Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: Carrie

Carrie (1974), Stephen King. Paperback, 208 pages.

Summary: A bullied teen discovers an outlet for her anger after harnessing telekinetic powers. It does not end well. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all of the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again.

     When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted to the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

     Carrie looked up at her dumbly, face still contorted and working, "M-M-Miss D-D-Des-D-"

     "Get up," Miss Desjardin said dispassionately. "Get up and tend to yourself."
     "I'm bleeding to death!" Carrie screamed, and one blind, searching hand came up and clutched Miss Desjardin's white shorts. It left a bloody handprint.
     "I . . . you . . . " The gym teacher's face contorted into a pucker of disgust, and she suddenly hurled Carrie, stumbling, to her feet. "Get over there!"
     Carrie stood swaying between the showers and the wall with its dime sanitary-napkin dispenser, slumped over, breasts pointing at the floor, her arms dangling limply. She looked like an ape. Her eyes were shiny and blank.
     "Now," Miss Desjardin said with hissing, deadly emphasis, "you take one of those napkins out . . . no, never mind the coin slot, it's broken anyway . . . take one and . . . damn it, will you do it! You act as if you've never had a period before!"


Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 6/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10


Writing Quality: 6/10. King is a capable writer. I've not read any of his other work, but this first novel demonstrated both nuance and intelligence in his ability to craft words, in his vocabulary, in developing different characters through both dialogue and internal monologue. I wouldn't particularly pick out any phrases that wowed me, but I was equally not thrown off by amateurish or irritating styling, which is something to say for a twenty-six-year-old. The perspective and voice did seem a little uneven at times -- there would be good moments of insight, and then other moments that seemed a little off or out of place. I don't think you'd really choose to read King for his prose craftsmanship, but at the same time his writing ability shouldn't be a reason to not read him. A 6 puts it in line with Card's Ender's Game, Martin's A Game of Thrones, and Terry Pratchett's The Night Watch.

Depth of Concept: 6/10. I debated whether I wanted to score this category higher, and ultimately decided on a 6 here, but a 7 for "kept me thinking." I think King taps into some important aspects of the teenage experience and more generally, the human psyche, but I think the story is a little more overt than layered in meaning. I'd argue that Carrie is an important and instructive allegory about bullying, about sex and guilt, about spoiled innocence. It takes themes you might imagine in The Scarlet Letter, and presents them powerfully, viscerally, and uncomfortably. Perhaps even a little bit literally, in the way it explores the concept of blood and being clean/unclean. For a first novel, I'd honestly say it's impressive. But there are moments that might make you raise your eyebrows a little, as when King writes:
I understand how those girls felt. The whole thing made me want to take the girl and shake her. Maybe there's some kind of instinct about menstruation that makes women want to snarl, I don't know. 
As a man myself, I'm not sure I want to be the one to critique what's right or wrong about King's portrayal of the female unconscious, but I'll at least say I have questions about it. Also, I can't help feeling like King has a fairly simplistic and condescending attitude towards religion, which plays a large role in the novel. It's not, for instance, the nuanced or expansive sort of thing you get in Moby-Dick. I've never gotten the impression that Herman Melville was a particularly "godly" man, but the scenes in Moby-Dick involving Father Mapple at the pulpit include both incredible lyricism and complexity in characterizing religious feeling, while at the same time being a bit ironic about piety. It seems that King tends more superficial and one-sided. At the same time that his characterization of a religious nut seems a little thin, though, I think it also presents a valuable analogy to a more common and depressing situation involving substance-abusing and just-plain-abusive parents.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. I considered scoring this category a 7, but ultimately felt that despite admirable efforts at realistic characters, there was a little too much inconsistency in the protagonist's characterization to justify the higher score. At first I was fearful that King might be writing truly one-note characters; the excerpt included above presents both Carrie and the gym teacher in a pretty extreme, even unappealing way. But I was pleasantly surprised with the way that King complicated the initial portrayals of most of the characters, revealing the ways that they struggle with their own hypocrisies and try to do the right thing. Even Billy, the the primary instigator of the abuse directed at Carrie, isn't merely a "mean girl" cliche. She's definitely not a nice person, but her motivations still have complexity, and she also struggles to come to terms with what she really wants. But when it comes to Carrie, King seems to vacillate between describing her as a downtrodden, dull "ape," and a secretly intelligent, powerful personality. When Carrie finally goes on a rampage at the end of the novel, it's unclear whether she has lost control of her sanity, or whether she is deliberate and calculating. She announces that "she would get all of them. Every last one." Does she have a deep well of rage that is finally unleashed in a destructive vengefulness? Or does she somehow lose the ability to tell right from wrong, such that her actions become less adult and sinister, and more child-like and tragic? The muddled distinctions somewhat dilute the critique King makes about the social outcomes he predicted from bullied or outcast young people.

Well-Developed World: 6/10. While I had a much more mild and pleasant teenage experience than the one King describes, I still feel that he describes the angst and pressures of teenagers, particularly girls, in some fascinating and insightful ways. I'd love to hear more from my female readers who've read Carrie regarding King's ability to channel the experience of a teenage girl. No doubt there are oversimplifications, but I think King really makes a good effort. Less convincing to me is the structure of the story, which breaks up the plot to insert commentary from somewhat unbelievable scholarly articles regarding the prom night "TK" (telekinetic) incident. Michael Crichton, for instance, does a much better job incorporating realistic-sounding technical and scholarly information into his novels (though Crichton's characters are weaker).

Page Turner: 8/10. I almost scored this a 9. The book is short, the prose is economical, and it's hard to look away from the inevitable train-wreck at the end. But the insertion of scholarly critiques and interviews with witnesses breaks up the narrative and feels a little jarring at times. Additionally, King unleashes spoilers about the concluding event on prom night pretty early in the novel, and does so in clinical fashion through his device of expert commentary. This diminished the sense of dread and uncertainty that might have pushed me to read a little more intensely to find out what happens next. Still, there's no doubt that this is a book that's hard to put down, whatever my little quibbles in this category may be. At an 8, it matches up with The Hunger Games, but is bested by Ender's Game, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and The Road.

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10Perhaps most striking to me was the way that King’s novel gets at the pent-up energy and anger and hurt in the outcast youth of our society. Sure, there was The Outsiders or The Catcher in the Rye before King got on the scene, but to my knowledge, King did something very new, and eerily prescient, in treating the breaking point of an abused teen on a destructive scale that went beyond personal tragedy and ended in nation-wide mourning. Carrie’s specific abilities are pure fantasy. But replace “telekinesis” with “semi-automatic weapons,” and you’ve got Columbine. You’ve got Aurora, Colorado, and Virginia Tech.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10While Carrie is a horrific (duh!) story, Carrie is not a demon, nor is she merely insane. Had King merely written a story about a psychotic killer, I don’t think it would have resonated and sold 16 million copies, or been adapted to film so many times. Carrie is the darker side of the coin to all of those later angsty 80s teen films. It’s an amped-up, blood dripping Blackboard Jungle, a prophetic indictment of bullying and a justifiably melodramatic warning about youth under pressure. Although it wouldn't make it past the censors, I'd recommend it for high school students, to get them thinking about bullying and cliques, and about what can happen when you make one of your peers an outcast. Yes, there’s sex and violence (though no more than I’ve read in a lot of Pulitzer winners), but this is Stephen King. You already knew this about him. It's what else he does that's a happy surprise. Even with its technical limitations, there’s a soul to Carrie that surprised me, and I’d recommend it, if not as a literary masterpiece, at least as a fascinating and surprising metaphor on social ills that seems particularly relevant in the present day.

Books To Compare: In King's first novel, Carrie, you won't find a lot of parallels with the progenitors of modern horror like Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, or Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Nor is there the sort of heavy, almost palpable but still subtle dread that you'll find in a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne's work (although some of the themes in Carrie would make for an interesting parallel with The Scarlet Letter). I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a little closer to King's visceral way of writing and tendency towards using viscerally uncomfortable scenes to examine subconscious fears, but Poe still immerses his work in a more philosophical dread of the unknown, and of evil, than does King in Carrie. And even though people often cite H. P. Lovecraft's work as influencing King, you won't find that preoccupation with different kinds of otherworldy creatures or monsters in Carrie.

Considering Carrie as a coming-of-age story is perhaps more productive. An obvious place to start is with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Stephen King admits is one of his favorite books. Though King's characters don't offer the depth of critique and analysis that Twain's do, they're just as conflicted about what it means to do the right thing, even in spite of social conventions. William Golding's The Lord of the Flies comes to mind as a story that examines childhood social interactions, and just how tragic they can become. Golding's novel presents a more consistent vision with more nuanced levels of interpretation, but King's story benefits from feeling very applicable and important in an immediate way. King describes the difficulties of being young in ways that remind me of Bradbury's special recollections of childhood, such as in Dandelion Wine. In comparison with an author like Kazuo Ishiguro, who offers a delicate, subtle path of discovery in his story Never Let Me Go, King can seem pretty on-the-nose. And despite its thoughtful, intelligent underpinnings, Carrie does sometimes seem a bit crudely thrown together, a mish-mash of perspectives and weakly presented scientific theory and sometimes contrived supernatural “gotcha” moments. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Carrie on Amazon.


  1. While Carrie might not be as complex as other King novels, it certainly is thrilling, dark, and classic King horror!

    1. It was extremely readable and thought-provoking, and I always appreciate a decent first novel that makes you feel the author has even greater potential within them.

  2. This is one of King's best. I really need to re-read this one.

  3. I remember this book well. And you know, I did go to school with a few girls who were like this; who didn't know a thing about what was going on with their bodies. It's a sad fact that some parents think that what happens to their daughters is a 'curse' and they lock them up for that week, not let them shower, socialise or even have friends over for a visit and think it's a dirty thing (believe me I had one friend whose father thought this way; and he was an awful excuse for a human being).

    I had other friends who thought you could get pregnant from just kissing a boy or holding hands. And this was in the late 1980's.

    So, what King was writing wasn't too far off from what still goes on today.

    1. The question isn't just "what do they know," but "how do they feel"; would you suggest that King really channels the inner musings of a woman? He's definitely written about a lot of women's issues (so I've heard).

    2. The first person he let read this book was his wife Tabitha... and when she first read it, she said he got it all wrong and told him how to write from a girl's point of view. She had to tell him some of the finer points about what some girls are told about their bodies and what some girls aren't; also that some girls aren't told complete truths as well... so a lot of what Tabitha told him went into how Carrie reacted to people and how some of the girls reacted to her.

    3. Interesting...thanks Mozette!