First Published: 1974
Author: Stephen King
Censorship History: If you Google "Carrie censorship," most of the hits are for Sister Carrie. Which is ironic, given that Carrie was in the top 100 challenged books for 1990-2000, and Sister Carrie didn't even crack the list. The censors, evidently, have bigger, dirtier fish to fry these days.
What's more curious, to me, is that most of the links for this Carrie lead to the same piece of text:
Considered "trash" that is especially harmful for "younger girls."
Challenged by Clark High School library, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1975. Placed on special closed shelf in Union High School library, Vergennes, Vermont, 1978.
That's it? You do get the odd note about parents requesting a blanket ban on all Stephen King books (he has three or four in the top 100, quite a respectable showing), and one columnist describes his books as being on an age-restricted shelf at her school's library (which actually seems like a great strategy for getting younger kids to read). If you search for "Ban Stephen King" you get lots of hits about his public stance against banning video games. But there's very little about any actual censorship of Carrie. One must conclude that either the would-be censors are keeping their efforts very, very quiet--which might not be a bad strategy if you're up against a fiction behemoth like Stephen King--or that the reports of Carrie's censorship are greatly exaggerated.
One can, at least, find an article in which King discusses censorship: "Run, don't walk, to the first library or bookstore you can find and read what they are trying to keep out of your eyes because that is exactly what you need to know." Amen.
In any case, Carrie is the sort of thing every high school student should read; if they did, high school might be a kinder place. The book's real power comes not so much from King's gift for horror as from his utter empathy for his title character. No one who reads this should ever again be able to dismiss a misfit with an easy conscience. King is relentless in finding not just the overt cruelty of Chris, the Queen Bee, but also the more passive cruelty of the good girls who go along with the group--the ones who are, in essence, just following orders.
What Happens: At 16, Carrie White, the class misfit, starts her first period in the shower in front of her entire gym class. The other girls mock her cruelly. She has no idea what is happening. It emerges that her mother is a religious fanatic who believes menarche is God's punishment to girls who harbor sinful thoughts. Mrs. White also beats Carrie regularly and locks her in a closet. Carrie, however, is not quite defenseless. She is discovering a mysterious ability to move things with her mind, and she begins to train this ability to protect herself from her mother.
Sue Snell, one of the girls from the gym class, regrets her role in teasing Carrie, and persuades her boyfriend to take Carrie to the senior prom as a way of helping Carrie come out of her shell. For a few blissful hours Carrie transcends her misery. The other students accept her. She is beautiful.
Then--in what is one of the best-known episodes in Stephen King's vast canon--Chris, the gym class ringleader, douses Carrie in pig blood. Carrie's vengeance is swift and only half voluntary. She dies, but not before taking out several hundred others.
And How About That Death Scene: Plenty of writers attempt to take you inside a character's head at the moment of death. Few do it in a way you suspect you will remember at your own death: Tolstoy in War and Peace; Toni Morrison in Sula; A.S. Byatt in Still Life; a handful of others. I'm going to have to add Carrie White's death to that short list.
A Confession: I was something of a Sue Snell in high school, only without the boyfriend and the sex and the good looks. I was a very good student and by most standards a good kid; I didn't sneak out or drink or even try one of Kris Nielsen's cigarettes; I didn't trust my body enough to wear anything close to revealing (although there were some really regrettable tie-dyed leggings around 1990); I had a mind, but I was just beginning to discover that it was my own.
I was the butt of a few jokes. But I was also privy to a few jokes on students even lower in the pecking order. To my eternal shame, I did nothing to stop them; sometimes I went along with them. There are a few regrets I don't suppose you ever get over. That's one for me. Reading Carrie opened that old wound as if it had never healed. There's a twenty-some year gap between Carrie's prom and mine, but that whole kill-or-be-killed world is apparently a constant, and oh, boy, does King nail it. If he nails the reader in the process, well, that's the point, isn't it?
What Else: If you want to get a look of carefully restrained pity from your librarian, check out Carrie and Sister Carrie on the same day, as though you think they're related, along the lines of Gone with the Wind and The Wind Done Gone.
Carrie was King's breakthrough. He was inspired by a couple of girls who went to his high school, miserable outcasts of an instantly recognizable type. He describes the whole process quite movingly in On Writing (another one that should be required reading for high school students). Anyone who thinks of King as a sort of pulpy genre author is in for a fantastic surprise, because his style here is quite inventive, and not in the self-conscious, faintly desperate way you associate with first novels. This is flat-out good.
Trivia: Carrie was made into a notoriously bad musical, some say the worst flop of all time, in 1988. (Gee, I can't tell why it flopped.)
There's also a film version by Brian DePalma I hear is pretty good, and another film called The Rage: Carrie 2 that sounds pretty pointless and awful, what with Carrie dying in the first one.
FIRE CHIEF: Remember? Remember the horror?
SUE (trembling): Yes! Yes, I remember! Oh, the memory is so horrible!
Etc. There are times when the best compliment you can pay to a story is to let it end where it's supposed to end.