“This is the girl they keep calling a monster. I want you to keep that firmly in mind. The girl who could be satisfied with a hamburger and a dime root beer after her only school dance so her mamma wouldn’t be worried…”
Stephen King, Carrie
“Breathes there a moviegoer with soul so dead who never wished the monster would jump down from that burning windmill and stuff those torches right down the throats of those ignorant slobs so dedicated to ending its life?“ Stephen King, Danse Macabre
It all comes back to the book. It’s a book that has been in print for nearly forty years and has barely aged in all that time. A modest novel, not even 300 pages in most editions. Telling the simple story of a teenage girl, her torment at home at the hands of her mother, her torment at high school at the hands of her peers and the self destructive revenge she takes on both, (as well the town that supported them) with the aid of her “wild talent”. It’s a book that launched one of the most wildly successful writing careers of all time.
If Carrie isn’t Stephen King’s best book (probably The Shining), or his most beloved (probably The Stand) if it arguably isn't even his best portrayal of tormented adolescence (Christine certainly gives it a run for its money), it is almost certainly his strongest bid for literary immortality. Because while Carrie resulted in King’s literary legacy, it is not dependent upon it.
It’s easy to imagine Carrie still being read if for some reason King fell silent after writing it. It’s a primal piece of work. One of those books that seems to have a direct line into the adolescence mind (a claim strengthened by its status as one of the most frequently banned books from high school libraries, according to The American Library Association) and its queasy blend of perpetual humiliation, romantic hope, boundless potential and equally limitless rage. It’s a story that articulates the plight of the outsider better than just about any book I know. A sustained shriek of pain and anger. A story of the powerless seizing empowerment at the highest imaginable cost. There is a reason that news of a remake, announced in the midst of a LBGT teen suicide epidemic, and growing concerns about cyber bullying, was greeted with interest rather than the usual groans. Carrie refuses to date. “Carrie White eats shit” is now as likely to end up on a Facebook wall as carved into a desk, but the message remains the same. It’s a work that every new generation sees itself reflected in.
Whatever flaws Carrie has as the work of an author still finding his voice are more than made up for by the rawness of its emotion, the bluntness of its portrayal of high school and in the bleak, queasy honesty of its wish fulfillment. Carrie doesn’t age. Whenever a school shooting takes place, whenever a bullied teen commits suicide, Carrie is mentioned.
The secret to the books vitality is simple. Most horror fiction relies on us being of two minds about the monster. The tension between our instinctive revulsion at the creature, and our instinctive sympathy towards the ostracized outsider. Carrie exploits this tension as well as any work of horror you can name. In Carrie we are the monster and the monster is us. Carrie still resonates so strongly because it speaks to anyone who spent their adolescence miserable. And after all isn't that everyone?
The book sold a million copies in paperback in its first year. So it’s not surprising that an adaption of Carrie was soon in production. What is surprising, despite the potency of the source material, is the odd permutations that Carrie has inspired. Not just a film, but a stage musical, a belated sequel, even an attempt on television, before finally, inevitably, a remake. Carrie has ended up spawning an out and out franchise.
You can read more of Bryce Wilson's thoughts on Stephen King, including full essays on The Shining and Pet Semetary in his book Son Of Danse Macabre.
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