Revisiting Rage by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
My road to reading RAGE has been a long and twisting one.
Stephen King started writing RAGE (originally titled GETTING IT ON) in 1966, when he was a senior in high school. At some point, he stuffed the unfinished novel in a box, and it wasn’t until 1971 that he took the manuscript out and finished it. It was eventually published six years later, in 1977, under the now-famous pseudonym of Richard Bachman.
But by 1985, the entire world — including a college sophomore by the name of Rich Chizmar — knew that Richard Bachman was actually Stephen King (writing in a bad mood).
But, even armed with this new knowledge, I didn’t read RAGE until four or five years ago for the first time. If anyone is counting, that’s a full 25 years after I first discovered that RAGE was a King book.
So, why the long delay? I had read everything else King had written (with the exception of two novels, which hundreds of you have now guessed at; all incorrectly! Yes, this tickles me), but I had never bothered with RAGE.
To be honest, I had picked it up a couple times and started reading it; but it just didn’t click for me, and both times, I ended up putting the book down with intentions to revisit it later.
And then later somehow turned into 25 years.
It wasn’t because the book or the writing were bad. Not at all. The story of Charlie Decker was just so…dark. And nasty. And mean.
That’s right, the jaded reader who had adored and cherished every monster Stephen King could throw at me — from vampires to haunted cars to serial killers and rabid dogs — found teenaged Charlie Decker just a little too disturbing to want to spend time with.
Give me the sadistic husband from ROSE MADDER; give me the vengeful spirit from BAG OF BONES; or the bugfuck crazy cop from DESPERATION. Just don’t let Charlie Decker anywhere near me.
I now realize that part of my issue was the writing, or the language of the book. It was amazingly well written for such a young author (my God, he started writing it in high school!), but it was also stark and raw and smoldering with a barely (and then not at all) suppressed beehive of violence. The words didn’t sing; they buzzed like a swarm of angry hornets.
I wasn’t reading about a troubled and insane kid named Charlie Decker. I turned the pages, and I was Charlie Decker. And I didn’t like it one bit.
So, I put the book down.
For 25 years.
* * *
I’ve heard all the stories about the real life incidents involving RAGE and the related deadly shootings. I’ve read all about how Steve pulled the novel from publication and how difficult it is to find a copy nowadays.
These things have made me thoughtful and angry and of course, sorrowful. I’m afraid we live in a world gone increasingly mad.
But, once again, this was never the reason I waited 25 years to read RAGE. I just want to be clear on that.
* * *
When I finally did sit down to read RAGE, as a much older man, I finished the book in a matter of hours. I am convinced this is the only way I could have ever read it to completion. I entered Charlie’s world — Charlie’s mind — and didn’t leave it until the story was told.
And what a story it is.
RAGE is not a great book; it’s a very good book, and I feel like I survived it, more than enjoyed it.
But that’s a tribute to Steve’s rare talent and imagination, and I’m glad I finally broke through and read it.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
An admission: I emailed Steve back in early December and asked if he was okay with RAGE being included in my STEPHEN KING REVISITED project. My guess was it would be fine, but I needed to be sure when dealing with such a controversial title. To my delight, Steve was not only supportive of the idea, he was downright encouraging. I’m grateful for that.
As I did the first time around, I sat down and read RAGE in one sitting. And, once again, I’m convinced it’s the only way this puppy was gonna get read.
My feelings haven’t changed since my initial aborted attempts to read the book, nor since my first successful attempt four or five years ago.
It’s simple, really.
It’s just too real for me.
You must understand, I am the ultimate believer.
I believe in Bigfoot and UFOs.
I believe in magic and voodoo.
I believe that somewhere out there is a huge Saint Bernard that has been bitten by a rabid bat. And he’s just waiting for me.
I believe there is a car from another dimension. Maybe even several.
I believe there is a town inhabited by vampires. It’s not in New England. It’s dangerously close to me, in Pennsylvania.
I believe there is another town trapped inside a dome.
I believe in these things. I do.
But here’s the difference with RAGE…I don’t just believe there are Charlie Deckers walking around right out there; I know it.
They exist. They are walking around in our schools, our shopping malls, our churches. They are wearing jeans and t-shirts, suits and ties, nurse and police and private school uniforms.
Charlie Deckers have become a steadfast part of the world we live in.
And the thought terrifies me.
* * *
There are plenty of frightening and disturbing scenes to choose from in RAGE — ranging from Charlie’s troubled, internal thoughts to his bitter memories of his parents to moments in the classroom that absolutely sizzle with violence and rage — but, for me, the scariest of them all comes quite early in the novel.
Charlie has just told off Principal Denver in his office and exited with his shirt unbuttoned and pants unzipped, crying “rape.”
I gave him every chance.
I waited for him to charge out and grab me, all the way to the staircase. I didn’t want salvation. I was either past that point or never reached it. All I wanted was recognition…or maybe for someone to draw a yellow plague circle around my feet.
He didn’t come out.
And when he didn’t, I went ahead and got it on.
Charlie then walks down the stairs, whistling, to his locker in the first-floor hallway. There, he rips up his textbooks and drops them to the bottom of his locker, and takes out a box of shells for the pistol we now learn is in his jacket pocket. He takes the pistol out of his pocket and shoves it into his belt, puts the shells in his pants pocket and, using his Scripto lighter, sets his locker on fire. He watches it burn for a moment, then:
I turned back to Room 16 and opened the door. I was hoping, but I didn’t know what.
As a reader, I felt sick and thought I knew what was coming next…but it was worse than I imagined. So much worse.
When class bad girl, Grace Stanner, and class bully, Irma Bates, go at each other in Chapter 20; first, trading graphic insults and verbal jabs and then fists. With puppetmaster Charlie in complete control of all of it.
It’s a nasty little slice, reminiscent of LORD OF THE FLIES and foreshadowing many future King scenes where perfectly ordinary people misbehave after the rules of society have broken down (think of characters in books such as THE MIST, NEEDFUL THINGS, and CELL).
The morning I got it on was nice; a nice May morning.
(Talk about your innocent opening lines…)
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
It’s not a physically violent scene, but it still made me want to close the book both times I read RAGE. I’m talking about Chapters 18 and 19 — where Mr. Grace, the school shrink, gets on the intercom to talk to Charlie, and Charlie ends up interrogating/torturing him with pointed questions covering everything from Grace’s military service to his sex life with his wife.
The scene ends with Grace breaking down in sobs and returning outside to the waiting police officers. In an example of spare, powerful prose, a young Stephen King describes it like this:
After what seemed like a long, long time, he shut the intercom off. A long time after that, he came into view on the lawn again, walking toward the enclave of cops on the lawn, walking in his tweed coat with the suede elbow patches, bald head gleaming, cheeks gleaming. He was walking slowly, like an old man.
It was amazing how much I liked seeing him walk like that.
(Close second: any scene where Charlie talks about his father or mother.)
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Charlie Decker, of course. Was Charlie ever able to re-enter society? If so, did he behave or did he end up getting it on again? Did the bad dreams come back?
After all, the old guy sitting next to you in the movie theater? Standing behind you in line at the grocery store? Walking toward you on that dark street? It could very well be Charlie…
START DATE – December 11, 2014
FINISH DATE – December 11, 2014
Next you can read about the history of Rage. The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Great revisit. This book is chilling and concise and has stuck with me a very long time. The thought that this was developed by SK in highschool is damn amazing.
Charlie is as real of a character as I’ve read and he is scary as hell.
Well stated Richard.
You nailed it. Charlie Deckers do exist. Which takes Rage out of the world of fiction and into the world of unpleasant truths.
The mind set difference between believing and knowing is a chasm that is rarely crossed. Especially when the knowing involves facing ugly truths. This is where the true legacy of Rage lies. Not as a – at the time accelerant – but as a sobering historical bookmark of reality.
Real life is always much scarier than fiction. The fact that people like Charlie exist absolutely terrifies me and that makes Rage and books like it very effective reads. Have you read The Girl Next Door or Stranglehold by Jack Ketchem? They fall into the same category for me as Rage. Good books I wish that I hadn’t read. Because sometimes the story gets stuck in your head,,,,
Great essay & well worth the wait!
You are not alone Richard. I believe too!
Charlie’s world is definately an unsettling place.
It maddened me that the kids weren’t more disturbed over their teacher lying there dead.
(they could of overtaken him)
The part in Charlies childhood where he breaks the window glass literally made me cringe and hang my head.
“Survived the book” … Amen!
I too, was glad when it was over.
I read all 211 pages of RAGE in one sitting.
It’s funny because I had been hesitant to crack open the darn thing at all considering it’s checkered history. The book was found in the backpack, locker and bedroom of three separate students involved in mass school shootings, at which point even Stephen King decided he’d had enough. Like the many libraries that had previously banned RAGE from their shelves, King pulled the novel from publication and never allowed it to be reprinted again.
Do you mind if we pause here and think about that for a moment? Good. Let’s. Artists generally refer to their work as their “babies.” King himself has called his stories his “children” on occasion, so it begs the question: What is a parent to do when a child goes bad?
And by bad, I mean really bad. Steals dad’s gun and gets it on with the school bad. Do they defend the child’s right to exist freely? Do they lock the kid up and throw away the key? Do they blame themselves?
In the case of King and his troubled boy RAGE, the answers might have been YES across the board. A staunch advocate against censorship, King once while speaking before a group of young people said of banned books, “Run, don’t walk, to the first library or bookstore you can find and read what they are trying to keep out of your eyes.” …So, why was RAGE any different?
If RAGE was a bad seed, perhaps he blamed himself. Maybe he was too young to have a child, too innocent to understand the power of words. RAGE was conceived by an unsettled and hormonal adolescent mind, written when King was just a boy of barely 18 years old still in high school. For him, it was a healthy and creative way of working out his inner demons. But a decade later, when King decided to secretly publish it under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1977, it became a deadly inspiration for disturbed teens.
King wrote several books under the Bachman name for reasons he says even he is not entirely sure, but one of them was to see if he could do it all over again. He’d become an instant bestseller, fearing his books were hitting the #1 spot based on his name, not on their merit. So he quietly lowered a new line into the pond and waited to see if anyone would bite. Many did, and many knew. The second RAGE hit the shelves, King began receiving letters from his fans asking if he and Bachman were one in the same. (It’s pretty friggin’ obvious.) He lied. Until he couldn’t. In 1984, his hometown newspaper in Bangor uncovered evidence that King was indeed the reclusive Bachman.
But we’ve digressed.
The most shocking thing about RAGE? How funny it is. I mean, I have never laughed so hard at a Stephen King novel. The book’s main character, Charlie Decker, a student who holds his algebra class up at gun point, has a morose wit that rivals Dorothy Parker. It’s a clever novel because Charlie is a clever character. He’s extremely intelligent, and has no intention of harming any of his fellow students at all. He’s more interested in taking down the faculty, but not before he has thoroughly mind fu**ed them all one by one.
As Charlie tries goading the guidance counselor into revealing his own dirty laundry, the wannabe doc spits, “I won’t play a cheap parlor game with human lives for party favors, Charlie.”
“Congratulations to you,” Charlie commands. “You just described modern psychiatry. That oughta be the textbook definition, Don. Now let me tell you: You’ll take a piss out the window if I tell you to, or somebody’s gonna get shot.”
Charlie’s game is to put a spotlight on the ugly truths about adults: That they are more powerful than they know, and more hypocritical than they could possibly imagine. Charlie’s lot is not simply to rage, but to do so against the machine, and with cunning aplomb he’s an antagonist you can’t help but root for.
Meanwhile, bearing witness to Charlie’s outburst gives his fellow students the freedom to have outbursts of their own. While held hostage together for hours on end, they open up to Charlie and to each other, discussing their deepest insecurities, their alcoholic parents, their hatred of themselves and of the world.
Yes. RAGE, for all the controversy that surrounds it today, is really just a funnier and more fu**ed up version of The Breakfast Club.
Reading it now, one can’t help but cry; not only for Charlie, who we know will have to face the consequences of his actions, but also for RAGE who had to face its own.
I read Rage a few years ago and it didn’t bother me. I mean, I understand how terrifying it is that people like Charlie Decker do exist, but it is not a new phenomenon and it did not create killers or even influence them. Without Rage, a killer would have found inspiration in their own rage or in SpongeBob Squarepants. I’m not saying we need violence for violence’s sake because we don’t, and when it is used it should be for a reason. I just personally believe that nothing touches fiction. It can inspire, but so can anything else. All that being said, I liked the story…didn’t love it, not like I did Blaze from Bachman, but it was just a story to me, as it should remain to anybody. What impresses me is how well it is written for someone so young, who hasn’t fully experienced life to write yet. I also wonder how different I am from other people, because I have never been scared by a book. I have been uncomfortable; I have understood how much a situation would be terrible for somebody; I have even shuddered a bit, but never been scared at anything in a novel (and barely on screen, too). I kind of wish I was capable, it would make the experience so much more different.
I too find Rage a difficult book to get through cause it is so brutal. I did find it contains some interestingly put one-liners like the desciption of the shrink’s job:to fuck the mentally disturbed and make them pregnant with sanity. Or “That was dad’s life and I was the birdshit on his windshield.
+Real life drama. Very good!
I’m a bit late but I’m so engrossed in The Stand, I’ve not been here for a while!!
Very well reviewed, Richard. And kudos to Jason Sechrest…very well written! I actually like the story. I find it a bit implausible (the class would have completley freaked when he shot his teacher, going under desks and perhaps out broken windows) but hey, it’s fiction. I too, thought the story was more about Charlie’s ability to mindf__k (sorry, there’s no other word for it!) people (adults and peers alike) than the actual killing of two people. I actually sat in a class around 1976 (I’d have been a soph) while something “somewhat” similar to this happened. No killing (!) but this senior guy was a real ass clown and thought he was the toughest guy in the world. He got into a discussion with our teacher in a geography class over a social question posed about the middle east (oil crisis and such at that time…). He did everything in his power to trip the teacher’s trigger…the teacher was the wrestling coach and quite a scary dude. To the teacher’s credit, he volleyed back and forth for quite a while with this kid and never lost his temper (visibly) or said anything inappropriate. Finally, a kid in the back of the room spoke up and told this guy to shut his damned mouth. The entire class went silent and “Mr. Mouth” just turned, looked at this guy and mouthed the words “You’re Dead”. Class continued and after school, there was a heller fight in which (unfortunately) Mr. Mouth won but not without taking a few good shots.
So when reading Rage, I saw this guy from my youth as Charlie for a while. But Charlie turned out to be WAY smarter and more manipulative than my aquantance ever could have dreamed.
To me, Rage quickly became a story about how Charlie could humiliate Ted Jones and I think even Charlie was surprised by the way the class turned on Ted and drove him nuts. Classic King…even though it was basically the first!!
Last tidbit from me contains some real life irony…in the “Deleted Scenes” from ‘Salem’s Lot, there is a mention (and forgive me, I don’t have the book at work with me) of some authors who have written novels that were like Rage in that they caused real life actions to happen. Almost prophetic…I urge all of you to find that section of the Lot and read it again.
This was a short one…..read most of it in a couple of sittings. I first read this book in 2007. I had always had a curiosity to read it, and especially since it was long out of print at that time. I was finally able to read it when I stumbled upon an old battered copy of The Bachman Books at a used book store. The original paperbacks of Rage these days are so rare that I’ve seen torn up copies on eBay go for so much as $800-$900 bucks. So the only cheap way to read it is to get the Bachman Books collection. It’s hard to describe how I feel about this book. I didn’t really care for it when I first read it and I liked it better this time, but it still didn’t really bring me any enjoyment that I get from reading a really good story. It was written by King when he was very young. He started it when he was in high school and finished it when he was in college. He tried to publish it under his own name and couldn’t. So eventually he got it published under a pseudonym. That being Richard Bachman. It’s the story of Charlie Decker who is a troubled teen who is losing his mind and decides to take a gun to school and proceeds to invade a classroom, shoot a teacher, and hold the class hostage and proceeds to perform an act of telling them stories of his childhood, his troubled relationship with his father and he also wants to get into the heads of all of his classmates. He refers to this whole thing as “Getting it on” which was King’s original title for book. It’s a very psychological kind of story….not really horror at all. Because of what the story is about and because we see this kind of thing happen in schools all of the time these days, it makes it very difficult to enjoy it. This book had apparently been implemented in several school shootings thoughout the 80’s and 90’s and he finally had it taken out of print when one of the shooters was found with a copy of it in his locker and it remains out of print to this very day. Since it was one of the first novels he ever wrote, it is good, but rough around the edges. All of the books he published under the Bachman name always have a darker tone. That’s exactly what this book is. Dark and completely relentless. It pulls no punches whatsoever. You read this book, it punches you in the face, knocks you down, then proceeds to kick you over and over while you quiver on the ground. Just brutal. All of the Bachman books are like this. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think over and over about Columbine which happened when I was in high school and had everybody pretty paranoid that they banned us from even bringing backpacks into the school. And it also made me think of the Sandy Hook shooting which was only just a couple years ago. I’m not somebody who thinks that a person can be turned into a killer by what kind of music they listen to, or what kind of video games they play, or what kind of books they read. But maybe these kinds of things can act as an accelerant to those who are emotionally and mentally unstable. Maybe that’s why he took it out of print. This story just hits a little too close to home with what we see in the world these days. It drags in some spots during Charlie’s flashbacks. The action is intense and suspenseful and you speed through the pages (even the stuff that drags) to see how things will turn out in this classroom, but not enough for me where I could think that this book is just so awesome. It’s not in the same league with the other books he had published before this like Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining. So with all of that being said, it falls into the average range for me.
Well, I’m a little late to the party for this book, but thought I would throw my two cents in. I haven’t read this book since 1985 or so, so I only have vague recollections of the book. I remember not liking it at all, and having a bad taste in my mouth afterwards. I rank it in the bottom 5 of SK books.
My main issue wasn’t so much with the character of Charlie, but rather with the rest of the class. I vaguely recall there was some jock or prep in the class that was trying to stop Charlie, but that the rest of the class seemed to turn on him. I came away from the book feeling like SK didn’t want Charlie to be the villain of the book, but maybe more like the hero. I felt the jock/prep guy was vilified, when he should have been the hero. It just didn’t sit well with me. Maybe my recollections are way off after 30 years.
No Mike, I think you’re pretty spot on. Charlie became bent on screwing with the jock’s mind and yes, the class DID turn on him…drove him mad. As for liking or not liking, I simply love SK so whatever he does in his stories, I just go along with it (what else can I do?). Sure, he’s killed characters that I really liked in practically every book but that’s his story. I might get pissed off when a great character gets killed or maimed or whatever but I just turn the corner with Steve and try to stay in his mind. That’s how I enjoy the stories without being (too) disappointed or judgmental. They’re all good to me…some more than others, of course but there is nothing he’s written that I don’t like. Maybe I’m too easy going? Maybe…but I always know I’m gonna have fun when I sit down with King story.
I read it in nearly a single sitting. The relative calmness of Charlie throughout the entire book was the most unsettling thing, especially when compared with a book like The Shining. Jack Torrence and Charlie Decker are two people coming apart at the seams, but in polar opposite ways.
Some of the most fun in this re-read is identifying bits of King that get reverberated throughout his work. Like when Charlie wishes he could step through the kodachrome to warn his aunt Jessie about the fire. A very early hint at a much larger theme that SK took up in 11/22/63. Or the echo from The Shining when Charlie, contemplating Ted thinks, Take off your mask, Ted. (I could almost hear the “Unmask! Unmask!” from the ghostly ball at the Overlook.
And perhaps the most ironic line of the whole book, when Charlie is recalling the books is father reads: “She [his mother] finally broke down and told him that Richard Stark was really Donald Westlake.” Oh, the irony!
I read Rage when I was 12 or 13 and I loved it. Read it 3 or 4 more times in the next couple of years. I was bullied mercilessly in school so Charlie Decker was a hero to me and I dreamed of having the balls to do what he did.
I read Rage when I was 17 years old. The same age as Charlie in the book and… I don’t know. I’m feeling like na outsider here. I HATED the book. Not because it made me feel unpleasant, or dirty, or angsty, or whatever. I I thought it was a pretentious and badly written book. It felt to me like it was wriiten by a teenager who thought too much of himself and his “artistic” qualities. Don’t take me wrong, I love King’s books, but King’s immaturity is felt throughout this one. I think part of the reason KIngs doesn’t want new editions of the book it is because is that badly writtem
I must say Charlie is the best character of the book, but this isn’t saying much. Kings’s immaturity is felt on Chralie and he seemed to me a whiny teenager with too much time in his hands. Charlie, you don’t know a thing about pain, spare me of your teenage rebellion and anger. But other characters, my God, I couldn’t believe how the behaved. The school’s shrink, please, any psychologist would laugh at Charlie´s pedestrian attempt at turning tables. Worst of all were the students. I get the Stockolm Sndrome and stuff, but no human being, NO HUMAN BEING, were going to behave like that with an obviously armed deranged teenager who just murdered two people, one of them right in front of them. They would be weeping, pissing on their pants, mumbling, not able to perform Charlie’s stupid mind games. And the worst ending of a Kings’s book. I can even imagine him thinking about some really shocking stuff to shock the reader “See how humanity stinks”, etc.
However, King must have done something right (or wrong). It disturbed many people, many teens seems to consider Charlie a hero of some sorts. It struck a chord. Maybe is not my thing.
I have mixed feelings on this book. I have a copy of it, the Bachmann Books, and I am glad I do, but I hated the ending. Both Charlie and Ted end up institutionalized, but unlike Charlie, no hope for Ted exists at all, quite likely he will either die or end up a vegetable. I hated how his classmates turned on him like that, left me with a bad taste, but I do not think they meant to drive him insane just to help him, but sometimes as the saying goes, you must be cruel to be kind. I also appreciated that Charlie stayed with Ted consoling him until he was arrested. Overall, it was a good book, but it could have had a better ending.