Monday, April 23, 2012

King's Korner:, Carrie

"I'm not saying that Carrie is shit and I'm not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom."
--Stephen King (1)
Book Edition: Signet, First Printing, April 1975. Cover: Still from the movie: Sissy Spacek drenched in pigs blood with wide, white, trance-like eyes that still freak me out a little.
Let’s do a little meditative thought-experiment... Imagine, if you will, that you are a teacher fresh out of college (as far as teaching is concerned). You have two children and live in a crummy trailer in a poor section of town. Your salary is negligible, your fiduciary situation paycheck to paycheck, and really, not even that: you manage to survive only by supplementing your income with short stories sold to magazines: this gets your car fixed and medicine for your children. One day you’re cleaning some bathrooms with a janitor buddy in your second job when all of the sudden you have an idea about girls torturing an sad sack of existence who has just had her first period, with the added caveat that this sad sack is telekinetic! Awesome, a great magazine yarn. You come home and start to type it up, realize that there’s no way it’s going to fit in a short story, realize that you have no time to work on a novel at the moment, and frustrated, toss the story in the garbage.
Then you spend the next twenty years teaching, getting the odd story published, getting fatter and more disillusioned about writing and your life entirely, grow old and die.
Now more than likely Stephen King would have been talented and motivated enough to make a living as a writer at some point, and that rather depressing picture I just painted would not have come to pass. What cannot be argued, however, is that his wife Tabitha’s sharp eye and instinct pretty much saved King’s career as we know it.
There’s also no denying that King had a (well deserved) string of luck in the years around Carrie’s publication. The first, and not the least of which being Tabitha King digging the start of the first draft of the manuscript from among the beer cans and cigarette ash and encouraging King to finish it. The second stroke of luck came when he sold the paperback rights to Carrie for $400,000 about a year after publication (Of which he got $200,000 due to his horrible book deal), despite his only having one novel published that sold only decently in the hardback market--this allowed him to quit teaching and focus on his writing. The third stroke of luck is that the movie of his first novel was made by wunderkind director Brian Depalma, becoming by popular consensus one of the greatest horror movies of all time and one of the best King adaptations. As I mentioned back in my first post on King and why I love respect him as a writer, the greatness of the movie brought Carrie, and therefore King, to the national forefront, and brought millions of people the bookstore to gobble up the print edition. But it was King himself that kept them there. Why? Well, to understand we have to examine Carrie’s characteristics on both a structural/stylistic level and a meta/thematic level.

Revenge, of course. What is Carrie but the ultimate revenge fantasy? Unleashing revenge upon her tormenters at nothing less than the apotheosis of the high school social paradigm: senior prom. At a very core level, the book is Id-soothing wish fulfillment for 99% of people who survived the High School Journey. It’s fantasy for every maligned, abused, picked-on and mistreated outcast in the high school social strata, of course, but fact is, most everybody who has traversed the hallowed halls of secondary education has felt maligned, abused, picked-on and mistreated at some point, no matter how rarely or how severely—these small abuses stick with us in very unconscious ways, and in that manner Carrie is for everyone, because most everyone has been Carrie at some juncture, even if just for a fleeting moment or two.
If anything, Carrie is an expression of the multifaceted considerations of pretty much every high school student. Some might say that the characters in the novel are one-dimensional, and maybe so; but if looked at from another perspective, there’s definitely a sense that the characters aren’t just one dimensional representations, but representations of a particular psyche of a high school student. After all, there’s a Carrie, and a Sue Snell, and a Chris Hargensen, and a Tommy Ross and, yes, even a Billy Nolan, in all of us. It would be hard to say that the characters in Carrie are three dimensional, especially the villains. But as I have stated before, archetypes are not objectively bad. And what King creates here is a cast of arguably one-dimensional characters whose attributes are so relatable that they stick in our memories and understanding. Bound up in these one dimensional characters is a fully three-dimensional character that represents the conflicting boundaries of a teenager’s mind—hell, perhaps the mind of every human being ever: we’ve all been Carrie, and Sue and Chris and Tommy and Billy, and it is recognition of this fact that makes the characters so compelling even though they are fairly one dimensional.
Some of King’s greatest strengths as a writer are unveiled within the novel’s short length: his grittiness, his unflinching expressions of sexuality and vulgarity, the insanity of an obsessed human mind, his grasp of human action and methodology of speech—King’s dialogue is some of the best you’d find anywhere, and his first novel is no exception. Most importantly and singularly, his down to Earth approach to cosmic horror—a girl with destructive telekinetic abilities wrapped up in the day-to-day stresses of a high school senior.

You can pretty well sub-divide King’s work into four major eras. The first era extends from the mid-seventies to the late seventies, upon the publication of The Dead Zone and thereby King’s first hardcover number one bestseller. The second era extends from the early eighties, after The Dead Zone’s publication to the end of the eighties and the publication of The Dark Half. The third era goes from 1990 to around the publication of On Writing and his traumatic car accident in 1999, and his fourth era is from then to today. It’s truly a testament to King’s longevity that we can even talk about his aesthetic evolutions over an almost four-decade period of time; but I divide him into eras because there are definite tonal and constructional shifts in the feel and form of his writing between these points. Inevitably, and if this blog continues, we will reach these other “eras,” but for our purposes, let’s focus on the tonal roar that King puts across in his first published novel.

If you have to put it down in one word, King’s writing in Carrie is raw. Not rawness of “inexperience”--King, even upon his first novel’s completion, was not an inexperienced writer by any means, having been involved with the craft since his teens and having already published a wealth of short stories that kept the King family above the poverty line—nor is it a rawness in the late 20th century slang version of cool. King’s writing is rarely cool. I doubt most people would describe graphic details of menstruation as cool.

No, the rawness in Carrie is one of devil-may-care flippancy. This is a King who doesn’t give a crap about accolades, the opinions of Harold Bloom, the travesties being put on film that are ostensibly adaptations of his works, maintaining and dealing with a rabid audience, his place in the annals of American fiction, or the “type” of writer he was and how seriously he was going to be taken by the academic literary elite. Am I saying that these became conscious considerations by King? No, I don’t think so. But did they begin to niggle in the back of his mind after he had become established and had grown a large fan base and wasn’t concerned as much with just making sure he could afford medical care for his children? That I do believe, and it begins to come across however subtly in the later part of era three.

But King’s attitude in Carrie can be summed up by a little anecdote he himself tells. He’s talking to his agent after he’s turned in the MS for The Shining, and the agent warns him that publishing three horror novels in a row is going to get him pegged as a “horror writer.” To which King replies, “Horror writer? I’m just happy to be called any kind of writer.” (Or something along those lines.). And that’s the feeling that comes across in Carrie: a forceful passion for the work and the story in and of itself.

On a more structural level, Carrie introduces two of King’s stylistic tendencies, the first being the use of interrupting parenthetical expressions to symbolize the unstructured and contradictory nature of thought:

Weeping and snuffling, Carrie bowed her head. A runner of snot hung pendulously from her nose and she wiped it away
(if I had a nickel for every time she made me cry here)
with the back of her hand. (55)

            She had fallen on her side, and the fire lit the street with hellish noonday. What happened next happened in slow motion as her mind ran steadily onward
            (dead are they all dead carrie why think carrie)
At its own clip. (176)

These instances showcase King’s understanding of psychological horror and the makeup of the human mind; the thoughts enter in without recourse for plot structure or prose. They themselves are barely structured at all, just clear enough for the Reader to get their meaning, really putting the Reader inside the head of the narrator.

More importantly, the interrupting thoughts demonstrate the “Other” within each individual person: the contradictory one, the argumentative one, the little voice in the ear telling us we can’t do this or they’re laughing at you or even, you have to kill this person. What make these thoughts truly terrifying are their wildness and their identifiability; sharply in contrast to the ordered nature of prose, the parenthetical thoughts are as strange and alien to a novel structure as they are in our own brains. They are unfamiliar—they are representations of the very chaos that lies beneath our pretense of society. And that is horrifying.

We also see, in Carrie, King’s first use of his journalistic bent, making use of not only news articles, but AP Press tickers, book excerpts, and commission records to “fill out” and frame the story and foreshadow certain events. King, having worked for the student paper in college, uses this technique to great effect in many of his novels, including his subsequent two: Salem’s Lot and The Shining.

King’s use of journalistic and “outside” sources to create both mystery and fill out the plot of his stories probably could warrant a post of his own, but Carrie’s use of it is unique simply by the nature of its inclusion. King added the pertinent sections because the novel in its first draft was “too damn short to begin with,” and even with the added sections, Carrie rounds out at barely 200 pages. But King’s ability to weave mystery from the detached viewpoint of investigations after the fact only adds to the sensibilities and horrors that occur in the town. The deftly weaved inclusions of “excerpts” from The Shadow Exploded and the White Commission, etcetera, work both as story points and as tension builders leading up to the final climax, and then act as the denouement for the novel and a way to make the ending much more ominous than it would be otherwise. 

I’ve used the word detachment here, as it’s another indication of King’s inherent understanding of verisimilitude and audience participation. Because the excerpts and news articles are pieces of what the audience members would be reading if the events in Carrie came to pass, it makes the story all the more real and therefore all the more gut-wrenching to the reader. The books and interviews and letters are written by people outside the circle of the event, or long after the event has passed. This gives the excerpts a sort of distance, of detachment, that manages to build the narrative not only by foreshadowing but by pulling us out from the narrative and looking at the proceedings in the macro-level. It’s the equivalent of the security camera conceit in something like Paranormal Activity 2—its quotidian quality and measured, cold perspective is what makes it so hauntingly creepy, and the inclusion of these bits of article and “non-fiction” are key to the sense of familiarity that make Carrie more engrossing to a new audience that had never considered reading a horror tale before.



King’s rawness is a rawness of bloody meat, stripped bare, peeling back the skin of façade to reveal the vileness lurking underneath, and yet, at the same time, a vileness tempered by confusion, fear, misunderstanding, and the need to be part of a society. The menstruation scene at the beginning of Carrie is famous for its hive-mind asperity, a group of girls whose evident disdain and loathing of Carrie is as much wrapped up in their insecurities about themselves as it is their actual feelings toward the object of their derision:

A tampon suddenly struck her in the chest and fell with a plop at her feet. A red flower stained the absorbent cloth and spread.
Then the laughter, disgusted, contemptuous, horrified, seemed to rise and bloom into something jagged and ugly, and the girls were bombarding her with tampons and sanitary napkins, some from purses, some from the broken dispenser on the wall. They flew like snow and the chant became: “Plug it up, plug it up…”
Sue was throwing them too, throwing and chanting with the rest, not really sure what she was doing—a charm had occurred to her mind and it glowed there like neon. There’s no harm in it really no harm in it really no harm—It was still flashing and glowing, reassuringly, when Carrie suddenly began to howl and back away, flailing her arms and grunting and gobbling. (8, emphasis King’s)

This is the essence of horror, especially psychological horror, and if there’s one thing King inarguably understands, it’s the essence of horror: the unfamiliar, the grotesque, the other, an other that we try to repress for the benefit of society.

Repression plays a big factor in the thematic resonance of Carrie. The eponymous character’s repression of the sexual, social and telekinetic kind form the basis of the novel, and her response to those, “coming into her own,” is what ignites the conflict and brings the novel to the climax.

Carrie’s sexual repression is an important attribute. It is keenly linked to her telekinetic abilities. Her belated arrival to sexual maturity coincides directly with her realization, acceptance and laboring over her telekinetic powers. It is also the most pronounced figment of “evil” that her mother berates her with. Carrie is engrained with the “knowledge” that menstruation and breasts are evil signs indicative of the sin of Eve; and Margaret White’s own sexual repression in a bizarre and terrifying way is the direct cause of Carrie: her rape, and her own feelings about her rape. It is an Id embroiled base level desire seen as wicked and unrighteous, just like Carrie’s own Id embroiled telekinetic abilities. As the latter grows the former grows as well.

The shadow of repression is not just found in the White household either. Both Chris Hargensen and Sue Snell have symptoms of it, and both respond to it in divergent ways. Chris’ own “base” desires are repressed by factor of her birth and her need to live up to her father’s reputation and expectations. She finds release for this repression in Billy Nolan and his free-for-all nihilistic lifestyle. Snell, on the other hand, responds to her own repression with a sinner-confessor attitude: when her base, instinctive actions have shown themselves, as during the menstruation scene, she immediately closes it over and attempts to atone for her lashing out, by getting her boyfriend Tommy Ross to go to the prom with Carrie.

And of course, on the meta-thematic level, the novel treats its own readers as a comfort to their own repressed feelings of disillusionment, anger and rage towards their former high school brethren. As I’ve said, Carrie at its core is a revenge fantasy, and revenge fantasies are almost always a function of expressing and massaging repressed feelings. If it weren’t repressed, then it wouldn’t be a fantasy. And in the end, the fantasy of popular social revenge comes crashing down. It’s a portion of the novel I truly appreciate it, because while wish-fulfillment is something that is harmless in fantasy, King’s exploration of the aftermath and circumstances surrounding Carrie’s revenge are more heartbreaking than satisfying. He turns the tale on its head, really: having Carrie’s actions twist from an awesome high to a gut-wrenching rumination on the havoc she causes. He makes the very repression-releasing cathartic revenge that draws people in seem undesirable in the end, and that fact alone is what propels the thematic Id-soothing qualities of the novel into a higher realm of thematic consideration. Carrie no longer is repressed by the novel’s end, and she dies as a result. The “release” of Carrie’s repressed, societally unacceptable feelings of rage, anger, hatred and telekinesis literally cause the downfall of the town: as the epilogue makes clear, the whole area’s just sort of drying up and blowing away. The two extremes of repression are both therefore summarily dismissed and inadequate: Carrie’s lifelong repression of sexual feelings and “bad” behavior has placed her on edge and made her a social pariah. But the release of that repression all at once—fully cutting loose without any restraint or consideration for societal construction or human empathy annihilates the town, a harbinger of chaos and the end of human civilization—or at least the town of Chamberlain, Maine. I think it’s very telling how the novel is bookended by two instances of graffiti drawn on a school bathroom door and the former location of the White’s home:
Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Bark Street Grammar School in Chamberlain:
Carrie White eats shit. (4, emphasis King’s)

Found painted on the lawn of the house lot where the White bungalow had been located:

Carrie’s becoming a whole person, realizing her potential, and giving her tormenters what they deserve really, in the end, does nothing except make everyone hate her more. In effect, King builds up this revenge fantasy, and then, in the end, undermines it in a surprising fashion of post-modern sensibility. There’s no catharsis or satisfaction from the revenge, because after all is said and done nothing changes. Carrie doesn’t go up in the estimation of her peers, and she isn’t looked on with any more respect or dignity than she was when she was the whipping boy of the high school hierarchy. She doesn’t even get to escape the abuse of her mother’s religious beliefs. Her revenge does nothing for her except put her in a grave.
According to Wikipedia (2) King has remarked that Carrie has a “surprising power to hurt and horrify.” And whether he said it or not, I think the quote speaks to why Carrie maintains a place in cultural history despite its flaws: because in its own small way, it breaks the expectations of the reader. The reader is set up to expect Carrie to get revenge on the “bad guys” of the novel: namely, Chris and Billy. They wanted Carrie to get revenge on them, if I may be assumptive for a moment. They wanted Carrie to unleash the full potential of her awesome powers on those evil kids that tortured her so. What they did not want was the bloodbath they got—even though a bloodbath was the only logical conclusion of the story. In this way, the novel messes with the conventions of the reader’s own base desires, horrifying him about his own callousness towards the students who turned out not to be monsters but merely dumb kids after all—dumb kids like the reader himself was at some point. 

As I mentioned in my introduction post to my King-love respect, the man has become such a staple of pop culture and American fiction that it’s hard for people to get a grasp on just how much of a revolution Carrie was in the world of mainstream fiction. We’ve become so used to him and his works have had such an effect on the world, especially in the internet age, that we really have to think back to remember the days when people would raise their eyebrows at the sound of his name and talk about how insane the man was and how freaky and how they had no idea where he got his ideas from at the same time they were gobbling down his books with fervor. King was the first mainstream horror writer in—well, history, pretty much—and if you can argue with that, you can’t argue with the fact that his fiction reached a much wider audience than any of his genre had ever done. It ached with blood and sex and nastiness and everyone just loved it. Why? I really can’t say, though I think partially it was bound up in changing social mores in the post Vietnam/Watergate world and King’s own unique brand of psychological understanding.
The man was dangerous. He was exposing things that shouldn’t be exposed. An underage high-school girl having repressed masturbatory and sexual thoughts while coming into her telekinetic abilities upon her first much-belated period while she condemns herself for feeling these said sexual thoughts because it went against what Jesus wants. Only in a King novel.
Beyond the uncanny grasp of teenagerdom and its accompanying social mores, King’s first novel introduced himself as what I would propose to style the HBO of the literary world, going farther and hitting harder than most people (mainstream) would dare or were allowed (and yes, maybe being a little excessive while he was at it), and for a subscription cost of seventy-five cents a paperback. It was new and it was fresh and it made horror something more than a haven for “nerds” and “weirdos,” but something that was about all of us.
Undoubtedly, the movie raised the stakes and brought the audience and rocketed King to pseudo-stardom, but I truly believe it was the book that really made people perk up and notice.
Is Carrie perfect? No, I wouldn’t say so. It’s a bit rushed in places, its characters are sometimes borderline cartoons in their villainous deeds and it is, as King himself admits, rather short. Likewise, King himself thinks the movie is better than the book. Maybe, maybe not, but I don’t think we can ignore the book’s merit and what it started off in the horror genre. It’s not near King’s best, but it does have the honor of being the first. Not just of King’s novels, but of horror novels to truly, deeply be taken into account by a wide, mainstream audience without sacrificing its own character. And in that aspect alone, it deserves its place in history.
Until next time,
Mr. E
(1) This quote came, unsubstantiated, from Wikipedia, which I know is not advisable. The quote sounds real enough, and sounds like something King would say, but there was no citation for it, and therefore contains a small kernel of doubt that he actually said it. That being said, it is way too good a quote to pass up.
(2) Again, without citational substantiation, though I honestly have few qualms about the quotes veracity.

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