Carrie
Stephen King
(Pocket Books)

Published in 1974, Carrie was Stephen King's first novel, motivated by a combination of hunger and ambition. King had two kids and lived with his family in a trailer. He was teaching high school English--which never pays enough--and supplementing his income by selling short stories to magazines. Spending time writing a novel when he could've been earning a few faster dollars, was a financial gamble that paid off. Now, 26 years and millions of dollars later, Carrie has been re-released.

The book reads as a well-plotted, quickly drafted novella. It's a nightmarish vision of blood shed and a fantasy of retribution, in the story of a high school girl, a permanent outcast, who develops telekinetic powers with the onset of her menstrual cycle. Carrie, the ultimate in powerlessness, becomes empowered. If it weren't such a far-fetched form of power (the ability to roll cars, start fires and push people around all by willing it), it would almost be a cautionary tale.

From the first pages, the book is about blood. Carrie's period starts publicly, in the high school shower, and Carrie is clueless. Her religious zealot mom forgot to tell her the basic facts. Other girls laugh, and--in a scene made famous by the film--throw tampons and pads, while Carrie huddles against the shower's tile. Carrie is about shame and guilt, repression, prom, mental torture and fitting in. Less directly, it's also about breasts, or "dirtypillows," as Carrie's mother calls them.

Maybe as part of being a money-making venture, King keeps readers aware of which way each girl's breasts are pointing at almost all times. Initially, when Carrie is in the unfortunate shower/menstrual moment, we're told, "Carrie stood swaying between the showers and the wall with its dime sanitary-napkin dispenser, slumped over, breasts pointing at the floor...." Later, we learn Carrie's breasts are "milk-white, upright and smooth. The nipples were a light coffee color."

Flat-chested women don't escape comment. "Their slim, nonbreasted gym teacher" interrupts the shower scene.

Two girls sit together at a local hangout, and King writes, "Sue went over and slid carefully into the vacant side of Chris's booth. She was looking exceptionally pretty, her black hair held by a shamrock-green band and a tight basque blouse that accentuated her firm, upthrust breasts." I'm not sure if it's Sue or Chris who was looking exceptionally pretty, but I know all about somebody's breasts.

As the book edges toward the final scene, Carrie's breasts perk up to celebrate prom: "She put her dress on for the first time on the morning of May 27, in her room. She had bought a special brassiere to go with it, which gave her breasts the proper uplift (not that they actually needed it) but left their top halves uncovered."

At times the language is clunky, but it's always serving to move the plot forward, and the book is a model of well-crafted plot. The story is told in a non-linear way, interspersed with a series of fictional newspaper clippings, interviews, research and book excerpts. All elements contribute to the inevitable conclusion, and nothing in the book is the same after the events of the ending. King studied literary writing and read his share of pulp. I imagine he struggled with the urge to walk both sides of the line between the high and low writing arts.

He describes Carrie's process of coming to terms with her telekinetic powers, and it sounds like King's own thoughts of his gifts as a writer: "She did not know if her gift had come from the lord of light or of darkness, and now, finally finding that she did not care which, she was overcome with an almost indescribable relief." With Carrie he cut himself loose to write as he liked, and began to forge his writing empire.