Rage (1977)

(writing as Richard Bachman, collected in The Bachman Books)

Originally called Getting It On, the first novel in The Bachman Books is also the most problematic - but not because it's bad. The plot follows a high school senior, Charlie Decker, on his final day of school. Called into the principal's office during first period to answer for a previous attack on his science teacher (hospitalised after being beaten with a pipe wrench), Charlie deliberately antagonises the man, throwing down a final gauntlet which leads to his expulsion. This is the early tipping point from which the rest of the book flows - in his own eyes, Charlie has given Mr Denver every opportunity to defuse the situation. "All I wanted was recognition..." he says, "or maybe for someone to draw a yellow plague circle around my feet."

Spoilers ahead! Neither outcome is forthcoming, however, so he sets fire to his locker, returns to class and executes his algebra teacher by shooting her in the head with a pistol. As the fire alarm sounds and the school evacuates, Charlie kills another teacher and settles in with a class full of hostages to see what will happen next.

Whether you buy into the rest of the novel will depend largely on whether you accept the reactions of Charlie's classmates. As a reader, the killing of Mrs Underwood is a genuinely shocking moment, despite several earlier hints from King about what is to come. But for the characters who witness this pivotal act of violence, there is no narrated warning. The killing is over in a horrifying moment. They sit in stunned silence. No one screams, no one tries to run. They are scared, yes, but passive in their shock. King manages to make this difficult section work - which is vital, because the rest of the book builds on the foundations laid down here.

Rage is told in the first person, written by Charlie (as quickly becomes obvious) some time after the events it portrays. This allows King to flesh out Charlie's character, background and opinions both to the reader and to the other characters. While Charlie toys with the various adults who attempt to negotiate a happy resolution to the siege, he and his class begin to open up to one another, sharing personal moments and confronting themselves and one another with some hard truths. The dynamic of the group begins to shift as the confessions continue, until we come to the realisation that the children are now staying of their own free will - that they won't leave even if they have the opportunity.

Early in the book, Charlie explains to one of the adult negotiators: "You aren't playing your game any longer. Understand that. You're playing mine." King turns this brash taunt around in the closing pages, when Charlie suddenly understands that the game has changed once more. His actions have enabled his peers to take control of themselves, perhaps for the first time. That they physically and psychologically destroy the one student who has refused to open up is perhaps inevitable, given the traumatic changes in attitude and awareness that they have just gone through. Their savagery echoes William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a parallel which cannot be accidental. There is also a clear thematic link with one of King's short stories, 'Cain Rose Up' (see Skeleton Crew).

However, Rage isn't without its flaws. Charlie's increasingly troubled relationship with his parents feels a little on-the-nose (see King's "painfully Freudian" comment from his introduction), as does the dislocated rage he feels when embarrassed or mocked by bullies or authority figures. And the mixture of psychotherapy and Stockholm Syndrome doesn't always work as well one might hope. But despite these issues, Rage is as readable as any other King novel, and each of the characters is defined and (mostly) believable. King succeeds in establishing a sinister atmosphere of self-realisation and rebellion, which left me with a lingering sense of unease after I had finished it. It's not a bad novel by any means, just a little bit clunky.

I mentioned above that Rage was problematic. The obviously inflammatory subject matter became associated with a number of actual school shootings in the US during the 1980s and 1990s - with copies of the novel reportedly found among the possessions of at least three young murderers. King was so appalled that he asked his publisher to let the story go out of print. It was withdrawn from later editions of The Bachman Books, and is no longer available as a distinct work.*

At any rate, if you can find a copy secondhand or you've got an old version of The Bachman Books, this is an early curiosity worth reading. While school shootings in the US were certainly nothing new in 1977, the descent into psychological power games that follows the murder of the teachers puts a disturbing twist on a very real (and sadly continuing) problem.

* Many years later, in his introduction to Blaze, King clearly stated his view on Rage: "Now out of print, and a good thing." His decision is entirely understandable. My own view is that while you can't necessarily legislate for unstable individuals, perhaps guns should be kept away from children. But gun control (or lack thereof) is a far bigger debate than I'm willing to get into here - let's come back to the topic when I reach King's Kindle single, Guns. About 3 years from now.

Next: Night Shift.

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