Carrie Recaps: Part One
So, a few things.
The housekeeping first: yes, I am recapping a new book and yes, I haven’t yet finished Fifty Shades Freed. But, as I’m sure you can tell from my last couple of recaps, my heart hasn’t really been in those awful books for a while. I really can’t overstate how depressing, boring, and truly terrible EL James’ books are and frankly, I need a little bit of a break before I get over the final hump. I will go back to them (hopefully by the start of 2018), but for now, I need something new, something that I don’t actively dread doing. If you want to catch up on my other Fifty Shades recaps, you can find them here. More importantly, let’s get on to the fun stuff: my new recapping adventure.
A few months ago, I was chatting to my worst friend Ellie about what I should do when I finished Fifty Shades (what I should recap, mind, not what I should do with my life), and she suggested Carrie, and, for the first time since I started recapping Fifty Shades, I found myself presented with a book that I just couldn’t say no to. What drew me to writing about EL James’ work was the complex ways in which it was terrible, the sheer variety of things to write about, both on and off the page. And Carrie, well, Carrie is just as fascinating to me.
The relationship I have with Stephen King is the same as the one literally thousands of people across the world have with him. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: drawn to the promise of twisted horror as a kid looking to move on from young adult fiction, in my teens I avidly ploughed my way through dozens of the copies of his books my father collected. He was my introduction to the horror genre, and my adoration and obsession of that world endures because of him. I still consider him one of my favorite writers of all time, and have a soft spot for sinking into a well-worn copy of Pet Semetary or The Stand. I know at least a half-dozen people in my own life who could tell some variation of the above story, and you probably do to, if you don’t have a version of your own.
But I also know that, for as much as I love him and much of his work, Stephen King often isn’t that great a writer. For the dozens of books he’s published, I only really rate about a dozen of them. For all of his incredible imagination and fantastic world-building, he’s legendarily bad at ending his stories. For every brilliantly constructed classic horror tale, there’s a sprawling, flabby Duma Key. He’s got problems with writing fully fleshed-out characters who aren’t straight, white, and male, and his more recent work (the Mr Mercedes trilogy in particular) can be tropey as hell. I adore a lot of his work – really, profoundly, and changed-my-life deeply – but I’m not stupid or precious. I know that, on paper (literally), there are a ton of problems with Stephen King’s writing, no matter how carefully I try to avoid thinking about them.
So, when Ellie suggested that I take a closer look at his first book, Carrie, it was too perfect to turn down. With the release of movies like The Dark Tower and IT, along with TV adaptations like Under the Dome, Mr Mercedes, and The Mist, King is a relevant pop culture force once more. I haven’t read his debut novel since I was sixteen, the same age as Carrie White herself, and long before I gave much thought to feminist criticism of pop culture. I have so much to say about this book, about it’s place in horror and feminist literary history, about Stephen King, about genre fiction – and, as one of his shorter novels, Carrie won’t take me most of the rest of my life to recap. So, over the next three months, I’m going to take a look at the debut novel of the man who would go on to define both the horror genre in literature and the nightmares of thousands of people across the world. Without further ado: Carrie by Stephen King. Let’s get into this.
The book opens on an excerpt from a newspaper covering bizarre weather activity around a three-year-old Carrietta White’s abode, and reminds me that this book is not a straight novel but told through a series of straight narration, fictionalised book excerpts, and other accounts of the Carrie White story. It harkens (if you’ll excuse the pun) back to horror classic Dracula and is one of the things that made this book stand out to me when I first read it all those years ago; there’s a visceralness to telling the story in this odd, slightly disjointed way that works for the jittery tension that builds over the next couple of hundred pages. And then, of course, once we’re done with the newspaper extract, we’re on to Carrie’s notorious opening scene.
Now, I didn’t go looking to come out and criticise the way that Stephen King writes women this early on in to the book, but a couple of opportunities just presented themselves to me as aggressively as my cat does when she’s in heat:
“The girls had been playing volleyball in Period One, and their morning sweat was light and eager. Girls stretched and writhed under the hot water […]”
From the out, because I have a feeling that it’s going to come up a lot, I want to make it clear that when I critique the way Stephen King writes about women, those words are not directed only at him. Dozens, and I mean dozens, of male writers have this same problem, and that’s the inability to make descriptions of women sound natural (check out Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where almost every single female character is introduced with reference to the size, shape and relative nipple-hardness of her tits). The example I quoted above – with sweat incongruously described as “eager” and teenage girls “writhing” in the showers – just doesn’t read right. And I’m not saying that I’m so incadescent at the obvious sexism of writing these characters this way that I can’t get past it. It’s that sweat can’t be eager. It’s that people don’t writhe around in showers. This kind of writing – and yes, some of it is due to King’s relative inexperience here, but it’s something that many, many male writers suffer from deep into their careers – just pulls you out of the story, because it’s so obviously meant to evoke a sweaty-palmed sensuality that isn’t called for here and is usually only applied when talking about female characters, especially of the young and nubile variety (who appear a surprising amount in King’s work). Anyway. On with the chapter.
King goes on to introduce Carrie, describing her as a “chunky girl with pimples on her back and neck and buttocks”, as she showers amongst her classmates. We then get an introduction to Miss Desjardin, ” their slim, nonbreasted gym teacher”, and I’ve decided that right here and now I’m going to start a count for every time a female character is introduced with reference to their breasts because dude, come on now. She orders Carrie out of the shower, and Carrie acquiesces, revealing to the surrounding girls that she has started her period. We cut to an excerpt from a report written about Carrie’s telekenesis, and then back to the locker room where Sue Snell, an ostensible protagonist of sorts, is watching Carrie with “hate, revulsion, exasperation, and pity” as the other girls begin chanting “period” at her. Carrie stands “like a patient ox” taking the abuse, the third animal comparison we’ve had this chapter so far (she was also described as “frog-like” several times as well as a sacrificial goat in her introductory paragraph, not to mention looking around “bovinely” in the next paragraph) which I guess is meant to underline the inhumanity with which the other girls regard her. But it feels a little unfortunate that this teenage girl King has gone to great lengths to underline the unattractiveness of gets a half-dozen comparisons to things that literally are not people within the first few pages of her introduction.
Sue points out that Carrie is bleeding, at which point Carrie freaks out and the girls begin to pelt her with tampons and sanitary pads. Now, I’ve spoken before about the recurring horror trope that revolves around female reproductive systems (in movies like Excision Rosemary’s Baby, Devil’s Due, and the like), and I don’t have any fundamental problem with it in it’s own right. Because sexuality and horror are long-time and intimate bedfellows, and menstruation (rightly or wrongly) is tied up with sexuality in a lot of cultures. But what I do have an issue with is (cis) male artists using periods as something inherently gross and freaky. There’s something really unpleasant to me about someone taking a natural bodily function that they don’t understand from a personal perspective, something around which there is still a lot of taboo, and using it as a “shocking” horror moment.
And make no mistake, that is what this scene is: Carrie is described in inhuman terms again, “grunting and gobbling” in horror at the sight of herself bleeding, her eyes like “the eyes of a hog in a slaughtering pen”. Yes, the book acknowledges that this incident is the climax of years of abuse at the hands of other students and that the way they treat her is wrong – but Carrie is held at arm’s length and treated as an animal instead of a person here. You could argue that this is just meant to reflect the way these girls see her, but it’s so pervasive throughout this chapter and we see so little from Carrie’s perspective (read: none) that it feels unpleasant.
We jump to another piece of academic writing on Carrie, noting that “exceptionally late and traumatic commencement of the menstrual cycle” may have drawn out her psychic abilities. Now, small point, but sixteen is not exceptionally late to start your period. It’s a little later than normal, sure, but it’s not insanely, ridiculously far into puberty either. And, with reference to my earlier point, here is where King draws a direct link between Carrie’s telekenesis and her period. He’s very into the concept of a specific moment marking the transition to adulthood (see: the child gangbang in It). And I get it. It’s a dramatic opening to the book, it’s a turning point for our lead character. But it’s also yet another way a male writer has used a woman’s bodily function to signify something monstrous and unnatural and man oh man am I tired of that trope. Hey, dude writers: I’m on my period right now. Scared yet? ‘Cause it seems like a lot of you are,
The teacher returns and slaps Carrie across the face, which the narration notes she enjoys as she deeply dislikes Carrie. She pulls her to her feet and thrusts a naked Carrie against the wall, where King makes pains to describe “her breasts pointing at the floor” and compares her to an ape. Again, I understand that the constant comparisons to animals is meant to underline the way that the women around her view Carrie, but at this point, even if you take away the other unfortunate implications of this choice, it’s just overdone.
Carrie reveals that she has no idea what a period is, causing the teacher to think back to her first period, and at this point blood is apparently just gushing out of Carrie – it’s spattered down her legs, and it looks like she’s “waded through a river of blood”. And, again, talking from the point of view of someone who has periods…I find it hard to believe that no-one in that locker room would look at this girl, who allegedly is covered in blood pretty much from the waist down, and not panic a little bit. Your first period isn’t like a pricked balloon where you just explode gallons of blood down yourself – and if it is, it’s cause for concern. Maybe this is for effect, but it feels more like King doesn’t know how periods actually work and assumes we’re all hooked up to transfusion devices just to keep us alive during our heavy flow days.
We get a little aside to the circumstances around Carrie’s conception and birth, which was also blood-soaked because God forbid any genre writer pass up an opportunity to put a pregnant character through a traumatic birth scene. Miss Desjardin puts a sanitary towel in for Carrie and gets her the rest of the day off school, but not before Carrie explodes a lightbulb in her distress. There’s a cool little moment where Desjardin thinks about how often these kind of little accidents happens around Carrie, and puts it down to her bad luck, a nice little bit of foreshadowing and an underlining of another theme King would explore in great detail in later works about adults being less accepting of the impossible than kids.
And that brings us to the end of our first Carrie recap! I hope you’ve enjoyed it and you’ll join me for the next one; please follow the blog or follow me on Twitter to be kept up to date with my new recaps. And, if you like this recap and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon!