Book Review: Carrie by Stephen King

Genre: Horror
Publishing Info: Hodder & Stoughton (1974)
Pages: 242

Publisher’s Summary:
Carrie White has a gift – the gift of telekinesis.

To be invited to Prom Night by Tommy Ross is a dream come true for Carrie – the first step towards social acceptance by her high school colleagues.

But events will take a decidedly macabre turn on that horrifying and endless night as she is forced to exercise her terrible gift on the town that mocks and loathes her.

Carrie by Stephen King (1974, Hodder & Stoughton)

From naivety to fury, powerless to powerful, many know the story of Carrie White, the titular protagonist of the debut book from acclaimed author Stephen King. Therefore, it is intriguing that much of the narration is not from Carrie’s viewpoint, a technique which allows readers to understand the contrast between how she is perceived by society, and her true nature. With rich and vivid descriptions, well thought out characters, and a fast-paced narrative that gets straight to the action, it is little wonder that this kickstarted the literary career of one of the most read authors in contemporary times.

If one was to compile a poll of the most memorable Stephen King moments, a bucket of pig’s blood being dropped on Carrie White at her prom would certainly be ranked right near the top. Carrie is a recognisable figure in pop culture for both this moment and for her telekinetic powers, which leads to death and destruction in the town of Chamberlain. This extends to those who haven’t read the book or watched the multiple film and television adaptations. I can not imagine how much of an impact the events of Carrie would have had on readers upon its release, and it is little wonder that this debut novel launched the career and reputation of Stephen King. In the version I read, the Introduction provides a brilliant insight into the career of King prior to writing Carrie and that his mind made the connection to the struggles of two female peers at his elementary school, who both tragically passed away prior to the release – the stories of these two would go on to inspire the character of Carrie. This also may well have influenced the brutal portrayal of education, particularly for those that were outsiders and cast-offs from the unspoken but present hierarchy. I think many people who have or still considered themselves outsiders (myself included) are drawn to Horror and the inner strength and power of its protagonists and antagonists. This is why Carrie White is such an interesting and talked-about character in literature, as her meek and ridiculed exterior hides an inner strength of epic proportions.

In spite of Carrie White’s reputation in literature, a remarkably small fraction of this book is written from her point of view. In between sections narrated by Carrie, readers are taken on a sprawling journey through several different written mediums and narrators, which include extracts from scientific studies, journals and books, police interviews, emergency service reports, and events narrated by Carrie’s peers and bullies. The variety of written mediums and how they dwarf the amount of Carrie’s monologues is one of the most interesting techniques in this novel, as readers will have several contradicting accounts and theories thrown at them that makes the disconnect between the theoretical and the true psyche of Carrie White very apparent. Many of these accounts will make Carrie out to be a monster, or objectify her as a vessel for her powers and link to the wider TK phenomenon, while Carrie’s own accounts show that, in fact, she has the same hopes and fears as many young people would have, and her being trapped in an abusive domestic relationship, will manifest empathy in the readers. I really appreciate King’s decision to compile several recollections and emergency service reports on the climactic events of the Prom night before showing the events from Carrie’s point of view. This makes the latter especially impactful as readers will know exactly what Carrie is about to do but, like the teachers and students in attendance, will be powerless to change anything.

Carrie was later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie, starring Sissy Spacek as the titular Carrie (Red Bank Films, 1976)

While reading Carrie, and in particular the clinical and scientific explanations of the events of the Prom night and the titular character’s abilities, one may be reminded of another literary horror classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Under the horrifying violence of the plot, both are discussing the role of nature vs. nurture in the development of monstrous individuals, and both appear to be somewhat on the nurture side. Where Frankenstein’s Monster was shunned by his creator for his horrifying looks, in spite of the being’s child-like desire to be loved, Carrie White’s mental instability is caused not by her powers, but by the torment that she experiences on a daily basis at school for being an outsider, and the abuse that she suffers at the hands of her religious-obsessed mother for her wants and natural transformation into a woman. There are just a couple of sections which allows her to experience the briefest moments of peace, one when she goes to the Prom with Tommy and feels like she finally belongs, and the other a recollection of a neighbour demonised by Carrie’s mother, who also witnessed the troubling and abusive youth of the naturally well-spirited Carrie.

“She was so pretty, with pink cheeks and bright brown eyes, and her hair the shade of blonde you know will darken and get mousy. Sweet is the only word that fits. Sweet and bright and innocent. Her mother’s sickness hadn’t touched her very deeply, not then.”

Carrie, p.29

Carrie’s abuse at the hands of her mother impacted on her behaviours and exterior, which directly led to torment from her peers at school. Yes, Carrie White committed an atrocity, but she is never openly demonised by King – if anything, her monologues suggest that under the anger and hatred of the town of Chamberlain, she is a scared young woman who craves familial and romantic love. Through the use of King’s language when Carrie is narrating, it can be argued that she is as much a victim in this book as any of those who were murdered, and it is this, I believe, that has allowed the book to survive in popular culture for many years. This highlights the strength of King’s writing, however it must also be noted that the book was published in 1974 and is reflected in some of the outdated and at times racially problematic language, which are not solely restricted to insults. This element aside, Carrie is a very interesting exploration of the psyche and the impact that environment has on shaping and instigating monstrous individuals and their behaviours.

Carrie is a remarkable read, as millions who will have never read the book or watched the film adaptations will know her story, in spite of the fact that very little of the book is spent inside the mind of the titular character. Carrie White’s lack of presence in her story is no accident, and I believe that Stephen King intended for the readers to understand the huge contrast between how the character is perceived as a monster in the eyes of the public or just as a scientific study, and the emotionally raw thoughts and wants she possesses. It could even be argued that Carrie, though someone who committed horrendous crimes against a town, was also moulded into this figure by the abuse and torment suffered for years at the hands of her school bullies and extremely religious mother. Though on the short side, Carrie is richly written, contains thought out characters and manages to take the reader through many emotional peaks – it is little wonder that this book helped to launch the career of one of the greatest authors of the age.

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Thank you for taking the time to read my review of Carrie by Stephen King. This book is available from all good book stores and on the online Amazon store – please find links below to the novel’s Amazon and Goodreads pages.

The next book review will be the second in the Temperance Brennan series, Death du Jour by Kathy Reichs.

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