In a sense, Carrie is the book that launched a thousand nightmares. This was King’s first ever novel and, while not his scariest, we would have never been exposed to the tales that have terrified millions without it. I feel that Carrie deserves respect for that reason alone, but I confess that I was hesitant to pick it up. Often, when you find an author you love later in their career, going back to their first published forays into their craft can be a bit disappointing as their writing abilities have improved or at least changed over the course of that career. I needn’t have worried. Every page completely entranced me, and I was engaged through the very last page.
One of the things that makes this book so compelling is the fact that you are told from the very beginning that things are going to end badly. King alternates telling the story in a linear method and interspersing that with pieces of newspaper columns and medical journal articles and interviews from after the Prom Night Massacre. So we know from the first few pages that prom night is going to end in slaughter, and we know that Carrie White is supposedly responsible. This foreknowledge adds a tension to the story that I found fascinating. I should have been less invested because I knew the outcome, but instead I was on the edge of my proverbial seat as I watched events unfolding, speeding toward their inevitable and grisly conclusion.
I was honestly surprised by how well King was able to get inside the mind of an unpopular teenage girl with a terrible home life. I know he was a high school teacher at the time this book was written, so he saw kids being horrible to kids everyday. But he’s not nor has he ever been a teenage girl, and yet I found the inner minds of his three main teenage girl perspectives convincing, especially that of his titular character. Carrie is pitiful, but not always pitiable. She has been warped and nearly broken by her insane zealot of a mother and her fellow classmates, who have never seen her as anything but an easy target. The events at and leading up to prom night are merely the final straws that snapped her mind.
The opening scene, involving Carrie starting her first period while in the locker room and being ridiculed by her classmates and pelted with tampons, is an image that has embedded itself into our collective cultural psyche. What I find most disturbing about this scene besides the obvious mob mentality is that Carrie had somehow made it to sixteen without knowing anything about menstration. I can vividly see myself in her shoes, in pain and bleeding without understanding why or what was happening, while everyone around me saw me at my weakest and most vulnerable and merely mocked me, as though no one cared that I felt like I was dying. It’s absolutely horrendous and King did a very good job representing that.
I also think that King’s decision to tie Carrie’s fully awakened power to the start of her menstration cycle was an interesting choice. She had biologically transitioned from girl to woman, and that transition bore with it immense pain and bloodshed, as well as furthering the distain her classmates felt toward her and the hatred regarding her that had been building inside her mother since Carrie’s birth. There was no possible way to make this transition more tragic or rage inspiring from Carrie.
The character I found truly terrifying in this book wasn’t Carrie herself or one of her more wicked classmates, but her mother. Margaret White is everything mankind is terrified of and horrified by in regards to religion. She is a zealot who has twisted Scripture and the idea of Jesus into something utterly unrecognizable. Her religion is of her own making, and it more closely resembles a cult that actual Christianity. Her views of every aspect of life and disturbingly skewed, but the worst of her misguided zeal is aimed at her daughter. Margaret uses religion as a weapon, and has bludgeoned all of the life and hope and personality from Carrie with it. The fact that there was enough of Carrie left to rise up and fight back is impressive. But she had already been abused to such an extent that, when faced with another humiliation, she saw the total destruction of her every perceived enemy as her only option.
I can totally see why Carrie has become a cultural phenomenon, one that we as a society reference without having ever read it or watched it. Carrie is a poster child of what happens when society pushes a teen too far, when we see an outcast and shove them further into their loneliness instead of reaching out our hands in an effort to pull them out of it. Being a teenager is hard enough without us making it harder. Kindness can go a long way toward helping high schoolers escape their teenage years alive. I want to end this review with a quote from Tabitha King, Stephen’s wife, who wrote an introduction to this novel upon reprinting. I think it sums up adolescence perfectly.
“An educator one remarked to me that no one ever died of adolescence. Knock, knock—anybody home, teach? Kids die of it all the time. Suicide is one of the most common causes of adolescent death. In large U.S. Cities, adolescents are currently murdering each other at a ghastly, scandalous rate… Another common adolescent tragedy is the drunk driving death, in which you can take your friends with you; one for all, all for one… You can endure adolescence, you can survive it, but it can and often does affect the course of your life in dramatic ways. And it can sure as hell kill you.”
Whether you’re new to King or have read dozens of his other titles, I heartily recommend this book. In my opinion, it completely holds its own with his later novels. Were there cringe-worthy moments? Absolutely, but that’s the norm for King, right? Stephen King became famous for a reason. Carrie is that reason.
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