(First published in the special Stephen King double edition of French magazine Ténèbres.)
In the beginning was the word, and the word was “Carrie”. Who could have guessed that the slim volume of the same name (a contraction of Carietta, derived in turn from the Irish Caragh, meaning ‘love’) would mark the beginning of one of the great writing careers in Western literature? At the time of its first publication in 1974, few — apart, perhaps, for King himself — must have had an inkling of what was to come. Indeed, it is hard, now, to put it into context, peering back through the years, past such imposing tomes as “The Shining”, “Salem’s Lot” and “Misery”. But the effort is worthwhile. And re-reading it is always a pleasure.
Written ‘in the furnace room of a trailer’ while King was ‘running sheets in an industrial laundry for $1.60 an hour’, “Carrie” is a superficially simple tale of loneliness and failure to fit in. Looking deeper, King hopes that the book’s subtext deals with ‘how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality’ — and I think there’s merit in that. [Quotes from "Danse Macabre".] It also introduces the reader to King himself, featuring many of the stylistic idiosyncrasies destined to mature in subsequent novels. While it may not be his greatest work, it does serve as an excellent introduction to the oeuvre. Much more than an appetiser, in other words, if not quite the main course.
Certainly, in terms of physical volume it pales besides its siblings: there are just 222 pages in my well-thumbed paperback NEL edition. Its simple plot — a young outsider with blossoming telekinesis has her one last chance to live a normal life maliciously, and tragically, snatched away from her — would not forgive much digression, and either restraint on King’s behalf or tight editorial control keeps it well within bounds. The first of several fictional towns in Maine is painted briefly yet vividly, with no indulgence. Flash-forwards to inquest reports and personal accounts mix with close-focus action and characterisation. The pace is brisk, startlingly so at times. Yet it packs an enormous punch.
What could have been an average potboiler is transformed into something much more by the simple fact that King’s characterisation is so good. Inexperienced teachers, malicious students, self-absorbed parents — all the women, men, and children who comprise the mob demanding that everyone conforms — no matter who we encounter in Chamberlain, no matter how dysfunctional their relationships are with each other, individually they are alive and we care what happens to them. Mundane evils and ambiguous moral lessons abound, ringing painfully true at times. Schoolyard abuse and social isolation is something everyone experiences at some point in their lives, and it is not an easy issue to resolve. A blossoming ‘TK’ talent only makes it worse, as Sue Snell discovers: her desire to atone for her own cruel mockery of Carrie leads to a catastrophe out of all proportions.
That characterisation lies at the heart of any effective novel seems too basic a point to make, but it bears emphasis here. King’s strength is undoubtedly in his portrayal of people. His characters would work in any context, as grey, flawed and human as anyone living. Carrie herself is a wonderfully complex creature: although she is definitely the victim of the piece, there’s no ignoring the glee with which she turns the tables on her tormentors in the novel’s bloody climax. And who could not be moved by her tragic death, crying for the mother who abused her? Even Chamberlain feels real. If it, and the people who inhabited it, didn’t feel real, we would be unmoved by their destruction.
All of King’s novels are less about things that happen than how those things affect people, and “Carrie” is, possibly, the simplest and best example of this principle. The plot’s simplicity is accentuated in the almost reckless way King consistently gives it away. By page 38 (of my copy) the reader knows that a lot of people are going to die in the book. We are told that Carrie’s mother, specifically, will not survive on p63. Page 77 ups the ante by telling us that the death toll is two hundred, plus an entire town; page 88 gives that real meaning by revealing that only 12 live through the prom. By the time page 102 predicts the ‘ruination of Carrie White’ we have a pretty good idea where the book is heading. The inexorable timetabling of the doom of all-round nice guy Tommy (beginning p126) only confirms our worst suspicions.
Yet it makes no difference. Even if we know what happens, we don’t know exactly how it will affect the people it happens to when it happens — and that is the real payoff. This is a trick reiterated many times in future books (most gut-wrenchingly, perhaps, in “Pet Sematary”). King tells us well in advance that everything is going to go badly, and he doesn’t lie: not only does everything lead to ‘that long tunnel into blackness’ into which the dying Carrie falls, but he hints at a recurrence that we know will inevitably be bungled by the usual bureaucratic bullshit. The delivery is the point. The sheer arrogance with which King defies the constraints of plot, the biting humour inherent in expository passages, the unerring honesty and depth of characterisation, and the sympathy he clearly feels for his characters — even those we would normally class as ‘unsympathetic’ — all add up to an enormously powerful package. Winningly uglier than the movie, more shocking in its suburban reality than any horror novel before it, “Carrie” has all the impact of a train wreck in slow-mo: you can’t stop it; you can’t help anyone; all you can do is watch the horror unfold.
That’s not to say that “Carrie” doesn’t have faults. Its close-focus American setting can be alienating for those of other cultures (how exactly does someone ‘shoot his cuffs’?). There are moments of uninspired cheesiness (such as when ‘the Devil came to Chamberlain’). The menstrual framing device at the beginning and end of the tale is forced and unnecessary. But for its briskness, and for its portrayal of what might happen to a culture that obsessively nurtures its own and punishes its outcasts, I still rate it as one of my favourites. It was certainly a good place to start …