Do you read Stephen King books? Have you ever read the foreword? Do you listen to or read Stephen King interviews? Do you talk to Stephen King fans? If you do any of that, you’ve probably heard a version of the story about his first novel, Carrie.
If you haven’t heard it, it boils down to this: you can pretty much thank Tabitha King for its existence. Stephen was working on it and not doing very well. Largely because he didn’t know how to write for a teenage girl. He tossed the draft he was working on, his wife found the pages, took them out and read them, and encouraged him to finish. Even offered her help on the whole female perspective thing that was giving him such trouble.
That might be true. I never really know whether to believe things like that when a celebrity says them. On the one hand, there’s no good reason to lie. On the other hand, sometimes famous people do that, on their own or on the advice of somebody handling them. It’s a good story, it sticks in your mind. It has a kind of “woman stands by her man/man gives his woman credit for his success” vibe to it that is appealing, even now. So, I guess it could be the kind of thing made up to create buzz or positive energy. On the other hand, Tabitha King is a talented writer in her own right, and a woman, this interaction is a completely believable one based on their mutual skills and the dynamic that appears to exist between the two of them, and it could just as easily be the true story. I think I prefer it to be the true story, so we’ll go with that.
Carrie herself is not King’s best-written woman, Tabitha’s help notwithstanding. He does get better at that over the years. And like I said, I’m not really here to criticize. I like Carrie. The style of the book, including things like news clippings and book entries that purport to support the main story, is an interesting one if done well, and I think it’s done well here.
Carrie’s mother is a really frightening figure – more frightening, I think, than Carrie’s psi talent. Sure, Carrie is what makes the book supernatural, but she’s never truly scary to me, not even after she has the pig’s blood dumped on her. She’s mostly pathetic. The reaction she has to being humiliated at the prom… do you remember when the narrative that school shooters were mostly bullied kids who’d had enough and simply snapped? Later on, the experts (along with people who actually knew the shooters) started saying that wasn’t true – that the kids who shot up the school were usually the bullies, not to mention the sexual harassers, the racists, and the neo-Nazis. But that earlier image of school shooters as bullied kids pushed too far – that’s what Carrie makes me think of. You kind of want to be on her side, even as you know she’s overreacting.
Carrie’s mom, though. Hoo boy. Maybe there’s a story that would make us sympathetic to her too, but King didn’t give it to us. Carrie may have the power, but Margaret White is definitely the monster in this story. Maybe she’s a little over the top, but I wonder. My opinions have changed relatively recently about that. As I sit here watching some parents strenuously and apparently seriously argue that masks go against the commandments of God because they cover up part of his creation (don’t shirts and pants also cover up parts of his creation, if that’s what it is?), and oh, by the way, vaccines can make you magnetic, I start to think that Margaret White is not so overblown a figure. That doesn’t make her a bit less frightening.
(If that last paragraph was too close to politics for you, bow out now. There are politics throughout King’s books. There are politics throughout my thought processes. We tend to have similar politics. Deal or leave, I’m just reviewing books, possibly to nobody, so I don’t care.)
Since I’ve also seen the movie Carrie, I’ll weigh in on that, too, but I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s one of his better adaptations, for sure. It’s definitely dated at this point, but I think it holds up fairly well, despite that. Largely, I think that comes down to Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, who both do an absolutely amazing job of delivering on King’s vision. Often, I think his books simply don’t translate well to a screen – even a relatively good adaptation misses something vital. I think this one has that something vital, and I think it’s because Spacek and Laurie brought it to the set with them.
I know there’s been a sequel, some remakes, a musical, and a television special of the musical on Riverdale. I think I saw the sequel, but it left no impression – I don’t remember it. I definitely saw the Riverdale episode, because I think Riverdale is beautiful and strange in its own way and I like to watch it, but I don’t know if the musical depicted there is a good reflection of the musical that was intended or not. Some of the songs are catchy, though. I don’t really feel a need to watch existing or future remakes. I don’t get mad about them – if the next generation wants its own Carrie, that’s fine with me – but in my mind, Sissy Spacek just is Carrie and I really don’t think anyone’s going to improve on it. Call me close minded if you want. There are plenty of King movies I’d remake or recast given the chance, but Carrie just isn’t one of them.
One last thing I’d like to explore is the Stephen King multiverse. An interesting thing about King’s works is that while series and sequels are somewhat rare among his work, most of it connects anyway. It becomes clear as you read it that the Dark Tower series is the centerpiece and all or most of the other works connect that way, more or less. Books can take place on “different levels of the tower” – which means the multiverse. They are not necessarily all in the same reality. But there are multiple realities that can sort of be reached from a single point and they all connect that way – it’s fun to explore.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to explore in this particular book. Carrie is one that’s not strongly connected to the greater Stephen King multiverse. The book is mentioned in other books (as a fictional or purportedly fictional book) and I think he may have drawn some tenuous connections to at least the location once the multiverse began to take shape. But neither Carrie herself nor the location seem to be part of the whole in the way, for instance, Castle Rock is. And since Carrie is dead and didn’t pass on her power to progeny, there seems to be little reason revisit her. Or a real path to revisit her. So, she largely leaves the stage at the end of her book. That will not be the case with all King characters or locations, even those in standalone books and stories. The multiverse starts fairly early, and before you know it, nearly everything becomes connected.
What Carrie does have is a theme that King has returned to again and again – supernatural or psi-powered children. Not that adults don’t also have psi powers in his works – they do – but there is a particular interest in special children. Children that can move things with their minds, see ghosts, see the future, read minds, start fires, and more. Why children? Well, King didn’t come up with that. If you research it, you will find that there are plenty of people who believe that these powers are more common in children/start or peak at adolescence/exist in children because their brains are somehow different/something else that links children to psi powers or mystic experiences.
I’m a skeptic – I believe firmly in pretty much none of this stuff – and I kind of wonder if it all comes from adults viewing kids as kind of magic beings themselves. I have a few of them myself, and they certainly can be unpredictable and difficult to understand. They also hold the potential for both great and terrifying things in their future, and you can’t really know what you’re going to get. And I remember enough of being a child to know that I had some pretty strange thoughts and ideas that even I don’t understand now, so the adults around me probably found me mystifying at times too. So there’s that. My feeling – based on nothing real, just my reading of lots of King’s words – is that he simply writes about psi children because he finds them interesting. And because he finds them interesting, they become interesting to me, too, belief or no belief.
In Carrie, we get to see the foreshadowing of a fairly large parade of psi children of different ages, genders, and talents. It will be done better. It will be done spookier. It will be done more sympathetically. But Carrie was first, and I think she deserves respect for that.