Rage by Stephen King

On April 26, 1998 Jeffrey Cox walked into a classroom in San Gabriel High School with a semi-automatic rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition. He proceeded to fire his weapon and force the teacher out of the room while he held the remaining 70 students hostage. He then ordered pizza, soda, and cigarettes. He loved Rage. On September 18, 1989, Dustin Pierce held his algebra class hostage for nine hours. A copy of Rage was found in his bedroom. On February 2, 1996, Barry Loukaitis walked into his algebra class and killed his teacher and two students; he planned on holding the rest of the class for ransom, but he was disarmed by another teacher. Loukaitis claimed to have modeled his life after Rage’s Charlie Decker. On December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal walked into his high school and shot eight of his fellow students, three of whom died. He had a copy of Rage in his locker.

(If you intend the read this book, beware of the spoilers in this paragraph.) One spring morning in Maine, Charlie Decker walks out of his high school principal’s office, sets his locker on fire, and returns to his algebra class with a gun. He kills his teacher and then a second teacher who tries to walk in the door. Meanwhile, the fire in his locker sets off the alarm and the school is evacuated. Charlie and the students remain in the classroom as the school is surrounded by the police and media. As the day wears on, the hostage situation turns into a confessional of sorts – sex, drugs, and disillusionment are the order of the day. They bond over the inability to feel real and familial dysfunction. In fact, they almost have a good time – everyone except Ted. Ted is the only one truly held against his will and the students know it. Charlie just sits back and gets it on. By the time he ends the standoff at 1:00pm, the other students have beaten Ted into a catatonic state. He never recovers. Charlie is found in the classroom by a police officer. The cop shoots him, assuming he was armed. He wasn’t. The novel ends with a recovered Charlie, in an asylum, receiving a friendly letter from one of the students he held at gunpoint, wishing him well.


“Now out of print, and a good thing” is how the author describes one of the first novels he ever wrote. Rage is filled with the angst, insecurity, and anger that typically permeates at least some part of our teenage years – mine included – and King relied heavily upon his own pain and frustration experienced in high school while writing this novel. In my opinion, Stephen King is the master of showing the horror – the truly evil deeds – that humans can inflict upon one another.  What he excels at, and what I believe Rage lacks, is tempering evil with sense and hope. This novel was written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman and I think the bleak, dark (and sometimes blackly humorous) tone of this novel is Bachman’s signature, rather than King’s. King explains it better than me:

“Bachman–a fictional creation who became more real to me with each published book which bore his byline–was a rainy-day sort of guy if ever there was one. The good folks mostly win, courage usually triumphs over fear, the family dog hardly ever contracts rabies; these are things I knew at twenty-five, and things I still know now, at the age (almost) of 25 x 2. But I know something else as well: there’s a place in most of us where the rain is pretty much constant, the shadows are always long, and the woods are full of monsters. It is good to have a voice in which the terrors of such a place can be articulated and its geography partially described, without denying the sunshine and clarity that fills so much of our ordinary lives. For me, Bachman was that voice.”

There is no doubt Charlie Decker is angry. He is hateful and he is self-righteous. He’s also the victim of abuse, neglect, and bullying. Charlie’s rage boils over into his current situation – his algebra class, as it happens – without any thought to the consequences. He needs someone to blame, but he doesn’t have that, not really, because in the end we all have to own our actions. He does so in such a way that there can be no silver lining. I can’t say that I empathize with Charlie, but I am not without understanding either. Being a teenager sucks and being an abused, ostracized teenager sucks even more, but ultimately he is still an unstable boy who brought a gun to school to prove a point that no one would ever buy. Even if that’s not the way it goes in the book…

“They understood that. They all understood it. This is not the same as comprehension, but it was good enough. When you stop to think, the whole idea of comprehension has a faintly archaic taste, like the sound of forgotten tongues or a look into a Victorian camera obscura. We Americans are much higher on simple understanding. It makes it easier to read the billboards when you’re heading into town on the expressway at plus-fifty. To comprehend, the mental jaws have to gape wide enough to make the tendons creak. Understanding, however, can be purchased on every paperback-book rack in America.”

For what it’s worth, I suspect my own reading of this novel is heavily influenced by what I believe and where I live. And while it won’t win me any popularity points, I’ll be honest, I am vehemently anti-gun. I don’t own a gun, I will never own a gun, I would not even date a person who owned a gun. I may cut you a bit of slack if you live in the wilds of Montana, but, for my fellow suburban residents, I will never understand why you need one, nor will I ever understand why lawmakers insist on making it so easy to buy one. For a reason that mystifies me, people fail to connect guns to gun related crime. Yet it’s not stretch of the imagination to connect gun related violence to books, movies, or music…

Furthermore, I live in Colorado where there’s an extensive history of (recent) gun violence against children*. It’s hard to routinely drive by a movie theater where 70 people were shot in a matter of minutes and be sympathetic to the laments of the NRA. I find it hard to be sympathetic to the Charlie Deckers of the world, although I do think it’s imperative to try. As for the novel itself, the writing is serviceable, but not great. The characters are compelling, but they lack depth. Despite this, I think it’s a good, important book and it’s a shame to see it out of print (yet I completely understand why). King sets out to show how dangerous an angry boy can be, he sets out to show the evil that can result from real (or imagined) teenage ostracization, and in that he’s a raging success. In the end, that’s what makes Rage such a powerful read.

Do you ever read books that you know will hit a little too close to home? I think one of the things Rage handles really well is the dark side of the teenage experience. So what about you? Were you teenage years good, bad, or indifferent? I moved around so much that I never really knew anyone and no one ever knew me, so I was a loner by default.

Be sure to check out Heather’s and sj’s thoughts, as well as Rebecca’s reading experience.

*In the Denver area, Columbine High School, Platte Canyon High School, Arapahoe High School, and the Aurora Shooting stand out in my mind, though there are others that are certainly no less tragic.

14 thoughts on “Rage by Stephen King

  1. All of the shootings listed at the beginning were actual cases, all connected to this book? If so, that’s crazy!

    I live in a sticks type area – a heavy hunting area – where people say, “If they come to take my gun, they’ll get the bullet first.” It has become less “sticks” as time has passed, but old habits die hard. I myself cannot fathom having a gun, but it’s only because I would probably accidentally shoot myself and I’m scared to death of a gun accident happening.


    1. They are!

      Most of Colorado is very conservative/pro-gun too. The Denver area is not as much, but the Denver area is the only highly populated area in the state. The rest of it is pretty rural. I worry that would happen to me too and I wouldn’t even want that possibility.


  2. Thanks for the mention!

    I am also anti-gun. I grew up in an area where hunting was a big deal (I’m also personally anti-hunting, but I’m not so much anti-hunting guns for others), but aside from that I don’t understand the need to own guns, either. Especially assault rifles. Just…why?


    1. You’re welcome.

      Agreed, on all of it. Colorado is a funny state, there’s a slim corridor nearly straight down the center where it’s an urban environment. It tends to be anti-gun and fairly liberal. And then there’s the other 90% of the state…


  3. I haven’t read this one, but Stephen King wrote a really good essay called, “Guns,” where amongst other things, he discusses his decision to cease any new circulation of this book.
    I, too, don’t understand the gun obsession in the US and I’m constantly disappointed when I read the news everyday and see new reports of gun violence.
    A man once walked up and stood next to me and pulled out a handgun firing repeatedly. He shot the other man standing behind me (as well as hitting parked cars and buildings, but luckily no one else). It was traumatic for everyone on the sidewalk that night.


    1. I haven’t picked up Guns yet, but it’s definitely on my list. If I was Stephen King, I wouldn’t circulate Rage anymore either. I think, in America particularly, there is very much a blaming culture. As if those boys had never read Rage they never would’ve had the urge to shoot anybody. I think the book itself points out that a lot of factors lead up to the urge to shoot somebody, least of which is a book (and a lot of which is mental instability, abuse, etc.).


  4. I’m fairly anti-gun, too. It frustrates me when anyone suggests gun-control that people throw around the ‘right to bear arms’ even though no one is trying to take away all of their guns. I would never own one myself.

    I would like to revisit this book soon. I started reading it awhile ago, and had a hard time continuing.


    1. I think people worry that fun control is a slippery slope, as if more regulation is just the first stepping stone to a full on ban of guns.

      It’s worth it to make it through. It’s not a great book, but I think it is an important one.


  5. I fully understand where you’re coming from. I’m also anti-gun, and I think they’re kind of scary. Yes, I’m sure people’s lives have been saved by guns, but in general, they’re used for evil. This book is intense, and Charlie is almost democratic in his methods. It’s amazing the power he ends up having over his classmates, and the respect he gains as well. I happened to read the book at a sad time in our gun-history, which is why I chose not to review it in a traditional way. But this book is so incredibly current – it’s a school shooting, which is in the news all the time, way too often. It’s a must-read, I think, a while it’s a harder-to-find Bachman/King book, it’s worth the search.


    1. I have a hard time believing that the average person is in need of a gun. I just don’t buy it. I think possession of a gun in a stressful situation usually leads to more harm than good (unless you are specifically trained, like a police officer, and even then it goes awry more frequently than anyone would like to admit – sort of like the end of Rage).

      If events like Sandy Hook have to happen, I wish more discussion on gun control would’ve come from it. Right after that event, there was a lot of talk, but to little effect (yet). Although I think the side that proposed teachers start carrying guns was the scariest of all…


  6. This is really a stunning review, Rory. It’s so interesting to read King’s comments along with your own. This book would certainly stir up a lot of emotions for me, but I think it would also force many readers to confront an ugly, but wildly important topic head-on. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention!


    1. Thanks. School shootings are a tragic part of our culture now. We’re shocked every time it happens, yet it keeps happening. I don’t know what there is to be done about it, but I think books that address the topic are an important step.


  7. Oddly enough, my high school experience was (thankfully) pretty tame. I wasn’t in the popular crowd, but I didn’t have to deal with any bullying, and most teasing stopped quickly enough with a retort of self-defense. And, being Canadian, my attitude toward guns is… rather clueless. I don’t think I truly understand the impact of laws that allow people to bear arms so easily. This is a great review, and thought provoking, considering the sudden rise in cases of random violence. (Actually, Calgary one of the worst cases of stabbings in recent history.)


    1. Gun laws are enforced on a state by state basis and in many cases, it’s easier to purchase a gun than it is to get a drivers license. It’s really unfortunate. There has to be a better way to go about it.

      And thanks, it was a review I waffled on for a while. I generally try not to express much in the way of political opinions as to not drive people away, but in this case it so profoundly influenced the way I thought about the book that I figured I should share.


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