Carrie–Stephen King

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“Miss Desjardin came running over to her, and she wasn’t laughing anymore. She was holding out her arms to her. But then she veered off and hit the wall beside the stage. It was the strangest thing. She didn’t stumble or anything. It was as if someone had pushed her, but there was no one there.”

From We Survived the Black Prom, by Norma Watson.

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: April 5, 1974

Carrie White is a misfit—always has been as a matter of fact. A scapegoat for the other teens at Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School, she’s the one you mock when you want to make yourself feel better. She’s a bully’s dream—awkward of both speech and manner—the perfect patsy. Her mother has spent Carrie’s 16 years on this earth tormenting her, punishing Carrie for her own supposed iniquities. Years of suffering the taunts of her schoolmates and her mother’s insanely religious fervor have turned Carrie from a pretty little blonde haired child into a mousy and introverted teen, too cowed to put up a fight when faced with the pettiness and enmity of her social peers. There’s no fight in her and they know it.

After Carrie suffers a particularly brutal taunting session in the girl’s locker room, Sue Snell, a girl with a modicum of shame for her participation, devises a plan to atone for her behavior, and maybe rehabilitate Carrie’s image. She wants to do something nice for the girl she pities and in the process absolve herself of her guilt. Sue’s boyfriend Tommy Ross is one of the popular kids. He’s also a genuinely kind soul and in love with Sue, so when she suggests he ask Carrie to the prom in her place, he says yes. Not because he pities Carrie, but because he loves Sue. Neither of them could predict the consequences of their good deed, neither for themselves, nor Carrie, nor the good people of Chamberlain Maine. You see, Carrie has a secret, and one last humiliation will be all it takes to put her over the edge and unleash a fury that will make everyone at the prom of ’79 regret ever taunting her—if they survive.

In a day and age where the problem of bullying has become prevalent (or at least more noticeable do to the rise of social media), Carrie has a timeless feel. It’s eminently relatable to anyone who’s gone through the experience of high school and the various injustices we all committed or been subjected to. Part of the thrill of Carrie is the satisfaction involved in watching her unleash the terror of her power on those who’ve tormented her all those years. Who hasn’t dreamed of getting revenge on those who’ve bullied us in the past? It’s juvenile, but then this is the story of juveniles.

But King doesn’t bludgeon us with stereotypes. It’s not a case of Carrie versus a bunch of shitty, one dimensional teenagers. There are moments at the prom where we get to see glimpses of Carrie’s schoolmates, and they’re not caricatures—there’s no black and white. When Tommy Ross introduces Carrie to George Dawson and Frieda Jason, he shows us that Carrie’s later fury is misplaced, and that is one of the more horrifying aspects of the novel’s climax. Most of those Carrie hurts don’t deserve it.

Tommy Ross is the most relatable and adult character of the novel. He’s no fool; he knows high school is not the real world and what teenagers find important is not a reflected in reality. It doesn’t matter if you’re the captain of the football team or the misfit sitting in the corner of the library trying not to be noticed. High school is a transitory phase of life, and unlike a lot of teens, he knows it’s not the end all and be all in life. As for Sue Snell—her motives are less clear. She comes across sympathetically, sincere in her efforts to atone for abusing Carrie but tarnished by the possibility that she’s atoning for her own selfish purposes. Chris Hargensen’s motives are clear and simple—hurt Carrie—whom she sees as the author of her misfortunes. She’s a spoiled girl who’s never had consequences for her actions, and isn’t prepared in any way for what results from her prank at that ill-fated prom.

The one character who’s definitely a stereotypical horror trope is Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. The religious freak (for lack of a better term) has been a favourite of horror authors for at least as long as I’ve been a reader, and I find it a worn and lazy trope. Christians are an easy target, generally unfairly portrayed in literature as either religious zealots or rigid and unfeeling automatons. It’s tiresome and disingenuous. However, King wrote this novel back in 1974 and therefore I suspect two things: that the trope was perhaps not a trope back then and that he’s partially responsible for creating a trope that would permeate through the genre of horror fiction. I will admit that he did a wonderful job. Margaret White is the iconic example of the type—a batshit crazy zealot, blending her religious zeal with a serious mental illness. Her constant bullying of her daughter—for simply existing—gives the reader some large gratification when she finally meets her fate.

Now Carrie is a much different story.

Even knowing the horrible revenge she exacts on her schoolmates, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for Carrie White. She’s such a beaten down character, but not in any way a horrible person. She has the same dreams as her peers; she yearns for the acceptance every teen wants. She’s got the same schoolgirl crushes (Tommy Ross) as all the other girls, but just doesn’t quite fit into any of their cliques. Undeserving of the hideous prank Christine Hargensen and her psychopathic boyfriend Billy Nolan play at the height of the prom, it’s with a certain amount of perverse satisfaction that we as readers observe the reign of terror she presides over in the latter half of the novel.

The theme of redemption and revenge weave through the core of this novel. Redemption is the defining desire of many of the characters. Carrie wants to redeem her life—be a normal teenager—before it’s too late. Sue Snell wants to redeem her good character, hating to be seen as just another bully, even if it’s in her own mind. Even Margaret White is looking for redemption in her own twisted way, culminating in her attempt to kill her own daughter in “repentance” for her sins. As for revenge, it’s what motivates everything Christine Hargensen does. Christine sees Carrie as the manufacturer of her misfortunes, blindly ignoring her own culpability and literally lusting at the idea of putting Carrie in her place. Billy Nolan goes along with her plan for much the same reason. And then there’s Carrie. She seeks revenge for her humiliation, for what happened to Tommy, for 16 years of constant torture at the hands of pretty much everyone.

In Carrie, Stephen King wrote a novel that is both chilling and heart wrenching, creating in Carrie White a character that is both villain and victim, and enticing the reader to care about a young girl essentially turned mass murderer. Carrie may be one of Stephen King’s earliest novels but to me it still ranks among his best. It’s also one of his shorter works, and you will most likely find yourself burning through the story in one, maybe two reading sessions.

Carrie was published April 5th, 1974, forty years ago today, and in honour of the anniversary Matt Craig over at Reader Dad conceived the wonderful idea of a series of tributes and the simultaneous publishing of various bloggers reviews of this seminal work in the genre of horror fiction. It’s been an honour taking part.

John Dies at the End apparently doesn’t translate well.

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A while back I wrote a review of John Dies at the End, a book which I absolutely loved.  Shortly thereafter, it was optioned for film and Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm fame) attached as director.  I’ve always thought Phantasm was a pretty mixed up film, and John Dies at the End is a pretty mixed up book, so with fingers crossed I eagerly awaited a decent translation from book to screen.

Well, according to my buddy over at The Switz, it looks like I’ll have to keep waiting. 

Casino Royale–Ian Fleming

‘First of all, and he inhaled a thick lungful of Caporal,’you will be pleased with your Number Two.   She is very beautiful’-Bond frowned-‘very beautiful indeed.’  Satisfied with Bond’s reaction, Malthis continued: ‘ She has black hair, blue eyes, and splendid…er…protuberances.  Back and front,’ he added.~Rene Malthis.

Ian Fleming may not have written the first spy novel, but the genre has been dominated by his presence ever since the publication of Casino Royale in 1953.  James Bond has outlived his creator by 49 years so far, continuing to fight the enemies of Britain in the works of several “official” 007 authors such as John Gardner, Raymond Bensen, Sebastian Faulks and most recently, Jeffrey DeaverWith the advent of last year’s blockbuster Bond flick, Skyfall, it occurred to me that it was time to get back to basics, and with that in mind, re-read Casino Royale.

Reviewing a 60 year old novel about one of the world’s most recognizable pop culture icons might seem a bit redundant, but perhaps it’s time to take a look and remind everyone what originally drew people to the charming yet lethal “Mr. Bond,” and point out that the caricature he’s become (until the advent of Daniel Craig’s films) is not the man who originally endeared Fleming’s readers.

Casino Royale takes place in Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional resort town in France, home to the aforementioned casino.  LeChiffre, an agent of the Soviet Union (in the 2006 movie, his affiliation is updated to the Quantum network to account for the end of the Cold War) responsible for infiltrating the French labour unions to create a fifth column, has gotten himself in a bit of a mess.  As Union paymaster, he’s embezzled funds to buy a series of brothels, but after French authorities crack down on the prostitution industry, his venture falls apart.  His only hope to escape the clutches of SMERSH (essentially a Soviet assassination squad) is to replace the money, and quickly.  In a desperate bid to do just that, LeChiffre uses the last of his embezzled funds to enroll in a high stakes game of Baccarat at the Casino Royale.  If he wins, he can replace the funds.  If he loses, his life is forfeit, and the Soviet Union will have to eliminate an extremely influential (but thoroughly crooked) agent.

This is where a “00” agent by the name of James Bond factors into the equation.  Funded by the British Secret Service and utilizing both his talents and those of a local French agent by the name of Malthis, Bond is to pose as a playboy with too much money and not enough common sense, play against LeChiffre, and bankrupt him.  Assassination would be simpler and more appropriate (after all, 007 is licensed to kill), but the Brits want LeChiffre’s organization embarrassed, and thereby the Soviets.  Bond is also allotted an MI6 contact in the form of Vesper Lynd, a beautiful yet cold agent to assist in his venture.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and Bond finds LeChiffre to be a more formidable opponent than he first believed.  Between a failed bombing, being bankrupted at the tables (and thus enlisting the help of American CIA agent Felix Leiter to fund a second attempt), and later the kidnapping of Vesper and his own torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond proves himself to be a steely and resourceful character.

But–let’s not ruin the story for you.

Several things impressed themselves upon me during the course of reading Casino Royale, the first being a notable lack of traditionally Bond gadgets.  Bond is a more realistic character (at least in this first novel) than in the movies.  His tool bag consists mainly of his wits and a slim and easily concealed pistol.  No laser watches or jetpacks.  However, LeChiffre has several knives hidden on his person, and his car has a compartment that drops caltrops on the road at the push of a button.  His henchmen also employ hidden weapons in the form of camera bombs and a pistol cane, so the gadget precedent is set.

Nor is Bond the shallow character portrayed in the films.  Beneath a shallow exterior, Bond is revealed to be an introspective character, as evidenced in a conversation with Malthis during his convalescence.  Discussing his torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond confides that he sometimes wonders about the difference between himself and those he hunts.  Putting himself in LeChiffre’s shoes, he wonders if those he sees as evil see him in much the same manner.  Not quite moral relativism (Bond is notoriously patriotic and believes he is in the right), but a deep contemplation of whether the evil of the world know they are evil, and how his actions could be perceived much the same by the opposing side.

The same holds true of his attitudes and behavior towards women.  In film, Bond is reduced to a caricature of what Fleming created in Casino Royale, merely a male slut, bound and determined to bed any and every female that crosses his path.  However, Fleming sketches a much deeper character, explaining what appears to be misogynistic behavior in a more nuanced manner than you can get on the big screen:

With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion.  The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement.  He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair.  The conventional parabola – sentiment, the couch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness was to him shameful and hypocritical.  Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, then the flats gain, then the furtive alibi’s and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.

Basically, Bond finds women a distraction in a game where distraction cannot be allowed.

Bond is an exercise in extremes, from his cool demeanor to the passion with which he greets life.  After all, it’s a business for hard men, the type that can compartmentalize their feelings and get on with the mission.  After Vesper’s suicide and his subsequent discovery that she was a double agent, how else could he say this of the woman he loved?

“This is 007 speaking.  It’s an emergency…3030 was a double agent…Yes, dammit, I said ‘was.’  The Bitch is dead now.”

Casino Royale is a splendid example of the genre and gives real insight to a character we’ve all been exposed to over the years—but never really known.

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, don’t Touch It–The Book Trailer

It may have been published in 2009, but John Dies at the End was probably my favourite book of 2011.  I suspect that This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It! may prove to be my favourite book of 2012. Out October 2nd, 2012.

Thanks to IO9 for the nifty preview!

Amazon teams up with Her Majesty’s Secret Service

No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to buy!

Good news for fans of Ian Fleming’s classic James Bond novels.  Yesterday, Amazon confirmed that they’ve entered into a partnership with Ian Fleming Publications to license North American publication of the original 007 novels for the next ten years, both print and ebook.

From the release:

“The agreement for the 14 classic James Bond titles includes the first  James Bond book in the series, Casino Royale (1953)–which will celebrate 60 years of publication in 2013–as well as Live and Let Die (1954); Moonraker (1955); Diamonds Are Forever (1956); From  Russia with Love (1957); Dr. No (1958); Goldfinger (1959); For your Eyes Only (1960); Thunderball (1961); The Spy Who Loved Me (1962); On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963); You Only Live Twice (1964); The Man With The Golden Gun (1965) and Octopussy and the Living Daylights (1966). Since their first publication the books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and have been the inspiration behind the world’s longest-running film franchise.”

Great news, especially for Kindle owners!

Of course, the Bond saga didn’t end with Ian Fleming’s death.  Several authors have since taken up the reins and one in particular has had his license renewed.  John Gardner wrote a further 16 Bond novels between 1981 and 1996 and Pegasus books began reissuing them as of October, 2011.

 No news yet (at least as far as I’m aware) of ebook versions.

The Hunger Games–Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, first in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl living in a community known as District 12, one of a dozen that make up the country of Panem.   Panem itself is a future version of North America, ravaged by war and natural disasters, a dystopian society set in the near(ish) future.

It is a society of haves and have-nots, the haves populating what is simply known as the Capital, the have-nots (or proletariat) inhabiting the rest of the country.  While citizens of the Capital have all the amenities that modern medicine and technology (and wealth) afford, those in the other regions live lives of mere subsistence, each district tasked with a distinct function by the central government.

Katniss and her family live in what was formerly called the Appalachians–coal country–and eke out an existence supplying the Capital with fuel.  Having lost her father many years before in a mining accident, Katniss has become a skilled hunter, supplementing their meagre supply of food with poached game and various nuts and berries, painstakingly collected day by day.  It is a life of fear of starvation and starvation, interspersed with the daily struggle to make sure the former does not become the latter.  Yet Katniss is content with her family, if not her situation, and shoulders the burden without much complaint. 

However, there is one other thing each district must supply the Capital.  Every year each district supplies contestants  for the spectacle which is The Hunger Games.

Inaugurated 74 years earlier after a failed rebellion by the Districts, the Hunger Games pit two teens (between the ages of 12 and 17, one male–one female) from each District in a battle royale with their counterparts from the others.  It is a battle to the death with only one possible “winner”.  Used both as a means to terrorize the populace and demonstrate their absolute authority, the government of Panem ruthlessly exploits the children to keep the people submissive.

When Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen for the games, she makes the choice to volunteer in her stead,  knowing that it’s a death sentence, yet willing to make that sacrifice for her kin.  Within days she and the male contender of District 12, the baker’s son Peeta, are whisked off to the Capital for a bit of training and a lot of promotion.  And then the games begin.

Dropped into an arena consisting of varied environments and climates, each competitor must rely on their wits and physical skill with (if they’re lucky) a weapon to eliminate the others.  They also have to make it a show–if things get boring, the gamemakers will “move things along” by either altering the environment in an unpleasant manner or introducing deadly obstacles such as mutated animals, flame throwers, etc.  Of course, without giving away too much, this is the story of Katniss and her time in the arena.

For a young adult novel, Collins has crafted a remarkably serious yet not overly graphic tale that manages to hold the attention of her market audience while appealing to those of us who fall into the category of adult.  Not just a story for kids, Collins manages to explore several complex themes: oppression vs. liberty; authority vs. non-conformity; proletariat vs. oligarchy, etc.

Her novel can have different meanings to the reader depending on your political persuasion.  A progressive might see it as the story of fascism stifling the free expression of the people, while a conservative might see it as an example of the intrusive nature of big government–the aforementioned liberty to live our lives without too much interference.  I think Collin’s intent falls somewhere in between–more of a cautionary tale of how easily society can be controlled once they cede authority to a small minority, and also a condemnation of today’s “reality television” society.

It’s also a ripping good read that doesn’t require a huge time investment–just an emotional investment in several appealing characters, knowing that not all will survive The Hunger Games.

B+

The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale

With the movie forthcoming, it seemed time to read Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, the story of a post apocalyptic society in which children are forced to fight to the death in an arena both as a way to assert control over the populace and entertain the ruling class.  Ruthless, yet endearing, it’s the story of Katniss Everdeen, the contestant from District 12 who volunteers in place of her younger sister knowing full well she’s signing her own death warrant.

However, this is not the first time a writer has addressed the idea of a dystopian society sacrificing their children to appease a government that rules the people, rather than being ruled by them.  Koushun Takami tackled a similar storyline in his 1999 novel, Battle Royale, which became a film in his native Japan in 2000.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and it seems a good follow on from The Hunger Games.  Has anyone read both?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  For now, here’s The Hunger Games trailer: