Thursday, December 11, 2008

A reign begun in blood: A look back at Stephen King's Carrie

Warning—spoilers ahead

Along with J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King was the first author for whom I had feelings approaching reverence. For a good long while—darn near 13 years, or the period roughly from 1974’s Carrie all the way through 1987’s Misery—King produced brilliant horror fiction. I consumed King novels in my high school years like I would consume cheap beer a few years later in college. King was “the king” of my reading world, and not just of horror but all fiction.

In my opinion King’s meteoric career hit its first snag with The Tommyknockers (1987), a meandering, unsatisfying novel with some ridiculous, head-scratching elements thrown in. He recovered with some excellent books like The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Half, but cracks began to appear in the 1990s with very forgettable books like Gerald’s Game, Desperation, and Dreamcatcher. Also, as my tastes changed and I began to read more widely, I realized that other authors had just as much to offer.

But though I now view King as a mere mortal, he’s still undeniably great. For every bad ending (of which he’s penned a few), or every too-long novel that could stand to be put through the wringer by a merciless editor, there’s a Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Stand, or Different Seasons, which I consider near-perfect examples of the modern novel/novella (Different Seasons may be my favorite stand-alone King book). When he was at his best, King was, to use a baseball analogy, throwing high 90s with nasty stuff. He was just damned good.

Now that you know how I feel about the early King, you’ll understand the thrill of glee I experienced last weekend when I went into my local library and found a copy of the Simon & Schuster unabridged recording of Carrie sitting on the shelf. As fans know Carrie was King's first novel and provided the ignition on his rocket ride to the top of the publishing world. While it’s not a great book, I’ve always liked Carrie, and it had been at least 15 years since I last read it. So I decided it was time to read (or, more accurately, listen) to Carrie again. This audiobook had the added appeal of being read by Sissy Spacek, who was brilliant as Carrie White in the terrific 1976 film adaptation of the novel. For the record, she’s a great reader, too.

While it’s ostensibly about a girl with telekinetic powers (or TK, as the book describes this ability), Carrie is really all about conformity and the torments inflicted on the less fortunate on the edges of society—in short, of the awful realities of high school. Raised by a psychotic mother whose fundamentalist Christian ethos is turned up to 11, poor Carrie never has a chance. Meek, emotionally stunted, and forced to dress in a spinsterish hand-made wardrobe, she goes through life as an easy target for the other kids in school.

King himself provides a nice introduction to the Simon & Schuster audio book, and he tells a story that leads the reader to believe that Carrie may be a rather long apology on his behalf. King says that Carrie White was an amalgamation of two girls he knew in high school, both of which were targets of practical jokes and harassment. While King says that he never joined in on the hazing, he does say he was a silent partner in it, and it’s obvious he still harbors some guilt. Many of us probably feel the same way—high school can be a cruel place.

Carrie begins with a memorable opening scene in which Carrie experiences a long-overdue first menstruation in the shower of the girls lockerroom. Unaware of the workings of her own body, Carrie reacts in a predictable fashion—tears and terror, fearing that she’s bleeding to death. Her classmates humiliate her and the traumatic experience brings Carrie’s latent telekinetic ability to the fore.

One of the girls involved in the incident, Sue Snell, later repents for her part (while not a tormenter, she looked on and laughed). Snell asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the senior prom. He accepts, and, to the horror of her God-fearing mother, Carrie does too.

But like Medea or some other brilliant yet horrible Greek tragedy, wheels of disaster are set in motion. Chris Hargensen, a particularly vindictive girl whose daddy is a lawyer and who takes pleasure in beating down anyone who tries to move out of their “station” in life, devises a plan with her boyfriend Billy to dump buckets of blood on Carrie at the height of the prom. I listened with one ear shut (is that possible?) during the climactic scene, hoping that somehow the buckets of pig blood wouldn’t fall this time—but of course, they do, and all hell breaks loose. I actually found the ensuing scene of the fire in the high school gym difficult to listen to—it evoked awful memories of the horrible Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people in 2003 (note: I wasn’t at that fire but I’ve been in a few clubs like it, and the images from the news are still too awful to think about). There’s more than a little raw, dangerous, revenge fantasy in the prom scene, as well as in Carrie’s subsequent rampage through the streets of Chamberlain.

But it isn’t the scenes of carnage or the awful potential of telekinetic power unleashed that makes Carrie so memorable. Rather, it’s the haunting question “If only”—if only the teachers paid more attention to Carrie’s torments, if only all the girls hadn’t laughed, if only someone, at some point in her life, showed a bit more compassion for Carrie, her life may have turned out otherwise. Carrie exposes the uncomfortable truth that many people are, to put it bluntly, pigs in the way they treat the less fortunate.

King also does an admirable job with the character of Sue Snell, whose motivations for asking her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom are quite complex—is it guilt? Did she secretly hope that something bad was going to happen? Or was it a genuine act of repentance?

I also found King’s message about religion a bit muddled. His portrayal of Margaret, Carrie’s mother, was a bit overblown and clichéd, and also more than a little frightening—as loony as she was, it’s hard to not shake the impression that Margaret was right in her bible-thumping plea not to let her daughter attend the prom, her "whore of Babylon" screeching aside. But then again, Margaret's brutal methods of discipline and rule of fear are hardly anyone’s idea of the Christian way. And had she not attended the prom, Carrie surely would have died a slow, drawn-out death, crushed under the yoke of under her mother's ceaseless, merciless rule. It's just further proof that Carrie's life was tragically doomed from the start.


Andy said...

I think King himself might be a little muddled when it comes to religion. He's apparently a practicing Methodist but I gather that he can't stand the church. This isn't necessarily unusual - lots of Christians prefer to just hang out at home and study the Bible on their own because they dislike churchgoing - but I wonder if King's interpretations of the Bible can sometimes come out a little screwy because he doesn't work with people that specialize in it :)

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Andy, thanks for stopping by. King is obviously a Christian (once you've read The Stand that much is clear), but he does indeed seem to have a deep distrust of organized religion for whatever reason.