A Teacher’s Perspective on Rage by Norman Prentiss
I’ll preface by saying that I’ve got about a decade’s worth of college teaching experience, and recently spent nine rewarding years working at a private Baltimore high school, where I was also Chair of the English Department. I’ve also been a teacher and administrator with a well-respected academic summer program.
So I could say, in the words of Rage‘s school principal, Thomas Denver, that “I’ve been in the kid business” for more than 20 years.
That, and been a kid, too, as most of us can fairly say about ourselves.
And I write horror.
During those years when I taught at the high school level, I worried that the subject matter of some of my stories might cause trouble with school administrators, might raise concerns for a few cautious parents. After all, one of my stories implies at the end that a child is smothered by her father; in another, a homeschooled boy gives birth through his abdomen to Lovecraftian monsters.
In a recent collaboration with Brian James Freeman I wrote about creepy Halloween Children. And with Michael McBride I wrote The Narrator, about an eighth grade classroom that spirals into crisis due to bewitching stories they hear from a classmate.
Despite the usual gruesome subject matter, with protagonists who sometimes matched the age of students in my charge, I never received any criticism from the school community. In fact, my high school actually sponsored an event to celebrate the publication of my first book, and it was one of the most rewarding moments of both my teaching and my writing careers.
Sure there were a few jokes at parent-teacher conferences. “I hope you’re not trying to scare my daughter…” Or, “That monster story isn’t autobiographical, is it, heh?” (to which I’d reply, “only 90% of it is true”–since I allowed myself to make jokes once in a while, too.)
Other than well-meaning jokes, though, I got no troubles at all about my horror fiction.
But then, I never attempted to write anything quite like Richard Bachman’s Rage.
Rage was a King/Bachman book I’d always heard a lot about, because of the controversial subject matter: a high school student shoots two teachers and then holds an entire class hostage at gunpoint. I knew that King pulled the book from circulation in response to real-life school shootings.
But I hadn’t actually read the book. I thought it might be interesting to look at Rage from the perspective of a teacher and sometime-administrator. My main question going in was:
Does my experience as a teacher make the novel scarier for me?
The answer to my question is yes, but maybe not for the reason you might think.
Obviously the most disturbing aspect of the book is the central character, Charlie Decker, and what he decides to do after he sets his locker on fire.
Since Charlie is the narrator of the novel, we really get inside his head–and it’s not a very comfortable place to visit. As the title suggests, he’s filled with rage. He can’t always explain his motives, which makes his rash actions all the more frightening. Yet, as confusing as he sometimes is to himself, he often has incredible insight into the lives of others. Here’s one example, describing Susan Brooks as “one of those girls who never say anything unless called upon, the ones that teachers always have to ask to speak up, please. A very studious, very serious girl…The kind who isn’t allowed to give up and take the general or the commercial course, because she had a terribly bright older brother or older sister, and teachers expect comparable things from her.” The passage goes lyrical after this, with Charlie imagining her future “as the shadow of the bright older brother or sister falls away.” It’s well observed, as anyone who’s taught siblings in different grades can attest.
So Charlie’s mania and paranoia undoubtedly disturb readers, but his intelligence can have the same effect. It can even, on some level, allow readers to sympathize with him.
Which prepares for the book’s final movement, when the students he holds hostage begin to take his side, eventually “getting it on” and committing their own acts of rage against a fellow classmate. This turnaround is a Lord of the Flies style development that horror fiction does particularly well: it reveals that despite the “obvious monster” in the room, a similar monster lurks within all of us.
The moment is so convincing in Rage because, to their own horror, readers likely have the same sympathies as the student hostages: at this point, they might also be rooting for Charlie; they’ve similarly grown irritated with their sanctimonious peer, Ted Jones, and stand idly by (or participate in their imagination) as the other characters punish him.
The book is disturbing because it forces us into the mind of a disturbed teenager, then shows us how all teenagers are disturbed. As the ever-articulate Charlie Decker phrases it: “I’m just telling you that American kids labor under a huge life of violence, both real and make-believe.”
Still, I haven’t touched on the moment that makes the book especially scary for me, that resonates with my worst fears as a teacher and administrator…
The moment occurs early in the book, before Charlie Dekker sets his locker on fire, before he takes the loaded gun to classroom 16.
He’s been called into Principal Denver’s office to learn the consequences of an earlier act of brutality against a teacher. Mr. Denver expresses that “he can’t understand why a thing like this happens.”
Charlie’s response is understated and chilling. “Don’t bother trying to understand,” he says. “Don’t lose any sleep over it.”
That blank wall. That angry refusal to explain. A flat assertion–“Don’t bother”–perhaps masking an inability to explain.
And how helpless the school administrator feels in the face of it.
That’s the scariest part of the book for me.
Because I’ve stared into that blank wall.
Not, obviously, facing a student as troubled as Charlie Decker. (God, at least I hope not!)
But I’ve been in situations as a Teacher, as a Department Head or Dean, when I’ve had to ask a student, “Why?” Maybe it’s something simple, about why an assignment hasn’t been turned in. Maybe it’s to ask why he/she bullied another student, or cheated on a test, or damaged a piece of school property.
Even as I’m wearing the mask of a disciplinarian, my ultimate goal is to help the student. Find out what happened, assign appropriate consequences (edu-speak for “punishments”), sure…but the main thing I want to do is help the student, so the behavior isn’t repeated. So the student can move on, and life will continue better for all of us.
What happens when I can’t get through that wall? When the student is so angry, and I’m only the adult figurehead?
What happens if I’m a buffoon, like Principal Denver?
Yeah, I know Principal Denver is a buffoon. He’s a kind of straw man, a clueless adult, not given the same depth as the book’s narrator. Most of the adults in the book get similar treatment–the school counselor; the heavy-breathing police officer, Frank Philbrick; the poor math teacher, Mrs. Underwood, lying dead on the classroom floor for most of the book. Some might argue these adult characters are a flaw in the novel, too broadly drawn.
Except, that’s how kids can see us. Especially when we’re most trying to help them.
My worst fear is that I’d become like Principal Denver. And I’m guessing sometimes I have been. I definitely have been.
Charlie’s mockery of his school principal, with Mr. Denver’s inept, but well-meaning attempts to help…and having no effect at all…
For me, that doomed dynamic is the truest, and scariest part of the book.
A couple years back, while brainstorming about a possible collaboration with another author, we discussed different scenarios we might write about. I volunteered that I often liked placing stories in a school setting, since I knew a lot about those.
The other writer suggested, “How about a school shooting?”
I immediately backed off. “No, no. I never want to touch that subject.” It was too hot, too close to home and to my everyday work life.
Now that I’ve finally read Rage, if that possibility comes up again, I can add (as I do about so many other subjects):
“Besides, Stephen King’s already covered it better than I ever could.”
Next you can read about the history of Rage or Richard Chizmar’s thoughts about revisiting the book. 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.
Norman Prentiss’s first book, Invisible Fences, was published in 2010 by Cemetery Dance Publications. His fiction has also appeared in Black Static, Commutability, Tales from the Gorezone, Damned Nation, Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and in three editions of the Shivers anthology series, and he won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction for “In the Porches of My Ears,” in Postscripts 18.
His newest releases include The Halloween Children (with Brian James Freeman) from Earthling Publications and new trade paperback editions of Invisible Fences, The Fleshless Man, and The Narrator (with Michael McBride) from Cemetery Dance Publications.