Thursday, April 05, 2012

Stephen King: Rage (as Richard Bachman) (1977)

Charlie Decker is a senior at Placerville High School in Maine. One day, two months after assaulting a teacher with a wrench, he kills two teachers with a pistol and holds a classroom of students hostage for several hours.

Once he takes over the classroom, Charlie "gets it on" - telling his fellow students intimate secrets of his life: a hunting trip he took with his abusive father and some of his father's drunken friends when he was nine - "My dad has hated me for as long as I can remember. ... Life [to him] was like a precious antique car ... and I was the birdshit on his windshield." - being forced to wear an ill-fitting corduroy suit to the birthday party of a girl he had a crush on, and a bout of stoned impotence.

Charlie encourages the other students to speak honestly. Carol Granger tells about a wonderful day Christmas shopping with friends that was utterly destroyed by street harassment. Sandra Cross says she's feels totally empty inside ("like a doll, not really real") and describes having a dangerous, anonymous sexual encounter in an attempt to feel truly alive.

A boy nicknamed Pig Pen expresses a weary fury at his mother, a contest and sweepstakes addict who buys him one new shirt per year, forced him to sell his car, and drowned his sister's kitten.
She grinds and grinds and grinds, and she always beats you. ... And she's so mean and stupid, she drownded the kitty, just a little kitty, and she's so stupid that you know everybody laughs at her behind her back. So what does that make me? Littler and stupider. ... I don't think I'd mind if she snuffed it. I wish I had your stick, Charlie. If I had your stick, I think I'd kill her myself.
The strength of Rage is in the students' recollections, their blunt honesty, their anger at the adult world, and the helplessness at being ground down by the adults around them.

From Bare Bones: Conversations On Terror With Stephen King:
Q: What's the greatest horror that you think high school kids face today?

SK: Not being able to interact, to get along and establish lines of communication. It's the fear I had ... the fear of being afraid and not being able to tell anyone you're afraid. ... There's a constant fear that I am alone.
In reading about King's background as I begin this project, I have noticed several similarities between King and my favourite author, David Foster Wallace. The fear of being alone, the next-to-impossible task of forging an honest connection with another person, and the bedrock importance of fiction to communicate what it means to be a human being. (Wallace taught Carrie in some of his fiction classes and he once listed The Stand as one of his 10 favourite books.)


King, original introduction to The Bachman Books:
Getting It On was begun in 1966, when I was a senior in high school. I later found it moldering away in an old box in the cellar of the house where I'd grown up this rediscovery was in 1970, and I finished the novel in 1971.
In 1971, he sent a query letter to Doubleday, addressed to the editor of Loren Singer's political thriller The Parallax View, thinking the editor of that book might also like his novel. That editor was no longer employed at Doubleday, so the letter landed on Bill Thompson's desk. Thompson agreed to read King's manuscript and later called it "a masterful study in character and suspense". Doubleday requested changes, which King duly made. However, Despite Thompson's efforts, Getting It On was ultimately rejected, "a painful blow", King said, "because I had been allowed to entertain some hope for an extraordinarily long time".

In July 1977, after publishing Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining, King signed a three-book deal with Doubleday. He also quietly published Getting It On, now titled Rage, as a mass-market paperback through New American Library, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

The story goes that King was having doubts about his fame: Was it a fluke? Could it happen a second time? Publishing houses believed that one book per year for a writer was the norm, and that flooding the market would be detrimental. But King was so prolific that he had several finished manuscripts sitting in his drawer. He wanted to put out the Bachman books - "just plain books", he later wrote, "paperbacks to fill the drugstores and bus stations of America" - and let nature take it course.

You try to make sense of your life. Everybody tries to do that, I think, and part of making sense of things is trying to find reasons ... or constants ... things that don't fluctuate. Everyone does it, but perhaps people who have extraordinarily lucky or unlucky lives do it a little more. ... Part of you wants to think that you must have been one hardworking S.O.B. or a real prince or maybe even one of the Sainted Multitude if you end up riding high ... But there's another part that suggests it's all a lottery, a real-life game show ... It is for some reason depressing to think it was all - or even mostly - an accident. So maybe you try to find out if you could do it again. Or in my case, if Bachman could do it again.
King originally used his maternal grandfather's name - Guy Pillsbury - but that secret leaked at the publishing house. So he went with Richard Bachman, in tribute to Donald Westlake's long-time pseudonym Richard Stark and the rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Rage was published and dropped out of sight.


Tony Magistrale, a professor at the University of Vermont, writes that despite "an overstretched reliance of Freudian exegesis" and some implausible plot twists, Rage should not be dismissed.
So much of what King examines in [the Bachman books] is about people being disenfranchised of power on several levels: personal, familial, societal. ...

Charlie Decker aligns himself with the oppressed - particularly his young female classmates, victims of sexual oppression - and their struggle against authority, specifically patriarchal authority....

As evidenced in works that follow Rage (most notably The Shining, Firestarter, and It), the real monsters in King's canon are always human, and more often than not, they take the form of adult males who erect and maintain elaborate bureaucratic systems of control. ... King's protagonists, especially in the Bachman books, view violence as one of their few remaining options. ...

Decker's own actions occur out of an insistence that the authorities confront the truth of their enterprise ... [The students] understand the spirit that has created the hostage situation. The students sympathize with Charlie because they sense intuitively that this is a conflict between the authorities and the disenfranchised.
It is worth noting that King grew up without a father. When King was only two years old, his father went out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never returned. It was as if he vanished off the face of the earth. King's abusive males often stand in for society at large, but he is also remarkably observant, and the confrontations between Charlie and his father seem remarkably on point.


Charlie is nothing but a name on a file folder to the principal who boasts that he's been "in the kid business" for several decades. By committing murder and taking the class hostage, Charlie forces those in authority to take him seriously. For a few hours, he has the upper hand, and delights in humiliating them as they try to convince him to end his siege.

The class also enjoys Charlie's interactions with those outside the school. The actual murders are quickly forgotten. The speed with which the class identifies with Charlie seems fairly implausible - but perhaps they have felt like hostages to the adult world for years. The novel climaxes with the class's emotional torture of Ted Jones, who already identifies with the various authority figures. It's a final blow to authority, before the teenagers will leave the school, graduate, and begin the process of joining the adult world that has oppressed them. (The severity of Ted's mental destruction also seemed implausible.)

After Charlie surrenders, he is tried, found guilty by reason of insanity, and institutionalized. He refuses to discuss the incident with his psychiatrists.
But if I told them anything, it would be that they've forgotten what it is to be a kid, to live cheek-by-jowl with violence ... I'm telling you that American kids labor under a huge life of violence, both real and make-believe.

In 1999, King addressed the Vermont Library Conference and talked about the many incidents of school shootings:
[A] great many parts of American society have contributed to creating this problem, and that we must all work together to alleviate it...and I use the word "alleviate" rather than "cure" because ... I don't think that sort of cure is possible. ...

America was born in the violence of the Boston Massacre, indemnified in the violence of Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Shiloh Church, shamed by the violence of the Indian Wars, reaffirmed by the violence of two world wars, a police action in Korea, and the conflict in Vietnam. Most of the guns carried in those armed actions were carried by boys about the age of the Littleton killers and not much older than Thomas Solomon, the Conyers, Georgia, shooter. ...

I sympathize with the losers of the world and to some degree understand the blind hormonal rage and ratlike panic which sets in as one senses the corridor of choice growing ever narrower, until violence seems like the only possible response to the pain. ...

I can't say for sure that Michael Carneal, the boy from Kentucky who shot three of his classmates dead as they prayed before school, had read my novel, Rage, but news stories following the incident reported that a copy of it had been found in his locker. It seems likely to me that he did. ... I asked my publisher to take the damned thing out of print. They concurred. ...

Do I think that Rage may have provoked Carneal, or any other badly adjusted young person, to resort to the gun? It's an important question, because it goes to the very heart of the wrangle over who's to blame. ... There are factors in the Carneal case which make it doubtful that Rage was the defining factor, but I fully recognize that it is in my own self-interest to feel just that way; that I am prejudiced in my own behalf. I also recognize the fact that a novel such as Rage may act as an accelerant on a troubled mind ...

My stories of adolescent violence were all drawn, in some degree, from my own memories of high school. That particular truth, as I recalled it when writing as an adult, was unpleasant enough. I remember high school as a time of misery and resentment. ...

I don't trust people who look back on high school with fondness; too many of them were part of the overclass, those who were taunters instead of tauntees. These are the ones least likely to understand the bogeyboys and to reject any sympathy for them (which is not the same as condoning their acts, a point which should not have to be made but which probably does).
King, revised introduction to The Bachman Books:
The fury and terror and jagged humour found in that story had only one real purpose, and that was the purpose of all my early fiction: to save my life and sanity. What made me feel so crazy so much of the time back then? I don't know ... and that's the truth. My head felt like it was always on the verge of exploding, but I have forgotten why.
King, Entertainment Weekly, April 2007:
Certainly in this sensitized day and age, my own college writing - including a short story called "Cain Rose Up" and the novel Rage - would have raised red flags, and I'm certain someone would have tabbed me as mentally ill because of them.
Next: Night Shift.


laura k said...

In my digital-games class last week, we played a controversial video game called Bully. I couldn't continue - I actually had to stop playing - because I found it so painful and disturbing. The main character is abused by every person in his life, and eventually strikes out as a bully. It wasn't his bullying actions that I found so disturbing - it was what led him to it.

In class discussion, I learned that most people took it as parody and thought it was funny. I was the oddball.

The first part of this post, the students' confessions, is along those lines - the powerlessness of young people, everyone in their life who should be supporting them just shitting on them instead.

laura k said...

"America was born in the violence of the Boston Massacre, indemnified in the violence of Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Shiloh Church, shamed by the violence of the Indian Wars, reaffirmed by the violence of two world wars, a police action in Korea, and the conflict in Vietnam. ..."

Our war-resister friend in Buffalo always says this.

Zenslinger said...

I remember feeling like this novel was a little adolescent. The stuff about school shootings is interesting, though.