Book Review : Stephen King - Rage (1977)
* big thank you to John Boden for sending me his copy of Rage *
Rage is the first novel Stephen King released under his now iconic pseudonym of Richard Bachman. It became an important and somewhat infamous book in King's legacy after he let it fall deliberately out of print in 1997. The book was found in teenager Michael Carneal's locker after he killed three classmates and injured five others. It was the fifth high school shooting occurrence Rage was associated with and King simply had enough. Tough to blame him. The shootings never stopped, though. They became more violent, murderous and more scrutinized by the media than ever. So, I thought maybe we're looking at it the wrong way. What if Rage was more than a barbaric teenage fantasy? What if it had something constructive to say?
Well, Rage did have its fair share of surprises. Let me tell you all about it...
So, Rage is the story of Charlie Decker, an inexplicably volatile high school senior who decides to storm his algebra class, shoot his teacher and take the students hostage. There are only two firearm victims in this novel: Mrs. Underwood and Mr. Vance, both teachers. Once he gunned down the authority figures in his way and takes control, Charlie settles at Mr. Underwood's desk and begins questioning his fellow students about their secrets. Several characters try breaking the siege: the principal Mr. Denver, Ted Jones, a police sniper and others. They're all trying to restore order without having to understand the motivations that lead Charlie to his actions and it's all he's tying to do in Rage, in his own syncopated way.
The overarching theme in Rage is authority. This isn't a classically good-versus-evil narrative as much as it is a power struggle between a boy (Charlie) and the institutions (school, police, family, etc.) It's not an act of rebellion, but an all-out attempt to usurp the chain of command. Charlie is suspended and subsequently expelled from school at the beginning of Rage for attacking a teacher with a pipe wrench, so he retaliates by gunning down two other teachers (symbols of authority in Charlie's world) and literally taking their place. He switches the curriculum from algebra to a "morning of revelations" if you will, and systematically keeps authority figures out of his discussions with other students where he reveals his actual motivations. Rage is surprisingly cold and surgical for a novel that explores such a powerful and tragic crime, leaving it vulnerable to misinterpretations of all sorts.
So, Charlie murders two teachers and takes a classroom hostage in retaliation for being expelled from school. That is the why in surface, but it doesn't make his reaction any more rational. Why did he react the way he did? The answer to this question lies in the memories of his father Charlie shares with his classmates. These scenes are some of the most terrifying I've ever read in a Stephen King novel and what he's really describing is a regular human being. Charlie's dad is not overly abusive, but he is depicted as a cold and unloving man who's always been an inch away from hurting his own family only because he felt like he had absolute power over them. A regular man turning into a monster only because he can is something that terrifies the shit out of me. And what's even more terrifying is that Charlie follows his old man's lead despite loathing him, because it's the way he learned to behave.
According to Stephen King himself in the foreword, Rage was written in the sixties and rumor wants that it's the very first thing he's ever written to completion. And it's really good. There are moments of dime store philosophy which are characteristic to first novels, but they oddly fit in Rage because the protagonist is a troubled youth prone to think highly of his own ideas. Otherwise, the novel treats its subject in a remarkably mature way. It never settles for easy explanations, doesn't vilify or victimize its protagonist and portrays the support cast with nuance and subtlety. The result is unsettling. Part of what makes Rage such a misunderstood and potentially dangerous novel (because I do think it could help lead to murder again in the wrong hands) is that it explores an uncomfortable question we're STILL not ready to ask ourselves today: should we take responsibility for the monsters? Should we change our ways in order to potentially save lives of...mostly people you don't know?
What do you guys think?