I re-read Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974), last weekend. It’s been on my mind for a few months ever since my sister made some reference to it at a family dinner. I don’t remember the context or even what she said, but the book got stuck in my head. On Friday I found myself detouring to the library on the way home.
I assumed they’d still have it in the stacks and if it was checked out I was feeling obsessive enough to just download the ebook. But my public library came through for me yet again and I drove home with a jacket-less 1974 maroon & black hardcover copy on the passenger seat next to me. The frayed edges of the book matched the tan seat color. (It’s not a first edition, but should you have a first edition moldering away in your basement you could sell it for $500-$7,500.)
It’s pleasantly surprising when an “older” book not only stands the test of time, but is also relevant to the present. Other than a few references that younger readers might not get (78 rpm vs 33 1/3, “greasily smoking road pots,” and casual Cold War era remarks about fear of bombs and missiles) Carrie stands the test of time. As King’s first published novel, it isn’t as smooth as some of his subsequent works, but it’s still a good read. If you’re of a certain age, you no doubt remember Carrie. Chances are good that you either read the book or saw the 1976 movie staring Sissy Spacek and you probably have at least one scene that readily comes to mind. Perhaps your recollection of the story and its characters depends on your own experience of high school and/or your teen years. Some remember Carrie as a freak; others felt sorry for her.
Carrie is relevant today due to the issue of bullying. If you don’t know the story, Carrie is a sixteen year old girl raised by a widowed mother who practices her own warped, abusive, and violent brand of Christianity. Carrie wears only homemade dresses with long hems that are decades out of style and their home is covered with pictures depicting Biblical scenes as well as a four foot crucifix. Carrie has been cruelly picked on by the children in her community since her very first day of school. She’s the social outcast, the one that it’s ‘okay’ to torment.
The novel opens with Carrie in the shower after gym class where she gets her period for the first time. She’s terrified because she thinks she’s bleeding to death. The other girls immediately start tormenting her, yelling at her to “plug it up, plug it up” and throw tampons and sanitary pads at her. A teacher comes in and breaks things up. She slowly realizes that Carrie, at the rather late age at 16, is experiencing her first period and, even more amazingly, that the girl doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. Carrie is sent home from school and is relieved to find herself home alone, at least for a few minutes, before her mother marches through the door. The school called her at work to tell her what happened.
Carrie is mad at her mother for not educating her about menstruation. The girl also wants to be comforted by her mother, but her mother’s reaction is to hit her, blame her for the sin of womanhood, and then make her pray at their homemade altar before locking her in the closet where Carrie has been sent as punishment for her “sins.”
The onset of puberty, however late, slowly wakens forgotten powers in Carrie. As Carrie’s anger grows she comes to realize or, rather, remember, that she has a special power–telekinesis–that allows her to move things with her mind. She comes to realize that she can control and develop this telekinetic power and starts practicing, literally pumping reps with her mind, progressively adding more weight to her workouts.
Carrie is hurting and full of pain from years of abuse at the hands of her classmates and her mother. The last trick–on prom night–is a big one and it pushes Carrie over her limit.
In the mean time, one of her classmates, Sue, feels bad about the bullying in the locker room and tries to make up for it. One of the other girls, Chris, doesn’t feel bad about what happened. In fact, Chris is pissed off for not being allowed to go to the prom because she skipped out on the detention that was punishment for what happened in the locker room. Her slick and bullying lawyer daddy couldn’t force the administration to bend to his threats, so Chris decides to get her own revenge. Great role model, Dad.
These three girls–Carrie, Sue, and Chris–form a triangle of conflicting desires and anger that end up making a spectacularly sad & tragic horror story. There are boys involved. One of them, the town’s bad boy, Billy (played by John Travolta in the movie), is a key player in making the horror break out, but its girls that star in this book. Stephen King was onto the issue of girls bullying other girls years before it became a subject of study for sociologists and psychologists and then a popular talk show topic. From a quick search, it looks like some of the earliest studies done on bullying between girls were conducted in the early 1980s.
This quote below is dialogue from Sue, the girl who is trying to do the right thing, as she’s talking with her boyfriend Tommy:
“Maybe if that [the shower room scene] was all I could let it go, but the mean tricks have been going on ever since grammar school. I wasn’t in on many of them, but I was on some. If I’d been in Carrie’s groups, I bet I would have been in on even more. It seemed like . . . oh, a big laugh. Girls can be cat-mean about that sort of thing, and boy’s don’t really understand. The boys would tease Carrie for a little while and then forget, but the girls . . . it went on and on and on and I can’t even remember where it started anymore. If I were Carrie, I couldn’t even face showing myself to the world. I’d just find a big rock and hide under it. . . . Lots of kids say they feel sorry for Carrie White–mostly girls, and that’s a laugh–but I bet none of them understand what it’s like to be Carrie White, every second of every day. And they don’t really care” (66-67).
Sue is breaking away from the adolescent herd and becoming a more independent thinker. She’s also developing compassion and empathy, but its too little, too late.
What happens when bullying is chronic, never ending, and intensifies? People sometimes die. In Carrie lots of people die, and not just the tormentors, but those who didn’t do anything about the bullying. “Innocent” bystanders. Too often, of late, its those who are bullied that take their own lives. I bet many a bullied teenager has read this book and wished they had some of Carrie’s powers to make their tormentors pay.
King isn’t heavy handed about the bullying, nor am I claiming it was his intended theme, but its clear that the authorities don’t get the point. Instead of looking at why someone with Carrie’s powers did what she did, they’re intent on isolating the gene in carriers. [Note: interspersed throughout the narrative are quotes from fictional non-fiction studies, investigations, and first-hand accounts of Carrie White life and powers and what happened on prom night.] These authorities miss the point: Carrie’s powers aren’t really the problem. The bullying and abuse are the problem.
First Edition Cover
Another Stephen King novel that I recently re-read (if you consider 2009 recent) is The Shining (1977). While I have no notes from the first time I read it twenty-plus years ago back when I was a teenager, I image I may have related to the book because the dad is distant, scary, and out-of-control. Reading it as an early middle-aged adult who had worked for years in management for a dysfunctional big-box retailer, I was struck by how it reads like a tract on how American businesses expect their employees to sacrifice their personal wellness and families for the company.
If you’ve never read Stephen King, especially his earlier stuff, give him a shot! Or, if you have a favorite King novel and its been twenty years since you’ve read it, you might have a pleasant surprise by re-reading it. Same story, different levels of meaning. Either way, let me know what you think!
I first read the story in high school and the impact bullying had on the victim was the only thought I had on my mind.
I wonder how many other people thought that, too.
Denise–thanks for the comment–it really struck me as odd that King's website claims the book is about women's sexuality or men's fear of women's sexuality. I didn't get any such vibe. http://www.stephenking.com/library/novel/carrie_inspiration.html