It’s Only a Little Secret, But Having a Secret Makes Me Feel Better

(Rage)

When I was in high school, I owned a book called The Bachman Books. It was a collection of four novellas written by Stephen King under his pen name of Richard Bachman. By this time, it was well-known that Bachman was King, of course.

I believe that Rage appeared first among those novellas collected in the book. You can still go pick up a copy of The Bachman Books today, but unless it’s an old edition that you found in a thrift store or used bookstore, it won’t have Rage in it, just the other three novellas. Rage is out of print.

Rage is a book about a school shooting. It has been connected to a number of real-life school shootings, including a 1997 incident in Kentucky where a copy of the novella was found in the shooter’s locker. This was the incident that apparently prompted King to let the book go out of print.

To be clear, I don’t think Rage is a causal factor in any school shooting, and I don’t believe that King thinks that it is either. Fiction doesn’t cause people to become violent – if it did, a lot more people would be serial killers, given the interest in stories about them. I do think he decided that his book wasn’t helping. I suspect he feels strongly about the problem of gun violence, and school shootings in particular. As many people do. I think he decided that if letting the book go out of print helped more than letting the book stay in print, he may as well let it go out of print. It’s not like he desperately needed Rage residuals by 1997. Had I not read the book when I was younger, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go looking for it for this round of reading. It’s not particularly important to the canon, and though I actually like it, it’s not an especially inspired bit of storytelling. But I did read it and wanted to include it, and while it may no longer be in print, it is out there, for those who are interested enough in finding it. Everything is on the internet. Or in thrift stores. Or whatever.

In Rage, a disturbed student shoots a teacher and takes a classroom hostage. Most of the students in the class react not with the fear that you would expect, but with some interest in the proceedings. There’s an extended period where a number of the students, including the shooter, reveal personal things about themselves. The shooter, Charlie, also reveals the events that led up to the shooting. The class turns on one particular classmate – the self-righteous and somewhat obnoxious Ted – before the hostage situation finally ends. At the end of the novella, Ted is injured and perhaps permanently insane, Charlie is in an institution, and we see a letter that mentions what several of the involved classmates are up to, with many of the most interesting bits redacted.

Rage doesn’t factor into the multiverse in any particular way – fair, since it was written very early on and under a pen name that at the time was unconnected to Stephen King. It bears some tonal similarities with other stories he has written about angry young men. I read it first as a teenager – and as an angry young woman – and while I’ve never been violent in my life and I hate guns, I still managed to feel a connection to Charlie. I think King captures something important here about the frustration and confusion and unfairness of being an almost-adult in an adult’s world, and again, I found it very relatable. Then, anyway.

On this reread, I was mostly horrified by Charlie and by most of the other teens in the story, which I think says more about me than about the story. I’ve gotten old. I don’t relate to them anymore. I don’t really relate to the adults in the story either, but the teenage rage that I felt fairly regularly at the time that I first read this doesn’t really exist in me anymore. It barely even exists as a memory.

This story is very dated. When I read it as a teen, it reminded me of leafing through one of my mother’s yearbooks. The time gulf may actually put it too far away to be relatable to today’s teens at all. So, it’s probably just as well that they won’t be able to pick it up randomly. King says that it’s a good thing that it’s out of print. I concur (who am I to argue?) but I’m glad I read it anyway. I think it says something worth saying – and hearing – about what the world looks and feels like to teenagers. As the parent of a couple of them myself, I feel like it’s important to remember just how strong emotions are, just how strange and hypocritical adults may look to them, just how desperate you can feel. I think a lot of that strength of feeling burns itself out as you age, and adult actions make more sense when you start to feel more like an adult yourself (hopefully, anyway). And the teen years are kind of like labor and delivery – you know that it hurt, but once you’re not actively in it anymore, you don’t really remember the intensity of it. Stories like this can help with that.

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