July 2016 /Essay – Memoir / Reading time: 7 minutes (1760 words)
18th September, 2017: Note: Dear reader, this old blogpost is getting a lot of hits these days due to the release of IT and due to parents (and other adults in caring roles) wondering if children should read that book. While this blogpost tells my specific story of reading Stephen King’s Carrie when I was ‘too young’, I hope it might also demonstrate why, for some children, it’s appropriate to read books that weren’t written with them as the target audience. I hope it’s useful to you and I think it’s great that you’re out there trying to support and assist your children in making postive reading choices. Good luck! Oran.
I am in a second hand bookshop in Dublin near my cousin’s house. The lurid cover of Stephen King’s first novel catches my eye. I’ve heard about it. It’s meant to be the most terrifying book ever written. I’ve got to have it. I pay the princely sum of 75 pence and it’s mine. I’m 11 years old.
Now I’m 42 years old and a parent to two children. I’m careful about what they watch. What X box games they play. I’m a modern, diligent parent, but I still have that original copy of Carrie on my bookshelf. It’s cover catches my eye. I take it down from the shelf and flick through it out of a vague curiosity. And I’m shocked.
But I keep reading, because I want to know, should I have been allowed to read this at 11 years old?
I read the whole book. It’s not a great book, far from King’s best, but there’s a raw power to it. And in reading it, I find four reasons I should never have read it. And the first reason isn’t anything to do with violence, no, disconcertingly, the first reason is because it’s about…
1. Teenage Girls!!!
It begins with the bullied, lonely 16-year-old Carrie having her first period in the public shower of her school gym. Her classmates turn on her in one of the most vicious depictions of teenage bullying ever put on a page.
Then the laughter, disgusted, contemptuous, horrified, seemed to rise and bloom into something jagged and ugly, and the girls were bombarding her with tampons and sanitary napkins, some from purses, some from the broken dispensers on the wall. They flew like snow and the chant became: ‘Plug it up, plug it up, plug it -’
But menstruation aside, the books begins with some very vivid descriptions of teenage girls showering:
The girls had been playing volleyball in Period One, and their morning sweat was light and eager.
Hmm. Let’s skip over that, shall we? Perhaps we’ll also skip over the badly written sex scenes too. Wait, you want to hear them? Well some highlights are:
…She pulled him to her. ‘Love me. My head is so bad tonight. Love me.’
…They descended into a red, thrashing unconsciousness.
…A sudden, jolting orgasm.
I was 11. I had no older sisters. There’s no way that I would have known what menstruation was and I didn’t understand the mechanics of sex. How did I explain all of this to myself?
Well, I’m not sure I understood, but to be honest, those teenage girls, I’m sure they were one of the reasons I kept reading. At the age of 11,I was well aware of girls. I had just moved to France with my family a year earlier. After 80s rural Ireland, I arrived in Paris to find wall-sized posters of Playboy magazine covers in newsagent windows. French family friendly comedies all had at least one scene with the male hero cavorting with a buxom nude. And I’d just gotten Prince’s Purple Rain on cassette for my birthday present.
But it’s not just the girls which shock 42 year old me, it’s also, what they might call in Father Ted…
Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Barker Street Grammar school in Chamberlain:
Carrie White eats shit.
There’s lot of profanity in Carrie. The C word, the F word, the racist N word, it’s all in there. I don’t remember the bad language being something that motivated me to read Stephen King. But let’s get real, I knew all those words, any Irish person did, and in fact I even used the n word at that age, but not because I was racist. I vividly remember one time I used it a couple of years later.
I was 13. I was with a group of other kids in a well-off suburb of Chicago, where my family moved after Paris. We were playing chase and trying to choose who would be on first. I was picking and saying Eeenie Meenie. I said it the exact way we’d always said it in Sligo – ‘Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a n—— by the toe’. I stopped. I heard what I was saying for the first time ever, because the boy from the one black family in our area was in our group. I apologised to him, someone else said the rhyme but with a tiger and we went on with our game.
Still there’s plenty more to appall in Carrie, plenty, plenty more. It something that runs through all of the book, a deep seated streak of…
Tommy Erbter, age five, was biking up the other side of the street. He was a small, intense-looking boy on a twenty-inch Schwinn with bright red training wheels. He was humming ‘Scoobie Doo, where are you?’ under his breath. He saw Carrie, brightened and stuck out his tongue.‘Hey, ol’fart-face! Ol’ prayin’ Carrie!’
Humanity in Carrie is ugly and cruel. Ugh. I want to have a shower after reading it. I’m a grown-up. I know about Syria, about wars, about abuse. I know about cruelty. What could I as an 11-year-old in a happy, well-off family, have known of cruelty? Should I have been protected from learning about this as an 11 year old?
Well, I probably knew more about cruelty then than now. I’m well insulated from cruelty for so many reasons – privilege, middle class boundaries, etc… Most of the cruelty I know about is at a distance. A child’s life, even a good one, is filled with random cruelty.
I remember the attack by older boys on me, my brother and cousins in Bray when I was nine. I remember the teachers who knew they could shout at us with impunity and enjoyed it. And I still haven’t forgiven the teenage camp counselors when I was twelve. They drank beers as they made me and a friend stand on one foot for two hours as a punishment one night. They threw things on the ground for us to pick up, laughing when we fell over.
Still, girls, feck and cruelty. I can get with most of that, but there’s still that one moment in the book that has the power to shock and it is sheer total…
Just when Carrie thinks things are okay, that she’s made some friends and been made Prom Queen, just when she thinks things will work out… Two buckets of pig’s blood are poured on her in front of the entire school.:
…she was red and dripping with it, they had drenched her in the very secretness of blood, in front of all of them. She could smell herself and it was the stink of blood, the awful wet, coppery smell. In a flickering kaleidoscope of images she saw blood running thickly down her naked thighs, heard the constant beating of the shower on the tiles, felt the soft patter of tampons and napkins against her skin as voices exhorted her to plug it UP, tasted the plump fulsome bitterness of horror. They had finally given her the shower they wanted.
So should I have been allowed to read Carrie at the age of 11? Should I have been allowed to experience its grim, nasty, sexualised, expletive filled bloody horror?
And the answer is… that’s a stupid question. No one could have stopped me reading it. I was compelled. The week after buying Carrie, I went back to the same shop and bought King’s second book Firestarter. Over the following year, I read them all.
Just like Carrie must have her vengeance, I was driven on to search for extremes. It went on into my teens and twenties. From Stephen King to Dario Argento to Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer. It was more than just a search for extreme horror, it’s anything extreme. Death metal, hardcore punk. Noisier the better. I kept searching for something louder, harder, crueler.
And I think I know why I needed these. I know the two reasons that make me sure that it was right for me to read Carrie at 11 years old. The first reason is…
I’ve lived much of life in terror, even though objectively I’ve rarely been in genuine dangers. My fears are of what others think of me. Fear that I’ve done something wrong. Fear that I’ve failed. And the terror inside me has been much fiercer and more overwhelming than anything I’ve ever experienced in a book.
As an adult it’s been hard, but I’ve learnt to understand what’s happening and I’ve learnt and am learning to manage it. It was much worse as a child. I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t have the vocabularly to explain it. Experiencing terror in books helped me express and release a fear that would otherwise have remained stuck inside me. It was like playing with a dial and the radio and finding the exact song I needed to hear – it was the exact frequency for what was inside me.
But it’s not just that, there’s a second reason. Reading horror and watching and listening to things much more extreme than anyone around me could handle, well that made me feel…
At 11 I was surrounded by kids who seemed confident and brave, but none of them could handle the horror or the extremity of the stuff I liked.And that made me feel badass and it made me feel cool. And you know what? It still does at times.
I hope when my children find the books that they need that I’ll let them follow their instinct even if it leads them in directions that discomfort me as a parent. So I wouldn’t force anyone else to read Carrie, but I’m glad I read Carrie at 11. I’m glad Carrie was there for me when I need it.
So, thanks Mr King!
PS: What about you? What was your forbidden book? What did you read as a child that you weren’t meant to read, and how did it change you? Did you regret reading it? Would you let your child read Carrie? I’d love to know.