“Someone ought to try and be sorry in a way that counts…. in a way that means something.”

Carrie — Stephen King

CARRIE-1974

There’s a process that TV Tropes called “adaptation displacement”:

Adaptation displacement is the phenomenon by which a derivative work becomes successful enough to overshadow the original work completely.

Jaws, for example. Anyone mentioning Jaws probably means the movie, not the novel. They may not even know there was a novel or if they do, they may think that the novel is a novelization of the film.

Now, it’s possible that Stephen King is immune to this process, being a sales behemoth, but I think not. And I am not the only person to think even King is victim to adaptation displacement. Take King’s 1974’s debut novel Carrie: mention it and people are likely to think you mean the 1976 Brian De Palma film or maybe the 2002 Bryan Fuller adaptation (which I have not seen) or the 2013 Kimberly Pierce adaptation (which I have also not seen). Or even the Broadway musical (!!!).

I read the novel first and so for me, Carrie will always be the Signet mass market paperback about an unpopular girl: her first date, how she was transformed from outcast to queen of the ball, and how in the end she finally embraced her inner potential.





Carrie White is one of her high school’s designated victims: pudgy, pimply, and thanks to her religious fanatic mother, profoundly ignorant. When at age sixteen Carrie gets her first period while showering at school after gym, she thinks she is bleeding to death. The other students savagely mock the terrified girl. When teacher Desjardin intervenes, the idea that a girl in the oh-so-advanced year of 1979 might not know about periods is so outrageous that the teacher is slow to grok the situation.

Until that moment, the teachers and administration had ignored Carrie. Assistant principal Morton cannot remember Carrie’s name. The other students may have persecuted her, but in an impersonal, haphazard way: they were not attacking Carrie White, they were attacking a weakling. Now people know who Carrie White is.

Outraged at her students and embarrassed at her own initial reaction, Desjardin makes a point of punishing the girls who swarmed Carrie. This has two consequences: nice girl student Sue Snell slowly grasps the magnitude of her sin and vows to make amends. Mean girl ringleader Chris Hargensen refuses to admit that she might have done anything wrong and rejects her punishment. As a consequence, Chris is barred from the upcoming prom.

Sue convinces her hunky boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom in Sue’s place. Chris resolves to make sure the prom is one Carrie will never forget.

Nobody will forget the prom because what nobody in Chamberlaine, Maine knows, save Carrie, is that she is a telekinetic of prodigious, if untrained, ability. Her teachers think her an unremarkable misfit. Her schoolmates think her a freak or perhaps the proper subject for uplifting charity. A far more accurate description would be “a living weapon of mass destruction.”

 ~oOo~

I knew this was King’s first novel and I expected it to be pretty rough; he isn’t an author I think of as “polished” or “heavily edited [1],” I considered him a prolific author with a certain pulp fiction vigour. And at first, having—I admit!—having far more recently seen the De Palma movie than read the novel, certain elements of the book did not seem to fit my preconceptions. Eventually I realized I was interrogating the novel from the wrong perspective.

While this is a horror novel and so by definition strolling towards some calamity, I have to say I admire the way that King sets up the plot elements (Chris’ vendetta, Sue’s penance, Tommy’s good nature, the administration’s attempts to deal with the persecution, Carrie’s mother’s fanaticism) to ensure that they will work together to cause massive death and destruction.

BTW, I’m not blaming Sue and Tommy. They tried to make amends to Carrie. Through no fault of their own, they have only managed to change the shape of the disaster. Chris was always going to try to get even with Carrie and Carrie was always going to turn out to be a dragon in disguise.

Having just seen the De Palma movie, I was surprised that King references Carrie’s rampage so early in the novel. Carrie’s night at the ball is only one section of the larger book. King devotes a fair chunk of wordage to the media coverage of the Chamberlaine disaster and the public hunger for more! more! more!. That’s an interesting approach, one I wasn’t expecting.

This novel is also an interesting, if often unpleasant reminder, that as much as the folks of 1970s might have thought of themselves as chic and modern, they weren’t as much different from the people of the Bad Old Days as they may have believed. Sue Snell’s musings on conformity prompt this passage:

of fighting with desperate decorum to keep the Niggers out of Kleen Korners, standing shoulder to shoulder with Terri Smith (Miss Potato Blossom of 1975) and Vicki Jones (President of the Women’s League), armed with signs and petitions and sweet, slightly desperate smiles.

To her credit, that’s what Sue doesn’t want to become. But it’s also clear that is what passes for normal in her town and Sue’s own musings don’t express much hope.

“People don’t get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don’t stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it.”

Carrie isn’t the only monster. She is just the one with whom we sympathize.

Carrie is available in many editions, ranging from Cemetery Dance’s deluxe edition to more affordable versions.

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1: Although if you compare the 1979 edition of The Stand to the 1990 Complete and Uncut edition, it is clear I am being unfair here. Not only do the two versions show that King was being edited, but that the editor knew what he was doing. Editors are better than cats. I would let my editor edit my work again and again [2].


2: [Editor’s note: Thanks James. It should be noted that James is the very model of a modern major editee, enduring correction without a whimper. Unlike other clients who have tantrums if their perfect prose (well, at least in their view) is modified in any way.

Which reminds me of a long-ago flamewar on rec.arts.sf.composition. Gene Steinberg advertised his Attack of the Rockoids; James Doyle James Macdonald (also known as Yog Sysop) eviscerated a section of the work, sentence by sentence. Steinberg refused to take ANY criticism at all and hijinks ensued. I could find no record of this fascinating episode save this one comment on The Straight Dope, by OrcaChow:

Possibly matching the sheer wretchedness of Pleistocene Redemption is Gene Steinberg’s Attack of the Rockoids. (He’s coauthoring it with his young son; it shows.)
On his website he allows people to download a sample. It’s some of the most unintentionally hilarious stuff I’ve ever read. The protagonist, a former member of Special Forces, is sneaking onto a secret base at night. When the author doesn’t know how to transition from once mini-scene to another, he has the protagonist knock himself unconscious. At one point the Special Forces man trips on a manhole cover and knocks himself out cold on a field of gravel. One happy coincidence after another allows this idiot to make his way onto the super-secret base. To what end? Apparently some beautiful green alien babe (complete with miniskirt) is scouring the universe in search of him. It’s llllllove!
His website has a message board for feedback, but Mr. Steinberg allows only the most gushing comments to remain. Then he crows about how his book gets nothing but the most fantastic feedback.]



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