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. 


Unknown said...

Pitifully, this is one of King's novels that I have yet to read. Good to know it holds up after so long a time. I'll have to root through my closet to see if I have a copy hiding in a box somewhere back there.

Anonymous said...

Carrie is a great thriller, but it's not my favorite Stephen King book. I liked Dead Zone and Salem's Lot more. Nonetheless, it's an incredible debut novel for any author.

Will Errickson said...

I love both DEAD ZONE and 'SALEM'S LOT, two favorites absolutely.

Rob K. said...

Fantastic review, Will. It's on my To Re-read Again Very Soon list.

Fernando Brambila O. said...

Ah, the memories. "Cujo" was the first King book I read, but this one was the first book of his I read in English, and so, basically, the one that introduced me to his style. I think it's one of those novels that even now are much more influential than we notice, not just in terms of premise, but in execution and in being one of the most... modern horror stories, with the sci-fi origin of the menace and the setting being entirely mundane. One question to Will, how do you feel about the fact that this book more or less ushered in a particular horror sub-genre of children and teenagers with superpowers? Obviously, "Carrie" didn't create it, but I do think it gave this theme a boost, and since I know from a lot of your posts this is one theme you don't particularly care for...

Will Errickson said...

What can a fan do? Influence reaches far and wide and you're bound to dislike many of the places it lands. Oh well.

Fernando Brambila O. said...

Very true; on the other hand, at least we know what to stick to, right? ;)