Stephen King launched his literary career on April 5, 1974 with little fanfare. Doubleday had printed 30,000 copies of Carrie, but the novel only generated sales of 13,000 hardbacks. The author received an advance of $2,500 for his efforts—a reasonable amount for an untested author, but hardly enough for King to quit his day job as a high school teacher.
If you want to buy one of those hardback first editions nowadays, be prepared to pay a thousand dollars or more. If Stephen King’s signature is attached, the cost will be closer to five grand. For the unproven author of Carrie would turn into the leading horror writer of the late 20th century. Stephen King would go on to sell more than 350 million copies, and accumulate a net worth of $400 million. When he wrote Carrie, he was living in a trailer and writing on a borrowed typewriter. He now owns three homes, including his famous Victorian mansion in Bangor, Maine that looks like a haunted house from one of his novels.
King had actually thrown away his first attempt at telling the story of horror at a high school prom. But his wife retrieved the discarded pages from the trash bin, insisting that the tale had potential. King persevered, and nine months later completed the manuscript.
Upon the book’s release, Library Journal told its reader that the novel was "overdone" and "cannot be honestly recommended." But the New York Times, which carries a bit more clout, proclaimed Carrie "amazing" and declared that this impressive debut "was guaranteed to give you a chill." Signet Books, a seller of mass-market paperbacks, clearly agreed with that assessment, and offered a stunning $400,000 for softcover rights. Their bet paid off when Carrie went on to sell more than a million copies in paperback. An even bigger boost came when director Brian De Palma read Carrie and decided to turn it into a film. "Carrie the movie put King on the map," notes George Beahm, author of The Stephen King Companion. "It got people who don’t normally go into bookstores through the doors." Judging by King’s subsequent rack record, they made many repeat visits.
Why was Carrie so successful? You probably expect me to focus on the plot— after all, isn't that the main driver of all genre fiction? But King is not your typical genre writer. In his works, the structural issues—often handled so deftly that the casual reader hardly notices them—are as important as the storyline.
In the case of Carrie, King could hardly have adopted a more challenging blueprint for his narrative. Following in the steps of John Dos Passos—who pioneered this pointillistic technique in Manhattan Transfer and his USA Trilogy—King decides to tell his story in fragments. These include everything from newspaper articles and graffiti to transcripts of testimony at government hearings and passages from imaginary books. King intersperses traditional third-person storytelling from an omniscient narrator who can read the various characters’ minds, but only one at a time. So the reader's perspective on the plot constantly shifts from character to character. At some junctures we are viewing the action as Carrie’s perceives it, but then we might take on the outlook of her mother, or a teacher at her school, or a classmate, or some other member of the community.
As if this weren't hard enough to pull off, King jumbles up the chronology of the narrative. Most of the novel is devoted to explaining the events that led up to the macabre prom night that serves as the centerpiece to Carrie. But throughout the novel, King inserts passages that describe key incidents from the perspective of those analyzing the horror after the fact. The reader is repeatedly tantalized with these macabre foreshadowings of the gruesome conclusion of the story of Carrie White, but enough is withheld to keep us guessing—and cringing—in anticipation. The virtuosity with which King handles these structural complexities would earn our praise even if he had been an experienced writer at the time; but in a newcomer to genre fiction who was publishing his first book, this confident control of materials is all the more impressive.
Oh, did I mention the stream-of-consciousness passages that show up periodically in Carrie? Throughout the book these appear as tiny interruptions in the narrative, psychological haikus juxtaposed against the storytelling. In a few instances, the Joycean inspiration rises to the forefront, and King pushes at the limits of genre fiction. Yet, he never loses the reader, and the radical shifts in prose style, narrative stance and chronology work together in elevating Carrie above the crudities that fill the 'horror' shelves at your neighborhood bookstore. Yes, this is a genre book, but at every juncture, King wants to show you how he can resist the stale formulas and hack writing of his pulp-oriented peers.
But I have delayed long enough…I now must tell you about the plot. It’s a good yarn, as they said in old days. Thinks of it as a kind of Revenge of the Nerds, but with lots of blood and explosions. Carrie White is the outcast at Ewen High School in the small community of Chamberlain, Maine. She is ridiculed and bullied, and often serves as the target of cruel pranks. Her life at home is no better: her mother is a deranged fundamentalist who has renounced organized religion in favor of a home-based faith built on hours praying in the closet and devotion at a home altar. Carrie craves a normal teenage life, but it is denied her at every turn. When finally pushed too far, she opts for payback.
But here’s the catch: Carrie isn’t a normal teenager. She has latent telekinetic powers. During her early childhood they appeared during a brief moment of psychological crisis—Carrie was able to make furniture move around the house and stones fall from the sky. But this was an isolated event, and even Carrie only dimly remembers the circumstances that spurred this manifestation of strange powers. With the onset of puberty, however, Carrie’s psychic powers emerge in all their awesome horror.
You wouldn’t want to cross this young lady. She can propel objects, or even break them in two, with a mere burst of energy from her mind. Readers can see the disaster looming over the community of Chamberlain—after all, Stephen King constantly hints at it with his dramatic shifts in chronology. We can see Carrie looking forward to prom night. She has been invited by one of the most popular students at the high school, who has been roped into serving as escort more as a gesture of pity than in the spirit of romance. Meanwhile a less sympathetic classmate plans a cruel and elaborate prank to humiliate Carrie in front of all the prom attendees. As if this isn’t enough to precipitate a teen meltdown, Carrie’s mother decides that only the whore of Babylon would go to a high school dance, and hatches her own plot to set matters right.
Yes, readers know that this story will end badly. But still they can’t anticipate the way events will unfold…or the scope of the destruction. In a novel that constantly anticipates future events, King still keeps a few secrets to himself until the very end. The pace accelerates dramatically during the final fifty pages, and the fireworks—both the psychological ones and the literal ones flaming in the sky—will not disappoint. I am hardly surprised that director Brian De Palma immediately saw the potential for translating this book on to the silver screen.
But also give King credit for his bold approach to character development. Carrie is scary, no doubt about it, but she also draws on our compassion, and perhaps nags at our conscience. If she is a monster—and who can doubt it, by the end of this volume?—she is a monster that the rest of us created. The fact that we understand Carrie so well both amplifies the horror of King’s story, and its value as a novel that rises beyond the narrow confines of most escapist genre literature.
For that very reason, I was saddened to learn that Carrie ranks among the most frequently banned books in US schools. It has been a focal of controversy in at least six different states. One high school in Vermont even alleged that the novel could harm students, especially young girls.
I take the opposite view. This book might have a positive impact on youngsters, perhaps forcing them to think twice before bullying and ridiculing their peers. In case you haven’t noticed, the number of school outcasts seeking revenge has increased dramatically, and lethally, since King published his novel. There are plenty of Carries in our schools, and we are fortunate that they don’t possess her powers. That said, you don’t need telekinetic ability to wreak havoc in the classrooms. Many school outcasts require intervention or just our compassion. This horror novel just might convey that lesson to those who would ignore a more didactic or pedagogical message.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. T.G.