Carrie by Stephen King

First edition cover

In books I’ve covered on Mewsings before (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Chocky, H M Hoover’s Morrow books), telepathy is associated with childhood, and with reaching out to make a deeper emotional connection than is possible in these books’ often repressive environments. Telekinesis, on the other hand, seems more associated with adolescence (along with poltergeist phenomenon) and the release of long-withheld inner rage, the prime example being Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (published 1974).

The book has a sort of Cinderella-gone-wrong plot. Carrie White is bullied at school by a whole class-full of (morally) ugly sisters, then bullied at home by her wicked un-stepmother of a mother, a woman whose highly judgemental “peculiar religious views” have effectively turned Carrie’s home life into an endless series of sermons on sin:

“Momma was the minister, Carrie the congregation. Services lasted from two to three hours.”

Mrs White refers to her God’s “kind, vengeful hand”, though you have to wonder what God she’s really worshipping when, at one point, she says:

“We know thou bring’st the Eye That Watcheth, the hideous three-lobbed eye…”

If “lobbed” (from a recent paperback edition) is a misprint for “lobed”, then she may actually be invoking the entity that comes for Robert Blake at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”, whose last words are “the three-lobed burning eye…”

Carrie showed signs of telekinesis in childhood — when she was a baby, her mother found her levitating a toy over her crib, and there was a (perhaps Haunting of Hill House-inspired) rain of stones on the White house after the child dared to speak to an older girl sunbathing in a neighbouring garden — but things really kick off when Carrie has her first menstrual period in the showers after a school sports lesson and the other girls mock her mercilessly while she, never having been prepared for this by her mother, thinks she’s dying.

One of the girls, Sue Snell, quickly regrets tormenting Carrie, and tries to make up for it by acting as Carrie’s unelected fairy godmother. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (they’re both “Popular” with a capital P), to take Carrie to the school prom. Meanwhile, the ugliest of the ugly sisters, Christine Hargensen, is banned from attending the prom after she walks out of a week’s worth of detentions given to her for what was done to Carrie. In revenge, Christine decides she’s going to humiliate Carrie even more, and sees her going to the ball as the perfect opportunity.

Carrie started out as a short story (which King abandoned, until his wife rescued the typescript from the bin and got him to continue), and feels quite light in plot. The text is peppered with newspaper reports, extracts from articles and books, and snippets from the “White Commission Report” held in the aftermath of Carrie’s unleashed rage, which adds a sort of commentary to the events of the plot, and also serves to bulk up the narrative. And the unleashing of Carrie’s rage is a lot lengthier and more destructive than I was expecting, having only seen Brian De Palma’s 1976 film before this read of the book. In the film, Carrie rains destruction on the prom dance hall; in the book, she pretty much destroys the town, spreading fires, bursting fire hydrants, and exploding at least one gas station (which reminded me of a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film which also seems to me to be about the bursting out of repressed emotion).

Blood runs throughout the novel. “Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it,” Mrs White muses at one point, and she links blood with sexual passion, and so with the “sins” of adolescence, and of being a woman. But “blood” can also mean family, and anger, and the blood that rises to your cheeks when you’re humiliated.

It’s part of the novel’s tragedy that, after a lifetime of constant disparagement and bullying, Carrie doesn’t snap till she’s first been shown a little kindness. It’s not just the fact she’s drenched in pig’s blood in front of the whole school, but the contrast it underlines with the glimpse she gets beforehand of how it might feel to be normal, accepted, even loved.

After Carrie herself, the novel’s most interesting character is Sue Snell, who finds herself taking part in tormenting Carrie even though she knows she shouldn’t, and who is the only “ugly sister” to really try to make up for it. The best and most unexpected part of the novel, for me, occurs near the end, when Sue finds the now terminally-wounded Carrie lying amidst the ruins of a formerly quiet American town. Carrie has, till now, shown a modicum of telepathic ability, but here she finally gets to use it in the same way as Wyndham’s Chrysalids kids and Hoover’s Children of Morrow. Sue allows the dying Carrie into the deepest parts of her mind, in an attempt to convince her she really was trying to be kind, not cruel, in getting Tommy to take her to the prom. Sue feels Carrie uncovering her basest emotions — more than she herself was aware of — but also, most poignantly, remains mentally linked to her as Carrie’s mind fades into a dying babble, and then into death itself, in a far more affecting end than De Palma’s hand-from-the-grave jump:

“The mixture of image and emotion was staggering, indescribable. Blood. Sadness. Fear.”

King gets his equivalent of the “it’s not over yet” ending, too, with hints of another girl, elsewhere in America, growing up with the same ability. Will she be made into a monster like Carrie, by the cruelty of those who are supposed to love her?

It’s quite a good, if light, read, unrelenting in its portrayal of just how destructive (in the emotional as much as the telekinetic sense) and inescapable are the effects of a lifetime of judgement, and psychological and physical abuse, on a child. Although, by the end of it, Carrie has done monstrous things, she’s not the novel’s real monster. That role is played by almost everyone else in the book who doesn’t give her the kindness and understanding she needs, or if they do, do it too late.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Like the classic children’s adventure story problem of how to get the adults out of the way so the action can begin, the basic problem of so many haunted house stories is how to get a bunch of (usually emotionally rickety) people into the most haunted house you can find, then keep them there once the ghosts start appearing. Shirley Jackson solved the problem by having a psychic researcher, Dr Montague, seek out some paranormally-charged individuals for a stay in Hill House for the express purpose of seeing ghosts; Stephen King had his would-be-author Jack Torrance take on the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel so he can finish his novel. Wylding Hall isn’t a haunted house story — it deals with faeries, not ghosties — but Elizabeth Hand presents an elegant solution to the same problem: it’s 1972, and producer/manager Tom Haring hires an out-of-the-way country house so acid-folk band Windhollow Fayre, still recovering from a recent tragedy, can write songs for their crucial second album.

Of course, he’s chosen the wrong house. Wylding Hall is a ‘vasty house’ — one of those dream-like labyrinths of hidden nooks and winding passageways, locked doors and dark stairways, far bigger on the inside than they should be, with an ancient library here, a corridor of locked doors there, maybe the odd roomful of dead birds. Outside in the woods there’s a ‘rath’, a hill fort or barrow-mound whose sides, when you start to climb them, seem oddly steep, and when you reach the top you find yourself looking out over the country for miles around, even though, when looked at from below, the top should surely be much lower than the surrounding trees. The local pub is no better. It has a wall display depicting an ancient custom wherein local boys, on one particular day of the year, are allowed to kill wrens and walk around displaying their bodies in little cages, like little musical sacrifices. It’s a custom that died out over most of the country many years ago, but these are recent photographs.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_LThe basic story of Wylding Hall borrows as much from the legends of real folk-rock as it does from haunted houses and fairy tales: in an interview over at the Coode Street Podcast, Elizabeth Hand mentions Fairport Convention’s renting a house (Farley Chamberlayne) to work on their (excellent) Liege & Leaf album, shortly after a tour-van crash killed two people and injured others; she also mentions Nick Drake, the figure who in part inspired her genius-level guitarist/singer/songwriter Julian Blake, a somewhat otherworldly, overly-distanced member of the band, and the one around whom the supernatural events in the story focus. The book itself takes the form of interview snippets from a documentary about the band’s now-legendary stay at Wylding Hall, recorded forty years after the event. The one member not able to take part is Julian Blake, because he disappeared shortly after the band made their only recordings of the songs they’d been working on. What happened to him? The answer lies in the mysterious figure of ‘the girl’ who appears on the cover of the album, which shows the band standing in front of Wylding Hall. The thing is, none of the band recall seeing ‘the girl’ at the time the photo was taken — she only appeared later, very briefly, when most of the band dismissed her as an over-young and more-than-slightly-fay groupie-type, drawn like a moth to the flame of Julian Blake’s talent. Only, it seems more likely she was the flame and Blake the moth. He was, after all, interested in bringing a little magic into his already spellbinding songwriting…

Eliade_SacredProfaneYoung Julian Blake is fascinated by the idea of ‘sacred time’. He reads Mircea Eliade’s book, The Sacred and the Profane, and explains how ‘When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways, into a different space that’s inside the normal world.’ This idea, that a period of time can become special, magical, and sequestered from the normal flow, pervades the book in several ways. First there is of course the band’s stay at Wylding Hall: they’ve deliberately stepped out of the contemporary world to concentrate on their own particular magic, the creation of music that is itself trying to evoke a lost time through reviving old folk songs. Sacred time within this sacred time is the single ‘magic hour’ in which they make their one and only recording, out in the gardens at sunset. Then there’s the way the band members, in the present, are looking back, for the documentary, on the ‘sacred time’ of their youth, a golden time highly charged with hippie ideals, intense emotion (‘everyone in love with the wrong person’), casual drugs and rather too much drink. And then there’s the genuinely magical time that operates in Faerie, the way it can reach out and grab a particularly talented musician, and take him out of conventional time altogether, never to be seen again.

US cover

US cover

I knew I was going to like Wylding Hall as soon as I heard the set-up: English folk-rock meets faerie-weird. It’s a short novel (another plus, for me), but although I liked it, I did find it a little unfulfilling, in large part because of the documentary-interview way in which it was told. In those haunted house narratives I mentioned at the start of this review, if you think about the human story, aside from the supernatural one, you see that The Haunting of Hill House is basically about unstable Eleonor Vance’s longing to find a home where she truly fits in, instabilities and all, and finds herself helplessly falling into the clutches of un-sane Hill House; and The Shining is about Jack Torrance’s attempt to get on top of his inner demons (by writing a book), only to find himself unleashing those demons on his own family — aided, of course, by the demonic forces of the Outlook Hotel. These haunted houses act as amplifiers of emotional instability, enactors of inner demons, drawing out the flaws of their chosen victims, those characters most susceptible to their dark charms. The core character of Wylding Hall, from this point of view, is Julian Blake, whose otherworldliness, born of high sensitivity and musical talent, is drawn into the genuine otherworldliness of the faerie realm. But we don’t get access to that story. Blake is no longer around to tell it, and even when he was, he was too closemouthed to let his bandmates in on it enough that they might understand. This means his story — which, for me, would have been the most interesting part of Wylding Hall — is absent, or to be glimpsed only from very sparse hints, leaving the result more a straightforward horror story (genius musician snatched away by the supernatural) than an investigation of why he allowed himself to be snatched.

It’s like the difference between Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ (which gives an insider’s view of slipping into the faerie realm) and his ‘The Great God Pan’, a purely external view of a supernatural horror. Of those two, I prefer ‘The White People’, though ‘The Great God Pan’ is the more well-known. Of course, in the days of folk ballads, it was enough that a musician be exceptionally talented to explain why the faeries should want him. But I’d have liked a little more than that.