Snow White, Rose Red

Carrie White: if Jean Grey wasn't the popular kid.

Carrie White: if Jean Grey wasn’t the popular kid.

THE DEFENDANT: Carrie, Stephen King

THE VERDICT: Stephen King is no stranger to censorship, so it’s no surprise his first book found itself in the crosshairs of book challenges. The ALA lists King as the 9th most frequently challenged author in 2003 and the 5th in 2002. Carrie itself came in at #81 on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999. According to Banned Books Awareness, Stephen King is “the most censored and banned author in American literary history” (“Banned Books Awareness: ‘Different Seasons’“), with Carrie as but one of many books that have felt the heat of moral outrage (something Carrie herself is all too familiar with).

THE CHARGES: Carrie is banned for “‘promoting’ sex, violence, and obscene language” (“Some of the best books in life are … banned?”). Apparently, there was particular concern over impressionable young girls reading it (once again, life imitates art; are we sure it’s not Mrs. White banning this book?).

Like with many of the best books (and the more controversial books), getting Carrie published was no easy feat. The manuscript was rejected thirty times because it was too negative and dystopian worldviews do not sell, apparently (someone should tell Suzanne Collins, George R. R. Martin, Roald Dahl, and George Orwell). King grew so frustrated with this that he threw the manuscript away. Luckily, his wife rescued it from the trash and convinced him to try again.

Clearly, Carrie did sell, and began the career of an extremely successful, prolific, and influential author who has written over 50 books, sold over a quarter of a million copies, and spawned blockbuster movies and a few television shows (including this summer’s surprise hit, Under the Dome). King is widely considered the master of modern horror and both of his sons have gone on to become writers themselves. Staying relevant for thirty years is a triumph in and of itself, but Stephen has no shortage of awards and accolades. I wonder if the publishers who rejected Carrie have a support group with the publishers who rejected Harry Potter.

THE REVIEW: Carrie is one of those things that I had never actually seen or read but felt like I knew because it had seeped into the public consciousness. I was aware of the basic premise from a very early age, as they parodied it on Tiny Toons back in the early 90s and have seen many a parody/reference/costume since. Thus, I can’t examine the book with the same lack of comparison or expectation that I usually try to, especially with the iconic movie in my head (and given the fact that what the blurb on my copy says happens and what actually happens are two different things…).

For starters, I highly recommend this book to fans of horror, Sci-Fi, paranormal literature, fiction about high school struggles, family drama, or stories of personal trauma. Carrie is an arresting tale with powerful themes that resonate on numerous levels for all kinds of readers. It is, of course, a gripping, page-turner of a horror novel. It’s also a surprisingly fascinating meditation on religion, mental illness, and sexual repression.

If the pseudoscience of telekinesis isn’t your cup of tea, this book’s human drama powerfully illustrates Carrie’s conflicted feelings of resentment and loyalty towards her abusive mother in a manner reminiscent of A Child Called It. Even after killing her mother, Carrie’s love, isolation, or Stockholm Syndrome leaves her crying out for her mama in a death scene that is surprisingly tragic, given that Carrie is a mass-murderer and we all know how it ends.

And this is perhaps where the horror really lies. This story could have ended so differently. There were so many moments where, if things had gone differently, Carrie, the other kids, and Chamberlain all could have had a very different fate. We all know how the prom ends, so reading the second half, where Carrie is hoping so hard that it’s not a joke and that this really could be the beginning of a new life for her, is much like watching Robb Stark attend a wedding, Abraham Lincoln go to the theatre, or Charlie Brown kick a football. The reader is a bundle of anxiety and helplessness, unable to do anything but watch the easily avoidable play out its inevitable end. In the words of Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction, “Dramatic irony: it’ll fuck you every time.”

What’s most intriguing is that Carrie is also a prophetic exploration of bullying, school violence, and the mob mentality of high school torment. Stephen King is far ahead of his time with this one, as the first school shooting came 25 years later. As I said in my post on the upcoming Carrie remake, these issues have only become more topical nearly thirty years after the book’s publication. Certainly bullying and ostracizing the weird kid are nothing new, but modern technology has given it a new and terrifying power and numerous high-profile instances of bullying or cyberbullying with disastrous consequences have made many realize that it’s an issue we need to address not just “kids being kids” or a rite of passage that “builds character”.

I like the format of the book with its snippets of news reports, book excerpts, emergency bulletins, and case studies, as it provides more background and gives it the same sense of media obsession, overanalysis, and impotent change that school shootings or other acts of school violence do. Similarly, the thoughts in parentheses provided even more insight into the characters’ motivations, although it sometimes became distracting.

I also disliked the X-Men-like emphasis on telekinesis, as it distracted from what I saw as the real issues here and shifted the need for prevention off of the actions of cruel peers and onto the need for isolation or genocide of those with the TK gene. It also paints Carrie as a walking nuke that was predestined to pose a danger rather than the quiet one pushed to far who finally snapped.

Having telekinesis present in Carrie’s childhood and her mother’s family also makes this a very different story. Having a crazy, telekinetic grandmother justifies much of Mrs. White’s behaviour, making it less religiously grounded mental illness and more an inability to cope with the unexplainable. Suddenly, her needing to kill her sinful child is less Andrea Yates and more a desperate reaction to having a witch in the family. While TK is presented as a scientifically grounded human trait, it does validate much of Mrs. White’s fears of demonic activity and witchcraft.

Without this, Mrs. White is a much more fascinating character that begs the question of what made her this way? Was it the trauma and guilt over her miscarriage? Was it just complete sexual repression? Was she sexually abused as a child?

Between Mrs. White, Carrie, and even the popular girls’ attitudes towards sex, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in religion and sexuality, gender studies, sexual dynamics, or sexuality’s overlap with abuse and violence. It’s also a goldmine of symbolism from the red/white dichotomy to the presence of blood at every pivotal moment. I could write any number of papers on the subject, but I must force myself to stop now. I will say though, though, that Stephen King does a better job portraying female sexuality and a high school girl’s mindset than many female authors writing today.

What’s most terrifying is how easy it is to understand, sympathize, and relate to Carrie.

THE DEFENSE: I’m surprised religious viewpoint did not come up, as it is frequent grounds for banning horror and Carrie paints an unflattering view of religion or, at least, the disastrous combination of religion and mental illness. Mrs. White’s moral crusades against nearly every facet of mainstream society also reminded me of those trying to ban Bridge to Terabithia, Harry Potter, and other classics over perceived demonic content.

The concern over promoting sex is just sad as it mirrors Carrie’s mother. Carrie’s sexual repression and ignorance of basic human development, the female reproductive system, and human sexuality are what started all of this in the first place. In addition, sex is not exactly positively portrayed here, causing far more harm than good, whether it’s Carrie’s mother’s pathology, Sue’s unpleasant first time done out of expectation rather than desire, or Chris’s violent and less than consensual sex life. A lack of knowledge about sex and uninformed fear of it only allows it to do more harm.

As with banning Judy Blume or Laurie Halse Anderson, not accessing these books will not keep kids from going through puberty or having sex, it will merely keep them confused and in the dark about sex and sexuality, leaving them prey to misinformation, coercion, and skewed understandings of what is normal/healthy/expected. Furthermore, those hot and bothered by the sexual content in this book may wish to examine their own motivations, as they likely think about sex far more than those reading Carrie or Tiger Eyes or Forever or any other book banned for sexual material. As with Victor Hugo’s Frollo, Mrs. White’s crusade against sex betrays the fact that she is the one obsessed and preoccupied with it. Carrie and the rest of the world are just the unfortunate lightning rods for her own issues and desires.

Finally, saying this book promotes violence is like saying Oedipus Rex promotes incest. Somebody missed the point.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

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