The rehabilitation of Stephen King as Serious Novelist has been in progress for quite some time now. The process started around the time his memoir On Writing was published in 2000, and gathered pace with his lifetime achievement prize at the National Book Awards in 2003. Even then it felt well overdue, because his early work, in particular, was groundbreaking in its own way. No one’s ever going to pretend that 1970s-vintage King was a great prose stylist, but sometimes all we need from our novelists is the ability to tell a good story and tell it effectively, and from the very start, King delivered on both criteria with aplomb — never more so, in fact, than with his debut novel. With a new film adaptation of Carrie due out this week, it seems a good time to revisit King’s debut, and marvel again at what a strange book it is.
Carrie was the beginning of a near-decade-long purple patch for its author — he really didn’t write a bad book until 1981’s lackluster Cujo, and the intervening novels have become genre classics to varying extents. There was vampire page-turner Salem’s Lot, the genuinely terrifying The Shining, post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, psychometric political thriller The Dead Zone, and, finally, Firestarter, which is arguably the best book he ever wrote. (There were also a couple of Richard Bachman novels — of which the eerily prescient Rage was particularly memorable — plus the first installment of the Dark Tower series and a collection of short fiction for good measure.)
Still, even compared to its immediate successors, Carrie is a seriously weird piece of work. I first read it in my teens, and even then was rather taken aback by how unusual it was; when I revisited the book recently, two decades later, that first impression hadn’t faded at all. For a start, the book features a female protagonist (and largely concerns female characters) — an unusual move for a male genre-fiction novelist scrambling to sell his first book, and one that King wouldn’t repeat until Firestarter. It’s structured as an epistolary novel, an idea that King would never really use again, and its constantly shifting point of view tends to disorient the reader.
Perhaps most startling, though, is its use of the imagery of blood and menstruation throughout. The obvious implication is that Carrie’s terrifying telekinetic powers symbolize her sexuality — they’re tied to her hormones, after all, and only manifest fully once she gets her first period, with which the book commences. Carrie herself is entirely ignorant of both sex and sexual maturity; when she starts bleeding, she thinks she’s going to die, and is humiliated by her fellow classmates. Blood appears as a symbol of humiliation again when Carrie’s classmates dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her, but in the end it’s her tormentors who are bleeding. Or, y’know, dead.
The idea of a horror story wherein the horror is tied to sexuality isn’t a new one, of course, although it should be noted that, published in 1974, Carrie largely predated the slasher film. It was released six months before Black Christmas, generally considered to be the first modern slasher movie, and its conception predated the likes of The Exorcist and The Texans Chainsaw Massacre. As such, it was written and released into a world where the orthodoxies that define horror stories weren’t as established as they are today. But in any case, it’s not so much sex that’s the issue here — it’s puberty, and in particular female puberty, with the book’s constant emphasis on blood an ever-present reminder.
This is not only unusual territory for a male novelist writing his first book, but also a brave topic, given that its true subject is something our society likes to ignore discreetly, or regards with a sort of distanced trepidation: adolescent sexuality, and specifically female sexuality, and specifically menstruation, the last great taboo in pretty much every patriarchal culture on the planet (i.e., just about all of them). Carrie’s discovery of her power coincides with her physical adulthood, and her attempts to liberate herself from the oppression of her mother and classmates mirror plenty of others’ adolescent travails, albeit in a more extreme form.
The book also serves as a neat inversion of horror various tropes: instead of a bunch of hapless attractive females fleeing from a predatory male, it’s Carrie wreaking revenge on the boys who have humiliated her. She fills the roles of both protagonist and traditional antagonist, and the neat trick is that instead of sympathizing with the characters fleeing the killer, you end up sympathizing with the killer. But it’s not even that neat, because Carrie doesn’t just kill her tormentors — she ends up killing basically everyone. It’s as subversive as it is bleak: you sympathize with Carrie’s empowerment even as you confront its terrifying consequences.
King has said he planned the novel as a celebration of feminism, a reading that certainly holds up today. This subtext may make it even more remarkable that the book got published. At the time its success surprised even King, who said, “I didn’t expect much of Carrie. I thought, ‘Who’d want to read a book about a poor little girl with menstrual problems?’ I couldn’t believe I was writing it.”
As it is, it the novel made him a worldwide success, and for all its failings — the prose is awkward, at times, and the narrative disjointed because of the strange structure — it’s worth celebrating. It’s a reminder that as in cinema, the 1970s were rather a liberated time for American fiction, when publishers were perhaps less risk-averse and more friendly to strange and risky stories. Because, shit, what are the chances of a genre writer getting a menstruation-heavy feminist horror story not only published but promoted today?