In this article:
- Stephen King’s 1977 novel Rage is an out of print book about a teenage school shooter who holds his high school classmates hostage after killing their algebra teacher.
- Several school shooters following the publishing of the book have either quoted it, reenacted it, or have, at least, a copy of it.
- The final straw for King came when a student at Heath High School shot at his classmates all while a copy of Rage sat in his locker.
Stephen King’s Rage (1977) isn’t as well-known as novels like IT (1986), The Shining (1977), and Pet Samatary (1983) which is understandable given that King didn’t write it under his own name.
Rage was a psychological thriller written early in King’s career under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. By then, he was already a well-known writer with a large fanbase just itching to get more novel releases.
At the time, publishers wanted to restrict authors to releasing one book per year to prevent market oversaturation. King, a prolific writer with a very business-minded approach to the craft, decided he would write under the pseudonym Richard Bachman to get around this restriction and to test whether his success was a fluke or if it was really because of his talents.
Unfortunately for King, he was figured out early on by a bookkeeper, Steve Brown, who noticed the similarities between King and Bachman’s writing styles. Brown, in true thriller character fashion, decided to investigate and discovered that Stephen King was registered as the copyright owner for Rage with the other Bachman books being registered under the name of King’s agent.
It sounds like a plot line that could be part of an actual Stephen King novel.
Then it got more realistic. On December 1st, 1997, Michael Carneal opened fire at his fellow students at Heath High School in West Paducah. In his locker was a copy of Rage.
And King let Rage fall out of print.
What Was Stephen King’s Rage About?
Stephen King’s Rage centered around Charlie Decker, a troubled teenager who attends a high school in Maine. He’s kind of like a Holden Caulfield 2.0 but with a more outright violent approach to the world versus the more placidly jaded Caulfield. At the very start of the book, he’s already in trouble for hitting his chemistry teacher with a pipe, resulting in his hospitalization.
Decker, with all the rage and audacity of a teenage boy, hurls insults at the principal who then expels him. Decker takes this as his cue to start shooting up the high school, beginning with his algebra teacher and his history teacher.
There’s a part where he turns the hostage situation into one massive psychotherapy talk group where he makes his classmates justify their existence in a sequence that is totally not by any means a nod to his own attempts to justify his existence. The entire group ends up bonding over how messed up their lives have been except for one student.
That’s the basic gist of it, at least.
Rage ends with Decker being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Rage Was Tied to 4 School Shootings
Jeffrey Lynn Cox
Michael Carneal wasn’t the only school shooter who was connected to Stephen King’s Rage. The very first known incident of a school shooting involving the book was on April 26, 1988 when Jeffrey Lynn Cox, a student at San Gabriel High School in California took an AR-15 assault rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition to a humanities class.
Julie Rivera, the teacher at Room R-7, thought he had brought a water gun and was going to playfully squirt her with it before he shot a bullet into the back of the room, ordering her to leave. Though it was initially assumed that he wasn’t lucid enough to premeditate the shooting, it was discovered that he had made detailed escape plans.
Cox was thwarted by Ruben Ortega and a handful of other classmates.
Dustin L. Pierce
On September 1989, then-17-year-old Dustin L. Pierce held 11 of his classmates hostage for nearly 10 hours, demanding to see his estranged father. He held the class at gunpoint with two pistols and a shotgun and tried to re-enact the hostage situation in Rage wherein he saw in Decker a kindred spirit.
Gary Scott Pennington
On January 18, 1993, 17-year-old Gary Scott Pennington brought his father’s .38-caliber revolver with which he shot English teacher Deanna McDavid. The first shot missed, the second one found her forehead.
McDavid previously expressed concerns about the violent themes of Pennington’s essays and had given him a C for his work on Stephen King’s Rage. he also killed Marvin Hicks, a school custodian.
Pennington was sentenced to life in prison. In 2014, he was charged with the assault of JoAnne Smith, a food service employee.
On February 1996, Barry Loukaitis walked into his algebra class with a .22 caliber revolver and killed Leona Caires, the algebra teacher, and two other students in an eerie parallel to Rage. He then quoted the book by saying, “This sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?”
On December 1, 1997, Michael Carneal brought a shotgun and a rifle to Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. He was 14 years old at the time, the younger brother of an outgoing female senior student. He opened fire at a Christian youth group, killing three female students: Nicole Hadley, Jessica James, and Kayce Steger.
Five more students – Shelley Schaberg, Melissa Jenkins, Kelly Alsip, Hollan Holm, and Craig Keene – were injured. Jenkins was left paralyzed from the chest down. All of Carneal’s victims were promising students with strong academic and extra-curricular backgrounds.
A copy of Rage was found in his locker.
As of September 2022, Carneal has been denied parole and was ordered to spend life in prison.
King Knows Rage Didn’t Make Murderers, But Acknowledges How It Could Have Contributed to It
Stephen King already had concerns about the potential harm that Rage could cause, but it wasn’t until the Heath High School shooting incident that he requested for Rage go out of print. This has made Rage a rare collectible item for Stephen King’s fans. The rest of Bachman’s books remain available for purchase.
Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Stephen King wrote and published the essay Guns where he explained why he allowed Rage to go out of prin. In it, he acknowledged that while Rage could not have been the cause of the school shootings previously mentioned, he does see how the book could have accelerated these school shooters down a path of destruction.
He also talks about the point in his life when he wrote Rage. He was just a high school student when its first iteration, Getting It On, came into existence and the book naturally channeled a lot of the animosity he felt towards the high school experience at the time that clung onto it even after editing.
Though the incident involving Carneal would be the final straw, King maintains that the book wasn’t the cause of the school shootings that happened. In Guns, he points out that each of the shooters had troubled pasts and a history of mental instability. Cox was confined in a psych ward where he often talked about killing himself while Carneal was so paranoid that he would lift his feet while sitting so no one could grab them from under him.
King proceeds to call for the ban of assault weapons and stricter regulations on the sale of guns.
Fiction Continues to Take the Blame for Bigger Societal Problems
Stephen King’s Rage isn’t the first piece of media to be blamed for school shootings and teenage suicide. Other mediums and works have been the target of demonization. It happened with Catcher in the Rye, Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, and video games in general. It’s always literally anything else aside from systemic issues regarding access to mental health care, poverty, and everything else you can think of that’s actually in the real world, having material consequences on the lives of real people.
So while Stephen King continues to write his horror stories, some parents get to live them.