My Year of King #4: Rage, by Richard Bachman, AKA Stephen King

Thursday, February 22, 2018

There was another school shooting last week. Another loss of life, students and teachers cut down to satisfy some young man's need for power and control. These shootings have become all too regular these days. It seems as though every other day I am getting a news alert that students and teachers are in danger, somewhere in the United States. I say United States, because this is the only developed nation where mass shootings are common enough occurences that eventually they plend together in my mind. Columbine, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Parkland. We're having the usual debates right now about gun control and mental health, and I suspect when the next shooting happens (and it has become depressingly obvious that one will), we'll start all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over.

(I do have hope that the youth who are standing up and demanding change will be the catalyst for real conversation and real solutions. Political statement: The NRA has got to get out of our political system, our society needs to stop fetishizing guns, and toxic masculinity has to be replaced with a kinder, gentler way to "be a man".)

Other than the weapon of choice (AR-15) and the location (institutions of learning), the school Rage, these types of shootings were almost unheard of. Sadly, this is a novel that feels more relevant today than it probably did when it was originally published. The main character, Charlie Decker, is a kid who just can't catch a break. Living with an abusive father, watching his mother be repressed daily by her husband's machismo and derision, and being the outcast at school has Charlie to be filled with a rage so powerful that he cannot express it with words. After beating up a teacher at school, Charlie is assigned daily counseling sessions with the school psychologist, but nothing helps. So one day, he enters his English classroom, shoots his teacher, and holds the rest of the class hostage for several hours. During that time, you learn more about his life, as well as his classmates.
shooters seem to have something else in common-rage. Regardless of where the rage comes from (abuse, an inflated sense of entitlement, or real mental illness), these young men are filled with a rage so powerful that it overrides their conscience and reason, causing them to do horrific things in order to express it. In 1978, when King (writing as Richard Bachman) wrote

I think that King really tapped into the intense emotions of adolescence with Charlie's character. Teenagers tend to feel all of their emotions more intensely than adults, especially strong emotions like love or anger or shame.Charlie was so up in his own feelings that no consequence, no threat, and no appeal was going to talk him down until he had done what he needed to do. Charlie's actions are dark enough, but what takes this story to another level is that in a Stockholm Syndrome-type of phenomenon, the other students in the room start to express their own secrets, their own rage. It's as though Charlie's extreme action has given them permission to admit things that they would otherwise keep hidden deep down in their private thoughts.

The book is really novella length (149 pages), so it's good that the scope is only a few hours of one day. It does mean, though, that King had to be economical with his character development, and while Charlie is certainly a fully-fleshed out protagonist (antagonist? King is so good at writing characters that are both), the events that have led to this particular act are not as developed, weakening the reader's understanding of the connection between what happened then and what is happening now.

I almost didn't finish reading this book, after the Parkland shooting happened. I wasn't sure I could stand for my mind to continue to occupy that sad, horrified place. But I'm glad I did. It is still good storytelling, and the themes should not be something we forget-that our young people are vulnerable to rage and despair, and we must provide them with the tools they need to manage their feelings and survive their childhoods.

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