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Book Dunce is a series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a book that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never read. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

Carrie is Stephen King’s first book; it’s also his shortest and his crudest fusion of the supernatural and the everyday. Whether it’s his worst is harder to say, but its brevity seems less an indication of a hesitant first effort than a weak command of how to sustain a story, an uncharacteristic difficulty that would be gone by the time of the baroque and sprawling Salem’s Lot, released the following year. King’s biggest books, as well as most of his best, represent the overwhelming spectacle of pulp mutated out of control, dark stories that have themselves grown monstrous in their depiction of monstrous things. Carrie represents the opposite, a slight, distracted effort that undersells both its author’s talents and the potential of its subject.

Carrie may not be a hesitant work, but its voice is certainly shaky. The novel’s most identifiable characteristic is its fragrant abuse of different styles and forms, flitting from direct narrative to post-op courtroom inquiry to newswire reportage. Without all this junk, the novel may have been even shorter and probably also wouldn’t seem so messy. All these tonal shifts feel impetuous and distracting, while the entire framing device, which posits Carrie’s story as a catastrophe to be studied and learned from, is mostly useless and only distances us from the dark, sad tale that lies at its core.

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One of King’s most noteworthy traits is his focus on location, casting the state of Maine, with its unique mixture of New England flavor and backwoods creepiness, as a repository for all kinds of lurking specters. The country’s most isolated mainland corner, the state has an inborn eeriness that the author has fully exploited. The first hints of this depiction occur in Carrie, where a quaint, out of the way village is flipped into a nightmare. With a doughty, socially crippled teenage girl as its villain/protagonist, the story represents a brilliant porting of otherworldly horror into an unexceptional setting, where issues of prom dates and locker-room teasing give way to buckets of blood and exploding gas stations.

Even in this rudimentary effort King shows a distinct eye for what incites fear, via the shuttered house and fanatically religious mother. He may lay it on a little thick, with characterization that trades too heavily in one-dimensional craziness and teen-movie stereotypes, but this is a problem King has never been fully cured of, as he sometimes favors broad tone-setting over fully developed characters. In terms of assessing Carrie, King may have put it best himself, saying, “In retrospect it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader – tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”

Salem’s Lot would prove to be a much better inspection of the ghosts and legends that inhabit a small town’s subconscious, a subject that was explored in even greater detail in It. Carrie, while a clumsy effort, is an examination of the same subject. Rather than dredge up past mysteries, it instead creates one, casting the events of the story as a landmark tragedy for future generations to discuss in hushed tones. The framing device, which recontextualizes the story into a treatise on how we process such a tragedy, is an awkward trick indicative of the novel’s misdirected ambition.

by Jesse Cataldo

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