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Stephen King's Carrie

“We were kids.”

I was about ten when I first read this book. It left me with a series of images: A white bikini. A table thrust through a picture window. A gigantic crucifix. Buckets of blood and lots of fire. Ever since, I’ve had a strong distaste for gym showers. And, come to think of it, I ditched my senior prom.

Now that I’m old enough to wonder what my parents were thinking when they let me read this book at such a tender age, and now that I’ve re-read it for the first time since those halcyon days of youth, I have a very different impression.

The standard wisdom on Carrie is that it’s a book about—well, about Carrie. (I think the movie, which I haven’t seen, probably contributed to this.) Even King’s new introduction, dated 1999, notes that his inspiration for this book came from two girls, whom he calls Tina and Sandy, he knew in his youth: social outcasts, pariahs, sacrificial goats. He says, “[The novel is] dated now, but still [has] a surprising power to hurt and horrify... Sometimes—quite often, in fact—I wish that Tina and Sandy were alive to read it. Or their daughters.”

This book definitely has the power to horrify. Carrie’s mother takes religious fervor firmly into the realm of child abuse, and Carrie’s schoolmates torture her regularly. Carrie herself isn’t anything special: she doesn’t have the brains or the beauty or the brio required to get herself out—out of her mother’s house, out of the vocational track at school, out of small-town Maine. We sympathize with Carrie, but we only empathize with her in the darkest, loneliest nights.

But this book also has the power to hurt. It hurts because this isn’t just a book about Carrie. It’s also about four unique women whose lives intersect with hers: her mother; Chris, the school’s female bully; Sue, the girl next door who wants to be a better person than she is; and Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher who just doesn’t try hard enough. All four of these women are disgusted with themselves for the disgust they feel for Carrie. This back-and-forth sneering ire eventually destroys the entire town and all of the women—if not physically, at least emotionally and psychically.

Carrie is, hands down, the most memorable creature in the book. But if you re-read it (or even if you check it out for the first time), I think you’ll notice, too, how the novel is about four women attempting to gain control over the world by manipulating others, both other women and the token, and rather flat, male characters. Chris is a sociopath who enjoys inflicting pain—and enjoys feeling like that infliction is justified. Sue talks a good game, redemptively speaking, but she doesn’t walk the walk: she gets her boyfriend to do her penance for her. Miss Desjardin, operating under the reflexive disgust, takes it out on her female students. And Carrie destroys the town, but hates herself as she does so: in trying to control everyone else, she loses control of herself. Sue, who survives the massacre, says that she can’t describe how everything rose to such a crazy convergence: “We were kids,” she says, pointing out that this manipulation wasn’t intentional; it was just the rules of the game they didn’t realize they were all playing.

Lost-wise, the interplay of disgust and manipulation is interesting to consider in light of Juliet’s assertion that this is her favorite book (3.1). While I have a hard time accepting that statement at face value, I can see Juliet digging the brutal portrayal of the harm we cause others as we desperately attempt to stack the decks in our own favor: think of her smarmy little ex-husband, or of that on-island therapist, or of Ben. Think even of Juliet herself, who, particularly in Seasons Three and Four, seemed to constantly be running her own game on the side. Giving Sawyer to Kate (I almost want to write, “giving Kate to Sawyer”) even has the flavor of Sue’s self-conscious martyrdom-by-proxy in coaxing her beau to take Carrie to the prom. Juliet, however, learns from the book’s message and commits a huge sacrifice, not for the redemptive possibilities, but because she loves her man. (The power of the book to break a cycle of manipulation might be part of the reason King wanted his muses’ daughters to read it. The other reason is just that he wished his Carrie-inspirations had lived long enough to have kids.)

There’s another thing I forgot about the book in the many years that have passed since my first reading: it’s a book that hints at the ending on page 6 and gives it away about fifty pages in. Because it’s not a traditional narrative: it’s a mix of third-person narration of the events leading up to prom night; first-person stream-of-consciousness (King gets better at this in later books); and mock-excerpts from scientific journals, popular magazines, depositions, and autobiographies.

All of these after-the-fact accounts attempt their own manipulation of Carrie and the mythos that begins to build up around her. They exhibit the same repulsion and fascination, and by attempting to answer the question of how something so impossible could happen, are trying to fit the answer into whatever pigeonhole they’ve decided is best. This is most obvious in Sue Snell’s autobiography, which she claims she is writing to inform people of the truth, also attempts to portray her as blameless and put-upon: the position she must occupy to live with the knowledge of the part she played in Carrie’s destruction.

The narrative mix-it-up, of course, is very Lost. Whereas Carrie gives us the bird’s-eye view of what has happened, is happening, and will happen (with the details filled in slowly), Lost always appears to be focused on a particular present, usually on the Island, with the past and future filled in more mysteriously. But the shuffled timeline isn’t entirely dissimilar from Carrie. And reading Carrie, knowing what was going to happen, I had the odd thought that maybe Jacob reads time the same way that we read Carrie: knowing where it’s going to end up, knowing the major beats along the way, but not knowing the little details, which sometimes includes who is going to live and who is going to die.

Fun Facts:

• King almost abandoned this novel, his first, because he and his wife needed money immediately, and he thought he’d have better luck selling another short story.

• Emilie de Ravin played Chris in the recent made-for-TV movie version (thanks, Lostpedia!).

• I mentioned in my review of The Stand that I think King has an Early, Middle, and Late Period. Perhaps obviously (it’s his first novel), this is very Early King. It’s only 250 pages, has only two quoted song lyrics, focuses on a small group of people, and has no apparent link to the Dark Tower.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I promised you a Gunslinger review: it's coming in a day or two. I've been distracted by the wonderfulness that is HBO's Rome.


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