Margaret Atwood on Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ at 50

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A side note on names. “Chris” — for “Christine,” for “Christ” — is self-evidently ironic: Chris is an anti-savior. “Carrie White” is an interesting combination. “Carrie,” as King takes pains to point out, is not a nickname for Carol or Carolina. Carrie’s given name is “Carietta,” an unusual variant of “Caretta,” itself derived from “caritas,” or “charity” — loving and forgiving kindness, the most important virtue in the Christian triad of faith, hope and charity. This kind of charity is noteworthily lacking in most of the townspeople of Chamberlain. (Yes, there is a real Chamberlain, Maine, and I wonder how its inhabitants felt when they discovered in 1974 that they’d be obliterated in 1979, the year in which “Carrie” is set.)

Most particularly, charitable loving kindness is entirely absent from Carrie’s mother, nominally a devoted Christian, who knows about Carrie’s superpowers, believes she has inherited them from an eldritch, sugar-bowl-levitating grandmother, and ascribes them to demonic energies and witchcraft, thus viewing it as her pious duty to murder her own child. Carrie herself wavers between love and forgiveness and hate and revenge, but it’s the hatred of the town that channels itself through her, tips her over the edge and transforms her into an angel of destruction.

As for “White,” you might be inclined to think “white hat, black hat,” as in westerns, or “white” as in innocent, white-clothed sacrificial lamb, and yes, Carrie is an innocent — but also please consider “white trash.” In fact, read the book of that name by Nancy Isenberg; and, for added raw and gritty details, read the novel “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” by Carolyn Chute. The white underclass has existed in America from the beginning, and white trashers going back generations are thick on the ground in Maine, Stephen King’s home territory — a territory he has mined extensively over the course of his career.

He based the situation of Carrie on two girls from that underclass whom he knew at school, both of them marked by poverty and decaying clothing, both of them taunted and despised and destroyed by their fellow students. Everyone in the town was an underdog in the carefully calibrated class structure of America — not for them the fancy private schools and university educations, unless they got really, really lucky — but there are no dogs so under that they don’t welcome another dog even lower in the social scheme, to be made use of as a blank screen onto which all the things they dislike about their own positions may be projected. Given a choice between dishing out the contempt and rejection and being the recipient of it, most will choose to dish out. And so it was with King, and so it is with Sue Snell, though both later repent.

King is a visceral writer, and a master of granular detail. As Marianne Moore said, the literary ideal is “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” and boy, are there a lot of toads in King’s work! He writes “horror,” the most literary of forms, especially when it comes to the supernatural, which must perforce be inspired by already existing tales and books. All the quasi-scientific hocus-pocus about the genetic inheritability of telekinesis is just cover-up (as is the “natural” source of Ayesha’s powers in “She,” and the something-in-the-drinking-water, experiment-gone-wrong stuff in “The Power”: You can’t just say “miracle” or “witch” anymore and get instant credibility).

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