Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stephen King Re-Read Part One: Carrie

With an author that produces as much material of a consistently high quality as Stephen King, there are very few ironclad literary absolutes to his career. He might conceivably write another novel as widely loved as The Stand, or as iconic as IT. With the right director at the helm, we might even get a more recognizable adaptation than Kubrick's The Shining. But no matter how many novels an author writes, their first is always going to be their first. And for King, the one that started it all was Carrie.

There's a lot you can tell about an author by studying their first novel, and Carrie has plenty of themes that will crop up throughout many of King's later novels. The small Maine town, the greaser, the paranormal child, etc. But what stands out to me more than anything else in Carrie is the raw humanity that it expresses. From the very beginning King's empathy for the human condition takes center stage, from Sue Snell's desperate need for redemption, to Chris Hargensen's childish pettiness, to the angry vulnerability of Carrie White, we see some of the best and the worst aspects of human nature on display here.

As far as the writing goes . . . well Carrie is a first novel, and it has its share of first novel problems. In particular I found the constant breakaways from the main narrative to tell parts of the story as articles or fictional novel excerpts to be incredibly irritating, and I'm glad it's a tool that King used less in future novels. That being said Carrie was an enjoyable read the first time around, and it's still a fun re-read now. The first two thirds of the story are a slow-burn, and the third act is suitably horrifying in a way that none of the many adaptations have been able to capture or recreate.

What the book understands that none of the movies or stage depictions ever have, is that we're not supposed to root for Carrie White in the end. Pity her, yes, but not cheer. Carrie isn't supposed to be some spatterfest revenge fantasy where the evil bullies get what they deserve. It's a tragedy, where adolescent cruelty based in thoughtlessness shapes a person into a time-bomb, that goes off in the saddest and most horrific way imaginable. I think that Susan Snell sums the events that lead up to the prom night massacre best. "We were kids." Chris Hargensen was cruel as kids are cruel, with no real sense of what their actions mean to the victim.

And of course I should mention that reading Carrie in 2016 with the anti-bulling movement at its height is, I imagine, a very different experience than it was in 1974, a quarter of a century before Columbine happened. This goes even more, I think, to King's credit in his almost prophetic ability to see to the heart of human nature, especially regarding young people.


Even as far back as Carrie you can find places where King is laying the groundwork for later novels. One here that particularly surprised me was what appeared to be a number of allusions to our old friend, Randall Flagg.

Throughout the book there are a number of references to a Satanic being that Carrie refers to as the "Black Man." Sound familiar? It should, because it calls to mind two of Flagg's many monograms, "The Dark Man" and the "Man in Black." The Black Man is also described as having a "many lobed eye." This could be a reference to the Crimson King's sigil, or to the red eye that Flagg gives to his servants in The Stand.

At one point Margaret mentions that her hair went from completely black to completely white in an extremely short amount of time. This reminded me of what happened to Nadine in The Stand. Margaret also seemed extremely traumatized by the sexual encounter that led to Carrie's conception. Could Flagg have sent her visions and eventually conceived a child on her the same way that he did with Nadine? The timeline is certainly very different than it would have been with Nadine, but whose to say that it's the same every time.

I like the idea that Carrie may have been Flagg's tool all along. Part of his MO is toppling kingdoms of various sizes, and King really seems to hit the Arthurian theme with the prom and the thrones for the king and queen of the night. Maybe the prom night massacre was just another in the long line of kingdom's that have fallen before Randall Flagg. Of course, that's all just speculation. It may well have just been that King drew on the poem The Dark Man that he wrote in college, well before Flagg really took shape as a character in his mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment