King, Carrie, and a Religious Revelation by Ray Garton
“Jesus watches from the wall,
But his face is cold as stone,
And if he loves me
As she tells me
Why do I feel so all alone?”
— Carrie White
Stephen King’s Carrie was not the first horror novel I read, but it was the first horror novel that did more than frighten and disturb me, the first to reach a hand deep into my life, stir things up, and make me begin to look at things differently. It made me question … well, just about everything.
By then, I had read plenty of horror fiction, particularly the work of Richard Matheson, who started me on that path. I also had read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, both of which packed a punch for me because they, like Carrie, involved the scariest thing in my life: religion. But in those books, religion represented the cavalry that rides in to save us from Satan and his army of demonic fallen angels. It provides the only weapons able to fight the forces of evil to which we sinners are so vulnerable.
In Carrie, religion — in this case, the feverish, smothering religion of Carrie’s disturbed mother, Margaret White — provides no comfort, no peace. Instead, it screams condemnation at us, locks us in a closet and forces us to pray, tells us there is something evil and perverse about who and what we are, and tries to kill us to save us from ourselves.
At one point — I think it’s a dream that Carrie has, but I haven’t read the book in a long time, so forgive me if I’m fuzzy on this — Carrie is pursued through darkness by Jesus himself, his bare feet padding softly as he gains on her. Margaret’s abusive religion has turned gentle Jesus meek and mild, the prince of peace, into a dark and ominous figure for Carrie. I’m sure I would have been shocked by such a notion at the time if I had not already been having such nightmares on a regular basis.
This Stephen King guy, somebody I’d never heard of but who, somehow, seemed to know what I dreamed about at night, popped his faceless head into my life and said, “Hey, wait a second. What if that’s not what religion is? What if religion can be — what if it is — the bad guy?”
It was a question that had occurred to me before, but only vaguely, indirectly, because it was the kind of thought I’d been taught to be afraid to think, a thought that only someone in the devil’s clutches would entertain. It was while reading Carrie, however, that I learned the thought had occurred to someone else, too — the author of the novel. Maybe Stephen King was addicted to sin, like me. Or maybe he wasn’t and I wasn’t so bad after all.
I was 11 when I read Carrie for the first time and that kind of thinking was scary. It was one thing for a kid like me to have such dangerous thoughts because, as I was often reminded, I was a smart, creative boy with great potential but I had fallen into the hands of the devil because of my own spiritual weakness in the face of temptation. Comic books? Horror fiction? TV shows like Batman and Night Gallery? Scary movies on Creature Features? These were not the pursuits of a godly person. They were the symptoms of my spiritual disease, tumors on my soul.
I was raised in an insular Christian sect that focused primarily on the evils of the Catholic church and the terrors of the coming apocalypse. It condemned almost everything and frowned hard on whatever was left. My parents disapproved of the horror and science fiction I read and watched and warned it would give me nightmares and make me afraid of my own shadow. And yet all of my nightmares were straight out of the book of Revelation, all about the frightening Time of Trouble that I was constantly warned could begin at any moment. I thought I was afraid of it because it sounded absolutely terrifying, but I was informed I was afraid because I knew what a sinner I was, and I knew I wouldn’t be saved.
All of this was echoed and reinforced by everyone in my life — my parents, my friends, their parents, the teachers at the church school I attended and the pastor of our church and my doctor and dentist and everyone I knew. The problem was me. I was … wrong. I had all the wrong interests and talents and ideas and one day I would burn for it unless I changed my ways, cleaned up my act, read my bible, prayed harder, and, most importantly, stopped being myself.
I wanted to disagree with them — and I did privately, silently — but I didn’t have a leg to stand on. I had no argument, no defense. According to the bible and the church’s founder and divinely-inspired prophet, I was a sinner and I enjoyed my sins (which did not even seem like sins to me because I was such an advanced sinner) too much to give them up.
By the time I read Carrie, I believed everything I’d been told, and I hated myself.
“What if it’s not you?” Stephen King whispered into my ear one night from the pages of his novel. “What if they’re the problem?”
It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact that had on me, on my life. It was not immediate, but slowly and gradually over the decades that followed, it was transformative. Stephen King reached into my brain and stirred things up in a way I had not experienced before by reflecting feelings I’d been ashamed of having and could not express.
Margaret White was clearly insane. But the line separating her insanity from her religious beliefs was so faint that sometimes it was impossible to tell the difference between the two. She believed that virtually everything was a sin, even the most natural bodily functions, like Carrie’s menstruation. She was so convinced that sexual intercourse was a sin, even in marriage, that when she became pregnant the first time, she induced a miscarriage by “accidentally” falling down the stairs. Margaret’s life had no room for joy, hope, or happiness because every available inch of space was filled with dread, doom, sin, and self-loathing.
All of that was uncomfortably familiar to me. I didn’t know anyone as obviously crazy as Margaret White, but the rules I had to live by and the standards I was expected to live up to were every bit as insane as she. It was Stephen King’s novel that made me wonder if perhaps I wasn’t the problem after all.
The questions Carrie made me ask are important ones, I think, because there are a lot of Carries out there. They don’t have telekinesis, rocks never rain on their houses, and they probably don’t have a parent as demonstrably insane as Margaret White. But they live in the same darkness, in fear of things they cannot see. Their creativity and curiosity are being strangled, and they are, figuratively if not literally, locked in a closet. They have no hope of coming into the light unless they can first ask themselves if the problem truly is them or the distorted perspective of those around them — if perhaps religion can be the bad guy.
Had I never read Carrie, I’m sure that, eventually, my thinking would have changed for one reason or another. But I doubt the revelation would have been as enjoyable or memorable.
Next, you can read Bev Vincent’s post about the history of Carrie or Richard’s essay about re-reading the book or Richard’s follow-up post about George Chizmar. The complete list of the books to be read can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Ray Garton has been writing novels, novellas, and short stories for thirty years. His work spans the genres of horror, crime, and suspense. His novels include Live Girls, Scissors, Ravenous, and most recently, Frankenstorm. His short fiction has recently appeared in such anthologies as Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror, Volume 1, Horror Library 5, and A Dark Phantastique, with more stories in upcoming anthologies like 18 Wheels of Horror and Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine. You can see his bibliography and keep up with new releases at his website, RayGartonOnline.com. He lives in northern California with his wife Dawn and is currently at work on his next novel.