How Carrie Happened by Bev Vincent
By 1973, Stephen King had been writing for twenty years and had been publishing short stories for over a decade. He had already embarked on his long road to the Dark Tower. However, he had yet to crack into print with a novel, even though he had written over half a dozen.
King had established contact with an editor at Doubleday named Bill Thompson who saw promise in his writing. Getting It On (aka Rage) and The Long Walk had piqued Thompson’s interest, but even after extensive rewrites the editor couldn’t justify acquiring either, and he showed little interest in The Running Man.
King was living with his wife, Tabitha, and two kids in a doublewide trailer in Hermon, Maine, just outside Bangor. He had recently given up his $1.60 an hour job at a commercial laundry (immortalized in “The Mangler”) for a $6400 a year position teaching high school at the Hampden Academy, a job that left him with little spare time or energy. Tabitha was working at Dunkin’ Donuts and he moonlighted at the New Franklin Laundry during summer vacation. If not for his wife’s support and encouragement, he might have given up on writing.
Carrie started its life as an abandoned short story. The tale of a bullied teenage girl with telekinetic powers was a response to a college friend’s challenge to write from a female perspective. A visit to the forbidden world of the girl’s locker room while working as a janitor supplied the germ for the opening scene. Another influence was an article from Life magazine about the relationship between telekinetic activity and adolescent girls. He thought he had the basis for a story that would yield a quick paycheck from one of the men’s magazines, maybe even Playboy, which paid much better.
He didn’t start writing it immediately, but the idea percolated until he was ready to take a stab at it one evening. However, after the first five pages, he was in trouble. He didn’t much like his protagonist, he didn’t know enough about the situation to feel confident about what he was writing, and the story looked like it was going to run longer than anything Cavalier would publish. Could he afford to spend weeks or months on something he couldn’t sell? Given his bad track record with novels, he decided to abandon the project.
Tabitha found the discarded pages in the trash and encouraged him to keep going. She told him that it showed promise. She would help him with the things he wasn’t familiar with and provided constant support during the writing process. She was the one, for example, who suggested that Carrie use the band’s gear to launch the cataclysm during the prom. Since he had no better ideas to work on, he decided to see the story through to the end. During at least part of the writing process, the Kings (and their two-year-old daughter and newborn son) were living with Graham Adams, a UMO teacher with whom King had co-taught a course when he was in university.
For inspiration, he recalled his school years, which weren’t that far in the past: he was only 26. To create Carrie White, he drew upon two outcast former classmates, both of whom died before he started writing the novel. One had an ultra-religious mother and the other wore the same clothes most of the time.
He plodded through the story, often feeling depressed about its prospects. He had little faith in the finished manuscript, which ended up in the dreaded novella territory. Still lacking any other ideas to work on, he revised the book, padding it out with fictitious news items, until it was—just barely—a novel. As with Blaze, he didn’t bother sending the book to Doubleday. However, he decided to submit Carrie after Thompson inquired if he was working on anything new. The timing was perfect. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist had renewed enthusiasm for horror novels.
King worked with Thompson on revisions, mostly to do with the book’s final 50 pages, which King later said resembled a best-forgotten horror movie called The Brain from Planet Arous. Thompson recalls, “In the first draft, when the prom explodes, Carrie turns into a giant figure. Literally. She develops horns. Lightning comes from her finger tips and she blasts an airplane out of the sky. I felt strongly that he needed to get rid of that ending and turn it into something just as lethal but not a comic book. This is a girl who has had a cruel and humiliating trick played on her. She’s had bottled up rage inside of her since she was probably 6 years old, and now she’s going to explode. But it’s not going to be by horns and lightning from her finger tips. She’s going to do things like knocking over the electric current onto a pile of rags. She’s going to raise hell and she’s going to not care about what happens. She’s not really out to kill anyone. She’s just releasing this pent-up animosity, frustration, shame, and all those other feelings that have been thrusted upon her by the people she’s encountered.”
King also changed the setting from a suburb outside Boston to Maine because he thought the people “up here” would like it.
Thompson felt that he was in tune with King’s concept of the book and that together they understood what Carrie was supposed to do “for and to the reader.” After receiving an encouraging letter from Thompson, King borrowed $75 from his wife’s grandmother so he could take the overnight bus to Manhattan, where he met his editor for the first time.
A month later, when Doubleday decided to purchase the novel, Thompson had to let him know via telegram, because the Kings had removed their telephone to save money. The missive said: “Carrie officially a Doubleday book. $2500 against royalties. Call for glorious details. Congratulations. The future lies ahead.” The advance was supposed to be $1500, but Thompson bumped the amount and snuck it past the accountants and contract writers. It was enough to buy a Ford Pinto (which would feature in a later novel) to replace their car, which had blown its transmission.
The first printing of Carrie was somewhere between 5000 and 30,000 copies (sources vary on this figure—King says it sold 13,000 copies in hardcover and earned out its advance). The advance wasn’t enough for King to give up his teaching job, nor was his share of the sale of the movie rights. He hoped that the paperback rights, if they sold, would garner as much as $60,000, enough to keep the household running for three or four years if they were frugal. On Mother’s Day, he received a call from Thompson (they had moved to an apartment in town and had a telephone again) telling him that his share of the paperback rights from Signet would be $200,000, nearly $2 million in today’s dollars. King had to ask his editor to repeat the figure several times to make sure he understood.
To celebrate, he went out to get his wife an “extravagant” Mother’s Day present, but most of the stores in Bangor were closed that Sunday. He bought her a $29 hair dryer at the drugstore and worried all the way home that he would be killed by a car while crossing the street.
In a conversation with John Grisham, King revealed that Doubleday had another book coming out that year that they put all their ad money behind, Jaws, so Carrie didn’t get much support. It didn’t look like it was going to sell. Then movie producer Paul Monash purchased the film rights for $7-8000 and hired Brian De Palma to direct the film, which was a huge success, turning the paperback into a bestseller.
The rest, as they say, is history.
 Although a couple of these remain unpublished, most of these early works subsequently appeared under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, including Blaze, which wouldn’t be published for nearly 35 years.
Next, you can read Ray Garton’s personal essay about 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.
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Fascinating information. It just proves the old adage “never give up ” if you believe in yourself, good thing CAN happen and often WILL happen. Thank God it all worked out. I couldn’t imagine a world without his books. So many hours of pure enjoyment.
Thanks Richard! I am looking forward to following this one.
(have your site already linked on my homepage)
Long time King fan and proud owner of a number (10+ includung Dark Man Art Portfolio) of CD Pub books and items.
I completely understand this journey that you’re undertaking. I own all of Stephen King’s books and I regularly re-read them in the order of publication. I started again just after I finished Mr. Mercedes. I did go a bit out of order by reading the uncut version of The Stand instead of the original version 🙂 I’m reading IT right now. I’m very much looking forward to reading your comments and may be inspired to add a few of my own.
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I have been a King fan for years now, and enjoy reading and collecting all of his wonderful works. I am also glad he didn’t give up on his writing.
Bev. great article! You’re adding to the pure enjoyment of this site. If the five pages of Carrie had never been read by Tabitha, I still think Steve would’ve continued to write. It’s in his blood and what keeps him sane. Tabitha just speeded up his success with encouraging him to finish Carrie. I wonder if Steve can still can remember what the pressure was like in those days with bills to pay and not enough money, having to type his stories in the cramped corners of his laundry room inside the trailer, having a wife and two little children and not knowing what was in the future for all of the? His success couldn’t have happened to a nicer man.
How appropriate is it to write my fan letter for Stephen King on Halloween? 🙂 So glad Tabitha got him to finish Carrie and start a career that pleases so many constant readers!
I decided to read “Carrie” after seeing an article that it was going to be made into a movie. Borrowing the book from a public library, there was never any danger of not finishing it before the two week limit. The movie “Carrie” did for Sissy Spacek what the book “Carrie” did for Stephen King, it took a relative unknown and showed the world how much talent each had.
Hard to believe that THE best storyteller of modern time was that close to abandoning his breakthrough work. I shudder to think how different my world would be without his literary and entertainment influence.
Happens all the time. We only know “the rest of the story.”
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I have heard versions of this story before and each time I just wish it was me…though I have to write something worthy of that payday. But I just want to write and this story inspires me to keep going and show my work to my long-time girlfriend. Can’t wait to be on this journey with everybody.
I first read Carrie in paperback around 1975. I was moved and saddened by the story, decided I wanted a more durable copy, so, I went to a department store book section (yeah, they actually had bookstores everywhere, back then), and had them order a hardback copy of Carrie and Salem’s Lot, which came in less than a week. I paid $5.95 for it, promptly reread it, then, stuck it on my desk with some other favorites, between two horsehead bookends. I had heard that Mr. King received $400,000 for the paperback rights, and never had to teach again.
On May 3rd, 1980, I traveled from Memphis to Nashville to attend a Fantasy/Horror convention, Mr. King as the guest of honor (Forrest J. Akerman and Boris were the fan goh and artist goh). Mr. King gave a very funny talk, took many questions, and afterwards, signed books in the lobby of the hotel. I stayed in my seat to hear Boris talk (I loved his and Frazetta’s artwork), figuring I’d be able to get my 6 books, and 4 of my friends’ books autographed later, but, that turned out to be a potential mistake. So, I’m running around, trying to find him, and found him in the hospitality suite, where he was waiting on a couple of hotdogs! I walked up to him, and literally had to look up, he was so tall, lost my voice, finally found it, and squeaked, “Mr. King…you are my favorite writer of all time, and I drove all the way from Memphis, hoping you’d autograph my books, and some of my friends’ books, who couldn’t make the trip. I was literally shaking…I mean, I’m standing in front of STEPHEN KING, with an armful of books! He just smiled, and said it would be his pleasure, sat down on a chair, and proceeded to sign all my books. When he got to Carrie, he asked me what I thought about it!! I told him that, sometimes, if I wanted to read something, but, not being the fastest reader, I’d pick up Carrie, because I could read it in one sitting. I told him I thought it was so sad, and almost made me cry the first time I read it. Later, when I looked at the signed books, I saw that, not only had he signed them, he’d also personalized them, added a comment, and dated them, even for my friends’ books! When I opened my copy of Carrie, he had put, “For Paul – Thanks for the kind words – Stephen King – 5/3/80.”
In 1985, I came across an article “On Collecting King,” and was surprised to find out that only 6 to 8 thousand first edition copies were pressed, and that a first edition was worth around 1200 to 1500 dollars. I picked up my copy, turned to the frontispage, and there, at the bottom, were the words, “First Edition.” I immediately wrapped the dustjacket in a mylar sleeve, and put it in a drawer, never to be read again (not to worry, I still had my paperback copy!). It’s now been almost 30 years since I read that article, and have NO idea what my signed copy of Carrie is worth, yet, even after all these years, and having acquired many signed and numbered books by
Mr. King, that little trade hardback will always remain one of my most treasured possessions.
Great comment, Paul. Brings back a lot of memories for me as well. Even in 1980, Steve had long lines of readers wanting his autograph on their books. Now, there’s probably two or three thousand people taking the challenge whenever he does a booksigning.
Love all these comments! Please keep them coming.
And a big thank you to Bev for the wonderful article!
So, Richard… are you reading BOTH copies of The Stand or just the uncut?
Mr. King is my favorite author and I have every one of his books in both a hardback and a paperback copy. I was in high school when Carrie was published, read it and I was a fan! I am breathlessly awaiting the release of REVIVAL!
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Carrie was my first too. I was 13 and it was the first time I read something I knew my Mother would have said no to If she knew what it was.Can’t wait to reread tonight!
The part I remember most about Carrie is the ending. It has stayed with me even after all these years. The best time to read it is late at night.
I’m afraid I didn’t read Carrie until after Cujo was published. It was Salem’s Lot that got me started on King. I knew about Carrie and that it was Steve’s first novel, but I simply had no interest or desire in reading it. Even to this day, I have no great urge to go back and re-read the book. I worked in a used bookstore then and we must’ve gotten in over 200 copies of Carrie traded in, which was a lot for a single title. We sold a few used copies, but everybody seemed to be buying it new at the local newstand or in the grocery store. I was more curious about it than the owner of the store was. Now, when the paperback edition of Salem’s Lot came, everything under the sun changed, and I became a Constant Reader. When was that? I think it was 1977. I read the book in one night, and then purchased The Shining the next morning at the newstand and had them try to get me a copy of Salem’s Lot in hardcover. Stephen King will never know how many lives his novels changed for the better over the last thirty-seven to thirty-nine years. No other author, or storyteller, has had that kind of effect on the planet’s mass consciousness.
I forgot how GOOD this book is. I started with a paperback copy of Salem’s Lot back in 1976 and immediately went to the library for more of this Stephen King guy. I remember how bummed I was when I found out he only had one other book there. I just finished re-reading Carrie and I think I enjoyed it more this time than I did the first time I read it. I’d forgotten so much about the details and subtleties of the original story, it was almost like reading it for the first time again. Thanks Chizmar, this was a GREAT idea for revisiting a bunch of old friends, but a BAD idea for getting my basement finished. I look forward to reading each of these books with everyone with as much anticipation as I did (do) waiting for the next Stephen King novel to be published.
I remember the first Stephen King book I read vividly. it was Salem’s Lot. I was on a two vacation as a shoe salesman living in Lyn Mass. (Lyn, Lyn, the city of sin. you don’t come out the way you went in). This was time to spend with my young wife and two small children. Well, once I started that book I could not stop! I literally, could not put it down and my wife kept asking me when are we going to do something?
Well that was the beginning for me. I could not afford paperbacks back then and found out how to appreciate a library. Never stopped reading his books and a nice collection, including all the Gunslinger books, signed and numbered.
Thank you Mr. King for so many hours of fun
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Would love to read what Stephen King wrote at 4 years old.
You can read about his early writings in On Writing.
I would also love to read some of his earlier writings.
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Such a good and interesting read that was, full of insights on the great man SK is. He built himself up with dedication to the art of writing, and he is a model to follow for any aspiring author. After reading this and revisiting CARRIE after so many years, it certainly shows that he had been writing and publishing stories for a long time; his craft was already well refined and anchored.
I, too, didn’t start with CARRIE. My first was THE SHINING and, scared as hell, and loving it, I went on going backwards and forwards, since this was already 1986 … and when I read IT, well… But I’ll hold on to the many things I have to say, since we’re starting this great journey.
Very glad to hear that you enjoyed it.
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