First published in 1974, Carrie is often cited as being Stephen King’s first novel.
That, of course, isn’t technically true. King had written three novels before Carrie, the majority of which weren’t very good. Carrie is a novel that King says he wrote in a hurry because he was living in a trailer and needed the money. It’s also a novel that King says he had absolutely no faith in because he didn’t feel like he could write from a female perspective. Despite King’s then-low opinion of what he had written, Carrie went on to become his first published novel. Thought the novel wasn’t an immediate success (the hardback edition only sold 13,000 copies), it subsequently became a best seller after it was adapted into Brian DePalma’s 1976 film of the same name.
By now, we all know the story, don’t we? Even if you’ve never read the book or seen any of the film versions, there’s been so many different rip-offs and unofficial remakes of Carrie that I doubt that there’s anyone who doesn’t know the story. Everyone knows that Carrie White was a high school outcast and that her mother was a religious fanatic. We all know what happened the night that Tommy Ross took Carrie White to prom. We all know about the cruel prank that was played on Carrie, about the pig’s blood that was dumped on her right after Tommy and Carrie were crowned king and queen of the prom. And we all know that Carrie’s response was to use her own telekinetic powers to burn down the entire town and to kill the majority of her tormentors.
44 years after it was first published, it’s still interesting to read Carrie. On the one hand, you can definitely see the beginnings of King’s signature style, especially towards the end of the book when Sue Snell comes across a dying Carrie. On the other hand, this book is definitely different from any other King novel. For one thing, it’s only 199 pages long. Living in a trailer and struggling to make ends meet may not have been easy for King but I would say it actually made him a better writer. Carrie contains none of the rambling, self-indulgent filler that’s come to typify much of King’s recent work. One imagines that, if King wrote Carrie today, we’d have to wade through at least 500 pages of people talking about the history of psychic phenomena before the book even got around to Sue asking Tommy to take Carrie to prom. Instead, because King was writing while hungry, there’s a hunger to the book. It doesn’t waste any time.
King structured the novel so that half of it was narrative and half of it was, for lack of a better term, evidence. We get excerpts from police reports, newspaper articles, and books written after the prom disaster. The White Committee offers up their official report. We get to read a little bit of Sue Snell’s book, I Am Sue Snell. I imagine the structure was largely the result of King’s self-confessed insecurity with the book’s subject matter. (For instance, whenever you doubt that Tommy Ross would actually take Carrie to prom, an except from the final report of the White Committee pops up and assures you that he did.) Though borne of insecurity, the structure actually works pretty well. It leaves little doubt that, after Carrie’s prom, the world will never be the same again.
The thing that really struck me while rereading this novel was that Stephen King himself seemed to dislike Carrie White almost as much as her classmates did. King focuses, to an almost uncomfortable degree, on Carrie’s unattractive appearance and, often times, he seems to be keeping his own distance from his main character, as if he was weary about trying to get inside of her head. When Carrie does go on her rampage, she comes across more as an out-of-control monster than someone who has been pushed too far. Our popular conception of Carrie being a tragic victim really has more to do with how Sissy Spacek played her in the original film than in how King wrote about her in his novel.
Instead, the book is far more concerned with Sue Snell and Tommy Ross, who are both portrayed as being everyone’s idealized high school companion. As both a novel and a film, Carrie‘s greatest weakness has always been that the plot hinges on the idea that any teenager, no matter how guilt-ridden, would actually ask their romantic companion to take someone else to prom. The pig’s blood, I believe. The prom, less so.
Carrie has its flaws but, to be honest, I actually think it’s better than some of King’s more recent books. If nothing else, it’s a chance to look into Stephen King’s mind before he became the Stephen King.