Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Maine and Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

"Carrie White is no ordinary girl"

The blurb on the back cover refers of course to Carrie's latent telekinetic abilities but it's clear to all that Carrie does not fit in even before her powers become apparent. The basic plot of Carrie stems from perceived notions of normalcy and social acceptance in King's home state of Maine (the character of Carrie is partly a composite of two girls King knew from his childhood), one of the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant states in the USA and politically a middle of the road swing state (though in the last five Presidential elections it has voted Democrat it was held by the Republicans throughout the 1970s). In contrast Carrie White's mother is a hard-line fundamentalist Christian who warns one of the teachers at Carrie’s school that the Lord is "reserving a special burning seat in Hell for her" for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution to the children, and tries to dissuade Carrie from attending Christian Church Camp for what she sees as the "Sin and Backsliding" of the Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists in attendance. It’s a great example of where the setting plays such an important role: you could not have set Carrie in Mississippi or Alabama where Margaret White's Christian fundamentalist views would not have stood out so dramatically. It’s also what makes most of King’s stories so effective – the distance between his imagination and the reality of life in Maine could not be greater. The New England region has overall the lowest violent crime and homicide rate in the United States, and Maine has the lowest crime rate in the New England region. It's probably no coincidence that the three most influential American horror writers of the last two hundred years – Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King – were/are all native to New England and have set many of their stories there. The best way to induce terror is to lull your reader into a false sense of security, and there are few places you can feel safer than in the docile suburbia of Maine, New England.

Carrie was of course adapted into a 1976 feature film by director Brian De Palma starring Sissy Spacek and remains to this day one of the most successful and beloved adaptations of a King novel (as well as the first). It’s also a relatively faithful adaptation – the only major difference being the manner in which it ends – so I don’t see any real need to relate the plot here. If you’ve not seen it go rent it immediately! The book itself is not as impressive as the film but has a raw economical pace that you only usually find in the first novel of a struggling writer, with the plot stripped down to its bare bones. It’s hard to imagine King could deliver a book like this today given the level of success he has achieved since, but I found it a pleasantly satisfactory read with some effective if primitive use of colour imagery (Carrie's surname is "White", the Devil is described as "black", Carrie's prom dress is red and images of blood bookend the story), and a number of highly kinetic sequences that still read well.

Coming next: New Hampshire.

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