Saturday 20 April 2013

REVIEW: Carrie, by Stephen King (4.5*)

(Hodder, 2007)

*** There will be SPOILERS in this post, and more ranting than reviewing, because it's too anger-provoking not to talk about these things.  I HAVE SO MANY FEELINGS! ***

"They've forgotten her, you know.  They've made her into some kind of a symbol and forgotten that she was a human being, as real as you reading this...  Nothing can change her back now from something made out of newsprint into a person.  But she was, and she hurt.  More than any of us probably know, she hurt.  And I'm so sorry and I hope it was good for her, that prom.  Until the terror began, I hope it was good and fine and wonderful and magic..."

Before I read Carrie, I expected it to be exactly as popular myth seemed to dictate: a book about a monstrous girl in a dripping prom dress, destroying a town with her telekinetic powers.  But as is so often the case with these culture-pervading novels, it is so much more than that!  Just as Pet Sematary isn't really about a mystical graveyard, and Frankenstein isn't merely about a lumbering humanoid, Carrie isn't really a book about supernatural horror.  No.  It is about a young girl tormented by years of bullying and abuse and humiliation, who finally snaps and has a mental breakdown.  The telekinetic powers are just the apocalyptic icing on the cake of ritual high-school cruelty...

I think this is probably one of those books that people respond to largely based on their own experiences at high school.  Although it's set in the 70s, there's a sense of the futility of high school posturing; despite the decades that have passed, high schools are still dominated by the same people, the same patterns, the same problems...  For those who sailed through their teenage years, it's very much the cult novel about a girl developing powerful telekinetic abilities when she (finally) hits puberty and getting revenge on the people in her town who have always laughed at her.  For those who were more like Carrie than her tormentors at school (which I'm guessing might be a fair few of us bookish types), it's the heartbreaking story of a victim at the end of her tether. 

So many moments from my teens were driven back into my head while I was reading, and considering how nervous King claims he was about trying to enter the mysterious world of the high school female, I thought it was painfully truthful.  I remember sitting at home and devouring junk food to make myself feel better.  I remember wishing I had better skin and swishier hair and a thinner stomach so that people would like me more.  I remember moments where the panic was so intense that time slowed down and faces blurred.  I remember moments when chanting and singing echoed in my ears until I wanted to run away.  I remember the day I finally turned around and faced my principal tormentor, and the surprising switch of allegiance amongst some of the watching spectators as they realised that maybe I had some small dignity after all.  I also remember watching another, deeply unpleasant but vulnerably small, girl being bullied at school, and feeling a strange sense of shameful satisfaction.  Just like Sue.  Because it wasn't in my nature to be cruel, but I stood back anyway.  All of these things were echoed in the novel, and it was profound and honest and miserable and sickening and angering, all at the same time.

Of course, not only is Carrie constantly humiliated by her peers, but let's not forget the religious and domestic abuse she is regularly exposed to at home by her violently 'Christian' mother.  If I thought Oranges are Not the Only Fruit was bad, Carrie takes the religious indoctrination and abuse of children and drags it to a whole new level.  Of course, this isn't autobiographical like Oranges, but as you read you can't help but think that there are people this religiously crazed out there, and those people do have children.  Children who are being raised in the same madness, and punished if they dare to show signs of thinking for themselves.  I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan of any child being indoctrinated into religion before they're old enough to have any kind of say in the matter, but when it comes to extremism it's outright dangerous. 

Right, that's my righteous anger done.  Back to the writing itself!  One thing I really loved about this book - in the same way that I loved the similar structure in Palahniuk's Rant - was the way it was composed of all kinds of different 'source material' alongside the regular progression of the plot, pitting post-Carrie academic speculation against the human story.  Even though I knew roughly where the novel was going, getting clues and insight into the sheer scale of Carrie's destruction and the involvement of other characters via the 'book extracts', interviews, reports, dictionaries and other excerpts scattered liberally throughout the normal prose helped to ratchet up the suspension to an unbearable pitch by the time that bucket upturned over the stage.

Skipping between characters - Carrie, her mother, Sue, Chris and Billy - gave a rounded version of events, allowing the reader to see the 'big picture' as events unfolded, and tightening that tension even further.  I also liked the way King uses parentheses to insert little snippets of impulsive thought, flashes of pure gut feeling.  It's not a technique I've ever seen before, but I thought it was a really deft way of showing how instinctive thoughts pop into someone's mind even as they're reflecting on something else.  As if that wasn't enough, King introduces so many opportunities for things to turn out differently.  Every time a character pondered intervening, every time someone had an inkling something might happen, every time someone thought about showing kindness but didn't, every time a bad decision was made, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I wanted to scream.  And Carrie's blossoming happiness and perfect Prom night broke my heart because I knew what was coming.  It's that kind of novel.

I actually found that this wasn't as much of a horror story as I'd expected, which was quite refreshing.  It had its moments, of course, as Carrie weaved her way across town wreaking havoc, projecting her fractured mind into everyone else's, imagery hot with the colours of fire and blood, but really it was more horrific.  Subtle difference.  Maybe this surprise was due to my preconception of Carrie as 'the bad guy', the monster of the piece.  In fact my heart went out to her, and just as I enjoy the downfall of the villain in any story, I felt quite pleased when Chris, Billy and even Margaret White got what they deserved.  Then I felt bad because it was going against pretty much the entire ethos of the novel...

Okay, I think I've rambled quite enough... but suffice to say that if you haven't already read this one, I'd definitely recommend it.  It's not the best novel I've ever read, and there were some fairly horrendous typos all the way through, but it made me think and feel so very much, and I found myself constantly mulling over the events and issues and moral dilemmas in the novel even when I wasn't reading.  What was right?  What was wrong?  How many girls are there out there who have been stamped on like Carrie?  How many times do those girls wish they had some small dose of power that would turn the tables at last?  How many Prom Nights would there be if these poor souls had the opportunity to get their revenge?  How did King manage not only to get so perfectly inside the minds of a series of high school girls, but to nail the way the horrible little popular cliques work and drag this reader kicking and screaming back into the past as he went?  Brilliant.  Wrenching, but brilliant.

One small thing...
I just have to share this with you, which I found scribbled in my review notebook as I was writing this post: "This is a Cinderella story - only instead of running and crying when her ugly sisters humiliate her, she reveals herself to be a ninja and kills them.  Cinderella Goes Wild."  :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "Real religious nuts are nothing to fool with."
  • "They were almost certain to be voted King and Queen of the high school Spring Ball, and the senior class had already voted them class couple for the yearbook.  They had become a fixed star in the shifting firmament of the high school's relationships, the acknowledged Romeo and Juliet.  And she knew with sudden hatefulness that there was one couple like them in every white suburban high school in America."
  • "High school isn't a very important place.  When you're going you think it's a big deal, but when it's over nobody really thinks it was great..."
  • "It seemed like... oh, a big laugh.  Girls can be cat-mean about that sort of thing, and boys don't really understand.  The boys would tease Carrie for a little while and then forget, but the girls... it went on and on and on and I can't even remember where it started any more."
  • "And then this other thought crept in, and it was as if it wasn't my own at all.  I was thinking about Carrie.  And about God.  It was all twisted up together, and it was awful.  Stella looked over at me and said: 'Carrie's back.'"
  • "She sat quite still, letting the noise wash over her like surf.  They were still all beautiful and there was still enchantment and wonder, but she had crossed a line and now the fairy tale was green with corruption and evil.  In this one she would bite a poison apple, be attacked by trolls, be eaten by tigers.  They were laughing at her again."
  • "I feel that I would kill myself before ever teaching again.  Late at night I keep thinking: If I had only reached out to that girl, if only, if only..."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK several years ago.