Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman (stephenking.com)
Today is the day that Charles Everett Decker is going to “get it on.” Charlie, as he’s known by those around him, arrives at his early-morning algebra class with his father’s pistol and a pocketful of ammunition. After shooting dead his teacher, he takes his classmates hostage. For three hours local and state police watch from the school lawn while teachers try to understand what, exactly, Charlie wants from the stand-off. But as the morning progresses and Charlie and his classmates talk, it becomes less and less clear as to who is in charge and just whether this group of people on the cusp of adulthood are here against their will or not.
In September 1977 Richard Bachman’s debut novel, Rage, was published. What wouldn’t become apparent for a number of years was that Bachman was a pseudonym for wunderkind Stephen King who, at this time, had two published novels to his name – Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. Bachman gave King an outlet for those stories that didn’t fit with his usual output, stories that were just as dark as the “horror” fiction that was helping him to make his name, but which were more grounded in reality, or with a science-fiction/dystopian slant to them. In later years King managed to strike a balance between the two and, with the exception of a couple of posthumous outings, Richard Bachman was more or less laid to rest (which gave King the idea for The Dark Half, but that’s a whole other story).
Rage is, perhaps, one of King’s most controversial novels, as you can probably gather from the subject matter. Like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, it gained a reputation after being found in the belongings of several perpetrators of school shootings, which led to King requesting that his publishers take it out of print in 1997. Even so, it’s an eye-opening work that puts us inside the head of one of the people who would later use the novel as an instruction manual and does the unthinkable: it helps us empathise with Charles Everett Decker and, while his actions are never justifiable, it goes some way towards helping us understand how he might have ended up here, at the front of his Algebra class with a loaded pistol in his hand, a dead teacher at his feet and a captive audience before him.
Rage begins much as you might expect, given the plot summary. After starting a fire in his locker, Charlie heads to his classroom where he proceeds to “get it on”, in his own words. Charlie has a troubled background and has a deep-seated fear of his father following a camping trip when he was much younger, and part of what King sets out to do is to examine what, if any, bearing this might have on the teen’s current actions. This isn’t Charlie’s first piece of mischief: he recently hospitalised one of his other teachers and is well-known to both the principal and the school’s psychologist. Charlie’s captives are a co-operative, docile bunch, for the most part, with the exception of Ted Jones, the all-American boy who spends the entire novel waiting for Charlie to slip up so that he can take advantage and save the day.
Charlie’s actions open a conduit between himself and his classmates and what begins in sheer terror becomes something of a group therapy session before much time has passed. This is a glimpse into the psyche of the young American adult in the dying years of the 1970s, though it could easily have taken place at any point between then and now. King examines such diverse subjects as sex, relationships with parents, friendship and, underpinning everything else, how it feels to be an outsider. As the morning progresses and these classmates open up to each other, Charlie begins to realise that he might not be as much of an outsider as he thought. Things become less about how to fix Charlie, and more about how to fix Ted, who might be just too perfect for his own good. There is no single turning point – no eureka moment – but when someone leaves for the bathroom and comes back to her seat afterwards, it becomes clear that there’s no animosity here: they’re not afraid of Charlie or what he might do; he’s one of them.
In a world where school shootings are a daily occurrence in America, it’s easy to see why an author might remove such a book from sale. But the average reader has seen much worse in their mind’s eye as they travel through fictional worlds, so it’s a shame that Rage is no longer readily available. If you do get the opportunity to read it, it’s well worth your time. This is a different side of the younger king that you will have missed if you haven’t read any of his Bachman novels. It’s playful and funny amidst the darkness and serious subject matter. The voice is distinctly King (at least with the benefit of hindsight) and the Maine setting is one Constant Reader will find intimately familiar. Charlie Decker is a well-developed character and it’s strange to spend the duration of the novel inside a mind that is at once so familiar and so very, very strange. Rage is a book that still stands tall forty years after first publication, and survives repeat visits. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend it; if you have, maybe it’s time to give it another whirl.