Stephen King’s Rage was a bit of a challenge. Writing about it is also a challenge – this is a book that was written when the world was a very different place.
A little background. Stephen King wrote Rage (though it had a different title at the time) in the 60s, when he was still in high school. It was first published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, in 1977. Like I said, a different world. We’re talking about a world before the tragic school shootings we live through now. We’re talking, in many ways, about a better world than the one we live in today.
The story King wrote (the first novel he ever penned, actually) is about a deeply disturbed high school student named Charlie Decker who attacks (and kills) his algebra teacher. He then holds his classmates hostage for several hours. It’s the kind of story that would get a very different response if it were written by a student today.
I first heard of Rage when reading an essay by King entitled Guns, which he published as a Kindle Single shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. In that essay, King explains (in more detail than I just did) the background of Rage, including when and why he decided to pull it from publication.
The idea of reading Rage appealed to me for several reasons. One was, of course, my desire to read all things Stephen King. Plus – it’s the first novel he ever wrote. How could I not want to read it? I’ll also admit to a bit of forbidden fruit syndrome – you tell me a book is no longer being published, and I’m going to want to read it.
Before Stephen King had his publisher pull it from publication, Rage had been included in a collection of four stories: The Bachman Books. These were four early novels King had written under his pen name, which were gathered together and re-released after said pen name was officially acknowledged in 1985.
Our town library has an annual book sale, which Lynne and I both love. Last year’s happened to fall during the week in September that I spent in Whistler, BC for Automattic’s Grand Meetup. My wife noticed this conflict, and said nothing. Instead, she went to the book sale while I was out of town. Armed with the list she keeps of the Stephen King books I have, need, or just could use a better copy of, she scoured the tables and boxes. I came home to a pile of new additions to my collection. One of them was The Bachman Books. I don’t think it was on her list – and I’m pretty sure I’d never mentioned it. She just saw it and grabbed it. Because she’s great like that.
Ultimately, the story is less about the violence committed by Charlie and more about what makes him who he is. And, for that matter, what makes some of this classmates who they are.
During the hours-long hostage standoff, Charlie tells stories to his captives about his past. He talks about his childhood. His father. The anecdotes he shares paint a picture of how he became the person he is, how he eventually found himself in his current situation.
Charlie and his classmates find themselves opening up and sharing things that few people (let alone teenagers) would share. The dynamic that Charlie creates sort of suspends the social norms in a way that makes this kind of sharing not only possible, but desirable for them. They talk about the things that they normally keep locked away, not because Charlie makes them, but because they want to. They want to share it because they want to be understood.
I think that’s really the core of this particular story: the desire that we all feel (not just high school students) to be understood. It’s framed in the kind of morbidity that King is so well known for, but that’s really just the frame. The characters, their stories, and the drive to share them is really what shines through.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Stephen King may be known as a great horror writer, but his true strength is in his characters. He weaves his stories with personalities that feel real and identifiable. Some of his absolute best novels are the ones that aren’t truly about horror or monsters (The Shawshank Redemption, The Talisman, and 11/22/63 are shining examples of this).
Having read the Guns essay, I totally get why King stopped publishing Rage, and I think he was right to do so. That being said, if you’re a King fan and you happen across a copy, I’d say you should give it a read.