Stephen King’s first novel Carrie debuted on April 5th, 1974 with little to no fanfare. One might say that, like the novel’s title character, Carrie was always destined to be a late bloomer. Shy to the spotlight, you might find Carrie hanging out at your local library or bookstore, sitting there all but invisible upon the shelf. All the while, of course, Carrie held a great secret. A special power. Quiet and patient, Carrie was waiting to make her mark on the world, to have her revenge on those who had underestimated her, and to make Stephen King a household name.
It would be two years before Brian de Palma would bring the story of Carrie White to the silver screen. Once his frenetically charged film adaptation hit theaters worldwide, it became a blockbuster thanks to droves of teenage moviegoing masses.
Now, no one was underestimating Carrie, or King, for both of whom books began flying off shelves.
Carrie is the ultimate tale of a teenage girl bullied by her peers. She is relentlessly tortured by her classmates during the day, and cruelly chastised by her religious fanatic of a mother by night. What Carrie’s oppressors do not know, however, is that Carrie has a power. It is growing inside of her, and she’s learning how to use it. Carrie can move things with her mind, a psychic ability she soon learns is referred to as telekinesis. She is studying up on the phenomenon, testing her powers. One day, it will become her savior, and her vengeance upon all those who persecuted her.
Most any Constant Reader will tell you Carrie was nearly the novel that was never to be. King’s wife, Tabitha, fished it out of a wastepaper basket, rescuing it from obscurity. After having made several attempts at starting the book, King believed he could not in good conscience write a story from a teenage girl’s perspective, as he himself had never been a teenage girl. Tabitha, however, saw something of importance within its many discarded pages, and urged her husband to continue, confirming that behind every great man there is an even greater woman. It would be easy to make this alone our “lesson learned” from Carrie, but the novel itself holds wisdom much more profound.
In Carrie we learn that behind the fire in every angry woman’s eyes, there exists a lifetime of sorrow, and that behind that sorrow lies great pain. This is most notably evident in one of the book’s most quoted lines:
Sorry is the Kool-Aid of human emotions. It’s what you say when you spill a cup of coffee, or throw a gutter ball when you’re bowling with the girls in the league. True sorrow is as rare as true love.
Mighty fine prose for an author’s debut novel, and it might just be the heart of the book itself, its truest essence and its deepest meaning.
While people may associate King with horror, it’s rarely the pervasive feeling one gets as a reader. Sometimes it’s nostalgia. Sometimes it’s desperation. With Carrie, it is heartbreak. For we all knew (or perhaps, were) a Carrie White in school. We may feel shame for how we treated them when we were “just kids,” or perhaps we stood idly by and allowed such bullying to occur. But to read Carrie is to be enlightened as to what it’s like to be in such well-worn and tattered shoes; to know the madness that ensues behind closed doors by night, which makes one so awkward by the light of day.
It is interesting that Carrie would become one of King’s most infamous villains over the years when in many ways she is in fact a victim. The question remains a common discussion point among Constant Readers over 40 years later: Is Carrie White the villain of Carrie, and if not, then who is?
I recently took a trip to Stephen King’s hometown of Bangor, Maine, and had the pleasure of sitting in on one of Stu Tinker’s infamous Stephen King Tours. For those who haven’t met Stu, or are unaware of his history with King, he is an absolute font of information. What I expected from Stu as a tour guide was for him to regale us with tales of how and where King has arrived at this ideas through the years; those kind of “Tabitha fished Carrie out of the waste bin” stories that any hardcore fan could surely recite by heart. Indeed, there were plenty of those. What I did not expect, however, was to hear a few behind-the-scenes stories that I had never, in my long history of King fandom, ever once heard. Stories that quite possibly have never seen the light of day in print. Stories only held by those closest with the Kings, those who live in Bangor, or those who lived through and remain friends to this day with the people who were there as it all happened.
One such story was about Carrie.
In the early 1970s, long before the days when Stephen King would have millions of Constant Readers, a man named Bill Thompson was King’s #1 fan. Thompson was the one editor at Doubleday who championed for King, while everyone else in the publishing house insisted he was on a fast-track to nowhere. When Stephen King first submitted a novel to Doubleday, it was rejected, but with the rejection came a personal letter from Bill Thompson encouraging King to continue writing and to send him his next novel.
King did send Thompson his next novel. His third and fourth, too. All rejected.
King’s fifth submission, a short novel called Carrie, was the one Thompson knew would be his breakout book. (Incidentally, Bill Thompson also was able to spot A Time to Kill as the novel that would be Grisham’s big break.)
But for such a little novel, Carrie would require some big changes.
“Carrie White just wasn’t very likeable in the first draft,” says Stu Tinker, one of the few who have read the original manuscript. “I couldn’t put my finger on why. You just plain didn’t like her. You didn’t care for her.”
According to Tinker, this early draft of Carrie featured a much more fantastical version of the prom sequence. In this version, Carrie shot lightning bolts out of her eyes. Her head blew up like a balloon, larger and larger until you thought it was going to pop, with Carrie looming large over her peers like some sort of giant. Her head sprouted horns.
Thompson insisted Carrie needed a new ending, one that would make its readers weep in its final pages, not from horror but from how deeply they felt for the girl.
“Your readers should be in tears by the book’s end,” Thompson reportedly told King. “I like the supernatural thing though. Give her something other than lightning bolts.”
King did just that, as he set to work on rewriting Carrie, adding a lot more heart to the story, and replacing the lightning bolts with a phenomenon he had recently read a magazine article on called telekenisis.
This story sheds some new light on our question of the day: Who is the true villain in Carrie?
It also seems we have Bill Thompson to thank for providing the genesis of the question in the first place. Having heeded the editor’s suggestion, Stephen King took the black-and-white out of Carrie and began painting its characters in beautiful shades of gray. They were not good. They were not bad. They were just… human. Much less like characters in a book, and more like the flesh and bone people who would be reading it. It made Carrie White instantly likeable, but more than that it made the book itself instantly relatable.
One could say that if Carrie White is not the villain of Carrie, it must be those who tormented her daily at school. Does the novel point the finger towards bullies as its villain?
Not necessarily. They too are painted in shades of gray. As Carrie’s fellow classmate Sue Snell is quick to remind us: They were just kids.
In one of the novel’s many excerpts from Sue’s story, she tells us:
There is one thing no one has understood about what happened in Chamberlain on Prom Night. The press hasn’t understood it, the scientists at Duke University haven’t understood it, David Congress hasn’t understood it —although his The Shadow Exposed is probably the only half-decent book written on the subject—and certainly the White Commission, which used me as a handy scapegoat, did not understand it.
This one thing is the most fundamental fact: We were kids.
Carrie was seventeen, Chris Hargensen was seventeen, I was seventeen, Tommy Ross was eighteen, Billy Nolan (who spent a year repeating the ninth grade, presumably before he learned how to shoot his cuffs during examinations) was nineteen….
Older kids react in more socially acceptable ways than younger kids, but they still have a way of making bad decisions, of overreacting, of underestimating.
I have told this story before, most notoriously before the White Commission, which received it with incredulity. In the wake of two hundred deaths and the destruction of an entire town, it is so easy to forget one thing: We were kids. We were kids. We were kids trying to do our best. …
This is part of the genius of Carrie, that we see ourselves not just in the title character, but also in her many antagonists.
Which brings us to Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. Is she the true villain of Carrie? There’s certainly a case to be made for it. After all, all roads inevitably lead back to her. As the novel itself cites, “Momma was the minister and Carrie, the congregation.”
Margaret White is a wild banshee of a woman for whom God-like devotion becomes reckless abandon. Margaret makes Carrie repeat passages from the Bible before beating her with it, and frequently locks her in a broom closet filled with religious iconography until she has prayed her sins away. Is it any wonder Carrie is so socially awkward, much less clueless about her maturation into womanhood?
Stu had some stories about Margaret too, by the way. While many of us know that Carrie White is a combination of two girls King recalls from his school days, Margaret derives from his days teaching in Hampden, Maine. The woman on which King would base Margaret’s character would visit the school on a regular basis. She would come into the offices unannounced and spout Bible verses, warning of the end of days. In short, she believed everyone was a sinner —but her. She was the mother of one of the students where King taught at Hampden Academy. King never had the boy as one of his students, but he was acutely aware of his mother’s presence within the school.
I do think it’s safe to say that if there is a single individual who must take the brunt of the blame for all of the tragedies that take place in Chamberlain on Prom Night, it is the mother. (Isn’t it always the mother?)
And yet, even Margaret is portrayed as human. The novel goes into her own back story and for a moment, albiet brief, we get a glimpse of why Margaret is who she is, how she became who she has become, and in that glimpse we feel a tinge of pity, yes even for her.
Margaret might be the first religious zealot we encounter in King’s bibliography, but she won’t be the last. Just a few years later in 1977, King would publish a short story in Penthouse magazine, introducing us to evangelical child minister Isaac Chroner and his cult of child devotees who have sacrificed their parents and each other for He Who Walks Behind the Rows in “Children of the Corn.” In 1979, The Dead Zone’s Vera Smith would decline into religious obsession following her son Johnny’s coma. If Carrie is painted in shades of gray, The Stand is a black-and-white battle of good versus evil with Mother Abigail doing her best Moses against malevolence incarnate Randall Flagg. King’s later forays into fantasy would include The Eyes of the Dragon, The Talisman, and The Dark Tower series, all of which carry messianic themes of their own. Pet Sematary recalls religion in the names of its characters “Church” and “Creed” while Annie Wilkes quotes from the Bible in Misery, and Cycle of the Werewolf will make a monster out of the local priest. Desperation, Revival, The Mist, and countless other stories over will return to the subject of religion and spirituality.
But it is Carrie, King’s debut novel, that introduces us to what will become one of his most famous tropes. In fact, one may argue that the villain in Carrie isn’t a person at all, but an idea of religious zealotry.
In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, King opened up about his thoughts on religion. “Religion is a very dangerous tool that’s been misused by a lot of people,” said King. He went on to say, however, that he chooses to believe in God, “because it makes things better. You have a meditation point, a source of strength. I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”
Carrie got me thinking a lot about religion, and I have to say that I agree with King. Religion is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to build, or to destroy. Religion can serve as a roadmap to give us a path and guide us towards better destinations and better versions of ourselves. But what King reminds us over and over, is that without love, compassion, and empathy, religion is not just meaningless, but extremely dangerous.
Carrie White could have grown up in a household where religion was used a tool to guide her, to comfort her, to give her a moral compass, or a sense of meaning and purpose. Instead, in the White house, Margaret uses religion to frighten, to chastise, and to suppress. It is used to control, not to liberate. It is used for judgement, not for mercy.
If the true villain in Carrie is religious zealotry, well just look at the victim toll. As Sue Snell reminds us “in the wake of two hundred deaths,” an entire town destroyed. This isn’t the last time King will use a small town as a microcosm for something much bigger. If the lack of human dignity bestowed upon one girl can destroy an entire town, how long before it can destroy the entire world?
And it is in this understanding that we peel back the final layer to reveal what is perhaps the most profound revelation of all.
The true villain in Carrie is us.
King’s characters are painted so perfectly human—so flawed and so fallible—they show us there is light and darkness in everyone. Carrie holds up a mirror to expose the potential villain that exists in each of us. The bully we can become. The judge. The zealot, or control freak. The man or woman scorned, hellbent on revenge.
I couldn’t help but see a piece of myself in all of Carrie’s characters—and what on earth could be scarier than that?
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Sechrest’s official web site, SechrestThings.com, is dedicated to his musings on Stephen King and all things horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.