In 1966, when Stephen King was a senior in Lisbon High School, he began work on a novel he called Getting It On. While a student at the University of Maine, he finished it, along with two other novels, The Long Walk and Sword in the Darkness (the latter remains unpublished; we’ll get back to the former later). Looking back on them years later, King remarked how the novels have none of the sense of play of his later published work, none of the wit. In fact, he said, they were – and, as you can imagine, these are his words exactly – fucking furious.
The book didn’t see the light of day until 1977, after the books Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining had been published. To put forth Getting It On under his name would likely have been seen as a step backward, as King’s writing and plotting had gotten better and more intricate in the subsequent years; also, his publishers didn’t want to oversaturate the book market with more Stephen King books, as that would have diluted the brand. “One day,” King says in “Why I Was Bachman,” his forward to the omnibus The Bachman Books, “it occurred to me that I ought to publish Getting It On, a novel which Doubleday almost published two years before they published Carrie, under a pseudonym. It seemed like a good idea so I did it.” That pseudonym was originally Guy Pillsbury (his maternal grandfather’s name), but when it became clear that everyone at the publishing company knew who Guy Pillsbury really was, King withdrew the manuscript, retitled it Rage, and sent it back under a new name. He came up with the name by combining Richard Stark, the hard-boiled nom de plume of Donald Westlake, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, which was on his record player at the time.
King published four paperback originals under the name Richard Bachman – Rage; The Long Walk; Roadwork; and The Running Man. They weren’t big sellers, but they did develop a following for Bachman on their own merits. The next Bachman book, Thinner, was published as a hardcover, promoted well, and sold over 25,000 copies before its author’s real identity was discovered (at which point it sold over a quarter million more copies). King was sorry to have been found out, saying that Bachman had died from “cancer of the pseudonym.” He agreed to have the four books republished under his name as The Bachman Books “because they are still my friends,” as he explained in his forward; “they are undoubtedly maimed in some ways, but they still seem very much alive to me.” In that forward, as he talked about how hard it was to explain why a guy publishing a book a year felt the need to publish more, he said, more than once, “Good thing I didn’t kill someone, huh?”
Rage was now readily available and, being a Stephen King book, far more likely to be read. Not everyone who read it recognized that the protagonist, Charlie Decker, was not a hero. He was a disturbed teenager who shot and killed two of his teachers, then held an impromptu psychotherapy session with the rest of the class. They united and assaulted one of their own as Charlie watched. He released them, and when the police came in, he attempted suicide by cop; he was shot but survived and was committed to a psychiatric hospital until he could answer for his actions – “In other words,” he says, “until shit sticks on the moon, baby.”
Disturbed teenaged boys are not all fictional. Many, many nonfictional ones read Rage. Some of them identified with Charlie Decker. Some of them followed in his footsteps. Like:
* Jeffrey Lyne Cox, a senior in California who regularly reread Rage and identified with Charlie, and who held a class hostage with a semiautomatic rifle in 1988.
* Dustin Pierce, a senior in Kentucky who held a history class hostage for nine hours in 1989 and who had a copy of Rage in his bedroom.
* Scott Pennington, another senior from Kentucky, who in 1989 wrote a book report on Rage and was mad that he only got a C from his teacher. He killed the teacher and the school custodian with a .38-caliber revolver, then briefly held the class hostage.
* Michael Carneal, yet another Kentucky senior, who in 1997 entered a prayer circle at his school and opened fire, killing three students and wounding five more. He had a copy of The Bachman Books in his locker.
After the Pierce incident, King was quoted as saying, “If they didn’t do it one way, they would do it another way. Crazy is crazy.” But over the years, as other incidents happened that could be traced back to Charlie Decker, he became uneasier with what he’d created. “How much responsibility does the author of a book bear when that book seems to form some part of the triggering mechanism for a psychotic or criminal interlude?” he asked in “The Importance of Being Bachman,” a new forward written for the 1996 reprinting of The Bachman Books. “I don’t know. I’ve spent sleepless nights with the question, a lot of them, and I still don’t know…. One psychologist associated with such a case stated that ‘this novel never walked into a classroom and shot anybody,’ and that is comforting, but one wonders – one has to wonder – if it is the whole truth.”
By the time of the Columbine shootings in 1999, King had had enough. “I’ve written a lot of books about teenagers who are pushed to violent acts,” he said. “But with Rage, it’s almost a blueprint in terms of saying, ‘This is how it could be done.’ And when it started to happen, I said, ‘That’s it for me, that book’s off the market.'” He told his publishers to let The Bachman Books go out of print. Later, three of the four books were reprinted as stand-alone titles; only Rage remained in the dark.
“I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it,” King said in his 2013 essay “Guns.” “I was protected under the First Amendment and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do.” He said that his book didn’t break the troubled teens, or turn them into killers: “[T]hey found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale.”
Censorship is quite a touchy topic in literature – part of the reason we celebrate Banned Books week at libraries every September is that it celebrates the freedom of speech, the triumph of speaking out over being shut up. But what happens when it’s self-censorship? What happens when the writer sees a greater good in taking his book out of the hands of all, just so it won’t fall into any wrong hands? Does that work in a day and age where just about anything can be found online if you know where to look? And what about the whole “does art reflect life or life reflect art” argument? Many more questions can be raised about this, many discussions had about King’s responsibility, if any. No doubt King has had many of those questions and discussions come up in the privacy of his brain, and no doubt that he didn’t like the answers he came up with. So he acted, and if that helps him sleep a little better at night, I’m okay with him having the final say. (Even though I quite like the book, myself – but then, I have two different copies of The Bachman Books, so I can read it whenever I want.)
At the end of Rage, Charlie Decker, speaking from his mental hospital, closes by saying, “That’s the end. I have to turn off the light now. Good night.” Here, perhaps it’s best to let King have the last word. “All I can say in conclusion to this part of my tale,” he says in “The Importance of Being Bachman,” “is that if there is anyone out there reading this who feels an urge to pick up a gun and emulate Charlie Decker, don’t be an asshole. Pick up a pen, instead. Or a pick and shovel. Or any damned thing. Violence is like poison ivy – the more you scratch it, the more it spreads.”