The plan is to reread all of Stephen King’s novels. Richard Chizmar of Cemetery Dance has a financial stake in this challenge. It is still not a terrible idea. I’m doing it because I am a writer and I want to improve my long fiction. I think there are secrets to be discovered or rediscovered in it too. As Chizmar posts his after read posts and Bev Vincent posts his accompanying history, I will add links to those in my corresponding posts.
Much of what I write in these posts will really be notes for me. I will wordsmith them into a blog that appears to be for you. I will also style my comments to be spoiler free for those that haven’t read, but that also work for those that have read the books. Be warned though that I am discussing the content of the book and the writing.
My plan was to shoot for a modest fifty pages a day to keep up the reading without breaking my own writing schedule. That would put reading all of King’s novels at about two years time. If I included everything (collections, nonfiction, etc.), it would be closer to three years. I went to the bookstore Saturday, November 1st and picked up the first three novels in Stephen King’s publishing history. Carrie would take about six or seven days by that plan. I set up a wishlist of the ones I’m missing for family and friends to steer presents toward this challenge. Here. And I read my fifty pages after my Before post on Saturday. Sunday, I read most of the rest of the book. I finished off the rest on Monday, Stephen King has that effect on me.
Carrie was published April 5, 1974. That was one week before I was born. There is some significance for me in all of that. I think of where I am now as a writer over the forty years of my life that represent the forty years of King’s novel publishing career. I read through the novel thinking about how he would write the novel differently now. In some ways, the question cannot be avoided with my goals in this, but it is also somewhat pointless. The time written is vital to the novel. In his dark tower series, King has references to his van accident and to Harry Potter in the later books. If the series wasn’t written over a span of decades, it couldn’t be what it is. Carrie was published in 1974, set in 1979 and looked back on in the narration from the early to mid eighties. It is locked in its time in every way.
King intersperses the traditional third person omniscient sympathetic tone adoptive multi-perspective narration with news reports, commentaries, testimony, and other documentation. He executes this brilliantly by standards of the time and in comparison to the modern. Editors roll their eyes at attempts to use this news report technique now. I’ve read a lot of bad, clunky imitations of what King achieved here. It gets especially bad with the resolution, wrap-up using news reports. King uses it to create a brilliant conflict between science, religion, and culture. Even with the narrative shifting to some unsympathetic characters, King manages to play this conflict down the middle. He also uses it in a way to make the story bigger than an isolated incident in a small town. The story of Carrie has scale and implications bigger than what most people who “know the story” realize. Much of the horror is found in that scale.
King uses run-on sentences as long as the page, one word sentences, inconsistent spelling, parenthetical breaks for internal monologue, italics for thoughts, straight narrative for thoughts, and breaks sentences with parenthetical thoughts without punctuation or other mechanical conventions. He does it all on purpose and his editors let him get away with it in his first novel.
The greatness of this novel is stunning for a first published novel.
He has told about the girl in his own grade school experience off of whom Carrie is based. The guilt of how she was treated comes from a real place.
Even using religious fanatics as characters, King shows sophistication in his details and portrayals of it. This becomes clearer as one looks at the difference of that same level of religious faith in an entirely different tone in The Stand. I wonder looking at this work 40 years in the past how his forth coming book Revival will compare. He has said the childhood experiences in Revival contain some autobiography. Why there and not his childhood experiences with religion in other books over the 40 years in the same way? I’m looking forward to getting to that one in a couple years.
The push and pull of traits in the characters is amazing in this novel. The teacher bounces between good and bad in her efforts in complex ways through simple details in the text. The other characters do the same between kind and cruel – between strong and weak. Even the villains shows crackles of reality and layers in the second section of the book.
As a former teacher, seeing the similarities with today in the struggles of staff and the vast differences were interesting. Dismissal slips on carbon paper bring back memories. Used ash trays on administrators desks do too. As late as the 1980’s, there were still student smoking sections at high schools in the South and other parts of the country. In the 90’s, there was still a teachers’ smoking lounge. Even in the 2000’s in South Carolina, there was a smoking spot for staff out at the edge of campus. It was done away with entirely just a few years ago.
The description of the White family’s house was exhaustive. It was interesting to me, but editors wouldn’t allow it today for most writers. It makes sense for the significance to the story and characters. He described characters and their clothes in more detail than is standard today. Billy’s car gets a good look over in the text. The gym is described in mechanical detail as the trap is set. If I turned in that section, an editor would tell me to just cut it to a few sentences and move on with the story. Carrie would probably be less of a novel without that detail of the gym, but we wouldn’t realize it. The patience of King’s editors compared to modern editors is stark. This was his first novel, so it wasn’t just that he was Stephen King. Most writers probably don’t describe the rafters of a gym as well as him either though. all the people, objects, and places that get that attention are important to the novel and the story is served by it.
There are echoes of his future work here too. I suddenly connected a major theme in IT after a passage in Carrie. King’s description of telepathy and the nature of thought is like no other and reminds me of a section in TOMMYKNOCKERS, a novel Stephen King does not like much.
Very small and subtly done in a background fashion is a discussion of an undercurrent of racism. Thoughts passing through the characters in an unrelated way touch on it. The Devil represented as “The Black Man” which appears in “old time religion” is shown in Carrie, but not dwelt upon. A big deal of an issue is delivered in small strokes. A narrative bit talks about a character’s lip “swelling to Negroid size.” With it in the narrative, the reader is given pause. What was that? Is that the character or is this something more sinister in the writer? Then, it passes on without further commentary.
In one of the records, Edwin King (Edwin being Stephen King’s middle name) is one of Carrie White’s early English teachers that saves a very telling poem. This is a purposeful echo to his old life. I wonder as he wrote that, if he had the slightest idea what the next forty years might hold. He may have expected to be an English teacher for some time to come.
There is also a character named George Chizmar. This is not the George that plays a more substantial role at the prom. Richard Chizmar is the founder of Cemetery Dance and King’s current publisher. He is the mastermind behind #StephenKingRevisited. George Chizmar drew the mural for the Prom and penned the detailed floor plan of the prom used for set-up and by the villains to orchestrate their dark revenge. I thought, “Chizmar is not that common of a name. They didn’t know each other back when he wrote this, did they?” Richard was nine when Carrie came out. In an interview, he said he read the book a few years down the line from that. He read IT in college. Richard Chizmar started Cemetery Dance the magazine at age 22 in 1988. The publishing company came a few years after that. In 1988 and onward, he sent his writing and magazines to King. They developed a personal and professional relationship after that. Chizmar won a six way bidding war for King’s work and has been his publisher for a few years now. The George Chizmar in the book that drew the mural and set the floor plan that served the unfolding of the horror was just a coincidence or perhaps a nod by the Muse through the layers of time.
Reading the scene at the farm again, I can’t help but picture John Travolta yelling “Get ‘er Done!” Watch the first movie again and see what I’m talking about.
One of Stephen King’s favorite tricks is to flat out tell you when someone is going to die. He does it late in The Stand too in a way that you aren’t sure which character he means. I tried to copy that in a few of my works and editors don’t like it. One told me to “stop fucking around with the shadow games.” King does it in Carrie by jumping in time to hint at something coming and then returning to another character to watch it unfold. He also says ______ would be dead in two hours.
In ON WRITING, King uses Carrie as an example of emerging theme. He talked about blood coming up as a key theme that he did not see until after the first draft. He then brought it out. Reading Carrie again after reading ON WRITING, I can’t imagine a draft of the story where the significance of blood is not clear. This speaks to his drafting process and revisions.
Stephen King always has great lines. “Worshiping God in the raw” for worshiping outside. He described a character experiencing a mouth “full of dark, sweet horror.” The line doesn’t explain anything, but it says everything too. “If I had a nickle for every time she made me cry …” is a line that fills me with sadness. “I’m sorry momma, but I can’t be sorry” is such a modern line in so many ways. “Sorry is the Kool Aid of human emotions … true sorrow is as rare as true love.” Can you believe how strong that line is for a little, debut horror novel? “She pulled all the plugs” is a sharp call back to the opening of the novel during the bitter end. With the theme of blood, MacBeth comes up more than once. My favorite is “MacBeth hath murdered sleep, but Carrie murdered time.”
Tim Waggoneer recently wrote that where many writers think in terms of stories moving toward a climax, horror might be better thought of as moving toward a conflict. Carrie is a marvelous example of this with the novel and the girl drawing it all to herself in a sharp point of conflict in person and in time.
King slipped in that one moment that he does to make the horror more punctuated. It is that one opportunity for escape when it could have all been avoided. One little act that could have avoided the whole thing is passed by. It is clear, crisp, open, and left behind making the pill that much more bitter for the reader and the characters.
If you have seen either of the movies, the sequence in the novel is a bit different. The deaths are a bit different and some of the resolution is internal in a way that serves well in print, but could not be translated to the screen. As King says, literature is a superior medium to film in that way. King has noted that he is part of the last generation of writers that learned to read before he watched television. He was reading at a high level even before Kindergarten. This may play some role in his ability to communicate through words in a way that those of us thinking in television images struggle to capture. As he also says somewhat immodestly, but accurately, he elevated the genre of horror. That is true and evident even from this first novel.
Follow along with me as I continue to revisit the work of Stephen King. Next on this list, will be Salem’s Lot. Check out my Before Salem’s Lot post here.
I’ll keep you posted,
— Jay Wilburn, writer