Carrie (1974)

Over the years, I think I've probably read the majority of King's books at least a couple of times each. His debut (or at least first published) novel, Carrie, is one that I've somehow never revisited, despite its brevity - I think this is partly because I know Brian de Palma's film adaptation so well. The film (memorable for excellent performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as well as the lurid shock moments and split screen effects) casts a long shadow, and it's often hard in this sort of instance to disassociate the characters in a book from the actors in a filmed version. Attempting to put aside this cultural baggage, I settled in one evening last week and started to read.

The story is told with support from newspaper articles, extracts from books, transcripts from official hearings and news wires - the majority of which discuss events in the town of Chamberlain (which we are yet to read of) with the benefit of hindsight. This kind of foreshadowing is woven into the plot a little at a time; the eventual tragedy is well signposted. On the first page, we learn that Carrie White has telekinetic powers, and it isn't long before we are told that a lot of people have died as a result of these powers.

Carrie herself is presented as a bullied, isolated girl suffering under the twin hardships of a home life dominated by a fanatically religious mother and a school life where she is the butt of every joke. The cruelty of her teenaged peers is highlighted early on, in a scene where Carrie gets her first (very late) period in the school showers and is mocked and humiliated by her classmates. This is a very strong scene, both as an immediate indication of her status at the bottom of the social ladder, and as the beginning of the blood theme which becomes so important later in the book. King has said in interviews that he threw away his first draft of the book in disgust after completing this early scene, and it is easy to see why: there is something raw and almost primal in the taunting Carrie receives, and this informs much of what is to follow.

The cruelty of children and small town life in general are themes that King has often returned to in his work (as we will see in later posts), and I found it interesting to return to where this all started. While I think that later books explore childhood in a more rounded, more satisfying way, there is no denying the power of Carrie's humiliating life. We empathise with her, but also understand that she will become a monster; King builds our sympathy for Carrie, and then - during the horrors of prom night, when her only experience of social acceptance is cruelly snatched away - turns the tables on the reader. We already know that she will kill hundreds of people, but by this point we are almost rooting for her to do so. King's ability to fully engage the reader with his central character means that (a) we feel for her almost from the beginning of the book, and (b) we end up feeling that her tormentors are getting their just desserts - particularly her demented mother, and Billy and Chris, the couple who kickstart the mayhem that occurs on prom night. And as she realises that she has become a monster, we realise that we have been silently encouraging her to do so.

Stylistically, Carrie introduces some of King's favourite devices, including the addition of thoughts in brackets breaking up paragraphs of action. What will later develop into a deft building of tension is here slightly more experimental: as the story moves to its climax, scenes begin to overlap, jumping back and forth as we switch from character to character and view incidents from a number of perspectives. While Carrie might not be the most polished of King's novels, its mixture of religious fervour and the awakening of latent potentialities - both pubertal and telekinetic - makes it a compelling read nonetheless.

Next: 'Salem's Lot.


tom said...

One of the things I noticed in my recent reading of the Bachman books (will they be included in your survey?) was that one of King's main characterisation tricks is to repeat characters names over and over and over again. I don't know if this is good or bad but once I'd noticed it it seemed a little forced. Maybe it's just because the book I noticed it in (The Walk (I think that's what it's called)) had quite a lot of characters who were all teenage boys and he needed the reader to be very certain about who was who at all points.

I think the formal aspects of Steven King's writing, the way he switches between multiple threads, the way he constructs his stories very meticulously etc. are really interesting. It's definitely page turner stuff but in a master craftsman kind of way rather than a hackish Dan Brown way.

I realise you probably don't need any more reading on your plate but China Mieville's Bas Lag novels (Perdito Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council) use similar techniques to similar effect.

Dan said...

Thanks for the Mieville recommendations - I really must get hold of at least one at some point soon...

I agree with you about the formal aspect to King's writing - I'm a particular fan of the ever-shortening paragraphs at the climaxes of some of his best books, which really draw you in/on. The name issue you mention isn't something that has ever bothered me - I think a major strength of his is that you really feel like you know everything about the characters by the time something bad happens to them, and this technique reinforces that.

And yes, I will be including all of his Bachman work. The Long Walk is a long-time favourite of mine, as I've probably explained to you at length before in the pub!

Neil said...

I was talking to a colleague about The Long Walk on our recent sponsored walk aswe staggered through the rainy streets of London!

Will said...

Another excellent review Dan. I enjoy reading these more than King's books (They are too long for my tastes, and lack pictures). Is "Pubertal" a word?

Dan said...

Actually, a few of his books do have pictures, and there's one that's a graphic novel (Cycle of the Werewolf). But thanks for the kind words. And 'pubertal' is actually a word.