Carrie is Stephen King’s first published novel, but not the first he wrote. Counting unpublished work (at the time), it would’ve been his fourth overall. Those others — what became known as the Bachman books — were trunk novels, and Carrie deserved to be trunked alongside them. ‘Salem’s Lot should’ve been King’s first published book, as it’s miles ahead of Carrie in terms of storytelling and assurance of voice. I won’t rehash the plot for you, as I’m sure you’re familiar with it: girl with telekinesis, locker room period, prom night bloodbath, et cetera.
Had Carrie been published today, no doubt it would’ve been released as a YA book rather than an adult novel. Editors would have made King tone it down, and I’m not sure it would have had the same impact on popular culture that it currently enjoys (thanks in large part to Brian De Palma’s classic movie). Carrie is actually a novella that’s been padded to novel length by supplemental material like “non-fiction” book snippets and newspaper clippings that frame the story of Carrie White. These numerous excerpts don’t add to the plot; in fact, they detract from the story’s momentum.
King did a fabulous job building reader sympathy for poor Carrie. Everybody knows someone like Carrie from high school (or perhaps the male equivalent of Carrie). The frumpy, the awkward, the chubby or generally dispossessed. He gets the reader on Carrie’s side, based on her mistreatment by the other students at school, plus the emotional and psychological abuse she suffers at home from her religious zealot of a mother. Margaret White is frightened of her daughter and believes the girl’s telekinetic powers come from the devil. As such, she treats Carrie much like a leper and tries in vain to pray the evil out of her little girl.
My favorite scene comes when Carrie puts on her prom dress for the first time. She cannot afford to buy a fancy outfit, so she uses her considerable skills as a seamstress to make her own dress. Once her mother sees the finished costume, she starts calling Carrie a harlot. Carrie takes this outburst in stride, even uses her mind powers to gently sweep her ranting mother out the door. Carrie’s not gonna let the haters bring her down, not that night.
Except they do – in spectacular fashion. And there’s hell to pay.
One writing quirk that struck me is King’s use of similes. He has a knack for finding the right comparison or turn of phrase needed to bring a sentence alive. To see it on display at so young an age — King was 25 or 26 when he wrote Carrie — took me by surprise. At one point he describes tiles pinging off a roof “like startled pigeons.” Perfect. Just perfect. King’s ability to conjure sublime figures of speech can be matched only by Joe Lansdale.
On the other hand, King also has an aggravating tendency to employ run-on parentheticals for internal dialogue. Characters’ thoughts often break into the narrative itself, interrupting individual sentences. He used this technique a lot in his early career but doesn’t rely on it so much anymore, preferring instead to italicize internal dialogue.
Another oddity I noticed is how many times men slap women in the story. Seems every time something frightening happens, a woman gets all hysterical and a man has to smack some sense into her, 1940s-style. I’ve never seen a female react like that in real life. By the end of the book it becomes almost comical. If you haven’t read the novel before, count how many times this happens. You could make a drinking game out of it.
Carrie is a proper revenge fantasy, and the final act of the story is one prolonged retaliation sequence. When Carrie finally decides to fight back against her bullies, all hell breaks loose. She punishes not only her classmates at the prom, but the whole town of Chamberlain. The body count is tremendous, several hundred die in the ensuing chaos, and Carrie herself takes a personal toll.
I feel about Carrie the same way I feel about another of King’s novels, Misery. If Carrie had remained a novella, I think it would’ve had greater impact. Of course it likely never would’ve been published at that length, so perhaps not.
This book is MEH