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Carrie

More a tragedy than a horror, Carrie tells the story of a bullied and ostracised high school student whose torrid torment in school is surpassed only by her mother’s uniquely extreme religious fanaticism at home. Almost from the start, we know Carrie has some unusual powers, albeit underdeveloped, but by the end of the story, her phenomenal telekinetic and telepathic powers are subject to intense media coverage and academic scrutiny for the very worst of reasons.

Carrie was published 43 years ago, and not only have there have been at least two mainstream film adaptations and a musical since then, but the book cover itself contains plot hints, so before you cry foul about spoilers, know that Carrie isn’t about what Carrie does, so much as *why*; what forces her over the edge.

Foreshadowing is early and eager; from the immediate construction of the plot arch in that infamous first chapter, the signs of Carrie’s power, and the eventual extent of their use is hinted at. This is to the story’s credit; without the teasing and tantalising, the audience might be fooled into thinking that Carrie is the villain of the piece, rather than an extremely ambiguous anti-hero. The use of excerpts from court transcripts, AP tickers, books, and other retrospective publications written about ‘Prom Night’, serves to remind the audience again and again that the story is not going to end well, and that we much read on to discover why, and indeed how bad that end is going to be.

What sets Carrie aside from so many other high school novels is the departure from well-trodden narrative tropes and overused character archetypes inherent. Although we can see some of the usual battery of high school characters in place – jocks, popular kids, plastics, nerds, and outcasts – the individual characters are cleverly elevated to something more than their archetype. For example, Tommy Ross, the popular jock who, despite the poor history of his stereotype, is also a high achiever and, to quote one incredulous report repeated in the story, a ‘socially conscious young man‘. Chris Hargensen, for all that she resembles Regina George of Mean Girls, doesn’t so much alter her stereotype as embrace and intensify it, specifically her cunning, willfully abusive relationship with Billy Nolan, and her pursuit of popularity – and subsequently vengeance – at all costs.

Also, (super spoilers) everybody dies, and that’s gutsy. I can’t stress this enough; the level of destruction and death is terrifying to contemplate, and it’s to King’s credit that he actually went through with killing 450 people, many of whom were high school students, and burning down a town, rather than losing his nerve and ‘saving’ Carrie at the last minute.

While I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite King novel, it’s definitely up there.

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

A radical approach to the time-travel/loop genre. Harry August is one of a few humans who, upon death, is reborn at the same time, place, and parentage, but with all the memories of their previous lives. With this knowledge, they can change the course of human history, strive to better the species, cause catastrophes or create new worlds; pursue the most hedonistic desires, jump-start technological development, and experiment wildly with the fabric of humanity… or just go and fight in World Wars for the sheer fun of it.

To say I was gripped by this book is an understatement. It had me in a fatal stranglehold from the first page.

When a message, trickling back through time, warns him that the world is ending sooner and sooner, Harry mounts an epic effort to prevent it, but stopping someone from wiping out humanity – its past, present, and future – can be a little complicated when you and your enemy can’t truly die.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a mind-bending masterpiece of a novel, spanning around a thousand years, focussing on just a handful of people in various ‘lives’ during this time, all encased in glee-filled indulgence in speculative history.

Lolita

Lolita is a controversial novel; there’s no denying that. My time reading Lolita has been necessarily surreptitious and discreet, for the simple reason that this novel is erroneously judged by its critics, often in ignorance, as somewhere between ‘subversive erotica’ and ‘a paedophile’s handbook’, both of which are phrases I have heard used to describe Lolita, and both of which are terminally inaccurate.

I want to make this plain: Lolita no more glamourises and encourages paedophilia than Trainspotting glamourises and encourages heroin use. (It doesn’t. At all.)

Humbert is variously described, even by himself, as a ‘pervert’, ‘horrible’, ‘abject’, and ‘a shining example of moral leprosy’. Dolores, even as the legal victim, has a history of abuse and often of complicity, although this is hardly an excuse as much as an explanation of her consent.

I would certainly not describe Lolita as an ‘erotic’ novel, barely even a novel with erotic motifs; all that detail is conspicuously lacking, and the focus of the narrative is shifted purely onto their difficult and dangerous relationship – both as parent and step-child, and later as ‘lovers’ – told through the highly unreliable lens of Humbert’s paranoid psyche.

Starting as a tortured story of a lonely foreigner before developing into a storm of emotional instability and introspective mayhem, Lolitafollows the creatively anonymised Humbert Humbert as he seeks to either gratify or cure himself of his ‘pederosis’. When meeting Charlotte Haze with the unenthusiastic intention of become her lodger, he meets and falls in love with her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores – nicknamed Lolita. Discovering every intricacy of the plot was a genuine pleasure of which I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone else, so I’ll leave it at that.

Lolita shocked me with its stunning prose, its sardonic commentary, its solid story, its beautifully painted characters, its subversive yet compelling nature, its sarcastic observations of America, and its sheer frank audacity.

From a literary perspective, it is nothing short of a masterpiece; every sentence is constructed with glorious succinct precision and wit, and a luxurious love of language. The narrative is both clear and sufficiently vague so as to provoke intrigue, but never to masquerade confusion or cryptic monologuing as ironic mystery, or at least almost never.

I found it charming in places, and horribly unsettling in others – though not for reasons many who have not read the book might expect – increasingly shot through with fear, doubt, and melancholy.