King’s famous/infamous first novel. Most of you probably know the gist of it whether you’ve read it (or seen the movie) or not— it’s just that iconic— and it doesn’t matter if I spoil it in outline because King also tells/teases you with what happened right from the get-go. But if you don’t, it goes like this:

Carrie, who is secretly telekinetic, is raised in near-isolation by her abusive, mentally ill mom, a batshit fundamentalist whose beliefs bear only the most tenuous relationship to any actual religion. Carrie is not taught of the existence of menstruation because all things bodily are the Devil’s handiwork, and panics when she gets her period in the girls’ locker room shower. Because teenagers can be fucking monsters, she’s pelted with tampons by the other girls, who smell blood in the water in more ways than one.

Sue Snell, a girl who feels guilty over failing to stop the bullying, joins forces with some other teenagers to try to give Carrie a nice prom. Unfortunately, the hateful bully contingent also has plans for Carrie, and also at the prom. Let’s just say that Carrie doesn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done at that age and under those circumstances if I could’ve killed people with my brain.

I first read this book when I was a bullied teenager, so I was an ideal audience in one sense. However, it was neither the first book I read by King nor the one that made me go on to read more. (Those were The Stand, followed by Firestarter.) I liked it but I didn’t love it, which is still my feeling about it now though probably not for the same reasons.

At the time, though I identified with Carrie’s situation, I didn’t identify with her as a person. She’s sad and plodding and downtrodden and not all that bright; none of what happens to her is her fault, but in addition to circumstances caused by others (like her terrible clothes) her personality gives off an aura of victimhood that makes the bullies decide to pick on her rather than on someone else. (King is very, very clear about that part: bullies gonna bully. If Carrie hadn’t been there, they would have just selected a different target.) To be clear, I don’t mean that she’s insufficiently awesome for me to identify with, just that her flaws aren’t my flaws.

(I confess: when our ages matched, I found an unsettling amount to identify with in Harold Emery Lauder. I mean. His goddamn name is only one syllable off mine, and it has almost the same metrical emphasis. That’s not exactly a coincidence. In both cases, it was selected by a teenage writer because it’s unique, the meter makes it memorable, and it just sounds like a writer’s name. King really had my number. But that’s not a coincidence, either: name aside, it was his number, too.)

What’s most remembered about Carrie are the set-piece scenes. The shower and the prom scene are iconic for a reason, but there’s quite a few in the book that have that same extraordinary vividness of emotion and image. They’re bizarre and singular in terms of events (so you recall them) and depicted with perfectly selected details, like the sort of nightmare you wake up from to lie sweating and telling yourself “It’s not real, it’s not real,” and dread having again for the rest of your life.

The other notable element is the blistering, raw, absolutely dead-on portrayal of what it feels like to be a bullied teenager. And also what it feels like to be any teenager in the sort of world I was a teenager in, which I hope to God is less common nowadays, when high school was their society, adults did not give a fuck, and it didn’t make much of a difference that the majority of the teenagers were perfectly decent people, if self-centered in a developmentally appropriate way, because God help you if the bullies close their eyes, spin around, and come to a stop with their finger pointed at you. Tag, you’re it. Your life will now be hell for the next four years.

Sue Snell is a good person. So is her boyfriend. It almost saves the day. But, as in Cujo, there are other forces at work, though here it’s human factors rather than chance or fate. Bullies gonna bully, and Carrie is emotionally fragile, primed to snap by her abusive mother, and in an act of agency with truly bad timing, she’s been practicing her power. The kerosene was already pooling on the floor, but some assholes just had to toss in a match.

Finally, Carrie is not spectacularly but still quite nicely structured, partly in a way that King was later to make one of his trademarks (multiple plotlines coming together into a dramatic unified climax) and partly in one that I don’t think he ever did on that scale again, which was to construct the book largely out of “found materials,” like newspaper articles, court transcripts, interviews, etc. The latter is interesting but distancing, fine but not noticeably better than what a lot of competent writers could do. The present-day sequences are way more impressive and have King’s specific voice.

A lot of what makes King a great writer was there right from the start: the well-crafted structure, the storytelling, the memorable scenes and images, the way with character and place, the trainwreck you see coming, the sympathy with his characters even as you know that a lot of them are not going to make it, and the moral force.

Even more interestingly to me as a writer, it shows how he overall had the sense to build on his strengths rather than his weaknesses in subsequent books. The found materials? Only ever used again in small, judicious doses. But the idea that he could do odd things with structure and that he should feel free to experiment and write each book in the way he thought suited it? That stuck. And most of all, the willingness to just go there with whatever outrageous, taboo, gross, or “you can’t write that” image that popped into his mind. Forty years later, those girls throwing tampons at Carrie still feels dangerous. If he’d never written it and someone submitted it now, there’s an excellent chance they’d get the exact same “what the everlasting fuck am I reading?” reaction.

King wasn’t the writer who taught me the value of just going there (Harlan Ellison did that) but it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe the best. You don’t have to be gross or horrifying or shocking. You just have to be true to your self. We all have an inner voice and outer critics saying, “This is too revealing, too embarrassing, too weird, too risky; if I write it people will know the inside of my head looks like that.” But the insides of all of our heads are full of weird, embarrassing, scary stuff. It’s powerful stuff, too.

Maybe it’s tampons and a bucket of pig’s blood. Maybe it’s walking trees and a golden ring. Maybe it’s you and a gun and a man on your back. Whatever it is, it’s the real deal. Go there.

Carrie
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