Sunday, March 18, 2012

Carrie by Stephen King

By Stephen King
Copyright 1974

Basic creative writing instructors will inevitably tell their students that first axiom of creative writing: Write what you know. For his first published work, Stephen King, a twenty something white male chose to write about a misfit adolescent girl named Carrie who is tormented and abused by her peers, but makes them and her whole town pay dearly in the end.

The book opens with a short article from a newspaper describing a rainstorm of rocks that fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, a widow who lived with her three year old daughter, Carietta.

From there, we move to a high school locker room circa 1979, where girls are showering and getting dressed after class. Carrie White, chunky, unattractive, with a body marked by zits, showers with the rest of the girls, mostly unnoticed. As she shuts off the water, she notices blood running down her leg.

Fearing that she is bleeding to death, she runs to the other girls pleading for help. They realize what has happened and seize the opportunity to once again torment Carrie. They start throwing tampons at her while she cowers in the showers. Among the girls throwing the tampons is Sue Snell, an otherwise nice young lady who could not recollect what had motivated her to do it except that Carrie was so pathetic.

The narrator tells us it was just one more incident of abuse in Carrie White’s miserable life. Carrie who’d had her bed short sheeted at Christian Youth Camp, whose love letter to Flash Bobby Picket was posted on a school bulletin board, who got peanut butter put in her hair when she fell asleep in study hall. A girl whose entire life was a series of ugly nicknames and mean pranks was the butt of the joke once again.

The gym teacher comes out of her office to find Carrie screaming hysterically in the shower. She realizes what’s happening and is immediately disgusted with Carrie. She tries to calm the girl before slapping her across the face – a slap that disturbs her later because she realizes she enjoyed slapping Carrie.

She gets Carrie’s attention. When Carrie focuses on her, a light bulb explodes. The girls hardly notice as they stand quietly, waiting to see what will happen next. Miss Desjardin explains to her that she’s having her period, but Carrie seems to have no comprehension of what she’s talking about. She chases the other girls out of the locker room and tends to Carrie.

Miss Desjardin takes Carrie to the office and speaks to the school principal about the incident. She wants all the girls suspended. This troubles the principal because one of the girls, Chris Hargensen, has a father who is the most powerful attorney in town. He does not relish a legal battle over an incident of simple bullying. He settles on detention for the girls – detention to be served with the very angry Miss Desjardin.

They discuss Carrie and the principal can’t believe that a 16 year old girl would know nothing about the menstrual cycle. He summons Carrie in and prepares a dismissal slip to send her home. In the process, he calls her Cassie. When he does this, Carrie screams, “It’s Carrie!” and an ash tray leaps from the principal’s desk.

Carrie heads home to her mother, waiting for her, having received a call from the school. We get a look inside the head of Margaret White. Widowed, she has lived her entire life a religious fanatic draped in images of the wrathful, angry God of the Old Testament. As soon as Carrie comes into the house, she begins quoting scripture about Eve’s sin and the curse of the blood.

At first, Carrie is upset and asks her, “Why didn’t you tell me?” But as Margaret continues to berate her, she becomes defiant, screaming, “You Fuck!” She is sent to a closet to pray. Giving up, Carrie goes to her closet.

We find out that Carrie has been able to move objects since she was little. However, she recently found her power to do this increasing. After a few short prayers, Carrie starts moving things around with her mind in her closet.

The next day, Miss Desjardin announces that the class will be serving a week of brutal detention with her for the nasty stunt they pulled the day prior. Chris Hargensen, defiant a rebellious rich girl that she is, says she won’t do it and leaves the field. Later that day, papa Hargensen shows up at the school to bully the principal on behalf of his daughter. The principal, an otherwise meek and mild man, isn’t having it. Chris Hardigan is suspended.

After school, Sue Snell is having a burger and root beer with her boyfriend, Tommy Ross who is a star athlete and most popular guy at the school. She is deeply troubled by her own behavior. She considers herself to be a fundamentally good person. Why, she asks herself, would she take such joy in tormenting Carrie in the locker room. Tommy, who takes life as it comes – and it comes easy to him – tells her not to dwell upon it.

Chris and a couple of her friends walk into the diner and Chris announces she’s been suspended and will not be allowed to go to the prom. She tells the group that the principal is going to lose his job over it. Sue, disgusted with herself and with Chris, tells her to shut up and take it. Chris reminds Sue that she was in there, pitching with the rest of them. Chris storms out of the diner.

Sue suddenly hatches an idea she thinks will help Carrie find a measure of acceptance. She asks Tommy to ask Carrie to the prom. Tommy, who neither likes nor dislikes Carrie doesn’t get it. He wants to go to the prom with Sue. But Tommy is a person who likes to please people – especially Sue – so he agrees.

Chris Hargensen has a taste for bad boys and seeks out her current beau, Billy Nolan. Billy is a high school drop out that lives upstairs of a local roadhouse. She works herself into a lather about “that White bitch,” and wants to get back at her. Like all American boy, Tommy Ross, Billy is confused about why Chris has such strong feelings about Carrie. He doesn’t know, nor does he care, who Carrie White is. He just wants to have sex.

Tommy dutifully seeks out Carrie and asks her to the prom. At first, Carrie rebuffs him, but Tommy is persistent. Carrie finally agrees to go.

Meanwhile, Chris has hatched her own plan for prom night. She goes to the gym and does a little logistics and reconnaissance. Later that night, Billy Nolan and a couple of his buddies kill some pigs and drain to buckets of blood from them to bring Chris’ plan to fruition.

Carrie is forced to make her own prom dress. Certainly mom is going to pay for it. Margaret is livid and fearful. First comes the blood, she tells Carrie. Then come the boys, sniffing around. She first demands that Carrie stay home. Then she pleads with Carrie, telling her they will burn the dress and pray for forgiveness. Carrie, now a willful teenager, isn’t having it. She’s going.

Chris and her friends set up their stunt. Tommy arrives to pick up Carrie. Margaret makes one last ditch attempt to stop Carrie, but Carrie leaves her standing frozen in the house as she goes out the door.

Tommy is nice to Carrie and seems to genuinely enjoy being with the shy, diminutive girl. They arrive at the prom and even some of the girls are nice, complimenting Carrie on the beautiful dress she fashioned. Tommy and Carrie dance and decide to vote for themselves as king and queen.

They need not have worried about that because the fix was in to make sure they were elected king and queen. Chris schemed to fix the ballots and get Tommy and Carrie up on the dais to stand beneath the buckets of pigs’ blood high above them. As Carrie revels and Tommy stands beside her a little embarrassed at the accolades, Chris yanks the rope that drops the blood. Carrie is drenched in it. The room falls silent.

After a few moments of stunned silence, a girl in the crowd goes hysterical and starts laughing. Carrie stands silently. The doors to the gym slam shut. The electrical panels short out the place goes dark. One of the buckets falls from the rafters and hits Tommy on the head, killing him. The kids in the gym go into a frenzy searching for an exit as the gym bursts into flames.

Chris heads back to Billy’s place scared at the enormity of the tragedy she knows is coming, but satisfied she got back at Carrie. She and Billy have sex.

Sue Snell sits at home, watching television, oblivious to the mayhem unfolding at the school.

Carrie leaves the gym and heads home. On her way, she sets the town ablaze. Buildings burn and explode in Carrie’s path as the overwhelmed police and fire departments try to deal with the inferno at the school and all the kids trapped inside.

Carrie arrives home to find her mother waiting patiently for her. Carrie runs to her, sobbing. They embrace. Margaret tells Carrie the story of her conception; of how Margaret and her husband lived a sexless, sinless life until one night when Margaret’s husband got drunk and raped her. Margaret knew that Carrie, born in sin, was a agent of evil and that she had failed God when she didn’t kill Carrie at birth. She then plunges a knife into Carrie’s back.

Carrie pushes her away. Now even her mother has turned on her. Carrie slowly kills Margaret by slowly and painfully stopping her heart. She then sets the house ablaze and walks out into the night.

Sue hears the commotion and goes out into the night to see the town ablaze. She knows that it’s Carrie who’s done this and sets out to find her. Back at the roadhouse, Chris and Billy also hear the commotion and head for town.

They spot Carrie wandering down a street. Billy instinctively tries to run her down. Just before the car is going to hit her, Carrie uses her mind to seize the wheel and send it careening off the road where it crashes into some trees. Chris and Billy are dead.

Carrie wanders through the town, slowly dying from her wound. She eventually collapses and Sue, drawn by Carrie’s powerful thoughts, is drawn to her. She finds Carrie near death. She feels Carrie’s emotional and physical pain. She feels Carrie searching her thoughts and emotions and knows that Carrie finds no malice in Sue’s heart. She asks Sue, “Why didn’t you all just leave me alone?” Sue holds Carrie as she dies.

The book ends with a copy of Carietta White’s death certificate and an article from a newspaper. The town of Chamberlain is, for all intents and purposes, dead. So many kids killed in the fire at the school and so much of the town destroyed that nobody has the will or desire to rebuild. People are leaving Chamberlain and the memories of the Carietta White affair behind them.

Stephen King, who would go on to write more than half a dozen books that ran more than 1,000 pages told this story in just 200 pages. It was originally shorter than that. In his rewrite, King added various snippets from scientific books and government inquiries that examined and explained Carrie White and telekinesis.

This addition added tremendously to what would have been a very pedestrian telling of an interesting story. Those excerpts move the story, explain events that aren't in the narrative, and add to the character development.

Through these narrative pauses, we find that the Maine state government tried to fix blame for the entire mess on Sue Snell. They try to corner her into saying she was part of Chris Hardigan's plot to get Carrie. She offers testimony against hostile questioning from state legislators explaining that her motives were pure. Also, she authored a book entitled, My Name is Sue Snell, where she documents the events leading up to the apocalypse, her role in it, and a defense of herself and Tommy Ross.

For a first published work, King tells a fine tale. But it is a thin tale. King had not yet developed that incredible character development and narrative voice that has made him America’s greatest storyteller. Particularly thin is the character of Tommy Ross. We never really know what motivates Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. We don’t know if he was being dutiful or that he wanted to be a good guy and help out Carrie.

It would have also been beneficial have some interior dialogue from Sue as she came up with the idea to have Carrie go to the prom with Tommy. Sue and Tommy were in love and had a bright future together. Giving up her prom date to a girl like Carrie must have been a struggle for her. Yet, in the book, it appears as if she did it on a lark.

As I read the book for the first time since the tragedy at Columbine High School and other school shootings, carried out by misfits who were bullied, it struck me as the ultimate revenge tale. I think King was writing it as a tragedy, but the reader can’t help but feel just a little satisfaction on Carrie’s behalf. King does not make Carrie’s victims very sympathetic.

King claims that the character, Carrie, was based on two people. One he knew as a fellow high school student whose parents were devoutly religious and the girl suffered for it. The other was a student at the private high school where he taught English.

Unfortunately, it's likely that in our lives, each of us has known someone like Carrie -- people so pitifully socially inept they bring out the worst in even the best of people.

The book may also say something about King's perceptions of adolescent girls. Some would tell you that adolescent girls are capable of being the most vicious creatures on earth, heaping scorn and derision upon those who occupy the lowest level of the school pecking order. This is not a generalization of all adolescent girls. Most are complex creatures with the same foreign and strange ideas that pass through the minds of all adolescents -- boys and girls. Only girls are more emotionally vicious because their targets are more susceptible to emotional abuse.

I often tell people that if you’ve seen the famous 1976 movie starring Sissy Spacek, you’ve more or less read the book. Other than Carrie’s demise, the movie deviates little from the book other than giving it more character development.

I've not seen the 2002 remake.

The story of how Carrie came to being is interesting. King wrote it, reread it, and thought it was horrible. He threw the manuscript in the trash. His wife rescued the manuscript, read it, and told King that the essence of a good story was there. He sent it off to an agent who found it a workable manuscript. With the rewrite that added the aforementioned narrative pauses and story supplements drawn from fictional primary documents, the book was born and the greatest writing career of the 20th century was launched.

No comments:

Post a Comment