Carrie

carrie first edition book cover
first edition cover of Carrie

The Vitals

  • Published: 1974
  • Edition Read: Anchor paperback, 2011
  • Pages: 285
  • Rating (out of 5): 4.5
  • BUY THE BOOK from Bookshop.org

The Context

Though Carrie was not the first novel that Stephen King wrote, it was the first to be picked up by a publisher. Up to that point, King had mostly dabbled in stories and a few short novels which didn’t go anywhere (and later ended up being published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman). One critical reader said that he didn’t know how to write women, which King took as a personal challenge. He wrote up a few pages of Carrie, which was originally just going to be a story, and tossed it in the trash, believing it to be literal garbage.

Luckily for us future generations, King’s wife, Tabitha, fished it out, read it over, and told him to keep at it. It was a bit rudimentary, but she offered to help with the feminine perspective. King finished the story and sent it off to a publisher.

The rest makes for one of the all-time great author origin stories.

The Kings were living in a mobile home at the time; Stephen was a meagerly-paid high school teacher and Tabitha worked the counter at a doughnut shop. To make ends meet, they actually had phone service removed, which means King received the good news about Carrie via a telegram(!), which read:

“Carrie Officially A Doubleday Book. $2,500 Advance Against Royalties. Congrats, Kid – The Future Lies Ahead.”

The money was good, but not life-changing. King kept on teaching, hoping that the paperback rights would also be sold, for which he’d get a 50% cut. After about 6 weeks, King got a phone call—they restored service after the initial advance was cashed—that the paperback did indeed sell.

“For how much?” Stephen asked.

“$400,000.”

“Sorry, did you say $4,000?” King responded, in utter disbelief.

“No Stephen, $400,000.”

The now-famous author, known for his prodigious output and high word counts, was speechless.

That was life-changing money.

He quit his job, took up writing full-time, and the rest is history.

Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year.

The Story

Carrie starts with one of the most memorable scenes you’ll ever read: a teenage girl, Carrie White, gets her first period in the school shower and thinks she’s dying. Her mother, a religious fanatic, has never informed her about the mechanics of the female body. Carrie is cruelly harassed by the other girls in the shower that day—an impulsive teenage reaction which they’ll come to regret soon enough.

(That last sentence is a nod to King himself. Throughout his novels he’ll throw in tidbits of foreshadowing like that—just a sentence or even a few words tacked onto the end of a paragraph or chapter that quickly ratchets up the tension. It’s an incredible technique that King nails, repeatedly, in his work.)

Those other girls are rightfully reprimanded, but of course that’s not the end of it. One of them, Chris, vows to make Carrie’s life even more of a living hell. Another, Sue, tries earnestly to make amends by getting Carrie a prom date.

Those are two of the threads, which will converge in the final quarter of the novel. The third narrative arc is Carrie’s relationship with her domineering, psychotic mother, Margaret White. She’s as chilling as any character King has created, and foreshadows a bit of what the famous Annie Wilkes (found in Misery) will come to be. Margaret is cruel, abusive, and wants to ensure that Carrie has nothing to do with any of those rotten kids at school.

Like every teenager responding to an overbearing parent, Carrie rebels. She agrees to go to the prom and even experiences a brief moment of happiness before it all goes wrong.

The final chapters of the novel find Carrie White, now realizing the full extent of her telekinetic powers, on an all-out revenge tour which will change the small town of Chamberlain, Maine forever.

I especially enjoyed the semi-epistolary structure of Carrie, meaning the story is told alternatively between narrative prose and also fictional court documents, newspaper clippings, scientific journal articles, etc. From the very start, the reader knows that something terrible has happened—it just takes the entire book to fill in all the details. For a debut novel, it’s an especially risky format which paid off incredibly well.

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

King readily admits that the majority of his books hit on the same handful of themes, so it makes sense that Carrie introduces a number of ideas that are found in his subsequent books. Here are a couple:

One, Carrie is about the unleashing of your powers as you grow up, whatever those may be, and even when those powers aren’t socially acceptable. There’s an undeniable nod to the unique feminine forces which were being brought into the open in the early ‘70s when this was written and published.

But it speaks more broadly than that, too: King is a prolific author of horror and pulpy fiction, which is a segment of books that’s usually looked down upon in the literary world. But he doesn’t care—he leans in to his unique powers and cranks out bestseller after bestseller after bestseller.

Two, it’s about how villains are often created through outside forces beyond their control. Throughout many of his books, King tries to understand the mindset and origin story of evil itself, whichever form it happens to take. Though the cruelty and violence is never forgiven, it’s always deeply explored. Carrie is (at least partially) a product of not only her callous upbringing but also the hateful and impulsive actions of her classmates. There’s a sub-lesson in there that the mistakes we make in our youth feel less serious, but can have far-reaching consequences in the emotional and inner life of the people around us.

Overall

It’s obvious that Carrie is Stephen King’s first novel—it’s not as tight or polished as later books—but all of King’s hallmarks are there. It’s hard to imagine a better debut and even ~50 years later it still holds up as a gripping, unputdownable story.

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