May 13, 2019

Stephen King's Carrie as a Modern Gothic Novel

I read Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) for the first time and found it intriguing. I read it after reading King's short story collection, Night Shift (1978). I cannot think of a single story in Night Shift that did not fully entertain (hopefully this claim does not come off as hagiography--it is sincere). King's skill as a storyteller is truly impressive. With this anthology, it is clear that King is a master of narrative prose.

Reading Carrie after Night Shift, an anthology of compressed, formally-tight stories, was an interesting experience. The stories in Night Shift were economic. Every sentence bore important narrative weight. Carrie, on the other hand, was comparatively loose and occasionally lyrical and stream-of-consciousness in execution.

Carrie is impressive and valuable (I will now recommend it to all). Moreover, the diversity and distinctiveness of King's novel and short fiction styles is intriguing. At this early stage in my reading of his oeuvre, I am inspired.

I categorize Carrie as a modern Gothic novel. It participates in the nearly 300-year-old tradition of the Gothic novel, a tradition that originates in the late 18th century with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and the novels of Anne Radcliffe (1789-1826). The early Gothic novels emphasize a female protagonist who is typically terrorized by quasi-supernatural threats: ghosts, apparitions, animated skeletons, etc.. (The reason why they are "quasi-supernatural" is because in many of these early Gothic novels the supernatural is “explained away” as a contrivance or a misunderstanding). Carrie revises the Gothic novel structure in several ways: it is not set in a decaying European ruin but in New England, in High School. And, most interestingly, the supernatural is not an external threat but an internal source of power for the female protagonist.

My speculation is that the Gothic novel has, since its inception, been thematically interested in the hidden or untapped power of women, and if one agrees with the embedding of Carrie in the Gothic novel tradition, then we can also begin to ask questions about why, when that power is fully manifested, it is rendered as monstrous?