The first time I ever saw the name, Richard Bachman, was in the opening credits for a 1987 Arnold Schwarzengger action movie called, The Running Man. By that time the world at large was already well aware that King and Bachman were one and the same, but I had somehow remained pleasantly unaware. This was years before the internet and if you "Googled" something back then you ran the risk of growing hair on your palms or going blind. The Running Man quickly became one of my favorite movies and was one of many that I had to watch over at a friends house, as "R" rated flicks were not yet allowed in the Hartley home. As viewing sessions slowed due to my friends tiring of Die Hard and First Blood on a constant loop, I decided to seek out the books these movies were based on, with The Running Man at the front of the pack. The Big Rapids library had a copy of Bachman's book, but the librarian was not expecting it back any time soon as it was already running more than a month overdue. One of my theater Moms owned a small book shop and was sure to have a copy for sale. Nope. No copies of The Running Man in stock. She kindly offered to sell me a newer Bachman book called, Thinner, to help tide me over until either the delinquent copy of The Running Man was returned to the library, or the book store got their next shipment. So, I bought her last copy of Thinner and settled for a gypsy curse in lieu of dystopian game shows.
The deeper I got into the pages of Thinner, the more I got this weird feeling as I read. It was a feeling similar to that of deja vu. There was something very familiar about how the words on the page were being projected onto the movie screen of my imagination. It had nothing to do with the story itself or the characters involved, it was more the unseen connections my brain was making with the words on the page and how they were organized. It was like watching the new summer blockbuster at my local movie theater. I might not know anything about the movie being shown, but I do know every seat in the theater right down to which ones are super cozy and still full of stuffing, and which ones are nothing but cloth covered metal springs that poke right into your ass. I finished reading Thinner and went back to the bookstore to see if they had received any new shipments in. While she was looking over her invoices I told her about my strange experience while reading Thinner, and her response rocked me fully back on my heels. She said, "Makes sense. You have read almost everything else he has written, so you probably just recognized his style, even if he is writing under another name." What the hell was she even talking about? Prepare for Karl's young mind to be blown in 3...2...1..."You know...Stephen King. Richard Bachman. Bachman and King. Same guy." Blamo!
Sadly, she had not received any new copies of The Running Man that day. Over the years I would only read one more Bachman book, The Regulators, as it was published alongside King's novel, Desperation as a companion piece. If it weren't for this blog series, I would have had no desire to hunt down a copy of Rage. While tracking down an original printing of The Bachman Books that still contained the story, I started wondering why it was that I had only ever read two books penned by King's alter ego. Why was I not blazing through those stories with same fervor and excitement? Perhaps I was subconsciously avoiding the works of King's shadow self. Although Bachman did seem familiar, he was somehow more rugged and sinister that King. More raw. If Stephen King is the fun night of drinking with friends and the wild adventures that get stumbled upon, then Richard Bachman is the crippling hangover you wake up to the following afternoon. He is the mouthful of sour cotton that has glued your swollen tongue to the roof of your mouth. He is the taste and stink of cheap cigarettes belching up from the swamp of rotten meat floating in your burning guts. Stephen King is the "Master of Horror". Richard Bachman IS the horror. I have felt him waiting patiently for me all these years. Eager for me to sit awhile and spend some quality time as he tells me a tale that will not soon be forgotten. Mr. Bachman, I will avoid you no longer. Please, tell me a story.
I will begin by addressing the gun shaped elephant in the room. Rage is a book about a school shooting. The ideas, personal reflections, and thoughts I have regarding Rage may be triggering to some. Consider this your one and only warning for the words that follow.
The last publication of The Bachman Books collection that included Rage, was delivered to bookshops in 1998. Stephen King removed the story from future printings as it had been connected with several gun related incidents since its first release in 1977. With all of the history and drama surrounding Rage, I was more than a little afraid of what I might find. Did I really want to park my ass in a classroom full of students and subject myself to the events that would unfold? Vampires at the window are terrifying, but they are not currently threatening the lives of our children. As I remove the plastic wrap from my freshly arrived copy of The Bachman Books from Ebay, I can't help but hear Martin Riggs line from Lethal Weapon, "We are going to get bloody on this one, Rog."
Rage is written mostly in the first person perspective from the perspective of our shooter, Charlie. Perfect! This is just plain swell. I get to live and breathe between Charlie's ears while his thoughts and fears make damp the palm that holds his father's pistol. And I was all worked up and worried about having to witness these events from the outside as an observer, but what I have found here is so much worse. I have to be Charlie for a day.
I don't know if it is the result of becoming desensitized by movies like John Wick, where gun deaths are beautifully dispensed by a skilled mechanic with style and grace, or the overwhelming influx of real gun violence across the country, but (and it feel REALLY weird and uncomfortable to write this) the events that play out in Rage are not nearly as bad as I had anticipated. YES two teachers are gunned down in cold blood. YES a High School algebra class is held hostage by an active shooter for an afternoon. Charlie does not kill or injure any of his fellow students. For the most part he sits at the front of the class while a handful of his peers share stories about themselves while he tries not to puke on himself. The fact that by the end of the story my thought was, "What? That's it? That's ALL that happens?" has become far more frightening to me than any of the violence I thought was coming. How incredibly eye opening it has been for me that a story that was once at the center of controversy for its portrayal of violence, now feels no more disturbing than a mid-season episode of Riverdale. I have never believed that the violence we witness and participate in through what we read, watch, or control in a video game will lead to violence in the real world. I have always believed that a person that is willing and able to take the life of another human being will eventually come to that conclusion on their own, with our without the aid of fiction. That being said, it does make my short hairs stand on end to think that a previously unacceptable amount of fictionalized violence now seems watered down and lacking teeth. I lack the knowledge to form any real kind of intelligent conclusion to what these discoveries mean, so here it will all sit, like a chunk of burning iron in the pit of my stomach until I can melt it down into something useful and recognizable.
In my first two adventures with Carrie and Salem's Lot, I was able to connect with several of the characters and even found a hero or two to cheer for along the way. I found none of that here. The adults in Rage are all bumbling and worthless, especially when filtered through the eyes of Charlie. I struggle to find interest in the students he holds captive even as they share personal stories and reflections on who they are and how they connect to others their age. The only person I connect with at all is Ted, the ex-jock who watches in horror as the rest of the class falls in line with Charlie's way of thinking. The overall problem I have with Rage is that I really don't care about anyone involved. It all just feels rather...."meh".
More than half of Rage is told in real time as events unfold over the course of a single day, while the rest is revealed to us through a series of flashbacks as told by Charlie and a handful of his fellow students. These visits into the past should give us some insight into Charlie's "why" and help us understand the motivations behind actions. Oddly enough, the past holds very few answers. I feel like we aren't given enough pieces to the puzzle of why Charlie would be driven to kill two teachers and hold his classmates hostage. Don't get me wrong, his Dad is a massive asshole. This is made abundantly clear as Charlie remembers a hunting trip when his was a child and overhears drunk and raucous deer camp chatter between his father and his hunting buddies. It is disgusting, highly inappropriate, racist, sexist, and hateful chatter referring to Charlie's mother. Yes, verbal abuse can be just as powerful and long suffering as physical abuse, but I am left to wonder if there isn't more to the story. In another trip to the past we learn that Charlie had been thrown to the ground in anger when his father discovered he had smashed all of the storm windows he had set out on the lawn to clean. Why do I feel like I am missing something? Why do I feel like this isn't enough? Why do I feel disgusting in thinking this way?? Clearly I am no child psychologist, but I was raised in an era when not only was it okay to spank your kids, it was damn near required. I got spanked right alongside my sister when we got up to no good. I got hollered at when I messed up and did something stupid. There are a some similarities to how Charlie and I were raised, and the end result couldn't be more different. For one, I love my father very much and wouldn't change a thing about how I was raised. Damn. Maybe that is the point. Maybe there doesn't have to be a clear cut reason as to why some people decide to do horrible things. Is it possible that a person is born with their demons pre-loaded and require very little circumstantial motivation to dip into madness? Or do we all have the potential for madness inside us. Maybe Norman Bates was right when he said, "We all go a little mad sometimes." Well that is a horrifying thought. I think Richard Bachman just snuck up behind me and kicked me in the balls.
Charlie is not feeling well today. His stomach is a mess, his head is a mess, his principal is a mess, his locker is a mess. This collection of mess becomes the breaking point for young Charlie as he sets his locker on fire, kills two teachers, and holds his Algebra class hostage. Reading these events as they unfold left me short of breath and in need of a break from the story. I feel that the overall story of Rage is "tame" by today's standards, but what unfolds between the time Charlie leaves the Principal's office and Charlie taking the head of the class, is shocking. The abrupt show of violence put this reader's brain on hold, hoping for a pleasant voice on the other end to chime in and and remind me that this was all just make believe. But that once pleasant voice has been replaced by an automated robo-message saying, "We are sorry. The voice you are are looking for is no longer in service. Please press "One" for more options."
Once Charlie is in place as the new head of the class and the rest of the school has been evacuated, the narrative mashes on the breaks pretty aggressively. Several students have their turn at story time, "showing and telling" glimpses into why they are the way they are. We get a few more peeks into Charlie's past as well, bringing us to a vague conclusion that perhaps we are all more same than different. And that, with a peppering of tense interactions with local police and school administration, is that. Charlie listens to students share stories about themselves. Charlie outsmarts the adults on a handful of occasions. Charlie lets the class go. Charlie attempts suicide by cop. Charlie spends the rest of his life in a mental hospital.
Rage is a short read and comes in under two hundred pages, but it drags along once we get to story time with the students. I can see what Bachman is going for with an inside look at what makes us all the same, with our unique problems being far more similar than we may have thought. So, the big question is, do we all have the same potential for violence? Are we all one bad afternoon away from committing some horrible act? My hope is that the answer to that question is a resounding "NO", and we can boil the story of Rage down to mediocre story telling with mediocre character development. But hoping and knowing are two very different things. Overall, Rage reads like bargain basement pseudo psychology, with a dash of restless philosophy, wrapped in a stale pita pocket of cautionary tale telling. As I walk away from Bachman's first book, I receive one final gut check when I realized how much has changed since it was first published, and how calloused I have become to both real and fictionalized violence. What happens in Rage is shocking, deplorable, and should have left me wanting to puke my guts out. But it didn't. It felt tame and damn near PG-13 compared to what we have witnessed in the last forty years. I should have been relieved to find a smaller number of victims here than I had anticipated, but I was left feeling disappointed in the overall body count. And THAT has made me want to puke my guts out.
Back on the Road
Let's get the hell out of this madhouse of a High School and find our way back to King Street. This first walk down Bachman Boulevard has left a bad taste in my mouth. There it is, and just a block down the road. Now, a quick right turn at the intersection, and we are back on track on King Street. What will be coming up next on my long walk with the King? To be honest, I am feeling a little turned around after our first detour down Bachman Boulevard. Maybe one of those kind folks walking towards that charmingly ominous factory will know where I am.
"Excuse me, sir? Would you be so kind as to give me directions to the next town? I got a little lost somewhere between fighting vampires and witnessing a school shooting."
One of them slowly turns towards me with a mouth full of banana and replies, "Hrmph nruf?"
"Sorry I didn't mean to interrupt your dinner."
After swallowing most of the yellow mush, " Oh, no. Quite alright. But, yah can't leave until you pay yer dues over at the factory. Yah know, we gotta keep her up 'n runnin' twenty-four-and-seven. Boy, oh boy, would I hate to see you get on the foreman's bad side."
As if on queue, a whistle with dreams of being a tornado siren wails like a banshee from one of the factory's tall towers. Pucker!
"Sorry. Can't stop to chit-chat." the man says as he double times it towards the gates of the factory. "Don't wanna be late! He hates it when yer late!"
The sun has almost fully set behind the factory, spilling its inky shadow over the day shift as they shuffle along past me with the kind of dragging footsteps only a fourteen hour shift can bring.
As I stare up in amazement at the massive structure, one of the passing workers claps me on the shoulder, "Better get a move on, son. Your time card isn't gonna punch itself"
Damn it. Looks like I'm working the night shift.