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Picking the Bones

Rage (1977)

by David Carroll

First Appeared in SKIN#2.2 is easy to forget one thing: We were kids. We were kids. We were kids trying to do our best...
My Name is Susan Snell

Childhood holds a very special place in Stephen King's work, and he has examined it in detail at every age from the earliest through to the end of adolescence. Naturally enough, like just about everybody else he lived through that time himself (and must have been taking notes), but it's hard for the reader to imagine those years of fears and uncertainty behind the sharply observed prose. It's one of King's successes that he can seem to be completely objective about subjects he obviously chooses for their personal connotations. But in Rage the equation doesn't quite work. Perhaps because he devised it and wrote the first half in 1965, at the age of 17.

There isn't enough room here to examine the phenomena of Richard Bachman, but one thing that surprised me about the alter-ego was that he appeared so early. If King was publishing them to see if he could repeat his success, he was basing that success on only two previous books. Nonetheless, in 1977 New American Library, King's paperback publishers, released Rage under the Bachman pseudonym. It was written as Getting It On (a more apt, if less marketable, title), and of the five novels written before Carrie it was the first of only two that would be let loose on the world at large.

There are two stories in the novel (or, really, novella). The first is about Charles Everett Decker and the pressures that force him to shoot his algebra teacher one sunny morning in May, 'a classic case of misplaced aggression'. The second is the drama of a class of students isolated and being forced to vocalise their fears and frustrations, in essence being forced to choose sides between Charlie and Ted Jones.

The first story is successful because of its lack of sensation. Charlie's father is an easily recognisable character, possessive of his wife to the point of violence, a drinker and a shooter, a man disappointed and uncaring of his son. Similarly, Charlie's childhood traumas, a disastrous birthday party, his first aborted love-making (so to speak) and the like are believable and well-portrayed. We can see where Charlie is coming from, and in doing so where his violence springs from.

The second story is the more ambitious of the two, and once again it is pulled off rather well. It is actually no less than a re-examination of The Lord of the Flies, as only Stephen King could do it (that is, set in a Maine class room). The 1954 novel which earned William Golding a Nobel Prize for Literature would obviously have been of great interest to King for its depictions of childhood under strain, and a short description is in order if you haven't read it (which I highly recommend you do). It concerns a group of school children trapped on an island after a plane crash, and centres around the conflict between Ralph, who tries to maintain the trappings of civilisation, and Jack, who leads the hunters, reverting to savagery. One point of interest is that the wilder faction takes up residence on an out-spur of land called Castle Rock. King also makes another explicit reference which I believe shows his intentions were plain in this instance -- the position of Jester (give or take) is taken by Piggie in Lord of the Flies, and Pig Pen in Rage. Lord is told from the point of view of Ralph, who gradually sees the remaining children slipping away from him. The same thing happens in Rage but told from the opposite vantage, as Charlie wins over the group from Ted Jones, the face of civilisation.

More importantly, that civilisation is shown to be flawed, inadequate. Ted is the golden boy, intelligent, popular and in the position to quit the football team and retain his status. But he also represses everything unsavoury about himself, driving that strange madness with which he regards Charlie. He finally cracks under the strain, becoming catatonic rather than facing self-realisation. Getting it on.

Not that the alternative is much better, Charlie cannot live with his self knowledge, focuses it into self-destruction (and takes out two teachers and a number of psyches in the attempt). It's not exactly an optimistic work.

It is also, as I said to start with, a work that doesn't quite gel. Individual portions are superb, notably Charlie's grilling of Don Grace ('why hast thou forsaken me?'), and Sandra Cross getting it on about not feeling real and living dangerously. But the whole lacks credibility because Charlie Decker is too self-aware, too clever by half. He manipulates adults like putty, and he relates events from when he was four years old, and more recent ones, which a clinical detachment and objectivity that is not the voice of a small-town psychopath (or even young man bucking the system) but of extraordinary writer, Stephen King.

It's a juggling act that doesn't work, and we can take it as given we can go to later books and show how he mastered the act, matured into it, you might say. In the meanwhile we are left with Rage, a story about the very real dangers of adolescence and modern life, written by somebody who knew all about it, and could put it into words.


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