Catching Up With King: “Carrie”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I made sure to cover up my dirty pillows before cracking open King’s stunning, heartbreaking debut novel – Carrie.

“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?”
― Stephen King, Carrie

I’ve always taken pride in buying tampons for my wife. It’s incontrovertible proof that not only does this woman live with me, but that she actually likes me for real. If she’s comfortable with my involvement in one of her most intimate routines, I must be doing something right.

Society tells me I’m not supposed to feel this way. A woman’s menstrual cycle is supposedly TMI. God forbid she brings it up at dinner. Why are men so afraid of women that we’ve done all we can to stigmatize such a natural biological truth? Is it jealousy of the ability to create life? A frantic attempt to hold onto the overwhelming privilege we’ve enjoyed for millennia? Whatever the reason, it’s an established fact: Men fear the flow.

In 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade, Stephen King leveraged these patriarchal fears to create a horror classic. Carrie is the story of a long-suffering high school girl who gets her period, learns that she’s powerful, and takes horrible revenge. Dudes who were scared shitless of Gloria Steinem were definitely going to have to change their underwear after reading this.

We meet Carrie White on one of the worst days of her life. She gets her period for the first time, in the high school locker room, in front of her merciless bullies. Not only that, but thanks to her deranged, fire-and-brimstone-spewing “momma,” Carrie had never heard of menstruation. So while her classmates behave like wolves at a slaughter, yelling “plug it up” and pelting her with tampons, Carrie is also afraid she might be dying. Her gym teacher, Miss Desjardin, isn’t much help. “She certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard,” King writes. “A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.” Later, Carrie’s mother blames her, beats her and forces her into a closet, to atone for her feminine “weakness.”

But there’s a moment in this day, occasioned by those spontaneous gym class horrors, that allows Carrie something she rarely gets. A moment of calm. The principal sends her home early, hours before her mother’s laundry shift is over. “Alone,” she marvels. It’s the only moment in this story that she gets completely to herself, where the imaginary laws of high school (fat girls are bad) and Christianity (all girls are bad) aren’t bearing down on her. And as it turns out, it’s one of the last days that Carrie, and her hometown of Chamberlain, Maine, will know peace.

As King’s first published novel, Carrie gives us a look at how the author approached his craft pre-fame. He’s never been more laser-focused on plot. Perhaps he hadn’t developed enough confidence in his ability to flesh out a world, or maybe he thought straying from the action would hurt his manuscript’s chances. Because these 290 pages are absolutely filler-free. Characters get minimal backstories. We learn nothing at all about the town. It’s just the walls closing steadily, relentlessly in on Carrie White. There’s nothing we can do about it, except mourn her inevitable fate, and marvel at her power.

“What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic,” King writes, matter-of-factly, on page 4. It’s important that we’re armed with this knowledge that Carrie can move things with her mind. From the beginning, we know that everybody is underestimating her – they’re literally playing with fire. It’s a source of hope that she could rise above these bullies at school and home. And it’s a metaphor for the power inside every marginalized person, whose outrage is the potential fuel for change.

When guilt-ridden classmate Sue Snell decides to atone for Plug-It-Up-Gate by having her archetypal boyfriend Tommy Ross ask Carrie to the prom, Carrie ignores her instincts and says yes. The walls continue to close.

Meanwhile, Chris Hargensen, alpha bully and spoiled attorney’s daughter, and her legit psycho boyfriend Billy Nolan, have a heartless and disgusting plan to break Carrie White once and for all – a stage adaptation of her locker room shame that involves buckets of pig’s blood. King accentuates the true criminal depravity going on here, how it’s much, much worse than anything that could be labeled a “prank,” by taking us along on the trip where Billy and a few buddies break into a farm in the dark of night and slit the throats of two pigs. The inevitability of the story structure makes it clear that this plan will work.

Nothing I’ve read from King so far has been as heartbreaking as Carrie’s prom night. She waits nervously for Tommy to pick her up, immune to her mother’s rants about dirty pillows and roadhouses. Tommy doesn’t just show, he treats her with genuine respect, telling her she’s beautiful and meaning it.

As the night goes on, hope awakens. She has a legitimate rapport with her date; she gets compliments on the dress she made herself; she cracks a few jokes that land. “She felt something very old and rusty loosen inside her,” King describes. “A warmth came with it. Relief. Ease.”

Of course, that feeling was going to be short-lived. Not only does the pig’s blood plot go off without a hitch, dousing the newly crowned Carrie and killing Tommy with a bucket to the skull, but the crowd laughs at the gory display. She runs, and somebody trips her. She keeps running until she reaches a field, losing her shoes along the way like Bram Stoker’s Cinderella. And in this moment, with her only options to return to the cackling devils at school or go home to a mother who is waiting patiently with a butcher knife, she wishes for death.

And then remembers her power.

King describes the destruction of Chamberlain with the same efficiency as the rest of his debut novel, and the effect is chilling. Mocked and denigrated for her life-giving body, Carrie uses it to create death instead, raining fire on her abusers like the Book of Revelations made flesh. Bodies do stunted, electrified dances. Charred corpses smell like pork.

If only this town had empathized with somebody who had it hard at home. If only they hadn’t been so cruel about something so natural. Maybe then they wouldn’t have blood coming out of their wherever.

Up next, we tackle a book I’d never heard of before buying it used for $2.99 – 1998’s small-town soap opera Bag of Bones.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Carrie

3. The Shining

4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

5. 11/22/63

6. The Gunslinger

Catching Up With King: “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I read my first collection of King short stories – 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

“‘It was like Jeopardy,‘ he said. ‘In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is ‘The Inexplicable.’ The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”
-Stephen King, “The Moving Finger”

Nightmares&Dreamscapes

I work in a building with a small bathroom to employee ratio. After a year or so of stilted urinal conversations and close-quarters crapping, I discovered a hallway I hadn’t been down before. It led to the perfect men’s room – one stall only, off the beaten path, subtly effective air freshener. When the stall is free, life is good. But when it’s occupied, and I see the shoes of the guy who beat me to the punch, it feels like defeat.

Few writers could spin something memorable out of this mundane bit of oversharing. But with “Sneakers,” Stephen King essentially does just that. It’s one of my favorite short stories in his mammoth 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which an up-and-coming record producer keeps seeing the same pair of sneakers, in the same stall, on every bathroom break. The more it happens, the creepier things get – and that’s before the flies show up.

Before I continue expressing my newfound love for bite-sized King, this disclaimer: I have yet to tackle any of the author’s longest books (including The Stand and It, both more than 1,100 pages), so I can’t give the most informed opinion on the King short story vs. King novel argument. But I think I can definitively say this – his short stories are more fun.

The first four entries in Nightmares & Dreamscapes make for an exhilarating ride. I flew through them in one fevered sitting, marveling at the intensity and versatility on display. Over the course of just 135 pages, we get a gripping, “Tell-Tale Heart”-indebted mob revenge story; a harrowing cautionary tale to scientists who think they can solve the world’s problems; a creepy-kid horror piece best avoided by rookie teachers; and a brilliantly pulpy vampire story that involves a tabloid writer, small-town airports, and buckets of you-know-what. It’s a perfectly paced assault of sledgehammer-blunt ideas, hurtling relentlessly to their endings. King relishes the chance to spin these yarns. You can see the glint in his eye as he dangles us over the precipice, hinting at what’s to come and ensuring you will most definitely not stop reading until you know as much as he does. Take this passage from the third story, “Suffer the Little Children”:

“Miss Sidley frowned after them, reflecting that children had been different in her day. Not more polite – children have never had time for that – and not exactly more respectful of their elders; it was a kind of hypocrisy that had never been there before. A smiling quietness around adults that had never been there before. A kind of quiet contempt that was upsetting and unnerving. As if they were …”

This moment is one of several that made me think if King had been born a few decades earlier, he would’ve fit right in with Serling, Matheson and Beaumont in the Twilight Zone writer’s room. But that would be discounting the majority of his work, which attempts to give its characters and themes as much physical and historical context as possible. The half-hour episode grind would’ve driven him mad. In this book’s charming, conversational introduction, King addresses this issue head on, admitting that “everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” He sounds weary of the subject, of having to respond once again to.critics who regard “generosity with suspicion.” Every time he writes a great short story, he’s proving a point that he disagrees with. Props to him for just doing it anyway.

If Nightmares & Dreamscapes kept its initial momentum going throughout, it would really be something special. And it comes close, thanks to a finger that comes out of a drain, a fiercely loyal pair of chattering teeth, and a group of smokers who uncover a conspiracy that involves hideous bat-people. But it’s just too odds-and-endsy to truly hold together, capsizing at the end under the weight of several writer’s exercises – a Sherlock Holmes story runs into a Raymond Chandler homage, which gives way to an essay about his son’s Little League baseball team (the book’s only true WTF moment).

Still, I had the best time reading it. And I think that’s exactly the kind of review that King would hope for.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. The Shining

3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

4. 11/22/63

5. The Gunslinger

 

What I Learned From “Under The Dome”

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Since beginning my Catching Up With King project after moving to Maine a few years back, I’ve become a fan of his writing style, stubbornly ragged as it is. At his best, he builds stories like monster trucks. They flatten all the inelegant dialogue and on-the-nose metaphors in its path. It can be incredibly fun to be behind that wheel. But it’s this very quality that makes it nearly impossible to adapt King’s work for TV or film. The natural inclination of a director is to trim the fat, streamline plot threads, give the action a proper cadence. So they strip the monster truck for parts. Usually, all they’re left with is the wreckage.

It would be an understatement to say that the CBS series Under the Dome has this problem. This is the story of the town of Chester’s Mill, which becomes sealed off from the world when a mysterious dome falls from the sky. It’s clear and permeable; impenetrable and soundproof; reminiscent of The Simpsons Movie and directly ripped off from The Simpsons MovieYet derivation is the least of Under the Dome‘s problems. I’ve never read the novel, but there’s just no way that it could be as sluggish, painfully unrealistic, and emotionally barren as this TV show. Unless the dome is a metaphor for writer’s block, and the thinning ranks of the townspeople represent weak thoughts fading from a suffocated brain, I cannot explain why it exists.

Showrunner Brian K. Vaughan is no slouch, having written the popular graphic novel series Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man. No matter. He fucked with the truck, and got crushed.

So, after watching a season and a half of Under the Dome, what have I learned?

 

1. Chester’s Mill is on Ritalin.

The dome comes down, and people seem rather chill about it. I mean, they basically don’t even try to get out. Various car wrecks show that you can’t drive a hole in it, but what about bullets? Or fire? Or acid? Or a pointy stick? Nope! They’re cool just hangin’. Take a look at the press photo of Mike Vogel, who plays our main character Dale “Barbie” Barbera:

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So yeah, this is our main character at his most concerned. He looks like a constipated window washer.

 

2. Actually, maybe they’re on heroin too.

When the government is about to drop a massive bomb on the dome, the town hides in the basement of an old building, where the vibe is pretty laid-back – the local DJ plays a Beethoven sonata, and it’s fitting. A few episodes later, the scorched-earth destruction the bomb caused outside the dome just sorta disappears. The power of disinterested thinking?

When main characters are brutally murdered, people wince for a second and move on.

When people learn that Junior Rennie is a violent psychopath who locked his ex-girlfriend in a bomb shelter, they take it like it’s a fairly normal thing to hear about someone. This extends to the writers, who now seem to think that we can accept Junior as some kind of hero, which, NO. If Alexander Koch wasn’t the kind of actor who only can make one face, and that face wasn’t the face of a dazed pony, then the show would not be getting away with this socially irresponsible character arc.

 

3. Snow globes are a metaphor for thinking your audience is brain dead.

 

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4. If you can’t decide who you are, then you’ve decided to be nothing at all.

For the first several episodes, Under the Dome wants to be a problem-of-the-week procedural. And it’s not the worst idea. We find out how the town responds to fire, drought, and an epidemic. People are still behaving like automatons, but at least there’s some structure.

But then Under the Dome decides it wants to be an allegory about men playing God. Dean Norris, who brought such deep, grizzled insecurity to his role as Hank on Breaking Bad, plays “Big Jim” Rennie, a local politician/car salesman whose hobbies are being powerful and making serious faces. The show tries to get us to hate Big Jim, who murders in cold blood to hold onto his meager power, and who starts acting like the town reverend at memorial services. It kind of achieves this goal, despite Norris’s performance being too broad and stare-y to really inspire us to feel much. The real issue is the flip side of this hashed-together allegory: The show needs us to root for the Wonder (Bread) Twins at the story’s center, Barbie (Vogel, who wears t-shirts) and Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, who has a hairstyle). Sure, it succeeds in getting us to hate Big Jim, but we already hated him. We hate every goddamn person for being so boring.

Then, Under the Dome wants to be a MacGuffin-heavy sci-fi mystery, complete with chosen-one narratives, screaming eggs, and amateur psychic paintings. This is where the show officially becomes nothing at all, a void, a blackness in our lives.

 

5. I love the severed cow. I blame the severed cow.

When the dome comes down in the pilot, it cuts a cow in half. The show handles it perfectly, using the bargain-basement CGI that fans of Stephen King miniseries know and love. I watched 187 minutes of It so I could see that stop-motion spider. I sat through all three hours of The Langoliers just so I could see those toothy clam screensavers descend on Balki. Under the Dome gave me my fix before the first commercial break. Like a drug dealer would.

 

 

6. I have spent 16 hours of my life watching this show. I feel you, Dean.

 

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