“Rage” by Stephen King: A Meditation

By David Karp

As the sun was slowly dipping down into the horizon, the sunlight slowly disappearing from the window I was sitting next to in the cafe, I closed a book that I was, at first, hesitant to read. I had finished it; I had gotten through it. But it left me with a lot of thoughts.

I don’t know if it was the subject matter or knowing that this book had something to do with real tragic events of my time, or maybe the fact that it was pulled from the author himself. Still, I had made a deal with myself to read all his books in published order, and that included this one.

The writer is Stephen King (writing as his pseudonym, Richard Bachman) and the novel is “Rage”.

In short, the book is about a troubled high school student, Charlie Decker, who snaps and ends up shooting his algebra teacher and holding his class hostage at gunpoint. It all takes place within a few hours (“real time”, I guess) and, as the hours in captivity progress, we learn about some of the lives and troubles of Decker’s fellow students. You never really know how this situation ends until it all pans out, but you can feel the clock ticking.

I don’t want to give anything away, so that’s all I will say about it but I think you get the idea. This summary may also start to shed some light into why the book was pulled by King in the first place.

The book had been in the possession of a slew of school shooters in the late 80’s-90’s and is said to may have been an influence on these individuals. This, of course, horrified King and he decided to let the novel fall out of print.

He has since commented on his decision and has even written a non-fiction essay on school shootings, propelled by the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, called “Guns” that discusses the pull of the novel as well as gun violence. I look forward to reading it after I am finished with my own reflection here.

The novel itself predates even his first published work, “Carrie” (which is phenomenal, by the way), having written the bulk of it in high school. The writing itself, in “Rage”, will show this a little. Though not the worst written book, you can tell that it was an early work. His world building and character development are in the early stages. Still, it is interesting to read something from such a gifted writer that had manifested itself closer to his beginnings, which was why I couldn’t exclude it from my journey into the complete works of Stephen King. After all, I did say COMPLETE.

Still, despite its early forging by King’s pen, I must say that there are some great moments of dialogue (almost monologue) from Charlie Decker’s fellow students, as they tell of their own vicious and even relatable upbringings. 

As the class is held hostage, somehow the class starts to become more like group therapy, with different students touching on things such as sex, abuse, and even a rather interesting meditiation on feminism from one particular student, Carol Granger, that comes in the form of a recalling of a shopping trip around Christmas one year. It was the one passage that has really stuck with me. 

It goes like this:

“I was walking along Congress Street in Portland just before Christmas last year. I was with Donna Taylor. We were buying Christmas presents. I’d just bought my sister a scarf at Porteus-Mitchell, and we were talking about it and laughing. Just silly stuff. We were giggling. It was about four o’clock and just starting to get dark. It was snowing. All the colored lights were on, and the shop windows were full of glitter and packages…pretty…and there was one of those Salvation Army Santa Clauses on the corner by Jones’s Book Shop. He was ringing his bell and smiling. I felt good. I felt really good. It was like the Christmas spirit, and all that. I was thinking about getting home and having hot chocolate with whipped cream on top of it. And then this old car drove by, and whoever was driving cranked his window down and yelled ‘Hi, cunt!’.

Anne Lasky jumped. I have to admit that the word did sound awfully funny coming out of Carol Granger’s mouth.

“Just like that,” she said bitterly. “It was all wrecked. Spoiled. Like an apple you thought was good and then bit into a worm hole. ‘Hi, cunt.’ As if that was all there was , no person, just a huh-h-h…” Her mouth pulled down in a trembling, agonized grimace. “And that’s like being bright, too. They want to stuff things into your head until it’s all filled up. It’s a different hole, that’s all. That’s all.”

A few lines down, after another classmate comes to her side and thinks, Carol says:

“Either all brains or all cunt,” Carol said with brittle good humor. “Doesn’t leave room for much else, does it?

This rang out to me as especially tragic when I read it. I could see a meditation of high school society, the issue of equality, and the misogyny that still exist in our society even today…all in this one passage. The words spoken by someone so young that already understands the inequality she is exposed to in the world, repping undeserved consequences. 

And this kind of thing, even in high school, still happens today. 

There are other moments that touch on similar topics in the novel. And, when I finished it, I thought real hard on the thought that was honestly stewing in my mind for at least the second half of the book.

Though out of print and for good reason, “Rage” is a novel that is unfortunately quite relevant.

Being born in 1990, I seemed to have grown up in the dawn of mass school shootings that has seemed to play out on my television more often than I would like throughout my life. They have become a part of our cultural narrative, and it is a troubling issue to say the least. These shootings are senseless and evil, and it is sad that we have to live in a world where our schools are not always a safe haven.

Now look, I am no expert and this piece is more of a reflection than an essay, but I have to say that the subjects brought up in “Rage” are strikingly relevant, moreso today than when the actual novel was written, if I may be so bold to say it.

Gun violence, misogyny, high school politics. Rage. It’s all in our culture today. Our past and our present. 

What a word, rage.

When I read, I like to look deeper into the words than just using them to be a map of plot. I try and find deeper meaning, especially in fiction, as some of the best philosophy can be found in the words you read from a novel. Such as with “Rage”. If taking the words literally, it’s not the best of novels. But if you read it more as a meditation on the world around us, especially today, rather than literal: there lies a real darkness. There lies the horror, the problems that we have to face today as a society. The reasons that the book was rightfully pulled from print.

Still, I believe the story of “Rage”, not so much as a narrative but as a meditation on society, can bring something to the conversation. An awakening to something that NEEDS to be addressed. We have lost too much life to such horrible acts throughout the past thirty or so years. We need to take a minute, as a nation, to meditate and really think about the society we surround ourselves with today and how it will shape generations to come.

In the end, I’m glad I read “Rage”. I hated Decker and the situation he put his class through. I don’t think it’s a book I will pick up again, unless for some type of social research. But I’m glad it brought up subjects and issues that we, as a country, are going through today, and not shed light on why they happen, but on the fact that they are very much happening in our generation. And something has to change within us and around us.

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