Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Adventure classics -- Prom from hell -- aren't they all?


by Stephen King


Is there any equivalent outside the United States for the horror that a high school prom can generate? No wonder Stephen King, then a high school teacher, chose prom night for the climax of his 1974 first novel, Carrie. Given the normal angst sweaty-palmed adolescents feel about asking a peer to a major public social event, compounded in recent years by the hovering of parents and school officials who question kids’ choices -- can boys ask boys, girls ask girls, blacks ask whites, can anyone wear a prom dress constructed from duct tape -- I don’t doubt many students would gladly set the prom site on fire.

King famously wrote Carrie during the winter of 1972-1973, while he and his wife, fellow writer Tabitha King, were living in a trailer in Maine with two small children.

“Steve doesn’t talk about what he may be trying to do,” Tabitha writes in her introduction to the 1991 collectors edition of Carrie. “He just writes a story. In the midst of the women’s movement, he had taken some criticism in university seminars and workshops, and in student bull sessions, over his female characters. It wasn’t until after I fished the beginning of the story out of the trash that he admitted he had been trying to see if he could write female characters who weren’t either zeroes or bitches. . . . I swallowed the first sentence and kept on going.”

The backstory on Tabitha’s fortuitous fishing expedition, the story goes, is that a friend bet King he couldn’t write a story from a woman’s point of view.
“It was a tough story,” Lisa Rogak quotes King as saying in her biography, Haunted Heart. “It was about girls and it was about girls’ locker rooms and it was about menstruation, a lot of things that I didn’t know anything about. . . Women are bad enough! Girls are even more mysterious.”

Tabitha King credits -- if that’s the right word -- her own problems with premenstrual syndrome for some of her husband’s use of Carrie’s first period as the book’s opening scene. The bloodiness of the event emphasizes, Tabitha writes, Carrie’s "enormous threatening power."

And Carrie’s power isn’t only the normal one of feminine sexuality. She also carries (as King’s obsessive pseudo-documentation demonstrates) a special power -- telekinesis, the ability to move objects by willpower. Reared by an obsessively religious widowed mother, Carrie’s telekinetic ability has been suppressed since childhood. But her increasingly insistent sexuality leads her to challenge her mother and the school bullies who have tormented her from childhood.

The book opens with fellow schoolgirls tormenting Carrie as she mistakenly believes her late-onset puberty means she is bleeding to death. When the worst of the bullying girls plays a terrifying prank as Carrie reaches her peak of bliss -- a prom date with one of the school’s most popular boys -- her powers take on a life of their own. The small town of Chamberlain, Maine, would never recover from their effects.

“There’s a little bit of Carrie White in me,” King has admitted. I’ve seen high school society from two perspectives, as has any high school teacher. You see it once from the classroom where the rubber bands fly around, and you see it again from behind the desk.”

Fortunately for King, the success of Carrie, in book and movie, enabled him to quit teaching school. Fortunately for the rest of us, after nearly forty years, he’s still writing, still finding the terror behind the everyday realities of life.

“Who’d ever have guessed so much could come out of some girl having trouble with her period,” Tabitah says.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with Jane Austen’s lighter but penetrating spoof, Northanger Abbey.)

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