Monday, March 05, 2012

Stephen King: Carrie (1974)

He speaks in your voice, American ...
Don DeLillo, Underworld

After reading On Writing (Stephen King's memoir of the craft) and enjoying The Stand, I wanted to tackle more King. So I started at the beginning.

"Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass.

"What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic."


The story behind the writing of Carrie is far more interesting than the book itself. The novel's genesis may not be widely known enough to be considered legendary, but I suspect any writers who have read a fair amount of King know it well.

I thought it would make a Cavalier [a men's magazine in which King had published several short stories] story: a straight point-to-point tale of an ugly-ducking girl with the "wild talent" of telekinesis, who finally uses her talent to get even with the bitches in her phys ed class who had been tormenting her.

The story had so many strikes against it from the very beginning that it never should have been written at all. The first problem had occurred about an hour after I sat down and began writing. I decided I couldn't write it at all. I was in a totally foreign environment - a girls' shower room - and writing about teenage girls. I felt completely at sea. ... I (1) had never been a girl, (2) had never had a menstrual cramp or a menstrual period, (3) had absolutely no idea how I'd react to one. ...

I crumpled up my two pages and threw them in the kitchen wastebasket. About an hour later Tabby saw them there, fished them out, read them, and pressed me to go on.
So he did. And he quickly realized that the story would be longer than anything Cavalier would publish. But it probably would not be long enough for a novel. It would end up as the "confused, anarchy-riddled, literary banana republic" known as a novella, not a short story, not a novel, but something in between - "a story with absolutely no market".
I persisted, not out of any noble motivation, not out of any glimmerings into the future, not even because my wife had asked me to, but because I was dry and had no better ideas. If I had had one, I would have dropped Carrie in a flash. I pushed my way through scene after difficult, sticky scene, taking little if any pleasure in any of it, only doing the most competent job I could ... I think it would be fair to say that I detested it. It was neither fish nor fowl; not a straight story, not strictly a fantasy, not strictly science fiction. The length was wrong and the ending was terribly downbeat. My considered opinion was that I had written the world's all-time loser.
In early 1973, he sent it off to an editor at Doubleday with whom he had had previous dealings, and after a meeting and some re-writing of the last 50 pages, Carrie was published in April 1974. King was 26 years old.

One wonders about the arc (or even the existence) of King's writing career if those pages had stayed in the trash. Considering how prodigious King's work flow was at that time, some type of success might have come anyway, or he might have been at a low point where it was finally time to admit that writing would be nothing more than a sideline.

King, writing in Danse Macabre:
The story deals with a girl named Carrie White, the browbeaten daughter of a religious fanatic. Because of her strange clothes and shy mannerisms, Carrie is the butt of every class joke; the social outsider in every situation. She also has a mild telekinetic ability which intensifies after her first menstrual period ...

[T]he book tries to deal with the loneliness of one girl, her desperate effort to become part of the peer society in which she must exist, and how her effort fails. If it had any thesis to offer, this deliberate updating of High School Confidential, it was that high school is a place of almost bottomless conservatism and bigotry ...

But there's a little more subtext to the book than that, I think - at least, I hope so. ... Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality ... The book is, in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality. For me, Carrie White is a sadly misused teenager, an example of the sort of person whose spirit is so often broken for good in that pit of man- and woman-eaters that is your normal suburban high school. But she's also Woman, feeling her powers for the first time in her life and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.

Heavy, turgid stuff - but in the novel, it's only there if you want to take it. If you don't, that's okay with me.
Is that heavy, turgid subtext really there? Perhaps a little. The book does chart Carrie's awakening and assertion of herself, and she is clearly terrified of an empty future in the shadow of her abusive mother, who is described as a religious fundamentalist, but is, in my opinion, nearly insane. Carrie notes that life under her mother's dominance would be a kind of living death:
High school would be over in a month. Then what? A creeping, subterranean existence in this house, supported by Momma, watching game shows and soap operas all day on television ... walking down to the Center to get a malted after supper at the Kelly Fruit when it was deserted, getting fatter, losing hope, losing even the power to think?
More King thoughts:
Carrie was written after Rosemary's Baby, but before The Exorcist, which really opened up the field. I didn't expect much of Carrie. I thought who'd want to read a book about a poor little girl with menstrual problems? I couldn't believe I was writing it. ... 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.
Carrie is a good debut novel(la), though not as interesting to me as either The Long Walk or Rage, two other novels which I believe were completed and in King's drawer by this time. (Both of them were published a few years later under the name Richard Bachman.)

The novel feels like an expanded short story, and the inclusion of documented sources about the Carrie White "incident" - news bulletins, excerpts from scholarly books, interviews from various investigations - felt at times like a poor substitute for developing the story and characters in a more traditional way. What is interesting about Carrie is that it is a horror story that makes little effort to hide what's coming. The fine details are unknown, but King drops not-so-subtle hints of what is coming almost from the start of the book:
"her violent rampage of revenge" (back cover)
Carrie is telekinetic, and has a "potential of immense magnitude" (pp. 4, 6)
Her mother is now dead (67)
Something happened at the school's Spring Ball, an incident known simply as Prom Night (82)
"the destruction that came to Chamberlain, Maine" (91)
"He and George and Frieda had less than two hours to live." (141)
A careful reader may also notice that none of the sources quote Carrie herself, so there is a question of whether she remains alive.

Carrie is in many ways a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale, with even their four-syllable names (Carietta) being similar. One of the most obvious allusions is when Carrie loses her "prom slippers" while running across the school lawn at what is clearly the end of the Spring Ball.

King establishes several themes that he will return to again and again in his fiction: a child protagonist with cruel or distant parents, or a main character, often an outsider, with a secret or a secret ability. He will continue interrupting sentences to include whatever may be running quickly through a character's mind, set off either in parenthesis or in italics. There is a theme of identity and conformity in high school that King will also discuss (in far greater depth) in the Bachman book, Rage. King calls the ending of Carrie "a dream revolution of the socially downtrodden".

Three inside jokes: King quotes from a poem Carrie had written in a Grade 7 English class led by Mr. Edwin King. Edwin is King's middle name, and he taught high school English back in the '70s. ... The book mentions something known as "King's Evil", a skin disease (scrofula) which could allegedly be cured during the Middle Ages in England and France by the mere touch from royalty. ... A roadhouse bar is named the Cavalier.

Carrie is also one of the most-frequently banned books in United States high schools, one of several of King's books to be banned in schools. King's observation: "If a book is banned, go find that book and read it because that is what you should be reading."

From Carrie:
"True sorrow is as rare as true love."

"Whenever anything important happens in America, they have to gold-plate it, like baby shoes. That way you can forget it." (sounding a tad DeLillo-esque, actually)
King, Book-of-the-Month Club News, 1987:
I'm not any big-deal fancy writer. If I have any virtue it's that I know that. I don't have the ability to write the dazzling prose line. All I can do is entertain people. I think of myself as an American writer.
Next: 'Salem's Lot.


M@ said...

Interesting that you point out all the places where that kind of sledgehammer foreshadowing (forehammering?) takes place. That is very much the sign of an inexperienced writer. I see it all the time nowadays and I've often wondered where it comes from.

Writers really need to know that this is an extremely ineffective way to propel the story forward. Get out of the way and let the story do the driving. If it isn't, and the story isn't pushing as hard as it needs to, then improve the story.

Sorry to get off on a rant like that. The many examples you cited all in a row was just a little too much...

laura k said...

"Get out of the way and let the story do the driving."

Excellent advice, but easier said than done. When I wrote fiction, I found it difficult to trust my story to flesh out the themes. I always had to go back and delete too-obvious theme explication. I hate that as a reader - yet found it incredibly hard to avoid as a writer.

johngoldfine said...

Whenever you and Laura are ready to come to Bangor for the Stephen King tour, let me be your guide: Hampden Academy where 'Carrie' was hatched, the 'New Franklin Laundry' where SK had to toil for extra dough, the notorious King mansion on West Broadway, etc.

Are you really going to hold off reading 'The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon' until you've worked your way down the list of books chronologically?

johngoldfine said...

My experience writing fiction is that if there is a map, there won't be a legend--that is, if I know where I'm going when I start, when I get there it won't have been worth the trouble.

laura k said...

Finally read this post. I had no idea about the story behind Carrie. It's really unbelievable, to think that this became the blockbuster hit movie, put him on the map forever, changed not only King's life but the publishing scene and the movie industry.

As you and I were talking about the other day, King's story has everything: rags to riches, addiction and recovery, near-death and debilitation... even baseball. I'd say it has the makings of the Great American Novel, but it's stranger than any fiction.

laura k said...

John, I'm pretty sure Allan has read Tom Gordon and many other later works. Thanks for the tour invite, that would be fun. :)

laura k said...

Is that heavy, turgid subtext really there?

Absolutely! I knew all that from the movie. There's no doubt that King knew about it too, and was tapping into all those archetypes.

Awesome female power, women becoming scary/dangerous/psychotic on menstruation? These stories are as old as stories themselves.

allan said...

I bought Tom Gordon when it came out and started it, but I don't think I finished it. And I must have got rid of it when we moved. ... So I will buy it again! Gotta start haunting second-hand book store and thrift shops.

I was intrigued by the concept of serially publishing The Green Mile and read those every month. I have not read much of his later stuff - TGM was in '96, I think - , but am intrigued that many of them have to do with a character's relationship with art and creativity.

Also 2/3 of the way through 'salem's Lot right now and am blown away from the huge leap from Carrie in terms of scope, characters, storytelling ability, everything.