Should Stephen King's 'Rage' Return to Print?
In Stephen King’s Rage, a high school student with a gun shoots his algebra teacher and takes a class of high schoolers hostage.
King wrote the book when he himself was in high school. He let it sit, and after he’d published half a dozen bestsellers, he rewrote Rage and had it published in paperback under the Richard Bachman pseudonym. The book sold decently, and then it pretty much went away, as most books do.
1988: A high school student takes his class hostage. He was partially inspired by a book he read. A book called Rage.
1989: A young hostage taker says he was partially motivated by a book he’d been reading. Rage.
1996: School shooting, three dead. Rage is quoted by the shooter.
1997: Another school shooting. 3 dead, 5 wounded. Copy of Rage in the kid’s locker.
At that point, King asked his publishers to pull Rage from publication. They obliged, and it's been out of print since.
I understand that this is some thin ice I’m skating. Questioning Stephen King’s decision-making isn’t something I’m qualified to do. He chose to write bestselling novels, and I choose to eat Bugles from the coffee table with my face so I can play Nintendo without getting my fingers greasy.
This is not about proving whether or not King was “right” to pull Rage from publication. It’s about revisiting the decision knowing what we know now, being in the place we are now, and talking about the reasons why it should or shouldn't come back into print.
Let's look at the yes's and no's.
Yes: The right book
Something that Stephen King is really good at, and perhaps underrated for, is his ability to tap into certain aspects of life. Reading IT, I didn't love it for the horror aspects so much as I loved the way it reminded me of what it was like to be a kid.
Rage is a book that taps into the frustration of being a high school student in a way that's honest, brutal, and unflinching. As good fiction does, it takes the feeling of something like high school, the feeling of being trapped, the feeling that everything is life and death, and makes those feelings into narrative reality. Stephen King is a writer who is uniquely suited to write something like Rage and make it an effective book.
If there's going to be a handful of school shooting books out there, Rage should be one of them.
No: King's choice
Had King waited longer, it’s very possible that pulling Rage wouldn’t have been his choice. Or, pulling it would have meant something very different.
By pulling it when he did, by making his own decision regarding Rage, King was in control. And his book didn’t have to stand for some larger issue surrounding censorship, violent media, or school shootings. He could simply choose to pull the book, removing it from the larger discussion, and it remained his decision about his book.
Bringing it back takes away King's right to make his own decisions about his art.
Yes: Violence and media
I want to be fair to Stephen King. Here's what he says:
My book did not break [school shooters] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don't leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.
King's walking a line. He's not saying that Rage caused violence, and he's not apologizing for the book's existence. But his words and actions send a mixed message.
Keeping Rage out of print lends credence to the idea that violent books make violent boys.
If you ask me, it's pretty hard to go on a shooting spree while holding an armload of books.
No: Part of the system, man!
It’s like this. I might feel like negative book reviews provide a needed service, but that doesn’t mean I have to write them. I might be glad they exist and feel they have every right to exist, but I might not want to participate.
Stephen King might feel a book like Rage has every right to exist, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be that book’s author.
There’s something to be said for recognizing a system for its problems and merits and bowing out.
Yes: Scarcity can be enticing
In some ways, Rage remaining out of print might make it all the more interesting and enticing for people who shouldn’t read it.
If you’re feeling like an outsider, if part of your identity is based on feeling like you don’t fit in, then reading a book that the world has labeled “bad” might feel like exactly the kind of thing you SHOULD be doing. Pirating material that’s not really accessible might feel like an act of rebellion. Telling Old Man King that he can’t stop you from doing what you want might feel perfectly aligned with the way you see yourself. Exploring taboos might be right up your alley.
If King is concerned about the folks identifying with Rage’s Charlie Decker, then I do wonder if they identify with him even more if they see his voice as a voice that’s being silenced.
Nothing de-powers a voice of rebellion more than that voice becoming mainstream.
No: Stephen’s subversive self
It’s pretty easy to imagine, if Rage were in print, people combing through King’s other works to find other objectionable material, finding other ways in which King is ruining the world with his violent, horrific visions.
This is pretty common practice these days. Take a public figure, search through their work for objectionable stuff, write an article about how they should be ashamed and won't somebody please think of the children!?
By stopping Rage himself, King may have kept a door wide open. The door being the passage to writing subversive stuff and keeping his volumes of already-written, often-transgressive material in print. By sending one book to the slaughter, he may have saved others.
Now, I’m not saying this was King’s intent. I think his intent was pure and real. But I think this might be a pretty useful and significant side effect.
By keeping Rage out of print, it helps Stephen King get a pass. It's like, "Hey, he's regulating himself. Saves me the work of reading hundreds of pages about a scary clown to make sure it's okay. Besides, there's probably not a weird sex scene in like the last 10% of this thing anyway..."
Yes: The development of a person
If Rage were accessible again, it would demonstrate the evolution of Stephen King as a writer and as a person.
In 2013 King published a Kindle single called Guns, an essay about the problems with and possible solutions to America’s view on gun ownership. It was a very well-balanced and middle-of-the-road view. Honestly, everyone should read it.
The combo of these two books, Guns and Rage, and the significance of them being by the same person, says a lot. It shows how someone grew from an individual who wrote something like Rage into a successful, respected adult who made his own way in the world, who took an unusual path. It shows that you can have awful thoughts, but there still might be a place for you.
The existence of Rage presents a more complicated Stephen King, and that Stephen King could serve as a good example to those folks who are feeling very complicated themselves.
I can’t help but wonder if Rage, paired with Guns, might be a less cheesy way of saying “It gets better.”
Because it does get better. But only if you’re still alive.
I started this column thinking I would want Rage back in print. And I still do. Sort of.
The thing is, it’s pretty rare when artists retain control of their art. Whether it be books, music, movies. Once something is out in the world, once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s almost impossible to put it back in. Your intent doesn’t matter, your feelings don’t matter. It’s not about you anymore.
I like that King did manage to jam that genie back in the bottle and cork it, for the most part. I like the rare example of the artist exerting control over the art. And I do think that King did a good-hearted thing, even if it’s not the thing that I want.
That said...I’d still like to see Rage come back.
The reasons for Rage to stay out of print are King-centric. He got to make the decision. He did the right thing for himself, the thing that probably gives him a measure of comfort.
The reasons to bring it back into print are less about King. They're about everyone who isn't King, which is, statistically speaking, everyone.
Selfishly, and for the sake of my wallet and my reading edification, I'd like to see Rage come back into print. And at the same time, I'm willing to bet that keeping Rage out of print is a decision that helps King sleep a little better at night, and he's a dude who's more than earned a good night's rest now and again.
What's your take? Should Rage come back into print, become all the rage again? Do violent books make violent people?
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