Author: Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
Release Date: September 1977
“Rage” is a book written by a young Stephen King and published in 1977 about a fictionalized school shooting incident. The book has since been taken “out of print” due to its relationship with subsequent actual school shootings and the author’s discomfort with that connection. It would be easy to dismiss criticisms of “Rage” as applying our collective knowledge and experience of multiple school shootings to retroactively criticize King’s work. (King released this book under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.) While reading it, I was in shock that anybody could have ever read this book and thought it told a story that was at all realistic or have a lead character that was even an ounce sympathetic, and it’s that latter problem that really made the book bomb for me.
A few things about my beliefs, before I go any further. First, I don’t believe any topic should be off limits for writing. I think that if somebody is inspired by fiction to do wrong acts, that person is solely responsible for those consequences, not the author of that fiction. Furthermore, I think you can tell stories about bad people doing bad things that end up being great stories. (I’m a huge Bret Easton Ellis fan, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for my enjoyment entertainment in that category.) That being said, it’s not the idea of this book that ruined this book for me, but the author’s goal and execution.
“Rage is the story of Charlie Decker, a high school student who is returning to school after swinging a pipe wrench at one of his teachers. **Spoilers follow** After freaking out and accusing an authority figure at school of very specific sexual proclivities, he goes to a class room, kills the teacher, kills another adult, and takes the students in the class room hostage. The rest of the book takes place in that class room except for flashbacks of certain “traumatic” events from Charlie’s youth, few stories shared by classmates/hostages, and a few pages of epilogue after the crisis is resolved. One about two or three occasions, Decker mentions the thing sitting motionless at his feet, or the former body of his teacher in that room. Besides that, one girl screams and one student (the bad guy in the book) points out that Charlie murdered two people. The rest of the class (and Charlie himself) spend the rest of the time laughing, telling stories and bonding, while ignoring the dead teachers and the situation they are in.
It almost has to be read to be believed how little the students in this class care that somebody is shooting teacher’s in their school. **Seriously, the rest of the book is spoiled here** As Decker begins to tell the students about the events that made him who he is today (vignettes which foreshadow the much better writing by King later in his career) the students change from ambivalent about the murders and being held hostage to actively rooting for Charlie and violence on their own toward the lone bad guy fellow student. Those events that made him who he is? Well, there’s the time he heard his dad saying he’d slide Charlie’s mom’s face open if she cheated on him. There’s also the time he broke a bunch of windows as a kid and his dad threw him and he denied it. There’s also the time he was made to wear a suit to a birthday party and ended up getting embarrassed and in a fight. Finally, there’s the time he almost had sex at a party with a stranger but couldn’t get it up (ok, this story was actually fun enough it almost earned the book a second star). Compared to the trauma of the child in “Firestarter,” or the killer in “Mr. Mercedes” it really just kind of reads as so what? None of the stuff he described has any possible justification for killing two adults that had nothing to do with him. But the students in the class room see differently, and refuse to escape when given the opportunity, and even participate in a group beat down of the lone dissenter in the class room leaving him in a catatonic state afterwards.
The tone King goes for here is not dark comedy, which is probably the only way this type of story could have worked. By having the entire class (except one student) accept Charlie’s actions and later enjoy and participate in the violence, the entire thing comes across as unintentional farce: an entirely unrealistic response to a tragic situation. Not present at any point are sympathies for any of the parties involved, and the concluding epilogue doesn’t seem to indicate anybody has changed based on what happened, except that people still remember and think fondly of Charlie. So far the Bachman books are off to a rough start, hopefully “The Long Walk” is a better story, or at least has some semblance of reality in how the characters respond to its conflict.