Rage

Charlie Decker. What a smug little SOB.

The Vitals

  • Published: 1977
  • Edition Read: Plume paperback, 1985
  • Pages: 130
  • Rating (out of 5): 2

The Context

There are two really interesting contextual pieces to cover when it comes to Rage.

First: the appearance of Richard Bachman as King’s pseudonym. Why did he write a handful of novels under a different name?

Second: Rage is the only one of King’s books to now be out of print, not due to a lack of commercial success, but due to the author’s own insistence that the title be pulled from shelves. What’s the deal there?

Let’s quickly take a look at both.


First, the pseudonym.

Stephen King has always been a prolific author, cranking out a book or more nearly every year. Early in his career, while still getting his footing as a full-time author, King’s publisher was hesitant to crank out more than one novel a year from the scare-master, at the risk of the book being seen as an opportunity for a quick buck rather than a fully-formed story.

King was also intensely interested in the idea of talent vs. luck—now that he had a recognizable name, would all of his books become bestsellers, regardless of quality? What would happen if he published a book under a different name? Would it be successful or would it flop?

“Richard Bachman” — this person is actually Richard Manuel, an insurance agent in King’s circle.

So Richard Bachman was born, complete with a made-up biography and author photo.

There would be five Bachman books published before King was eventually “discovered” in 1985 by bookstore employee Steve Brown, who noticed enough similarities between the “two” authors to write a letter to King’s publisher. King phoned up Brown, confessed to being Bachman, and subsequently let the world in on his secret. There would be a couple more Bachman books published (more on why when we get to those books), and the name would even remain on book covers in new printings, but King ultimately declared Bachman suddenly dead, with “cancer of the pseudonym” noted as the cause of death.

King’s question of talent vs. luck was never fully answered. The Bachman books did still manage to sell tens of thousands of copies with little-to-no marketing efforts, but they didn’t blow up the bestseller list like the books published as Stephen King. As with everything in life, the reality is that there’s a mix of talent and luck that’s impossible to fully disentangle and analyze.


Now let’s talk a little bit about Rage.

To cut to the chase: Rage is the story of a school shooter who takes a classroom hostage. King started writing it while he was just a teenager in the late ’60s, trying to work out his storytelling chops.

Rage was, in fact, one of the handful of novels that King wrote prior to Carrie (which, you’ll remember, was his first published book). Given its amateurish, teenage feel, I’m surprised that King let it be published at all, which is perhaps why he chose this as his first Bachman title.

Though school shootings are sadly unsurprising these days, back in the ’60s and ’70s, that kinda thing didn’t really happen. Today, the subject matter is among the few topics that are almost too sensitive to write about; 50 years ago, it didn’t quite have the same shock value. So from the outset, it’s a book that sits differently today than when it was originally published.

In the late 80s, though, once it was known that Bachman was actually King, this 1977 book started getting a lot more attention, particularly from a certain subset of angry young men.

Between 1988 and 1997, there were five incidents of school violence in which the perpetrators were known to have a copy of Rage (often in their locker or backpack) or been influenced by it. It obviously wasn’t the book itself that pushed these criminals over the edge, but it didn’t help. After the ’97 incident, in which three students were killed at a prayer meeting, King decided he would no longer allow the book to be sold or printed.

Today, Rage is hard to come by, especially as a standalone book (it’ll run ya three figures). You can get Bachman compendiums on Amazon, but most of those are new copies that don’t include Rage. Your best bet, if you’re looking for a copy, is to head to eBay and make sure you get a pre-1997 copy of The Bachman Books, which collects four of King’s novels in one volume.

The Story

Rage is the first of Stephen King’s psychological thrillers. There’s nothing supernatural or dystopian found within these pages; he’s taking a stab at scary realism.

There’s hardly any scene-setting here—we start with Charlie Decker (the psychopath) sitting in the principal’s office, discussing what needs to be done for him to get “back on track.” There’s been some troubling behavioral patterns, to say the least.

What the principal unfortunately doesn’t know is that Charlie has a pistol on him, and today is the day he decides to “get it on.” (A truly terrible phrase that King uses over and over in the story.)

Charlie finds a way out of that scenario and makes his way to his algebra classroom, which is where the rest of the story’s action takes place, with hardly any deviation in setting.

The major problem is that here in 2022 we know how school shootings play out. And it is NOT how things happen in Rage. The reaction of the students in that classroom is laughably unrealistic and shockingly sexist.

As one Goodreads reviewer aptly put it: “In this Bachman book, Holden Caulfield takes the Breakfast Club hostage with a pistol.”

Another problem, this one with the writing itself, is that teenage King just hadn’t yet figured out that writing commandment of “Show, Don’t Tell.” The narrator does a lot of telling through memories and flashbacks delivered in monologue form (unrealistic monologue, at that). It just doesn’t work on a basic storytelling level.

There are some flashes of great writing and the outlines of the story are totally workable, but the framing and execution just aren’t there.

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

What I think King is trying to get at in Rage is that even psychopaths have a backstory and a reason for their actions. Regardless of how messed up those reasons are, there’s not a murderous criminal out there who went from fully emotionally mature to psychotic overnight.

Rage, hopefully, is less about making an excuse for someone’s actions than about simply seeking to understand the why, if for no other reason than providing some sense of closure for the victims rather than making them live in a fog of random senselessness forever.

There’s always good reason to find the backstory, not to displace any amount of guilt from the perpetrator, but simply because understanding the full story—in any life scenario—is the better way to approach the world.

Overall

Of what I’ve read so far, Rage is easily the most poorly written of King’s novels. It makes sense, given that King wrote it in his late teens and early twenties; again, I just don’t quite understand why he let it go to print in the first place, especially when he had a few great novels already published at that point. Final rating is a 2/5. I can’t recommend it to anyone other than a Stephen King fanatic and completist.

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