Revisiting Carrie by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
So, I sit down a couple weeks ago and write my introduction to Stephen King Revisited and I go on and on about how King’s books carry so many personal memories for me — where I was when I first read them, who I was, what I was thinking — and now it comes time to discuss the very first King book, CARRIE, and I realize…ummmm, my memory of this one isn’t quite so clear, folks.
Great way to start this journey, huh?
But it actually makes sense when I think about it.
CARRIE was originally published in April 1974. I was eight years old at the time and busy fishing and collecting baseball cards and playing whiffle ball in the side yard with my friends. My only exposure to horror at that early age were comic books and the Saturday afternoon Creature Double Features on television.
But all that would change once I entered high school and my sophomore English teacher (thanks Mr. Gallagher!) passed out photocopies of a scary story for us to read one morning in class. It was a nasty little story called “The Monkey” by an author I had never heard of, and at first I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to read the word “fart” out loud in class (that’s pretty much a rule, by the way: all fifteen year olds love to talk about farts); but reading that story quickly turned into something far more significant for me.
By the time we’d finished reading and discussing the story, my path was clear. It was as if a secret door had been opened and I had caught a glimpse of my future in the landscape beyond. I wanted to do to others what this Stephen King guy had just done to me: he’d somehow managed to make the real world around me disappear and replaced it with a fairy tale. A dark fairy tale, to be sure, but that’s what the whole experience felt like to me: magic.
And I immediately knew that’s what I wanted in my own life.
Did I have any clue, at age fifteen, that I would eventually accomplish this as a writer, editor, publisher, and screenwriter?
Heck, no. I just somehow knew that’s where my path would eventually lead, and — with the shining stars of Steve’s wonderful books to light my way — I saw the path and followed it.
Okay, back to CARRIE…
It’s 1983 now. Senior year at Edgewood High School in northern Maryland. I’m mainly focused on lacrosse and girls, not necessarily in that order. I’ve read a couple Stephen King books by this time, but CARRIE isn’t one of them. I have seen the movie, however; the first and only time I have ever seen a King movie before reading the book. I’d liked it quite a bit. I wasn’t a big Sissy Spacek fan — what teenaged boy was? — but she was good in the film, and I remember everyone was talking about the shock ending where the hand pops up out of the grave. The movie was a bonafide hit, and the book was a runaway bestseller.
But, for some reason, I still hadn’t read it.
Until one Saturday afternoon, when I was walking the cramped aisles of Carol’s Used Bookstore, and there it was: a tattered copy of the movie tie-in paperback edition of CARRIE. Home it went with me. I didn’t sleep much that night. Or the next night. The following Monday morning, I walked the hallways of school in an exhausted daze, feeling like a zombie — and looking at my classmates in a whole different light.
Once again, the work of Stephen King had opened a door for me.
Not necessarily a good door this time around, but it was too late to turn back now.
More on that in a moment. First, some background…
I was raised in a church-going Catholic household. Like most of my neighborhood friends, I was forced to attend Sunday School, or CCD as it would later be called, until I graduated from high school (guilty admission: once I was old enough to drive, I often played hooky from Sunday morning CCD and snuck to the local McDonald’s with my friend Bobby Crawford to eat breakfast). But that was the extent of my religious upbringing. There were no extreme views preached in my house. No overbearing pressure to conform to certain beliefs or practices. No fire and brimstone (unlike my friend Ray Garton; see his chilling essay, also appearing on this website).
My parents simply exposed me to their church and encouraged me to listen and learn, while also giving me the freedom to explore these beliefs at my own pace once I became an adult.
Obviously, I was a lucky kid — and my upbringing was very different than that of the character of Carrie White.
All of which (hopefully) brings me back to my original point:
As I was curled up in my bedroom, reading CARRIE for the first time that long ago weekend, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the religious horrors of the novel that were frightening me nearly as much as the numerous scenes of every day teenage angst and social interaction (in this case, the bullying and tormenting and slow-motion destruction of a very sad girl named Carrie White).
You see, while I felt little personal connection to Carrie White, the daughter that existed with her crazy mother within the confines of their house on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain, I did feel a very close connection to Carrie White, the student who walked the halls of Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School.
In fact, I knew many other kids just like her.
They shuffled the halls of my own high school. Usually with their heads down. Not making eye contact. Doing their best to remain invisible.
One such boy dressed at the locker right next to me every morning for gym class. He always smelled horrible, a sour combination of body odor and either cow or pig shit that I assumed came from the dark crud that was caked on the bottom of his rotting cowboy boots. This observation, and the fact that he had a scattering of shotgun pellets embedded in his chest and the greasiest hair any of us had ever seen, somehow combined to make us all believe that he was the son of a crazy farmer, although none of us could think of a single nearby farm.
And then there was the poor girl who always wore out-of-fashion skirts and pants and sweatshirts that were too big for her and whose limp, colorless hair fell straight down onto her pale face and thick glasses, and whose father had been forced to scatter cinderblocks throughout their corner yard to try to prevent the older kids from tearing up their lawn with their cars. It worked for about a month and then the kids just started zig-zagging their way around the blocks.
These were the scenes and images from CARRIE that I could most closely relate to — and these were the scenes and images that most terrified me as a seventeen year old about to graduate and enter the real world.
After all, I knew these kids well, right? The outcasts. The jocks. The burnouts. The nice girls. The smart kids. Hell, I was one of them.
I dressed next to these kids. Sat across from them in class. Walked the hallways with them. Saw them every day at lunch and gym.
But it also felt like I didn’t really know them or see them…until I read CARRIE.
Like so many of Steve’s other books, CARRIE not only made me look at those around me in a different light, it also made me look in the mirror at myself. Trust me, these were complex feelings for a teenager growing up in a blue collar neighborhood like Edgewood.
I remember thinking: it’s okay, I’m a whole lot more like Tommy Ross and Sue Snell than I am Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan. I talk to the smelly guy with the locker next to mine. I’m nice to the girl whose father put up the cinderblocks. I stick up for kids when one of the dumb jocks tells them they can’t sit at the same lunch table.
But then I would remember the weekend I egged a classmate’s house with my friends or the time I laughed when someone tripped in the hallway and their books went flying, and I couldn’t help but wonder — and want to do better.
I wondered about all of us after reading CARRIE. I wondered a lot.
In the simplest of terms, CARRIE, the novel and Carrie White, the character, opened my eyes and broke my heart. Into about a million pieces.
I turned the last page, and it was all I could think about: how poor Carrie White had been treated and made to feel — and how utterly hopeless and joyless her entire life had been.
And then that’s where it got a little confusing.
Because, yes, ultimately she had consciously made the choice to cross the line from bullied and abused to becoming the ultimate bully herself. But, knowing what we know, what other choice did she have? How could any of us blame her? What would any of us have done if we were in her shoes?
It was a sobering thought back then.
THIS IS NOW…
And is even moreso now.
Bullying and school violence are no longer whispered about behind closed doors. We all know the headlines. The names of the schools. The faces of the victims. And the faces of the killers. They are etched in our collective memories.
The world has been introduced to far too many Carrie Whites over the past decade or so, and more and more of them are being “made” even as I write this. Made in schools just like Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School where Carrie attended classes, and my own Edgewood High School, and schools very much like the one your own children attend.
But it’s interesting.
I am much older now with two young boys of my own, and while the Carrie Whites of the world (and the Chris Hargensens and Billy Nolans, for that matter) still strike fear in my heart, it’s the religious aspects of CARRIE and the tragic relationship Carrie has with her own mother that now frighten and disturb me most deeply.
Last week, after rereading only the first 50 pages or so, I emailed Steve and told him: “Margaret White scares the hell out of me. She is one of your finest villains.”
I may have written this in slightly more colorful language, because frankly I was astonished at how much dread and disgust I felt each time Margaret White appeared on the page. And I was equally astonished that I recalled none of these feelings from the first time I read CARRIE as a teenager.
I wanted to believe this was because I was older and wiser now. Or maybe because Momma White represented so much of what is wrong with the world today. Religious fanaticism and lunacy (Isis, anyone?). Shitty parenting (pretty much anywhere you look these days).
But I think it’s simpler than that. Margaret White haunts me. Her voice, her words, her face, the paintings in her dark, little house, the crucifixes hanging on her walls, and that horrible closet of hers…sometimes now that closet comes to me in my dreams.
And I have Steve to blame for that. Again. Even after all these years.
Margaret White, for me, is the biggest bully of them all in CARRIE. And while I come away from revisiting the novel feeling deep sorrow for Carrie White, I close the book with no pity whatsoever for her mother.
I believe that our monsters are made, not born.
* * *
It’s pretty easy to see why Stephen King catapulted to stardom and bestsellerdom on the heels of CARRIE. While raw and melodramatic at times — especially some of the dialogue — all of the trademarks of vintage Stephen King are present in his first published novel: an amazing sense of place and time; a cast of characters so real you feel like you know them; characters you learn to care about and see and feel and hear so vividly; and an absolutely incredible narrative drive that has you turning the pages as fast as you can to find out what happens next, even as you are dreading it.
* * *
The eyewitness accounts of Carrie White walking through a burning town. Bathed in blood. Eyes wide. Smiling as she disables the fire hydrants. Thinking: it’s time to teach them all a lesson.
I feel a chill just typing these words. I can see her, and like the characters who witnessed her passing that fateful night, I can feel her.
When Carrie first walks into the dance on Tommy’s arm and hears how amazing she looks and how beautiful her dress is. We can feel her happiness and relief, this poor girl who has never known a moment of pure joy; we can feel how proud she is of her dressmaking skills; how proud she is to be standing in front of the entire school with Tommy at her side. She even cracks a joke! It’s probably the one truly hopeful moment of this poor girl’s life…and it’s about to be over.
After the buckets of blood have dropped onto Carrie and Tommy, and Carrie has stumbled out of the gymnasium and chaos is breaking out, a student named Stella looks over at Norma Watson (as recounted in Norma’s Reader’s Digest article) and says, “Carrie’s back” — and then all the lobby doors slam shut.
For me, that says it all: “Carrie’s back.”
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
When a young Carrie stumbles upon her next door neighbor sunbathing in a bikini in her back yard and Margaret comes outside and finds them talking:
“For a minute she just goggled as if she couldn’t believe it. Then she opened her mouth and whooped. That’s the ugliest sound I have ever heard in my life.
“She was shaking all over. I thought she was having a stroke. Her face was all scrunched up, and it was a gargoyle’s face.
“…and then Margaret White looked upward and I swear sweet Jesus that woman bayed at the sky. And then she started to…to hurt herself, scourge herself. She was clawing at her neck and cheeks, making red marks, and scratches. She tore her dress.
“The woman was grinning. Grinning and drooling right down her chin…”
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Miss Desjardin, the good intentioned, yet flawed gym teacher. I don’t think her story is over.
START DATE – October 31, 2014
FINISH DATE – November 5, 2014
You can read Richard’s follow-up post about George Chizmar or you can read Bev Vincent’s post about the history of Carrie or Ray Garton’s essay about his personal experience with the book. 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.