I’ve heard a lot of good and bad things about Stephen King. I’m talking about the man whose books have sold more than 350 million copies, not the moustachioed Australian explorer beloved for crossing Australia from South to North. I’m talking about the man whose first independently published story was “I Was a Teenage Grave Robber,” not the U.S. Representative from Iowa who claimed that a Barack Obama presidency would have al-Qaida dancing in the streets. ‘Cause his name sounds Muslim, you know? I’m talking about the man whose alias, Richard Bachman, died of “cancer of the pseudonym,” not one of a whole bunch of football players (football as in soccer) by the same name. Seriously, there are a lot of Stephen Kings out there. And King would probably like it that way — that he’s just one manifestation of “Stephen King” who occurs in a million different ways in the world.
The dude is interesting. Even for me, someone who prior to six days ago had never read one of King’s books. He published Carrie when he was twenty-six. He’d already written four (unpublished) novels, and by the time this one, his fifth, was published, he was still three years younger than I am now! And Carrie simply exploded him into the American psyche. How’d he deal with that? Well, for one, he quit all jobs besides writing, FOREVER. My jealousy knows no bounds. For two, he started a long affair with drugs and alcohol that culminated in an intervention staged by his friends and family where they dumped out the contents of all of his icky garbage cans on his carpet. He beat the addictions and has been sober for the last twenty years. He even survived a collision with a mini-van, after which doctors wanted to amputate his leg. But he was like, “Screw that, touch my leg and I’ll make you bleed out your eyes. With my mind.” So I imagine.
The man has battled demons. If there’s a lot of gruesome, disturbing stuff in his writing, it’s really no big surprise. What IS quite a surprise is that for a guy whose bread and butter is supposedly hack horror writing, he’s inspired some of the greatest actors (Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Ian McKellan, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Sissie Spacek, Kathy Bates, etc., etc., etc.) to play his characters in some of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films of the last thirty years. My film major heart leaps a little at that, and it’s King’s special ability to triumph so prolifically over more than one medium that ultimately convinced me to give him a shot.
I chose Carrie as my introduction to the writing of Stephen King. Mostly because it was available, and another (!) film adaptation of it is coming out within a year. Carrie was King’s first published novel, and King himself admits it showed his amateur beginnings:
“I’m not saying that Carrie is shit, and I’m not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect, it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”
Even though it’s not touted as King’s greatest work, I don’t regret starting with Carrie. Now, it wasn’t a perfectly pleasurable experience; Carrie is a little girl who has been abused since the day she was born. As a parent, there are moments here that just hurt my heart. I hate reading about abused children. But King mostly avoids exploitation of Carrie’s horrific home life (need we call the mother religious? I’d rather just call her hella cray-cray) by creating a thought-provoking scenario that evokes the sadness of kids who live with off-their-rockers substance-abusing parents, and also can’t avoid the depressing codependency that you find even between family members who hate each other’s guts.
This is stuff that’s meaningful, and that gets at the root of King’s motives. Sure, it’s a novel about a telekinetic girl. But more fundamentally, it’s a novel about being an outcast, and about dysfunctional relationships, and about kids awkwardly negotiating that “coming of age” experience. Glad I’m past that. So glad.
Perhaps 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 and 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. Or Virginia Tech. Or Aurora, Colorado. This is not just gore-fest silliness, you Stephen King hating morons (why am I suddenly angry?). This is a powerful metaphor of youthful anxiety that smells a lot like teen spirit. And you know how Kurt Cobain ended up, may he rest in peace. Being a teenager kinda sucks. Stephen King really gets that.
While 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.
Now, of course the book is not without faults. In comparison to an author like Kazuo Ishiguro, who offers a delicate, subtle path of discovery in the coming-of-age 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. But even with its technical limitations, there’s a soul to Carrie that surprised me, and I’d recommend it in a heartbeat, 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. 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. The bottom line is that if this is what King is capable of in his first published novel, I’m pretty jazzed about exploring his more mature works.