Abyss Jan 1992) contains solid examples of these ideas, from generally skillful writers with names both recognized and not.

While its paperback cover resembles nothing so much as classic '80s Slayer album art, Post Mortem doesn't rely on graphic or demonic excesses to frighten readers; there's hardly a broken bone or bloody wound or occult word in these entire 350 pages. None was an outright bomb but there are some ho-hum entries. Not all the stories even attempt horror; they can mostly be divided up between "hopeful" ghosts and "scary" ghosts. Although both Paul F. Olson and David B. Silva were editors of well-regarded '80s horror mags, Horrorstruck and The Horror Show respectively, I wasn't impressed with their metafictional introduction. Ditto Dean Koontz's afterward, which highlights exactly why I find him useless as any kind of horror authority. Koontz prefers, it seems, those "hopeful" ghost stories, the ones that confirm his belief that his spirit "will never die."

The opener "Each Night, Each Year," by Kathryn Ptacek, works well enough, and has some of the creepiest imagery in the book, but she overplays her hand at times by underwriting. When the haunted narrator states "It is my guilt that brings him here," it's already obvious, I think, that that's exactly what's going on, and stating it so baldly snaps the spell. I don't need to have my head grabbed and pointed right at the issue; a gentle handhold can be just as unnerving, no? The recently-late Gary Brandner brings a gruesome little ghost story in the simplistic "Mark of the Loser," solidly in the old-fashioned EC Comics style.

Next, "Timeskip," Charles de Lint's entry, is a modern urban fantasy with 20something protagonists; I know he's considered a pioneer in that subgenre, as his felicity with environs and character is obvious. Romantic ghosts promise meeting again. A similar encounter turns up in James Howard Kunstler's "Nine Gables," about a couple whose marriage is rekindled in the unlikeliest manner when they welcome guests into the titular inn they buy. From horror-writing couple the Tems, Steve Rasnic and Melanie, we get the terrific "Resettling." This is about the finest little haunted-house story I've read recently (after Michael Blumlein's "Keeping House"). It works every which way, a mature, insightful work that confronts family life's innumerable disappointments, with a true and bittersweet finale that oh-so-subtly upends ghost story protocol. The Tems really get - deliver - domestic horror.

Would an '80s horror antho be complete without Ramsey Campbell? Non. Utilizing a rare book of ghost-story author extraordinaire M.R. James, Campbell's "The Guide" is told in his usual slow-to-the-point-of-agony prose, but the payoff is claustrophobic and nightmarish, hinting at horrors scarcely imaginable: Imagine, if you will, a spider in human form with only four limbs, a spider both enraged and made ungainly by the loss, especially since the remaining limbs are by no means evenly distributed.

Visiting ghosts also appear to those whose pasts are unfinished. Sometimes these shades bring closure, as in Silva's "Brothers" or P.W. Sinclair's "Getting Back," but just as often bring a horrific justice. "The Ring of Truth" from Borderlands editor Thomas F. Monteleone is a longish tale of Vietnam survivors and insane murderous machismo. Hate burned like the heart of a star, and not even death can keep that feeling contained. The abused wife of Janet Fox's "The Servitor" escapes to an abandoned house in the country. Surprise: it's not so abandoned, and what's there demands a debt for its services. A finely-tuned depiction of a woman's desperate attempts to save herself, the story's final lines are chillingly pitiless.

Will it surprise regular readers of TMHF that my absolute favorite story in Post Mortem was Thomas Tessier's contribution "Blanca"? Here the ghosts are victims of historical/political tragedies. In Tessier's usual tone of detachment, dry wit, and maybe even resignation, his narrator begins:

When I told a few close friends that I was going to Blanca, their reaction was about what I had expected. "Why?" they asked. "There's nothing to see in Blanca. Nothing to do except disappear." Sly smiles. "Watch out you don't disappear." "Maybe that's why I chose it," I said with a smile of my own. "It might be nice to disappear for a while." 

Can there be any doubt the story will end the same way?

Another terrific story is the sensitive "Whisper of Soft Wings," by Melissa Mia Hall. It is very good but very sad: a little girl comes around to visit an elderly woman in a world that has less and less of a place for the old. With a rare sense of poignancy, Hall draws the two together in an intimate embrace. I will definitely be looking for more from Hall; but nothing new, I'm afraid, as she died several years ago.

Last, the somewhat interesting "Haunted World" - what if all the people who ever lived on earth came back to haunt us - is told in a cliched good ol' boy voice, which completely undermines the premise. The bland, obvious style of Robert McCammon proves to me once again why I have little interest in reading any of his novels, despite their seeming endless popularity with fans of '80s horror.

Final words: Post Mortem is a good but not truly essential horror fiction anthology. Fans of de Lint, Tessier, the Tems, Campbell, or Hall should find a copy, as their stories work in the classic ghost story mold but also are convincing and fresh in their modern settings and concerns. Me, I could've used a few darker tales, a few more nastier, eerie moments that lingered after I put the paperback back on my shelf. But it did reinforce my belief that nothing is so haunted as the human heart, and that the most unsettling ghost of all is the most recognizable, the one we live with every day, long before we die.

You Best Believe I'm in Love, L-U-V

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I Think of Demons... For You

A book from Robert Bloch that doesn't bear the legend "By the author of Psycho"! Truly a rarity. Also: today I will finish an anthology of ghost stories and hope to have the review posted in the next day or two...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

RIP Philip Nutman, 1963 - 2013

Horror writer and journalist Philip Nutman died yesterday. Read a wonderful memoir of him by Fangoria editor Tony Timpone here. I really enjoyed the short stories he wrote in the early '90s, published in the anthologies Book of the Dead, Splatterpunks,and Borderlands 2. He also wrote the screenplay of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, and was one of Clive Barker's earliest champions. I've had his only novel Wet Work (1993) for years but it remains unread. Rest well, brother...

Sunday, October 6, 2013