Book Club Made Me Read It: Carrie
I’m a member of a small, informal, friends and friends-of-friends book club. We try to read one book every 5 weeks or so. The rules are simple: Everyone gets an opportunity to pick a book for the book club to read. Each member must pick a book that they have not personally read before, and each member is responsible for leading the discussion after we read their selection. Sometimes the books are good. Sometimes they are not.
This is intended to be the first in a series reviewing each book these people force on me: “Book Club Made Me Read It.”
I’m a bitch and don’t care about ruining the experience for you, so I’m going to include spoilers whenever I please. That’s your only warning. Proceed at your own risk.
Carrie by Stephen King
Carrie is the second Stephen King book I have ever successfully finished reading in my nearly 36 years on Earth. The first was The Eyes of the Dragon, which I read in middle school, at which time I believe it was the only Stephen King book left in my family’s house, my dad having purged the rest of his collection, very possibly to keep them out of my voraciously page-turning hands. (I’m told that Pet Sematary gave him nightmares and he stopped reading King after that.) I tried to read Salem’s Lot in my early twenties, which I found so compelling that I put it down something like 40 pages from the end and never bothered to pick it up again. I remember basically nothing about it.
I have also never seen any of the film adaptations of Carrie. However, because I do not live under a rock, I was familiar with the general outlines of the plot – girl gets bullied, girl gets blood dumped on her at prom, girl kills lots of people with her brain.
Carrie the book is…fine. It butts up against the border of interesting, but rarely quite manages to cross all the way over. It is not a long book, but it is arguably too long for the amount of things that actually happen in it.
It is half epistolary – told through snippets of newspaper stories, formal interviews, book excerpts, etc – and half standard 3rd person narrative. I found the epistolary sections more interesting, on the whole. They play effectively with offering different perspectives on the same set of events and raise questions about unreliable narrators and unknowable motivations. Unfortunately, the standard narrative sections which follow the epistolary portions neatly hand over the answers to damn near every question. Lame. Questions are almost always more interesting than answers.
Carrie also makes frequent use of intrusive parentheticals representing characters’ interior monologues, which I’m told is one of King’s favorite tricks.
She thought of imps and familiars and witches
(am i a witch momma the devil’s whore)
riding through the night, souring milk, overturning butter churns, blighting crops while They huddled inside their houses with hex signs scrawled on Their doors.
(Sidebar: can we talk about the inconsistent punctuation in that single sentence? Carrie tends to think of the rest of the townspeople as a collective capital “They,” which is fine, but why is “their houses” lowercase while “Their doors” is uppercase? The fuck? Who edited this? Get it the fuck together, man.)
Anyway, I found the parentheticals frustratingly uneven in their effectiveness, because they are used for numerous characters seemingly at random without serving a clear purpose. I don’t hate them, but they’d have been a hell of a lot more interesting if they were applied only to Carrie’s point of view, as a way to let us in on the workings of her mind specifically – with the added benefit that near the end of the book, when Carrie’s powers start affecting other people’s minds, then the parentheticals could have started happening in other points of view and it would have been a legitimately cool device.
Also, male writers please take note, you really do not need to describe the shape and relative perkiness of the breasts of every woman who appears in your book. In fact, in most cases you need to describe the breasts of none of the women who appear in your book. I have no recollection of what color hair most of these women were supposed to have, but I can tell you they’ve pretty much all got perky tits.
And while we’re on the subject of physical appearance, oh my god is the language used to describe Carrie frequently upsettingly dehumanizing. The following descriptions all appear within the first 11 pages of my copy:
Carrie stood among them stolidly, a frog among swans.
She looked the part of the sacrificial goat…
It was a strangely froggy sound, grotesquely apt…
She stood like a patient ox, aware that the joke was on her…
She looked around bovinely.
...Carrie suddenly began to howl and back away, flailing her arms and grunting and gobbling.
Her eyes rolled with wet whiteness, like the eyes of a hog in the slaughtering pen.
For fuck’s sake, Steve, we get it, she’s a frog-goat-ox-cow-pig. Ok, sure, many of these descriptions, and others throughout the book, are nominally from the point of view of Carrie’s classmates. Oh, sure, argue if you like that the purpose of these descriptions is to make the reader complicit in Carrie’s ostracism. I’m willing to consider that may have indeed been the intention, but this kind of language was so dense near the beginning of the book and so off-putting that I very nearly put the thing down to be abandoned like Salem’s Lot.
Later on, Carrie herself is allowed more complexity as a character. Unfortunately, a fair bit of that complexity is “she could be pretty if she just bothered to try, and she definitely does have nice breasts,” which I hope all of us here in 2019 can agree is a lousy way to demonstrate that your female character actually has value as a human but oh who am I kidding this is the same world where a bunch of adult men threw hissy fits because the new She-Ra’s tits aren’t big enough.
I did find King’s depiction of Carrie’s mid-prom snap to be unexpectedly on-point: her despair-turned-to-rage at having been the butt of another cruel joke, after she’d finally allowed herself to feel measure of hope; her gleeful realization that she has the power to make them all as miserable as they’ve made her; the way she begins simply with a desire to make them cry but the schadenfreude is so intoxicating that she keeps upping the ante until she’s gone too far and then…well, then there’s no turning back, so she may as well keep going. Carrie is a school shooter who doesn’t need a gun. Carrie is every bullied kid’s revenge fantasy. Carrie is anyone who has ever taken sick pleasure in someone else’s pain and wondered at the darkness inside themselves. Carrie isn’t the hero, but for a moment she lets herself feel like she might be the antihero, the one willing to do bad things to bad people. Don’t pretend like you’ve never felt at least some spark of that impulse.
I didn’t find this book to be scary or even particularly thrilling. But if there’s anything to fear in it, it’s not what Carrie does or how she does it. It’s why she does it. It’s because it’s satisfying to watch people who’ve hurt you writhe in pain, and that’s some dark true shit about humans that we decent people of the world don’t generally like to think about.
OVERALL RATING: 3/5 stars
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT FOR: The emotional realism of Carrie’s sudden descent into the villain of the story.
PLEASE NO MORE: Descriptions of everyone’s breasts.
SHOUT-OUT TO: The random casual racism of describing a young white woman’s fat lip as “negroid.” I know it was 1974, but dang.