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A JOURNEY THROUGH THE LITERATURE OF STEPHEN KING - "Carrie"

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PROLOGUE BEFORE CHAPTER ONE

Don’t expect this to be quick. I don’t know how long it will take me to read (in many cases revisiting, of course) through all of Stephen King’s books in chronological order. It will most likely take me a few years. So, we’re in this for the long haul. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time. And I guess I shouldn’t pester anyone with it. But – hey – that’s why God made blogs, right?

I admit that I will cheat. There are some of his most recent books that I haven’t read yet. Under the Dome, for example. I will read those, like, soon. But I won’t actually publish the piece on it until we reach its point in the chronology.

So, any way you slice it, we’re in this for the long haul.

There will be no regular schedule for these blogs. Reading a novel can take anywhere from a week to three depending on pacing. Then there’s the movie to consider (if there is a movie and, in many cases, there is). Then you have to consider that I don’t plan to ONLY read books written by Stephen King for the next God knows how many years… And I’m a reader and I can only read one novel at a time.

So, we’re in this for the long haul is what I’m saying.

You can expect the first three (at the very least) to come in relatively quick succession. (Like, within the next six weeks.) After that, don’t hold your breath. *

We’re in this for the long haul.

But, thanks for your interest in any case.

(* Hey… I did bring the Miami Vice blogs back and they’re here to stay, ok? I’m not that bad. Go easy on me.)

CHAPTER ONE

CARRIE: A NOVEL OF A GIRL WITH A FRIGHTENING POWER

 

It’s worth noting that, when Carrie was published in 1974, Stephen King was not who he is today. And by “today,” I am referring specifically to his status as the world’s premier bestselling novelist that specializes in thrillers. I know there are many out there who want to insist that “today” means “sucks” and I am not going down that road. King has always had his ups and downs. But he remains a tremendous writer – able to carefully balance literary skill with popcorn theatrics. He’s still the best there is at what he does.

But, enough about that, let’s talk Carrie. I mention that King was nobody in 1974 because it’s important to look at his first novel in that context. If you look at it within the context of his subsequent work, it seems very slight and almost inconsequential. But, if you look at it as a debut novel, it is something else entirely.

It has a very distinctive, unusual voice and it shows an almost rabid hunger to blow the reader away. This eagerness makes it very clumsy as a thriller, but – at the same time – it’s an enthusiasm that fuels the narrative and keeps you snapping through the pages as if they were potato chips.

Here’s something… The novel is short. It runs exactly 199 pages in hardcover. (I should mention that all these write-ups will be based on the original hardcover editions and leave it at that)

One hundred and ninety-nine pages. Seven of those pages are made up of blanks and title cards. So, basically, you’re looking at 193 pages of actual novel. It’s divided into three parts. Well… Let’s be honest, two parts and a 6-page “epilogue” of sorts. Basically, you can tear through the thing in two days. And, if you’re really determined, you can bash through this fucker in one rainy afternoon. It depends on your pace, but what I’m saying is the damn thing reads like a comic book.

199 pages.

Unheard of today.

But what that means is, he rushed through this and got it out there before he could even be sure that what he had in his hands was an actual novel. You could fit five or six Carries into one of his subsequent short story and novella compilations. He’d never write something that short today and publish it as a novel unless he was being gimmicky (which he most certainly can be when he wants to be). And it is that sort of naive enthusiasm that bleeds through the entire book.

 

 

It’s a novel about high school that almost could have been written by a high school senior. King was a high school English teacher at the time, so it’s clear that he had a fertile ground from which to draw his material. But, also, he was still in his twenties. It wasn’t that long ago that he himself had been in High School. All of that is evident as you read through Carrie.

The language is contemporary and, nearly 40 years on, not quite as dated as you might think. In fact, there is very little in the way of current pop culture referencing… The sort of thing that would become a hallmark of King’s later work is glaringly absent here. I think he was still trying to be careful. He was hoping he could write a timeless high school novel. So, although he’s stepping on eggshells throughout, it pays off – because Carrie does feel pretty timeless.

It also feels pretty tame. Oh there are a handful (or more) of four-letter words. There is some relatively R-rated description of sexual escapades. It gets kind of gory at the end. But this could be read in middle schools today. In fact, teenagers should read it. They will find lots to identify with, particularly if they come from white, middle class suburbia. And it feels like the logical 6th grade step up from Judy Blume.

King’s talent for writing sharply drawn, realistic characters is already evident here. These all feel like real people. Even as the story goes to operatic extremes, it never feels quite as over-the-top as you might expect.

And what is that story? I haven’t really talked about it, and don’t intend to dwell so much on it, because time and a classic movie have made the story pretty familiar by now.

But, at its most essential, it’s a very primal story about puberty… About troubled upbringing, childhood insecurities, the social ills that plague us all - to some degree - as we make our way towards adulthood. The book is at its most successful when it zeroes in on these things.

On the surface, it’s the typical thriller of the high school outcast being driven over the edge. But, as King takes things to apocalyptic extremes, he really seems to be saying (or desperately trying to, anyway) lofty things about coming of age. How difficult it can be. How there are days in which you hate the whole world. How, sometimes, rebellion is not simply rebellion. For many, it’s the only way to break free from their social prisons and actually live. It’s the sort of thing that had an eerie resonance whenever you would read a news report about a high school shooting. That sort of anger comes from a very real place. The fictional heroine of Carrie harnesses that anger and uses it quite literally to destroy everything she perceives as harmful – which happens to be everything around her. It makes perfect sense and still rings true. In that respect, Carrie has lost none of its primal energy.

 

 

In other ways, it’s slightly clunky. King’s stylistic decision to embed the novel’s narrative within the framework of an investigative report dilutes the suspense to some degree. Because you know where it’s all headed far earlier than you probably should. And it doesn’t help that you pretty much know far in advance who lives and who dies. Ultimately, it’s compelling. But you sit there waiting for the exclusive video of the car crash on the news at 11. You’re not shocked by it, you simply look at it as a voyeur. The novel feeds on your morbid curiosity to keep you reading. But it might have been more effective if King had worked harder to surprise you.

He took great care to create believable characters. But, because the novel is so lean and ultimately lacks real surprise, you can’t get as emotionally invested as you should for it to really work. Carrie herself is a very memorable character. And so is her mother. And, clearly, the makers of the film adaptation felt the same way. But I wanted to care about the supporting characters too. Also, if you’re going to get apocalyptic, it has more weight when you’ve been given a better chance to really get involved in the world that is going to be decimated. As it is, you bear witness to the destruction of nothing.

It’s a concept King would become more comfortable with as he grew. Some would even say he became too comfortable with sprawl and scope. But, interestingly enough, Carrie actually might have worked better as a longer work. He had the ambition to give his high school novel some scope. But he didn’t really have the nerve to follow through. He was in too much of a hurry to just get it over with.

Still, when looked at as a debut novel, it is a pretty impressive work just the same. It shows a writer who wants to entertain, while also attempting to experiment with literary technique. And it also reveals an emerging voice with singular ticks. I’m specifically referring to the parenthetical “thought balloons” that King always interjects into his novels. Like…

If thine right eye offends thee, pluck it out.

If it was a hard scripture, it was also sweet and good. A fitting scripture for those who had lurked in the doorway shadows of one-night hotels and in the weeds behind bowling alleys.

Pluck it out.

(oh and the nasty music they play)

Pluck it

(the girls show their underwear how it sweats how it sweats blood)

out.

The Black Forest cuckoo clock began to strike ten and

(cut her guts out on the floor)

if thine right eye offend thee, pluck it out.

Well… That kind of “inside her head” stuff shows up seemingly on every other page. And anyone who’s read more than one King novel can tell you it’s a technique he uses time and again, sometimes more effectively than others. Here, because it’s his first time, it feels slightly overwrought and pretentious. He got better at it later. Particularly in The Shining and It.

The final verdict? Carrie is a very entertaining, very good novel - a potent debut from a writer that would become a phenomenon in a remarkably short period of time. It’s not great literature and certainly not one of his best. But it’s the start of something.

A very good start.

SO… HOW WAS…THE MOVIE?

Brian De Palma’s Carrie is a classic film. Stephen King has even gone on record to say he finds it superior to his book. He’s right, albeit not by much, and there are a couple of reasons why this is the case.

First and foremost, De Palma and his screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen understand King’s book very well. They know exactly what works about it and that’s what they concentrate on. They do two very important things. To begin with, they ignore the book’s investigative structure and focus entirely on the present day narrative. Second, they scale it down.

Now, the scaling down part is a logistic necessity. Had the movie been done years later, once King was a household name and with a bigger budget (in fact they did – more on that in a minute), maybe they wouldn’t have scaled it down. They probably would have been doing the movie a disservice. But, by scaling it down they both tighten the narrative and deepen the emotional focus. So Carrie doesn’t destroy the whole town. But, really, why should she? If you consider that Carrie’s anger is at the whole world – that world is represented quite succinctly by high school. That is her whole world. That is where we all come of age. And that is the only thing that should be in her sights.

 

 

Other than that, though, the movie is actually quite faithful to the novel. All the major story beats are the same and, although there is an aesthetic change made to the final showdown between Carrie and her mom, it’s actually splendid - an operatic bit of Grand Guignol that works much better than the quaint finale of the novel.

Many of the classic moments and lines…

Take the dress off. We’ll burn it together and ask for forgiveness.

…are taken verbatim from King’s text, however. And De Palma gives the movie a nicely textured visual treatment, heightening the emotion, while still allowing things to remain grounded in the reality of high school life. So, he completely respects the book and focuses entirely on all its virtues.

The casting is pitch perfect. There is that annoying standard of casting people in their twenties to play high school kids. But Sissy Spacek pulls Carrie off and it is her interplay with Piper Laurie that is at the heart of why the movie still works. You can ignore the terrible hair styles and awful fashion because they’re so convincing. They were both nominated and probably should have won. These are timeless, indelible performances. And Laurie strikes the perfect balance between camp and seriousness.

 

 

The best King adaptations are the ones that are able to transcend the source material the way this does. And there’s a perfectly valid reason why this is what most people think of when you say “Carrie.”

 

 

It has a flaw the book doesn’t… It’s a little dated. I mean, Christ in his throne, look at the picture above! But, at its core, it’s a movie that probably still has the same appeal it did in 1976. And teens of today can probably still connect with its themes.

 *  *  *  *

And then, in 2002, there was another filmed version. You may have seen it. Chances are, you don’t remember it. But it was about three hours long, made for television and aired one night on NBC. Angela Bettis was the title character… Patricia Clarkson was her mom. It was modernized and updated to the present day; complete with all the WB/CW touches you would expect from television that depicts high school kids.

And that makes sense, since they were hoping it would serve as the pilot for a series that never was.

 

 

Other than changing the ending, so that it could lead to The Fugitive With Telekinesis and Her Sexy Token Black Friend, it was also pretty faithful to the book. More so than the De Palma film in that now they could open it with little girl Carrie and rocks raining from the sky. And they could have her destroy the whole fucking town at the end.

Ultimately, it’s a serviceable TV movie and might have made for a watchable thing to tune into every week. Bettis actually does a fine job as Carrie without giving any nods to Sissy Spacek.

But, unfortunately, and like much of King’s work, it was now existing in the shadow of a classic film (we’ll discuss this again when I revisit The Shining) and nothing was going to change that. Besides, De Palma had already been pretty faithful to the original text in the first place. So, this really did feel entirely like a made-for-TV remake. An updating of a classic horror movie with the intention of shilling a new teenybopper serial.

And that’s what it was.

Would the show have worked?

We’ll never know.

 

MY OWN PARENTHETICAL – THE RAGE: CARRIE 2.

This is one of those things you probably forgot existed. Then your brain farts for a minute and you say to yourself: “Oh, right! They actually made that, didn’t they?”

They did.

 

I actually like director Katt Shea. I respect her. She went and got her throat slashed while sitting on the toilet in Psycho III and, a couple of years later, she made the better-than-you-remember movie Posion Ivy, where the little girl from ET turned 17 and gave me a boner.

Shea has a sense of style. That means that The Rage: Carrie 2 is competently made. The performances aren’t particularly bad.

But the movie is fucking retarded anyway.

It has one fundamental and fatal flaw that sinks it before it has a chance to even set sail. And that is the casting and performance of Emily Bergl in the “Carrie” role. Her name isn’t Carrie. It’s something else because this is a sequel not a remake. Even though it has the same exact plot of the outcast being taunted until she has been taunted enough and kills everybody with her powers.

 

 

But it’s a sequel.

It’s not that Emily Bergl is not good in the role. She acts fine. The problem is that the very character is as ill-conceived as the movie itself. The “Carrie” character this time around is not an insecure, waifish outcast with a religious nut mother. She’s a cool Goth chick that grew up in a foster home and likes listening to alternative rock music by bands that get their one good song on the soundtrack to a teen movie in the hopes that they can get a better record deal off of that and become famous. … Except that the movie bombs and no one buys the soundtrack and no one gives a shit about the bands on it.

 

 

What was I saying?

Oh, right. Emily Bergl. She’s too cool. You never understand why she would give a shit that she’s the outcast… Why would she want to fit in with all those preppy douchebags? What does she care what some dumb jock and his silly-as-shit girlfriend think of her?

And the big cataclysmic event that sends her over the edge? A bunch of those assholes conspire to videotape her having sex with her pinup boyfriend and they broadcast the video at a house party. And you get the sense that the character would realistically just laugh this off. Give everyone the finger and walk out of the house, maybe get a new tattoo at the base of her spine… Who knows?

It doesn’t make sense. And why would she even want to go to that stupid house party in the first place?

I guess they worked hard to make the character different so it wouldn’t feel entirely like a rehash, even though that’s exactly what it was. But it betrays the whole concept if your heroine is self-assured, cool and tough as nails.

I don’t know how else they could have approached the sequel either. Which means there probably shouldn’t have been one in the first place, right?

Amy Irving reprised her role as Sue Snell (now a guidance counselor) and got a metal pole through her head for her trouble.

Good for her.

 

IN CONCLUSION

Carrie is a seminal book. Stephen King actually had the very good fortune to have his first published novel be immediately adapted into a hit film. This event made his career. Considering his talent, I have no doubt that King would have eventually become a huge best selling author. But fortune certainly smiled on him. I can't think of any other contemporary novelist that came out of the gate swinging like King did.

It's interesting to note, however, that it is probably the least talked about of all his novels. Considering its overall importance in his career, you'd think they'd bring it up more.

They sure talk about the movie, though. And that would become a point of interest for much of King's work.

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