A reader could pick up Carrie today with no knowledge of what would become of its author, no idea that Stephen King would become what Dave Barry calls "Big Steve," the guy who churns out a bestseller a year at least, even after getting run over by a runaway van. Forget all that: Carrie, released in 1974 was Stephen King's first published work. There was just the book. And though America had produced a lot of fine horror (Shirley Jackson had long moved into a sort of canon, Rosemary's Baby was quite recent, and Richard Matheson's Hell House even more so,) Carrie was different.
Carrie, to pretend you don't know, tells the story of a beautiful girl who has been stamped and pounded into submission by her high school classmates in the small town of Chamberlain, Maine. Oh, Carrie has trouble at home, too; her mother is a fundamentalist so fanatical that she regards the other fundamentalists as servants of the devil. But Carrie's real problem is high school. King recognizes this with razor acuity: take away Carrie's loony Mom and there's still a good chance that high school will be every bit as soul-crushing for Carrie as it is for countless other scapegoated, clumsy, unhappy and uncomfortable teens. Carrie is first and foremost not a girl who turns out to possess raw and dangerous power, but a girl who just can't take one more day of meanness, and another day of meanness always comes.
Stephen King has written about one of the instances from his own childhood that brought him to write Carrie. He told the story of a girl he went to school with who was a little awkward and backward and certainly poor, poorer in a poor town to start with. She was teased for her grooming and her looks and her awkward gait. King tells a story with an almost Cinderella tone, that one year this girl came back from Christmas break with new clothes. There was a visible shift in her, a confidence everyone noticed. But the crowd turned, and the teasing increased, and King says he watched her shrink back, never to try to break out again. That's Carrie, but I think for most of us, it's at least a few more.
Carrie takes place in and near a high school in a small town in the early 1970s-- the book reads like a letter from that era, especially because it's essentially an epistolary novel, made up of roughly half straight narration and half articles, interviews, what have you. The changing viewpoints both in the narration and through constant changing of source make this feel like one of King's most modern books, even though the brand names, the customs of high school, the little details clearly signal an America of nearly forty years ago. This matters: take away the Bob Dylan lyrics people copy into one another's yearbooks and you've still got a world of no cell phones and no Internet, no cable TV, no escape outside the community. It was a lonelier world, to be sure.
It's a zippy read, too: the book is about 200 pages long, maybe less. King wrote an introduction for a recent edition; that probably gets it up to a workable length, though one suspects that "King's 2011 Carrie," if it were to exist, would be about 500% the size of the original.
Forget all that. This is a book about the pain of high school. The pain of being alone, of daring to ask if for once, the bullying would just... stop. And of a very special moment when it totally doesn't.
Go back and read Carrie.