Kevin Richey's Reviews > Rage

Rage by Richard Bachman
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Mar 02, 12

Read in September, 2010

Rage, which is the only Stephen King novel out of publication, was a novel Stephen King began in high school. He didn’t finish it until after college, but it’s very much an adolescent work. It centers on a psychotic high school boy who decides to “get it on” by taking his algebra class hostage. (“Getting it on” apparently meant something much different in the late 60s; it was more like a call of war.)

It’s really interesting to see what Stephen King began knowing about writing, and what he had to figure out. He’s already quite capable of telling a story in the most basic sense – he describes events so that we always know what’s going on, there’s plenty of description, there’s a strong narrative question; but it’s what he doesn’t do well that kept Rage from being a bestseller on its own. The motivations and reactions of characters are either nonexistent or completely unbelievable. For instance, the main character enters his algebra class, shoots the teacher in the head, and takes the class of his peers hostage. Why? No real reason. How does the class react? They don’t. In fact, throughout the course of the short novel, the class begins to enjoy being held against their will. They cheer on the boy with the gun. They reveal their secrets to him. They leave him only reluctantly. And why?

Well, the reason why is because Stephen King was obsessed with Lord of the Flies, and wanted to duplicate the youthful anarchy in a high school. There’s even a Piggy character (thinly disguised as Pig Pen). But the whole situation rings false. Perhaps it’s because we now know what happens during actual school shootings, but I have to think that even without Columbine, it would be obvious that kids don’t like being held at gunpoint, and they wouldn’t be blasé about their teacher shot to death in front of them. They definitely would not use the opportunity as if they were drunk around a campfire, and start revealing their first sexual experiences to each other (which they do in Rage). They would not be grateful for the threat of death offering them a chance to be real.

After Columbine, Stephen King requested that Rage be pulled from circulation. This is after it had been found in the possession of several teenage boys who were involved in shootings or violence at their school. I’m not one for censorship, but I do think there is something dangerous in giving suggestionable teens a book like Rage, which not only glamorizes the experience of shooting your teacher and holding your classmates ransom, but endorses it as a method to force adults to take you seriously. Again, I think authors should write about everything – and that includes school shootings, even from the perspective of the shooter – but I think with such issues there exists a certain responsibility by the author to tell the truth of the situation, to show the psychological honesty of the event. And that’s where Rage fails, while Crime and Punishment succeeds. Dostoevsky’s murders are much more graphic and violent than Stephen King’s in Rage, but he is sure to show the psychological consequences – the guilt and paranoia that follow a crime. And Dostoevsky even has the insight to realize that some people commit crimes not for gain or for revenge, but that some people commit crimes expressly to get caught, to be punished. This is light years away from Stephen King’s killer in Rage, who has no motive and takes sardonic pleasure in his killing spree, and whose peers react as if he simply raised his hand to point out the hypocrisy of a teacher’s statement.

Anyway, while I could read it quickly enough, I can’t say I liked Rage. It would have been much stronger had it dealt with the psychological reality of the act. If King had let the characters react for themselves, let them be real people, it might have been quite profound. But as it stands, it’s silly and amateur. The only thing that it does right is present a compelling narrative question: who will survive the hostage situation? If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to finish it.
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