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20 March 2024

Stephen King’s Carrie and the horror of girlhood

The triumph of the writer’s debut novel, published 50 years ago, is its understanding of a teenage girl’s destructive anger.

By Megan Nolan

I first watched the film adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie, fittingly enough, at a sleepover with a bunch of adolescent girls I was half in love with and half terrified by. We were 12 or so. I didn’t know them well, and was still unsure about what sort of person I was trying to be (a mystery which would not be clarified for another decade and a half).

They were popular and rich, daughters of doctors and businessmen, with shimmering cascades of blonde hair. Two owned horses, that far-fetched dream of early girlhood. I was unlike them in most ways, or so it felt: lumpen and clumsy and anxious enough socially that the question of whether to cross my arms or put them in my pockets could consume whole days.

What we had in common, though, was a simultaneous lust and horror for the threshold of womanhood we all were approaching. I was yet to get my first period, a fact I revealed during a solemn truth-or-dare session. Those who had already done so described their ordeals, and it always stuck with me that one of them refused to use tampons because it would be too like having sex, which she feared ruining for herself. When we watched Carrie, we giggled nervously at the famous opening sequence where Carrie is stricken by the arrival of her first period while showering after a volleyball game, and aggressively tormented by her repelled classmates, led by popular girl Chris, who hoot and jeer at her dismay and her allowance of such abject womanly effluence. As we watched, I felt a troubled question form in myself about other girls, and women, about how far our often casual cruelty to one another might go.

Stephen King published Carrie in April 1974 at the age of 26. It began as a short story after King read an article suggesting that instances of telekinesis had been observed in girls in early adolescence around the time of menstruation. He refers in his memoir On Writing to a friend who suggested he try to write a female character, and he began to imagine a composite of two girls he had been to high school with: one shy, bullied and dressed in the same clothes every day, the other growing up in a house of oppressive religious piety. Carrie was released to initially modest acclaim and decent sales, but the paperback became a mega-hit following Brian De Palma’s dreamlike 1976 film.

The novel tells the story of a debilitatingly shy, undeveloped teenage girl who is subject both to her mother’s morbid, deranged religiosity and to the constant torment of her peers. Flashes of a telekinetic power begin to surface with increasing frequency in Carrie after her first period, flaring when she is angry or insulted, as she often is. Meanwhile, her repentant, sensitive classmate Sue regrets having participated in the taunting and convinces her popular boyfriend to take Carrie to their prom, where she will, at first, have the only taste of happy girlhood of her life. She is swiftly publicly humiliated when Chris has a bucket of pig’s blood poured over her on stage. This final outrage so devastates Carrie that she orchestrates a scene of mass carnage using her powers, killing more or less everyone in school, as well as her mother, before dying of her own wounds. As she dies, she cries out for her dead mother’s comfort.

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Carrie is told through a compelling narrative patchwork of “found” items such as third-party newspaper reports and accounts, third-person description and close thirds from varying perspectives. When I reread the novel a few months ago for the first time in a decade, this formal experimentation was what I noticed first: structural flourishes are somewhat atypical of King’s later major works such as The Shining, Pet Sematary and It, which, although they involve multiple perspectives, are more straightforwardly told. But really what struck me was how King is one of the century’s great genre-benders.

The writer Kathryn Scanlan recently described her own hybrid style as engaging with “genre-mischief”, which instantly made me think of King and the effortless way he has moved between worlds. While the word “experimental” is more likely to bring to mind esoteric literature than blockbuster fiction, I think this is one way of many that King is undervalued critically. Though he is justifiably known as a genius of horror, many of even his more conventional horrors also involve science fiction, kitchen-sink realism about working-class life in America, and detective plots. A little like the Beatles (whose reputational supremacy is surely in part based on genre-bending not only within their oeuvre but also within the same record or even song), it isn’t only that King is capable of writing remarkably in multiple genres, but that he is capable of writing multiple genres in a single work without it feeling garbled or clumsy.

Carrie is a frightening book – less frightening, for my money, than what would follow in Cujo, The Shining and Pet Sematary, but substantially more frightening than its (still excellent) film adaptation would render it. Its fantastical elements are delivered with the cool conviction a debut novelist rarely approaches, and the more observational aspects about social exclusion, shame and religiosity are just as assured. But more than these two achievements, what I loved about Carrie when I read it as a teenager – and what affects me even more now I am in my thirties – is the dread of womanhood it instils in the reader, a feeling that underpins even its most outlandish turns. Some of that feeling is overtly drawn, such as the terror of encroaching adulthood and bodily change we feel as Carrie is revolted by her own blood. But there is something more insidious at play too, a less explicitly outlined ickiness to do with mother and daughter.

No woman who shared a house with her mother during adolescence will forget their occasional (or not so occasional) surges of absolute intolerance towards the situation. It felt impossible to sustain, at times, that both our bodies should be under the same roof. There is something science-fiction adjacent about mothering: the alien form, the parasite, the amalgamation of two beings into one, the porousness of one being and another. This discomfort does not exist while you are a child, still so attached, but once separation sets in and the reality of one’s own body begins to become apparent, suddenly the whole thing can feel vile, intrusive, obscene. I remember the feeling of humiliation and resentment when I had to ask my mother about contraceptives, unable to procure them on my own; how unspeakable it felt to acknowledge the potentiality of my own body in that way, how perverse that she had used her body to make my own and that I had to consult her about its actions; and anger, always anger, in those moments.

In hindsight I wonder if some of the anger I felt towards her then emerged precisely because I knew that these bodily changes meant that I was leaving her, which was indivisible from the sensation of her leaving me, and so I raged. (I had once become furious as a small child when she mentioned in passing that she would have liked to have joined her friends on a long trip they were taking to Australia, that she could even imagine such a thing as leaving me, even if she never really would.)

This is the great triumph of Carrie, that King somehow knew about all the loathsome ways the anger of a teenage girl can warp and protrude. Though I now regard my past self as an almost continuously angry person, I would never have thought to describe myself that way at the time. Like many girls, I saw anger as something abstracted, for other people, not something I could claim for myself. Instead I forced it back down until it re-emerged in some new, worse form: the punitive eating disorders, the subtle manipulation of coercible boyfriends, the quick razor slash on the thigh between maths and English. All worse and more tiresome things to experience and enact than simply being angry, but I didn’t have the language for that and still often don’t.

King has written that Pet Sematary was a reaction to a true incident from his life; in the novel, the protagonist’s infant son is killed by a passing truck in one of the most agonising depictions of parental grief I have ever read. In reality, King’s own son had been within inches of such an accident. Some of the fiction I love best is an exercise in allowing the worst-case scenario to play out, a chance to aerate and process those things so unspeakable we can’t admit their possibility even in the privacy of our own minds.

Carrie’s theatrical end works in the same way. It’s part of why it retains its majestic sense of unsettling doom. There is some part of me which fears that allowing my own anger to spill out would unleash something irreversible, something that would end the world as I know it. I feel this – or rather don’t feel it, so practised am I at suppression that I only notice it in the rear-view mirror – in moments tiny and momentous, when a stranger I assist doesn’t thank me, or when being dumped by someone I deeply love, or being manhandled by someone in a bar.

Anger is present in these moments – not perceptibly, but thrumming below the surface, only emerging once I am alone and can let rip. To reveal it in the present moment would be too dangerous, too risky, too testing of the love and acceptance of others. That Stephen King managed to capture these ugly, calcified feelings of womanhood in a debut novel that was the result of a prompt challenging him to write his first woman is little short of miraculous – and just another indicator that he is one of the great writers of our time.

[See also: Blake Butler’s Molly and the moral duty of biography]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024