The Book Stephen King Removed From Circulation

We're not sure pulling it was the right move.
The Book Stephen King Removed From Circulation

In 1977, Stephen King wrote the book Rage, about a teenager killing his teacher and then terrorizing his school. Between 1988 and 1997, the book was linked to four separate real-life school gun incidents, and then King asked his publisher to take it out of print, to avoid spurring on any more shooters.

If you've heard this story before, you've probably heard Rage referred to as King's "school shooter book." That's not inaccurate—the main character, Charlie, shoots his teacher—but it doesn't really tell you what the book is about. Rage is not about a mass shooting, which is what the phrase "school shooting" conjures in most people's minds. After shooting his teacher, rather than try to kill as many people as possible, Charlie takes his class hostage. And in fact, three of the four linked incidents also weren't mass shootings, as these students too instead tried to take their classes hostage. Two of the students didn't even get around to firing a shot. 

We mention that not because we want to defend Charlie (who does not deserve our defense and also does not really exist). We mention this because people are very concerned with what sparks mass shooters, including what influence the media has. Rage got tangled up in this, in a way that might offer less useful insight than some people think.

It appears Rage did influence three students to commit crimes modeled on the book's plot. And yet these crimes weren't mass shootings, and King did not pull the book after they occurred. He didn't even hear of these incidents till years later. Then came the fourth incident, and this one was a mass shooting. A schizophrenic Kentucky freshman murdered three girls and wounded five others. 

Now, King did pull the book. Unlike the other incidents, however, we don't know if Rage influenced this one. With the other incidents, we had a student admitting to basing his crime off Rage or a friend citing obsession with the book, but this one, they just found Rage in the kid's locker, as part of an omnibus collection with four other stories published under King's “Richard Bachman” penname. The other incidents were very similar to the situation in the book, while this one really was not.

Stephen King himself believed Rage was "a possible accelerant" for this shooter, and he considered that reason enough to yank it. And yet King also believed Rage was a possible accelerant in a fifth incident, in which a Washington teen killed three, and his whole basis for this belief was that the kid reportedly said "This sure beats algebra, doesn't it?" which King called a quote from Rage. That line is not actually a quote from Rage.

King separately said he found the book a bit of an embarrassment for reasons unconnected to the shootings. He found a certain Freudian twist clumsy—at one point, Charlie dreams of having sex with a body, which turns out to be his mother, and the book treats this as some grand revelation rather than a psych cliché. Some of the amateurish touches were because King wrote the earliest version of Rage (then called Getting It On) when he himself was in high school, making it his first ever novel. 

That origin, as a book originally written by an actual teen, also gave it authenticity that many adult books about high school lack. For that reason, King felt some regret when he took the book out of circulation. He also made it a point to say that he didn't apologize for the book ("No sir, no ma'am, I never did and never would"), and to note how the biggest issue with these kids was their access to guns, not the books they read. 

But he did pull the book, entirely of his own accord, with no public backlash demanding he do so. If you want to read Rage, you may have trouble finding a copy. Well-stocked public libraries still carry it, however—libraries bravely still offer access to books that are challenged from every side. Or, you can pick up Different Seasons, an acclaimed King book that really is about a mass shooter and that remains in print today. 

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