The Great Stephen King Re-Read: Carrie

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“…they came to see what happened to their town, to see if it was indeed lying burnt and bleeding. Many of them also came to die.”

Carrie, Stephen King

Carrie was Stephen King’s first novel and, by default, the novel that put him on the map. For a long time, it was also my least favorite King book, which caused me to look at any sort of reread of it with weariness.

When I first read the book, I was close to the same age as Carrietta White, the book’s titular character. As a result of this close age range, I found myself feeling nothing but loathing for many of the characters. From Carrie herself to those who bullied and taunted her to her abusive mother. It seemed that none of the characters could escape my distaste.

Fast forward mumble-mumble years and here I am rereading this novel. I’ve reread many books over the years and had vastly different reactions to them from my first read, but none so stark as with Carrie. This time, my adolescence was in the past — the hurt and confusion still fresh as I suspect they will be until the day I die, but far enough away that I could appreciate what King did here.

He somehow managed to capture the unrelenting horror of being a teenage girl. No wonder I hated it as a teenager.

Many of the characters still came across as jerks, at least to me, but I was able to see the nuance to many of them this time, such as Sue Snell. Sue, an imperfect character whose distaste turned sympathy for Carrie propels most of the events in the book, was perhaps the character that was most easy to relate to. Unsure of her place in the world, her issues with Carrie almost seem like an extension of her own self-doubt and, perhaps even, self-loathing.

Contrast Sue with her “friend,” Chris Hargensen, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer whose distaste for Carrie knows no-bounds. When Sue decides that her mocking of Carrie is no longer acceptable and moves to make amends, it’s Chris that acts as the foil to Sue’s misguided attempt at charity. Along with Billy Nolan, Chris’ boyfriend, they serve as the book’s primary antagonists.

What truly sticks out to me on this second reading is how, while Carrie White sits at the center of everything that happens in the novel, it’s the actions of everyone around her that serves the narrative. If the actions of all the characters around Carrie drive the action forward, then Carrie is the reaction that was destined to happen as a result of those actions. Carrie becomes an unstable weapon that everyone around her has managed to completely mishandle.

Another thing that I found interesting was how I found it difficult to view Carrie as a total victim this time around. For most of the novel, she is a victim. Abused by her zealot mother, bullied by her peers, and neglected and underserved by those who should have educated and protected her, Carrie’s plight largely makes her sympathetic for most of the novel. You can’t really blame her for her anger and her desire for justice.

And yet, by the time Chris and Billy dump the blood and the laughter starts, it’s both easy to feel true sorrow and empathy for Carrie, but at the same time, easy to shift the blame for the ensuing madness that occurs. No doubt, with Carrie White, there are many people who could have stepped in or, at least, stepped off, who may have made changed her fictional destiny.

But in the end, Carrie’s actions killed many innocents, destroyed a town and laid waste to the emotional well being of those survivors in close proximity to the fallout. I, personally, find it important to view Carrie with sympathy, but also understand that her final actions must be owned by her alone. She’s not a villain. In fact, one can argue that, because of the nuanced way King paints all of the players in the novel, there is no true villain or hero. There are simply characters who each choose a path and those choices have consequences for everyone involved.

Yet, despite not being a villain, Carrie is still the one who chose to enact revenge on the town of Chamberlain, knowingly taking out those who happened only to be innocent spectators. For some reason, in this day and age, I feel like this is an important thing to remember, as silly as that may sound.

Another takeaway from the reread is how it contrasted with the Brian DePalma film, particularly that final, deadly scene. I have yet to see the 2013 remake, but having viewed the DePalma film a few times since reading the book, I couldn’t quite get over how complete and thorough Carrie’s destruction of Chamberlain is in the novel vs. the movie. Carrie is truly a force in the film, but she’s a practically a nuclear weapon in the book.

I can definitely say I’m glad I reread Carrie once again years later. I enjoyed it so much more the second time around. The characters, the setting, as with so many of King’s works, are just impeccably layered, making the short read a true joy. As I “stepped into the novel” for a second time, I was able to read the story with a beautiful dread as everyone shuffled onto the stage and toward their date with destiny.

Have you read Carrie recently? What are your thoughts? Is Carrie truly a victim?

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