Constant Reader Chronicle is a new feature that aims to cover a single Stephen King novel, in chronological order, each month. It will skip novels undertaken as part of the Dark Tower cycle and the Mr. Mercedes novels but will otherwise cover every major work that Stephen King and that pesky Richard Bachman has committed to the page. Given that Carrie is such an iconic place to begin a career, this entry will contain fairly comprehensive spoilers. The remaining entries will be spoiler rated on an individual basis.
Stephen King’s first published novel is the prototypical King. The seeds of so many future books are present here, often in the most embryonic form, and Carrie predicts a bright future for its author that came true in perhaps the most lucrative way imaginable. You have a girl with a Shine (although it is not, of course, called that yet), a small town filled with people both decent and awful, and a cavalcade of carnage concentrated in the climax. Though parts of Carrie flirt with a form that wouldn’t ultimately come to be associated with King, this is an exquisitely realised first release.
Carrie tells the story of a girl with latent telekinetic powers that manifest with the late onset of her period. Tired of being oppressed by her overtly religious mother and weary of the mob mentality of her schoolpeers, Carrie’s only one humiliation away from snapping.
Carrie is one of those stories that is impossible to spoil: you’ve never read it or seen it, you’re probably aware of how it turns out, because it’s become shorthand. Even at the time, the trailers for the movie featured the fateful prom, and further back from that, the very first page tells us how it ends. Though King has always been fond of foreshadowing, Carrie is the most blatant of his foregone conclusions. If you’ve got this far and you don’t know that almost everyone in Carrie dies, some in more horrible ways than others, nobody knows where you’ve been. Carrie’s narrative is interrupted with excerpts from court transcripts, pseudo-scientific textbooks, confessional memoirs, and folksy newspaper reports. It’s not the best approach to have taken – King could very easily have written a straight narrative without any of the scrapbooking – but it feels like it may have been trendy at the time.
The strangest element of Carrie from the perspective of a non-American reader is that Carrie is made fun of for being overtly and publicly religious. Had she lived somewhere else in America, even with the extremist two-person sect religion that she practises, she would have been respected for that at least. All American media that makes its way overseas paints a picture of high school being the worst experience you can have, so the rest of Carrie checks out.
Carrie crystallises much of what King does best: he builds a town and he fills it with people, not all of whom are good or bad – but some of whom are thoroughly irredeemable. Chamberlain is not quite Jerusalem’s Lot, but there are key characters who receive the treatment that we will come to know and recognise in future books. Billy Nolan, in particular, is a well-written morally repugnant villain – he doesn’t care who he hurts, he just wants to hurt someone, even his accomplice, Chris Hargensen. King has a habit of digging deep into the psyches of his villains, and he started here. Chris is a fairly standard vicious teenaged girl, but Billy is something else entirely. They’re a loathsome pair, but understandably so. King works to make their villainy banal rather than cartoonish and laughable — and their defeat provides some much needed catharsis for the tragedies that befall Chamberlain in the end.
They stand in stark contrast to Margaret White, who is a different form of radiant evil: where Chris and Billy know they’re bad and simply don’t care, Margaret has her own twisted sense of righteousness informed by a thoroughly wrongheaded reading of the Bible. Margaret is the first of multiple “mothers who have problems with their daughters” in King’s canon, and she’s one of the purest. Where the mothers in ‘Salem’s Lot and The Stand are needlessly antagonistic, Margaret has a basis for her actions and an entire history informing them. The book’s Margaret is properly evil, loved by her daughter despite her many shortcomings and, crucially, is actually targeted for death. Every other incarnation of Margaret White was sought out by Carrie for forgiveness and succour, but on the page Margaret must die. Piper Laurie brings a scenery chewing flair to the role in Brian De Palma’s film, and the musical Margaret has too much tenderness and love to sell the part the way it should properly be done. If Carrie is about anything – and it’s definitely about more than a prom gone wrong – then it’s about mutually assured destruction. Everyone must go.
Carrie truly is a tragedy. High school students can be cruel, but they’re not all vindictive monsters – and, even when they’re fictional, you’re not exactly supposed to agitate for their violent deaths. Most of the deaths are unwarranted, but you never think of Carrie as a monster. In this incarnation far more than any others, Carrie is not just telekinetic, but telepathic. She bleeds her psychic wounds into the town and across the page. Despite most of her dialogue being variations on “ohuh” or “momma”, there’s a dimensionality to the character that makes you feel for her. Surviving witnesses felt her pain, but the true centrepiece of the book is the transference passage in the novel’s climax. Why King’s adaptations are so often hit and miss is because the best parts of his work are interior. On the screen and in the musical, Sue Snell is sympathetic, but she works best when she’s empathetic. The reason for that is Carrie herself; for all of her mousy downtrodden nature, Carrie is a girl who learns what she wants, and even starts having ideas about how to get it. Sue becomes the blank canvas upon whom Carrie’s dreams will be sketched but remain unrealised, and it is through this loss that King ultimately creates an experience as indelible as Carrie has become.
With his first three novels being Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining, Stephen King really came out swinging. Carrie has some structural issues that King would not return to – putting the whole book on the first page works only in retrospect, and was probably wonky back in 1972 – but there’s so much that he gets so right that it’s easy to see how Carrie captured the minds of readers and is paying dividends to its audience and writer 46 years on.