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Why Stephen King let his novel ‘Rage’ lapse in the Nineties

And its connection with gun violence in the US

Flashback: 'Rage' by Stephen King (Source: Wikipedia)

On May 24, an 18-year-old boy in Texas, USA, fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School and wounded 17 others in the premises. The shooting is the worst gun attack on an elementary school in the US since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, that left 20 children and six adults dead.

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A year after the 2012 tragedy, acclaimed American writer Stephen King wrote an essay Guns, published as a Kindle single, in which he deconstructed the issue of gun violence in the US. He recounted letting his novel Rage (1977), published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, go out of print after four young school shooters in the ’80s and ’90s were found to have owned the book.

What was Rage about?

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Charlie Decker, a high school student with an abusive father and overprotective mother, loses his temper at his principal one day, retrieves a gun from his locker and forces the school to evacuate — with the exception of his algebra class, whom he holds hostage. The entire day, he tells his classmates stories of his troubled family life and soon they begin relating to him. Winning their sympathy, he eventually lets them all go, but is shot at by the police before being remanded to a psychiatric hospital. Today, Rage is out of print.

How was the book connected to real-life gun violence?

*In April 1988, a California high school student held his classmates hostage with a gun and later backed out, but told police he got the idea from an airline hijacking and from King’s Rage.

*In September 1989, a 17-year-old boy in Kentucky held 11 classmates hostage for hours and demanded to speak to his father whom he hadn’t seen for years. Later, he surrendered himself without incident but a copy of Rage was found in his bedroom, with a hostage negotiator remarking on how the boy seemed to be playing out a scenario he had been reading about.

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*In February 1996, a 14-year-old boy in Washington state shot and killed his teacher and two classmates, quoting Decker from Rage during the siege: “This sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?”

*In December 1997, a 14-year-old boy with paranoid schizophrenia fatally shot three and wounded five at his school’s prayer group. A copy of Rage was in his locker.

What did King say about the incidents?

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In Guns, King wrote that he had only known of the 1996 and 1997 incidents when he decided to let it fall out of print in the United States. Detailing the four boys’ easy access to guns, histories of mental illness, parental abuse and bullying in school, he wrote, “It took more than one slim novel to cause [those boys] to do what they did. These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems… My book did not break [them] or turn them into killers… Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale.” In a footnote to the preface of a 2007 novel, he wrote about Rage, “Now out of print, and a good thing.”

In a 1999 speech at the Vermont Library Conference Annual Meeting, King stood by his decision to pull the novel but argued for the artiste’s right to depict society as it was: “If accused of being part of the problem, my response is the time-honoured reporter’s answer: ‘Hey, man, I don’t make the news, I just report it.’”

First published on: 04-06-2022 at 02:00:16 pm
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