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Firsts: How Stephen King's Carrie started it all

Contributed by
Jan 30, 2018

Though they may seem like literary institutions, almost every author started out in anonymity until a first hit launched his or her career in publishing. For Stephen King, whose prodigious 45-year output of novels, scripts, short stories, and novellas has made him one of the world's most-read authors, that pivotal first hit was 1974's Carrie.

Carrie weaves the terrifyingly tragic story of a telekinetic teenager named Carrie White and her attempts to fit in while enduring the torments of high school and her smothering, evangelical mother.

Published by Doubleday and released on April 5, 1974, Carrie was set in the near-future world of 1979 and chronicled the systematic bullying of the shy, acne-spotted Carrie and the shocking events that befell the city of Chamberlain, Maine when Carrie's paranormal powers finally erupted.

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Carrie marked the arrival of a refreshing, contemporary new voice in the horror genre, as King's 199-page novel (limited to just 30,000 initial copies) utilized faux newspaper clips, magazine articles, fictional letters, and book excerpts to root the story in a feasible reality.

Originally meant as a short story aimed at Cavalier men's magazine and written in a trailer in Maine on an old typewriter, Carrie soon outgrew its humble beginnings. Upon further prodding by his wife Tabitha, King expanded the basic story beyond the famous girl's locker room shower scene in which Carrie's reaction to her first period provides the impetus for the awakening of her latent telekinetic abilities.

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Upon reflection, King often describes his first published novel as an examination of feminism, written after the sensation of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and prior to the demonic power of William Friedkin's The Exorcist

King explained the challenge of writing a female protagonist in his 1981 non-fiction book on horror in mainstream entertainment, Danse Macabre.

"Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality... which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973... I was fully aware of what Women's Liberation implied... The book is... an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality. For me, Carrie White is a sadly misused teenager, an example of the sort of person whose spirit is so often broken for good in that pit of man- and woman-eaters that is your normal suburban high school. But she's also Woman, feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight... Carrie uses her 'wild talent' to pull down the whole rotten society."

Still working as a high school English teacher at Hampden Academy while tapping away at the keys in 1973, the twisted young writer bought a used car with part of his $2,500 advance from Doubleday. But after a disappointing initial run of only 13,000 copies sold, the windfall came a month later when New American Library purchased the paperback rights to Carrie for a whopping $400,000, an astronomical figure for a new writer's debut work.

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Reprinted under the Signet label and later bolstered by the Brian De Palma-directed movie adaptation in 1976, Carrie went on to sell over four million copies and catapulted King immediately into the realm of popular mega-selling horror authors.

"The movie made the book, and the book made me," King said in a 1979 interview with The New York Times.

Inspired by a pair of weird loner girls with whom King went to middle and high school, Carrie struck a nerve with readers who adopted a sympathetic connection to the rage-fueled teenage misfit and her freaky fundamentalist Christian mom.

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Even 49 novels later, King's simple story of a peculiar girl with unnatural powers remains one of his most engaging books and stands as one of the best Hollywood adaptations of his writings. Carrie is now an institution and has been quoted, parodied, imitated, and dissected; it's spawned a Broadway musical, a made-for-TV movie, a 1999 sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2), and a misguided 2013 remake by Kimberly Peirce.

But as life-altering as this novel became, Carrie nearly never came to fruition, let alone wreaked havoc on the prom. The novel started out as an unloved three-page treatment tossed in the trash can and fished out by Tabitha.

Here's how King remembers it in his non-fiction instructional book, On Writing:

"I couldn't see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn't like and wouldn't be able to sell. So I threw it away. The next night, when I came home from school, Tabby had the pages. She'd spied them while emptying my wastebasket, had shaken the cigarette ashes of the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story. I told her I didn't know jack-s*** about high school girls. She said she'd help me with that part."

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Where do you rank Carrie in King's extensive catalog and are there any dog-eared copies lurking alone in your closets?

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