Welcome back to the graveyard, as Points of Light continues our Halloween journey. As promised, this week focuses on the tale of a prom gone to hell, in both written and cinematic form. So, in honor of it being a classic horror tale and experiencing a movie remake, let ‘s open up this week’s entry, Stephen King’s Carrie (because we all knew I’d put a King story in here SOMEWHERE).
Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a teenage girl that suffers humiliation on a daily basis. Her mother is a dangerously devout Christian, which has caused Carrie to grow up as a social outcast. Carrie is mocked by the other girls for her appearance and lack of social cues and know-how. This eventually comes to a head one day in the girl’s locker room, where Carrie has her first period. Unaware of what is happening, Carrie panics, thinking she is bleeding to death. The other girls respond in a brutal hazing incident that is simply too disturbing to repeat here. However, this traumatic event reveals a long dormant talent in Carrie- she is telekinetic, able to move things with her mind, albeit with physical exhaustion. As a result of the incident, the girls involved are punished, with one feeling guilty enough to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom. However, the one girl that refuses the punishment (and is subsequently banned from the prom) plans a final humiliation for Carrie, that shatters the girl’s already frail psyche and sets her off on a slaughter-filled spree against everyone that ever wronged her.
What Writers Can Learn: Real-Life Influence, Suspense, Emotion
What truly makes Carrie memorable isn’t just its climatic prom scene, but rather the stark reality behind it. High school is a dog-eat-dog world for everyone, with the weak always getting eaten alive. There is not a soul that never felt isolated or mocked during that time, usually for something they couldn’t control. Carrie White is the embodiment of that; even King describes her as a girl “you just wanted to yell at.” Because of that, we immediately feel sympathy for her, because we remember how it felt to be ridiculed ourselves, and how we fantasized, however briefly, that we could get back at our attackers. And the story ups the ante by not just making the high school girls the tormentors, but Carrie’s own mother. This is a woman so wrapped in her religious mania that she neglected to tell her own daughter about menstruation and locked in a closet for committing ‘the sin of blood’ afterwards. She treats Carrie as a living bomb, waiting for the day her daughter will give into her sin (use her power). Carrie as a character grabs us because while we may not live in her world, we have all been there in some way, and we remember how much it hurts.
Because of that connection, the novel is able to build a unique type of suspense. When Carrie is asked to the prom, it is a catalyst that begins to build Carrie’s confidence. Coupled with her increasing powers, Carrie starts to break away from her mother and become more independent. Because of the established connection, we want her to succeed. But at the same time, Chris, the antagonist, is plotting something horrible for Carrie at prom. In the book, King uses flash forwards to testimony that establishes Carrie’s rampage started at the prom, while the movie simply shows Chris planning. Either way, the reader is praying it fails, as we watch Carrie start to emerge from her shell and actually have fun. Even at her moment of glory, which is when Chris’s revenge happens, we’re still trying to ignore the signs, ignore the horrible fate that we know is coming because we’ve almost become Carrie at that point, seemingly over everything that tormented us. And when the horror finally does happen, and that fantasy is ripped away from Carrie and from us, it makes her into something unique- an angry, revenge filled monster that we are actually cheering for. I can recall even yelling, “YES CARRIE, BURN THEM ALL!” when I watched it. And to make a murderous rampage seem sympathetic and for an audience to cheer for it, shows a level of character and emotion that only a truly skilled writer can pull off.
Carrie is certainly a revenge fantasy, but one that is easily relatable to anyone. It is horror that works because it strikes us at home. Carrie’s experiences are horrible, but there is an element that we have all experienced. It is why readers cheer for her, and yet at the end , we question why we did. The truth is, this is a novel that frightens not only because of its reality, but also because we wonder, if one of us had that kind of frightening power, how would we use it? Would we go as far as Carrie, and would we be right to do so? And finally, just because someone commits an act such as this, is it entirely their fault? In today’s world of school shootings, and strident anti-bullying campaigns, it is a question worth asking.
Next week, we’ll be heading in more supernatural territory, as we unlock the door to a house in Lovecraft, MA. Until then, sleep with the lights on…
The last few weeks on POL, I’ve discussed some out of the box sources of inspiration, but since this is about a book, I felt this week, I should talk about something more book-related. And so I have decided to use the week to discuss an author whom I can claim as my first writing influence- one of the masters of American horror, Mr. Stephen King.
Points of Light: Stephen King
Almost everyone has probably heard of at least one story by Stephen King. One of the most popular and bestselling authors of the last forty years, King is primarily known for his horror stories, which range from the supernatural (Pet Sematary, The Shining, Needful Things), to the mundane turned horrific (Cujo, Christine, The Dark Half), to gritty suspense (Dolores Claiborne, Misery). However, King has penned tales of hope, redemption, and the trials of youth (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis), as well as epic fantasy (The Dark Tower Saga, The Eyes of the Dragon) all spread out over thirty novels, countless short stories, and even some original screenplays. Writing well into his sixties, King remains one of the most successful authors in the world- his work has been turned into various films (though not all successful), and he has received various literary awards over his career.
What I Learned: Description, Themes, Dialogue,
Stephen King was the first serious author I ever read, thanks to my mother’s attempt to wean me from the child’s horror of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. With the impact King had, it was probably the best thing she ever did for me. What I loved the most about my first King book (Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas) was how much of a picture King painted with his words. Just by having the characters talk, I not only got a clear picture of them, but also the world in which they lived. When Red, the inmate narrator of Shawshank describes his life as the prison’s ‘supplier’, you immediately understand not only him, but the dreary, endlessly routine world in which he lives. And by doing that, King shows another skill- his ability to tie themes into his story without letting them overshadow the tale.
In some ways, writing a book is like constructing a building: it requires planning, time, and a vision of a grand final product. Yet while a building is far more rigid in its production, often requiring several sets of blueprints and designs that must be followed in a set time frame, books are different. Books are freer.
How to Develop a Writing Process
Everyone writes differently (an obvious statement, I know). Thoreau wrote in a cabin in the woods, Stephen King writes for six hours a day and countless others wrote in other ways. Each author has their own anecdotes, rituals, rules or escapes. Yet beyond the method, the biggest question about writing relates to the sort of blueprint a writer follows, rather, the outline they use.
As with everything else, this is different for every writer. Many writers devise extensive outlines, going every detail of the story before they even start putting their pens to paper (or words to a computer screen). Others simply get inspiration and start writing with no real plan. Both ways can work. Stephen King wrote the 1,000 page epic IT after seeing an old, dark storm drain in the woods one day. J.R.R Tolkien spent many years going through several drafts of the Lord of the Rings before finally completing the work, twelve years after its inception! To be successful, every author needs to find out the method that works for them.
Personally, I used a mix of practices for Lightrider. I came up with the main points of the stories (Joe’s human life, the selection some kind of training, and the eventual battle with the Chaos Demons) first. From there, I had no idea how they would all be connected, or how I would move from one thing to another. Rather than sit down and make a more detailed outline, I simply started to write. As I came out with the first scenes, I started to see things: I saw how the Architects would be watching Joe and commenting on his actions; I saw how Joe’s training would impact his actions towards the final battle; I realized how much drama I would get from bringing Joe back to his home during an attack; finally, I saw how Joe and Nightstalker’s relationship would grow enough that the bat would bring Joe back to the fold.
This process didn’t just dictate the major moves of the story, but also minor things; subplots grew out of needing to bridge gaps. For instance, Sandshifter’s character arc, and her relationship with Forester, came into play to fill a hole. As did the antagonism between Wavecrasher and Firesprite – something that can be built in future stories. Even the lightness of Windrider’s comic book know-how was crucial and developed from this technique. By having a moderate outline, I was able to come up with many of character plots and threads that made the story strong.
While I had success with this method, it might not be right for you. So if you like what I’ve described here, then by all means, give it a try! It frees your mind from having to create the whole story at once and allows you to have some fun while being creative as your write. If it feels too loose, then maybe you need an outline with more detail. Or maybe you need a house in the woods. As long as what you’re doing works for you, then it’s the right way to go.
Finally I wanted to share a special treat with you this week. It’s a special donation from my friend Craig – a Lightrider action figure! How cool, right? I’m just blown away by this: