Wednesday 23 September 2015

Stephen King's First Novel

Stephen King believes in God but is not  a fan of organized religion. He grew up as a mainstream American Protestant--a Methodist, if I remember correctly--and married a lapsed Catholic. I wonder if he considers himself an actual--as opposed to a cultural--Christian. Heaven knows, he has certainly received hate mail from Christian preachers.

I am very interested in Stephen King right now because I was so impressed by his book On Writing, particularly his account of his near-death by a habitually careless driver. He said it was as if he had been "almost killed" by one of his own characters, and certainly I feel like I know from Stephen King what Maine is like.

This frightens me a bit, since I have moved from my own city to Edinburgh, and although I have written many, many more stories about Edinburgh than about Toronto, I gravely doubt my ability to capture Edinburgh in words. On the one hand, outsiders see things others can't. On the other, foreign languages don't come easily to my ear, and on the Rough Bus it takes me a moment to determine if the noisy people behind me are speaking Polish or Scots English.


Last night B.A. and I actually quarrelled over whether or not the giggling girl behind us on the Rough Bus had threatened to "mill" her noisy lover. The lover had decided to repeat everything she said, so I heard it twice: "Ah'll f----in' mill ye." "Ah'll f--in' mill ye." Their pal's threat into his mobile phone that he would "f--in' batter" his interlocutor was much more in keeping with the diction of the Rough Bus. And now in the light of day, I wonder if Scotland's Future wasn't saying "melt" not "mill", for "Ah'll f---in' melt ye" is indeed something I have clearly heard. My grandmother, whose mother hailed from Edinburgh, and who probably never used the F-word in her life, preferred "skelp."

The amusing thing, of  course, is that a fair number of Poles (albeit always male) on Edinburgh busses also lard their conversations with expletives. Their F-word is simply the crudest Polish word for "whore." It begins with K and ends with A, and if I spelled it out, my Polish readers would object. Interestingly, it serves as noun, adjective and adverb, without any variation that I have heard so far. I hear only "k***a", never "k***ej" or "k***ę" or "k***ą" or even "k***ami". Funny that.

But I digress.

Yesterday I sat down to read Carrie from cover to cover, and it is even better than the Sissy Spacek film which so terrified me on Hallowe'en 1984. The film gives the impression that the real villain is  Carrie's crazy mother, but the novel makes it crystal clear that--as awful as Carrie's mother is--the real culprit is the scapegoating mechanism of Carrie's peer group. They treat Carrie like a worm from her first day at school, and after 13 years or so, the worm turns.

You would not know from the film that what sets Carrie's ruin in motion was her getting on her knees to say grace on her first day at school. And when I read that, I remembered the impassioned fighting between the evangelicals and the Catholics in my teenage pro-life club over whether or not we should be kneeling in prayer in public. The evangelical girls were all for it, despite the shrieks of mirth and hatred from Rent-a-mob whenever any of us did that. Meanwhile, you can see that King's heart aches for poor Carrie.

Poor Carrie. It is quite clear that her mother's church encompasses exactly two people: her and Carrie. King, who is clearly on the side of the scapegoat, doesn't mock Christianity. He merely takes the more frightening aspects of American Christianity--some Protestant-inspired, some Catholic--and makes up Margaret White's bizarre heresy. Part of the horror for a devoutly Christian reader will be how Margaret warps and shrinks Christian teaching in a way that trembles on blasphemy.

That said, Christians can frighten each other into fits with descriptions of hell. Recently I was terribly spooked by Ann Barnhardt's assertion that the physical torments of hell are merciful distractions from the psychological horror of knowing one could have and should have seen God but now can't.  Meanwhile, I find it funny that atheists think believers are cowards because we hope for heaven. Hello, there is that hell option, too, not to mention the rather more thinkable (but not all that much fun) Purgatory to look forward to. The Lenten homilies of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man scared the dickens out of me, but I am not the whit worse for it.

King begins his tale with a news article about a reported "Rain of Stones", and I was surprised and cheered by that. As starting any big work is frightening, pretending you haven't by penning a fake news report is an excellent idea. There is a lot of foreshadowing in Carrie, thanks to snippets from news articles, government hearings into the Maine disaster, surviving witnesses' magazine articles or biographies, letters. Those work quite nicely, too.

Meanwhile, Carrie is certainly a page-turner. Even though I knew the story, I couldn't wait to see what happened next. I was actually excited to see the extra pages after I thought the story had to be over now. I read so quickly, I forgot the whole point to this exercise was "To See How King Does It." That will have to wait until tomorrow when I can get back to the library.


  1. I've never read any Steven King, the covers of his books scared me as a kid and never picked one up latter on. I kind of want to read Carrie now, it sounds more interesting than I thought it would be.

  2. Oh, I should mention there are sex scenes--at least three--in case anyone is trying most particularly to avoid stuff like that.


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