Book: “Carrie” by Stephen King
Publishing Info: Doubleday, April 1974
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: Carrie knew she should not use the terrifying power she possessed… But one night at her senior prom, Carrie was scorned and humiliated just one time too many, and in a fit of uncontrollable fury she turned her clandestine game into a weapon of horror and destruction…
Review: It was the Fall of 1997. I was in eighth grade, and I had just finished “The Stand” by Stephen King. My Dad had handed me his copy after we’d watched the re-broadcast of the miniseries, assuring me I would like it. He was right, and I still consider it one of the best moments I’ve ever had with my father, because he opened me up to the world of Stephen King. And while he didn’t have anymore King to share (he’s not a horror guy at all; “The Stand” is his kind of dystopian dark fantasy thriller), I knew that I needed to get my hands on more. And my next choice was “Carrie”. For a vaguely isolated and bullied eighth grade girl, “Carrie” was exactly the kind of book I needed in that moment. While “The Stand” was the book that introduced me to King, “Carrie” changed my life. And on a whim, I decided to revisit it, twenty one years after having first read it. I had my fears that it wouldn’t be as profound to adult Kate as it was to thirteen year old Kate who needed a catharsis from her awful classmates. But I was wrong.
“Carrie” is still a relatable and unnerving horror story from the master of horror himself, and even 45(!) years after it was published it still tackles issues of bullying, zealotry, social isolation, and teenage angst in believable ways. Carrie White is an unconventional protagonist in that she is a constant victim, and is perpetually beaten down and weakened by her peers, her community, and her own mother. Carrie isn’t particularly two dimensional as a character; true, she finds her telekinetic powers and does find some bouts of self confidence that manifest every so often, but she never achieves what she wants to achieve, which is acceptance. Or at the very least, being left the hell alone. And yet even though she is for the most part mousy and passive except for a few moments, and then Prom night, you still feel for her and ache for her. King does a really good job of creating a lonely teenage girl who we pity and care for, and yet ultimately fear (note: We do have to give some credit to King’s wife Tabitha, an author in her own right and complete bad ass. She helped him with the infamous period scene, and helped him with the viciousness of teenage girls). But it isn’t just Carrie White who King so amply brings off the page. Many of his supporting characters are developed and well thought out, and sometimes it’s the real life horrors in this book that will upset you the most. While the bullying is awful, I’m more put off by Carrie’s zealous Mother, so devout and obsessed with her religion that she perverts it into the physical and emotional abuse of her only child. King makes it very clear that Carrie isn’t the real monster in this novel, or rather, if she is she’s a monster who didn’t stand a chance to become anything else.
But I also need to give kudos for how well King captures teenage life for not just Carrie but for the other teen characters. I knew girls like Chris, the cruel and insecure spoiled princess who is used to getting her way, even when she’s at her most rotten. I knew boys like Tommy Ross, a popular but ultimately sweet guy who was just doing his best (side note: I am still in full belief that if Prom Night hadn’t ended the way it did, Tommy and Carrie would have ended up together. HE WAS FALLING IN LOVE WITH HER, GUYS!). And Sue Snell, the girl whose guilt led to her good deed of getting Carrie a date to the prom, is almost more interesting than even Carrie herself. Sue’s comfort in her conformity is tested at the beginning, and her slow realization that there is life after high school, and that she wants more than people would expect from a pretty, popular girl in a small town. On this re-read from an adult’s eye, I found Sue’s arc to be incredibly compelling and bittersweet.
The narrative of “Carrie” is also a slow burn of suspense, told in a combination of third person and epistolary sequences. The perspective may be from that of Carrie or the various people in her life, or it may be through police interview transcripts, book excerpts, or scientific papers. The jumps sometimes feel a little jarring at first, but once you get in the rhythm of them they flow together in a cohesive way. I feel like we haven’t seen as much epistolary experimentation from King as of late, and this throwback to that style from him was fun to see, especially since it’s used so much in thrillers these days. It also casts a wide net on perspectives, and it gives a very well rounded picture of not only Carrie’s life, but the lives of those around her and how the Prom Night and aftermath affect those who come out of it alive. One of the most fun things that I completely forgot about it in this style was the ‘scientific paper’ excerpts, where a scientist is talking about telekinesis and how it applied in this case. But, in another masterful touch by King, even in these epistolary excerpts many of the adults just don’t get what life is like for the teens involved, and the contrast between the speculations and the realities make the story all the more sad.
I may be looking at this through a biased lens, as “Carrie” was a book that got me through a lot during my darker years of adolescence. But I find it to be so effective and well done that I’ve been known to recommend “Carrie” to teenage girls who are looking for a bit of a challenge beyond the YA shelf, and who don’t mind a good scare or two. King’s first is still one of his very best.
Rating 10: This remains one of my favorite books of all time. “Carrie” is not only a suspenseful and truly scary book, it also captures the horrors of being a teenage outcast that still feel timeless and relevant.
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