No spoiler warning because of course there will be spoilers, but fair warning that it’s past my bedtime and I feel like I’m running on empty and may not do what I thought of this book justice!
Telekinesis. Blood. Fire. That’s the gist of what I’ve long known about Stephen King’s first novel, 1974’s Carrie, of which I have the awesome 1976 edition that came out with the film and includes stills (which are filled with spoilers!) from the film. Much like Pet Sematary I just read and reviewed, I’ve somehow managed to avoid both Carrie major feature films, and spoilers about the book. Even so, you can’t be a sentient American in the last nearly 50 years and not know by cultural osmosis the general outline of Carrie having telekinesis, her high school classmates being jerks to her by dousing her in blood, and her getting revenge.
But goodness, there is more to the Carrie book than I ever would have thought, and in that way, Carrie is not only such a fitting beginning for the Stephen King I’ve come to know through his other books, but somehow managed to surpass my expectations and built-in hype. In this one, quite short book at only 245 pages, King introduces two people who surely would rank among his most awful, rage-inducing, villainous characters: Carrie’s mother, Margaret, a devoutly tyrannical Christian woman, who refers to breasts as “dirtpillows,” to give you an idea of where her mentality goes toward and the way in which she represses Carrie; and Chris Hargensen, who is the principle popular high schooler tormenting Carrie (and has seemingly been doing it for years). Chris is the one who devises the evil plan to dump pig’s blood all over Carrie at high school prom to capitalize on Carrie being there. And the only reason Carrie is going to prom is because Sue Snell feels bad for having joined in with Chris and the others in the girls locker room to torment Carrie about getting her first period at age 16 (much to Carrie’s bewilderment at the period, and then embarrassment at the shaming), so she asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to ask Carrie to the prom, and Carrie accepts.
That is what I find so brilliant about King’s short novel. The premise and the plot beats of the novel are simple and straightforward. Carrie has a draconian, religious zealot for a mother, and also, she has telekinesis and is slowly realizing her power to thwart her mother’s punishments, which include, but aren’t limited to, long stays in solitary confinement within a closet to repent as a sinner. The plot beats are then Carrie going to the prom and suffering the Chris prank, and then how Carrie responds to the prank by unleashing her full telekinetic powers, at least up to that point. But what makes this straightforward, and horrific, story so brilliantly told is that King structures it from the point-of-view of Carrie, Margaret, Chris, Sue, Billy, Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher, and Henry Grayle, the school’s principle, in the present day of everything unfolding and how they witnessed and experienced it; and then also, from a jump forward with how the government and some of those same people reflect back on what happened: Sue through her book; another high schooler, Norma, and her book; the government’s White Commission to study “TK,” or telekinesis, and how they erroneously and bureaucratically decided it isn’t a future issue (and in fact, somehow scapegoat Sue for much of what went wrong, it seems); and then from a book about the whole situation, The Shadow Exploded. I thought the academic analysis, debates and theories, and consideration of future implications made for a compelling juxtaposition to the unfurling horror of the present day.
I found the jumping back and forth kept the pace flowing, sort of, uh, like blood down one’s leg, and heightened the intensity because it had the Pet Sematary inevitability to it all. Despite how beautiful the moment was with Carrie dressing up and feeling beautiful and Tommy telling her she is beautiful (more than once), laughing, and then being selected King and Queen of the prom, you knew it was all going to unravel. It was just how, and how bad was it going to get. I thought it was “just” going to be the school, but Carrie at that point unraveled and set fire to much of the town itself (and hindered the responding fire departments from being able to fight the fires by wasting the water via fire hydrants). In that way, and in the way the author of, The Shadow Explained, worried about what a world of TKs would mean, Carrie reminded me of Charlie in Firestarter, who at one point is thought to potentially have the power to destroy the Earth. Imagine multiple Charlies, then, or multiple Carries, as it were.
To be fair to Chris, inasmuch as I can be charitable to her awfulness — she is a 17-year-old kid, after all, with a rich lawyer daddy to bail her out of her troubles — Billy is the one who takes the prank to the next level, and I think Chris probably wouldn’t have done it, if Billy didn’t contribute and escalate it. One of the most horrific scenes in a King novel I’ve read is the scene where Billy and his friends break into a local man’s farm and kill his two pigs and slash their throats to get the necessary blood to dunk on Carrie. Goodness. Billy seemed to get worse. He started out as someone who was led on by Chris, stating he would murder (and more!) for her. But by the end, he was the one goading her and in charge of her in a physically abusive way, mind you.
But there is no being fair to Margaret. She is plain awful, and as we come to learn, tried to kill Carrie when she was first born, then when she was three, and then planned to “sacrifice” her to God as Abraham was called to do his son, Isaac, at the end of the novel. She does plunge a knife into Carrie’s back, which I think played a role in ultimately killing her more than anything. Not before Carrie could kill her, however.
Tauter than many of King’s books that would come after, even ones I love, and more effed up than many of those same books, I would put Carrie in league with Pet Sematary as among the most haunting and horrific of King’s books, even if I still wouldn’t rank it above some of his other ones as an overall book. I thoroughly enjoyed this, though, inasmuch as one can enjoy something so awful. I felt bad for Carrie. I empathized with her. And yes, in some ways, I wanted her to get her revenge on her mother, and at least Billy and Chris. She obviously went too far, though. That is the King element. Take a typical, relatable bully situation, add in a religious zealot mother, TK and “taking it too far,” and such is the fruits of horror only King can provide. And poor Tommy, he was mere collateral damage.
If you’ve only seen the films and haven’t read the book, I highly recommend doing so. It is short, but punchy. You won’t soon forget it, I can promise you that.