The birth of evil is always a tragedy, and the most heartbreaking tragedy of all is when the most innocent become the most monstrous. It’s tragic because we know, even when we don’t witness it firsthand, that the path that led there was one of horrendous pain. That is the case in three fantastic horror stories, two of which began as novels and one as a video game but have all since been made into films. I speak, of course, of the Stephen King works Carrie and Firestarter, and the original Silent Hill film, all of which feature young girls who have become corrupted by the physical and mental tortures and unthinkable betrayals that they are subjected to.
I have discussed before that I think Stephen King’s early work is his strongest both horror-wise and writing-wise. One reason I think this is so is that there’s a kind of desperation that undergirds those early novels, and this probably arose from being a still struggling author raising a young family. Once he became the most popular writer in the known universe, the desperation pretty much fizzled out. Nothing wrong with that–it’s probably the best trajectory the King of Horror could’ve taken, but it also means the nature of his work was bound to change. It certainly did, sometimes for the better (his imagination was able to fully blossom, and thus it ultimately gave fruit to what I consider to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series) and sometimes for the worse. In addition to losing touch with that desperation that made his early work so compelling, he exchanged the raw, elemental power that drove it for a more complex and convoluted spiritual world, the dark side of which is ruled by a being with nearly as much invented mythology as the devil himself, and the light side of which has an Eternal Champion to give both Moorcock’s creation and Jesus Christ a run for their money, and that ain’t a bad legacy for any writer. Not. At. All.
But with Carrie, King captured lightning in a bottle, and it’s easy to understand why it was this novel that broke him into the published author camp. Talk about desperation! It’s practically stitched into the very being of Carrie White, a weird, awkward, repressed adolescent girl who is an innocent in nearly every respect. Having only recently entered puberty (quite late), she is horrified to learn that her body naturally bleeds, and this ignorance leads to the infamous scene in the girl’s locker room where she is taunted and tormented by the other girls in her class. The interesting thing about Carrie is that it contains no otherworldly beings, no ghosts or haunted houses, no murderous psychopaths. None of the usual antagonists or tropes of your standard horror fiction are to be found here. Yes, there is a supernatural element in the form of Carrie’s powers, but they aren’t external to Carrie. And there are the kids and Carrie’s mother whose cruelty pushes her over the edge, but they are nothing out of the ordinary.
So, the horror of Carrie isn’t something alien which invades the girl’s tranquil and otherwise normal world. No, the real horror of the story is that we have been given a front row seat to the birth of evil in its most terrible incarnation. We are, in effect, watching the character we have come to empathize with the most transform before our very eyes into the monster. Carrie White has nothing but good intentions and the purest heart in the beginning, but by the end of the story, under the weight of the final degradation she is forced to endure, she has become a cyclone of violence and hatred who murders her classmates and finally her own mother, acts for which she can never be redeemed. And she isn’t. Instead, she dies from the stab wounds inflicted on her by her mother, or alternately, in the Brian Di Palma film, from a combination of the stab wound and suicide (by psychically destroying her house with her still inside of it). However, King does offer a note of hope in the novel in the form of another little girl whose mother sees her daughter’s abilities as a gift rather than a curse from God. Incidentally, there is no such hope offered in the Di Palma film, which fits the bleakness trend of late seventies cinema to a T.
But Stephen King wasn’t finished with this theme, for he would go on to pen Firestarter a few years later, a novel which in some ways takes the concept even farther than Carrie did. (Douglas Clegg, whose Goat Dance I reviewed recently, also owes a little something to Firestarter with his novel Dark of the Eye–more on that when I give it a proper review of its own.) The focal character, Charlie McGee, a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities, is even more of an innocent than Carrie White. Here, however, there are external malignant forces at work in the form of the Shop and especially the hit man John Rainbird. But these evils are not where Firestarter‘s ultimate horror lies. Once again, what is most horrific about the story isn’t the evil which already exists but the evil that emerges from Charlie herself, and again the path that led there is one of suffering. The ultimate irony of the story is one similar to that inherent in the relationship between Carrie and her mother: Margaret White sees in her daughter an abomination, and through her maltreatment of Carrie, contributes to making the girl into exactly that. Likewise, the secret government agency that fears Charlie is the very agency which eventually turns her into something to be feared.
It is a difficult scene to get through when Charlie, dealing with the death of her father and learning of her betrayal at the hands of Rainbird and the Shop, turns her power up to ten and destroys everyone and everything in her path. But King again supplies a tincture of hope here, because Charlie is perhaps still young enough to recover from her murderous turn and live a normal life, and there may be redemption in exposing the Shop’s atrocities to the world, as Charlie ultimately does. But because Charlie has become cynical of the media, she only trusts one publication to get the story straight. She will never again be fully innocent; she has become corrupted by her experience, wizened to the ways of the world.
There are several contenders for the inheritor of King’s birth of evil motif, but perhaps none is as powerful–or as dark–as Silent Hill. I can’t speak much for the game because I have never played it, and I’m also aware that it differs significantly from the film. It is the film which most interests me anyway, because it more than any other fully embraces the concept of the good girl gone monstrous. Alessa Gillespie was once a normal little girl who was ostracized by other children for being born out of wedlock, became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the school janitor who targeted her because she was isolated and disliked, and then, as with Carrie and Charlie, suffered a final degradation which corrupted her, blackened her soul, and hers is by far the worst: she is burned alive and survives. In the process her soul divides into two parts, Dark Alessa and Sharon. Sharon is of course adopted by the movie’s heroine, Rose, but winds up back in the town, drawn in by Dark Alessa, who needs a worthy vessel in order to be able to enter the only place in Silent Hill that is forbidden to her in her dark form: a church sanctuary. It is Rose who winds up becoming the vessel, however, and when Alessa finally is able to show up in the sanctuary both in body and spirit, she too, as with King’s young girls, succumbs to a mass slaughter of those who tormented her in a scene that would give Clive Barker’s Cenobites pause, or maybe send them running in terror. And again, as with Carrie and Firestarter, it’s also a terribly sad scene because it makes explicit how much the girl was twisted and corrupted by her experiences. You shed tears watching the darkly beautiful scene unfold, for you know that, while you are horrified by the slaughter, you are also disturbingly satisfied by it on some level. These people got what they deserved, no?
You see, we as the reader/viewer, have followed the trajectories of these characters from young innocents to raging, hateful monsters (albeit somewhat obliquely in Alessa’s case), and we have grown with them. Charlie’s monstrosity may be temporary, and that’s some consolation. Carrie dies, so she no longer poses a threat to anyone. Ah, but Alessa . . . she becomes queen of her own little dark corner of hell. The good part of her, Sharon, exists but is still trapped in Silent Hill (along with Rose) by film’s end. And we are right there with them, left to contemplate how we have arrived at this point, how we have come to identity with the monster. Mourning the fact that we too, somewhere along the way, have lost our innocence. We too have loosed evil at some point in our lives, and once it’s out there in the world, wreaking havoc, there is no way to take it back. In fact, one of the functions of horror fiction is to remind us of that. So be good to your fellow man, folks, lest you give birth to monsters.