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Stephen King's Most Controversial Book

Can a book go too far? 

rage book cover on fiery background
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  • Photo Credit: Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash

Stephen King is no stranger to controversy.

There’s that scene in IT (you know the one). There's the time he sued filmmakers to change the name after it deviated from the short story it was inspired by. And the popular horror author has had multiple tweets go awry.

But there’s one book that has caused more controversy than any other piece of work or public stunt by King. 

What is Rage by Stephen King About? 

Rage was published in 1977. It was the first novel Stephen King published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. The novel was later republished in 1985 in a Richard Bachman omnibus with three other short novels. 

The story follows a Maine high school senior, Charlie Decker, with authority problems. After he’s called into the principal’s office for a violent incident that ended with a teacher in the hospital, Charlie gets expelled. But he has no intention of leaving the school grounds quietly.

Instead, he takes over a classroom, killing a teacher in the process. As he forces his classmates to endure an afternoon where he explains his actions, he makes them justify their own individual existence, exposing their inner psyche to Charlie—and themselves. 

What is the Controversy About Rage by Stephen King? 

When Rage was first published, the idea of a school shooter was, well, the stuff of fiction. Horror fiction, to be exact. It was unthinkable. Particularly with how the story unfolds. Charlie is obviously a disturbed young man prone to extreme violence.

But what follows isn’t a blood-splattered spree but rather a quiet, darker exploration of the human psyche. And that’s exactly why it’s so controversial. 

After the first murder, the story resides in an intense stand-off between Charlie and the authorities, but also between Charlie and the students he holds hostage. It’s a conversation where Charlie tries to explain why he behaves the way he does but doesn’t have any answers.

Except, rather than being met with judgment and disdain, the students are forced to admit that they might understand him more than they care to admit. 

It's at this point that the story deviates away from a student holding his class hostage, and into a strange sort of shared experience. The shooter isn’t vilified, but instead, is seen, heard, and most importantly, understood.

And in the end, they become not just complicit in the violence, but a willing part of it. 

Rage and School Shootings 

A newspaper article admitting that Dustin Pierce cited Rage as his inspiration for the shooting
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  • A newspaper article from Dustin Pierce's case saying that the police think he was re-enacting Rage.

    Photo Credit: St. Louis Post Dispatch / Newspapers.com

Though this was written and published well before the first school shooting ever took place, the book became inextricably tied to many horrific events.

The first was in 1988, when Jeffrey Lyne Cox, took his humanities class hostage for over thirty minutes. Though no one was injured, he cited the novel, and in particular the idea that he could finally force his peers to see him for who he was and find meaning in their existence outside of high school. 

A year later, Dustin L. Pierce held his class hostage in a nine-hour standoff. Again, there were no injuries, but Rage was found in his locker. And two years after that, Ryan R. Harris held his class hostage for two hours. Harris directly cited Rage as his inspiration. 

In 1993, Scott Pennington wrote an essay on Rage and received a C-. Unhappy with his grade, he fatally shot his teacher and the custodian before taking his class hostage for twenty minutes. This was the first fatal shooting directly tied to the novel, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.

In 1996, Barry Loukaitis opened fire on his algebra class, killing two students and his teacher. He allegedly quoted a line from the novel immediately after firing the shots.

Finally, in 1997, Michael Carneal shot eight students, killing three, and had a copy of Rage in his locker. 

Is Rage Banned? 

Though over twenty of King’s novels have been banned or challenged, Rage isn’t one of them. At least, not in the traditional sense.

After the last two fatal shootings, King went to his publisher and had them remove it from publication. As he explains in his essay, Guns, he believes that Rage was hurting people.  

The idea of forcing Charlie’s peers to recognize and acknowledge who he is—and succeeding—is what struck the young men who became obsessed with the story. In terms of fictional narrative, it’s a powerful idea.

King acknowledges this concept stemmed from his own uncomfortable adolescence; it's one that many people can identify with. But it’s also an idea that becomes dangerous in the real world.  

Most of us never think of resorting to the kind of horrific violence depicted in Rage, or any other piece of fiction. But for those who do, in the words of King, it’s like leaving a “can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.”

And for that reason alone, he deemed it worth taking off the market and minimizing the damage it might possibly inflict. 

Where Can I Read Rage by Stephen King? 

The novel was removed from publication in 1997 per King’s request, which means no further copies were printed or distributed. The original omnibus was reprinted with Rage removed from its contents, and as libraries updated their inventory, the old edition was replaced with the current edition.  

Of course, there was no way to remove all the remaining copies from circulation, which means there are used editions floating around used bookstores and online retailers, though be ready to pay a pretty penny. Most will run you over $100 with select copies going as high as $20,000. And be warned that any online downloads are pirated copies that are funding individuals looking to profit from the controversy. 

It can be tempting to want to own such a rare book, especially if you’re a fan of all things Stephen King. But considering King himself thinks the book may be more dangerous than compelling—even he admits it’s far from his best work—perhaps it’s best if we allow this particular book to fade into oblivion.

Featured Images: Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash, St. Louis Post Dispatch / Newspapers.com