Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Stephen King and school shootings

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Shortly after writing a piece on the slogan guns don’t kill people; people kill people, I read a part of Stephen King’s “On Writing” (see excursion), I soon encountered sections on “Carrie”, and realized that it and another of his early works, “Rage”, deal largely with similar topics.

A few observations after re-reading these works*:

*I will not summarize them, except to the degree immediately necessary for my discussion (spoiler alert). However: The main characters are respectively the eponymous Carrie and the rageful Charlie. I will follow a convention from “Carrie” and use “TK” as a short for “telekinesis”.

  1. They are in many ways mirror images in that e.g. one has girl as the main cause of havoc, the other a boy; one has a mother, the other the father as a partial cause of events; one has an innocent person driven to evil, the other (potentially) an evil person using others as an excuse; one has supernatural powers as the cause of death*, the other a technology (a gun); one shows the behavior of the students in advance and leading up to the crisis, the other reveals their past and causes new behavior through the crisis; one shows a destructive cathartic act that left people dead, the other a cathartic series of discussions** that might have left some better off with their lives; one begins with an unjust virtual assault on a student, the other ends with one; …

    *In “Carrie”, at least one person, not counting Carrie herself, died through non-supernatural means and by another hand; however, this is dwarfed by the sheer number of deaths caused directly or indirectly by Carrie and supernatural influence. (Note that most deaths were only indirectly caused by her, the direct cause being e.g. electrocution or fire.) On the other hand, “Rage” only saw two deaths, both deliberate, by Charlie, and by gun-shot. (The number of deaths and the circumstances could be seen as yet another mirroring.)

    **Think a darker version of “The Breakfast Club”. (Indeed, I repeat the suspicion that I uttered when we saw and discussed “The Breakfast Club” in junior high—the idea is stolen from “Rage”.)

    Two interesting mirror aspects on another level is that (a) “Carrie” is published under his real name, while “Rage” uses the pseudonym Richard Bachman, (b) Charlie could* be a darker version of himself, while he professed to asking his wife for help with the more female perspective of “Carrie”.

    *“On Writing” mentions several conflicts with teachers, including receiving reprimands from the principal and at least one detention. While these are nowhere near the level of Charlie’s problems, it is not unusual for an author to use exaggerated versions of himself, his experiences, and whatnot, as a basis for a character. “On Writing” mentions several more explicit uses of his own life, including (unwittingly?) as a role-model for the alcoholic author in “The Shining”. Some other potentially autobiographical details are obvious in these books, including the fatherlessness of Carrie and the incident with poison ivy. For both “Rage” and “Carrie”, his experiences as a teacher are likely to have provided additional inspiration or insight.

    (Similarities include the (nick-)names “Carrie” and “Charlie”, the school setting, the teacher–student conflicts, a violent mother–daughter resp. father–son confrontation, the sometime maliciousness of teens, extensive use of flashbacks, partial narratives through fictitious second-hand accounts, …)

  2. In the case of Carrie, her development can be clearly followed, through years of living with a controlling and abusive, “sex is sin”, and likely outright insane mother; years of unpopularity and mobbing in school; and the chain of events that form the “now” of the book—culminating in her going from a rare hope of acceptance and happiness to complete humiliation within seconds, which finally snaps her. Carrie is the type of “school shooter” that could have been prevented.* Even in light of the enormous death toll, it is hard to view her as more than a victim of others and of circumstance.

    *Here and below, I will make the for-the-sake-of-argument assumption that a real school shooter would have gone through and been influenced by at least a similar set of (non-supernatural) experiences to Carrie and Charlie. See an excursion, however.

    However, this leaves a number of others open to discussion: Why were so many other female students so mean, cruel, even evil, towards her? Why were a number of boys sufficiently callous to let themselves be drawn into the machinations of Chris (a girl with a particular hatred of Carrie)? What turned Carrie’s mother into what she was?

    The students are likely best explained through human nature—there are simply too many accounts of similar pointless cruelty among people that age or younger. (And a great deal of cruelty among adults too, albeit often with a more obvious purpose.)

    The mother is harder to understand, because she appeared to be (going by memory) severely unhinged even at the earliest ages she is discussed in the book. Here there might be something that the book never revealed*, or she might just be someone naturally** unhinged. I do have the strong impression that she was a very stupid woman, however, which could go some way to explain e.g. a distorted world view.

    *Possibly, something relating to her own mother (grand-mother?), who appear to have had the same powers as Carrie.

    **Whether this actually happens in real life, I leave unstated. Remember that she is a fictional character.

  3. Charlie is a much trickier beast, because nothing that is done to him reaches the same proportions, and I suspect that the events were only possible through some type of additional personality flaw or lack of control* and/or (cf. below) a continual escalation. There are a few incidents from his childhood discussed, but none that, individually or combined, seem strong enough to cause anything so drastic. For instance, that his father temporarily lost control after Charlie, as a very young child, willfully destroyed a number of “storm windows”, is something that even Charlie really should have understood in retrospect. That he would have seen things differently at the time is unremarkable, but when someone at the brink of adulthood does not, this shows a severe lack of insight—especially, for Charlie, who himself has an anger-management problem… If anything, I cannot help feeling that it was the father who was mistreated in the extended scene, being harangued by his wife in an unfair manner after already having lost his windows. Indeed, if Charlie’s assessment that his father did not love him, was disappointed with him, whatnot, was correct, I am left with the question to what degree this and other similar events might have contributed…

    *The opposite is well illustrated by a scene from the “Buffy” episode “Earshot”, dealing with similar themes: XANDER Yeah, I mean, who hasn’t just idly thought about taking out the whole place with a semi-automatic? / Everyone stares at Xander. / XANDER I said idly. / BUFFY I know the difference. (But, of course, even this “idly” shows that something is seriously wrong with the school system.)

    Looking at his later life there are a few disappointments, especially of a sexual or romantic nature, but nothing going beyond what happens to many other teenagers in real-life or fictional teenagers in his class.

    The shorter chain of events leading up to main event (shooting two teachers and holding the class hostage) is potentially more interesting, including his beating a teacher into the hospital with a pipe wrench: On the one hand, the teacher (in Charlie’s account!) appears to have taunted him in front of the class, but if Charlie had not already brought the wrench with him, nothing that dangerous is likely to have happened. To boot, the details of the scene do not show someone just snapping into violence after being pushed one step too far—there is lengthy stand-off, during which Charlie engages in vandalism, and only hits the teacher when he tries to interfere. This leads up to the events of the “now”, where Charlie has a talk with the principal, during which he feels talked-down to and is informed that he will be expelled (based on previous deliberations)—after which he, with no apparent rage, goes to his locker, picks up a gun that he has kept there for some time, continues to class, and shots the teacher…

    Indeed, thinking back, I honestly question whether “Rage” is a descriptive title: Charlie’s issues might have been more of having or not having power, controlling a situation, or similar.* Cf. his frustration with teachers, his behavior in the class-room post-shooting, and, above all, his talks (often per intercom) with officials during the hostage situation.

    *While my own mentality is very different, I can to a high degree sympathize with such emotions: Too much of our modern lives are spent in helplessness as e.g. politicians make (often poor) decisions about us. Mandatory schooling is in it self a great example; the situation of students vs. their teachers another. This is the more annoying when the decision maker is someone vastly intellectually inferior, e.g. a typical entry-level civil servant or customer-service worker. (I am skeptical to Charlie’s own intelligence; however, there are at least some indications that he saw himself as superior, and he certainly had a considerable manipulative skill.)

    In the case of Charlie, we might well have someone who was bound for disaster no matter what. Possibly, the pipe-wrench event would not have taken place if the teacher had been more professional; possibly, Charlie would not have gone for his gun, had he not been expelled; possibly, a timely use of a psychiatrist would have been helpful; … However, I doubt that the end effect would have been that much different—he might have gone through high school without disaster, only to become a drunk* and get into bar fight after bar fight, until someone ended up with a knife between the ribs, or [take your pick from a number of similar scenarios]. The principal’s wish, thwarted by state politics or similar, that Charlie be serving time for assault, would have saved the two teachers, but is unlikely to have helped Charlie with his problems, and might well, as is often the case, have turned him into a career criminal.**

    *Notably, King was an alcoholic for most of his early adulthood—I am not aware of any bar fights, however.

    **Nevertheless, I have to second the principal: If a student beats a teacher into the hospital with a pipe wrench, the matter should be turned over to the legal system, and the student certainly not be allowed onto school grounds again for the foreseeable future. To proceed otherwise seems highly irresponsible to me. (Excepting unusual circumstances, like the teacher viciously attacking the student, and the student acting in self-defense.) Indeed, one possible interpretation of events is that the adults were too lenient with him: He escaped the thrashing he might have gotten over the windows. Earlier action from the teacher during the pipe-wrench incident might have prevented Charlie from getting his nerves up. Following the principal’s wish would have saved the two teachers. (With likely more events that could have been mentioned with a more detailed biography.)

  4. The case of Charlie points to a contradiction in the typical U.S. Leftist opinions: On the one hand, they favor gun-control*; on the other, they see nurture as overwhelmingly more important than nature. However, if Charlie and people like him are a product of (mal-)nurture, what help would gun-control be?** This basically leads us back to my original post.

    *For historical reasons, most other countries have far stricter gun-control, far weaker traditions around guns, whatnot, which all implies that the topic is hardly ever under discussion.

    **The exact scenario that played out, in all fairness, is one where gun control might have helped—killing two teachers with just a knife is one thing, holding a class hostage quite another… Then again, I am not aware of any real-life case that played out similarly; mostly, it has been a matter of just killing people.

    (However, I stress that I do not have strong opinions on gun-control in either direction. The point of this item is rather the ever recurring observation that Leftist thought tends to be inconsistent and illogical.)

  5. Even without TK, tragedies could have happened in “Carrie”, including Tommy’s* death: Tommy was hit on the head by a falling bucket, released by the scheming Chris to spill pig’s blood on Carrie; and there is no immediate** connection to TK involved. Carries death is at least a candidate, depending on how strongly her mother’s attack was tied to TK resp. sexual matters, general insanity, or whatnot. Even considerable other deaths might have been possible: In a worst case scenario, a vengeful Carrie could have slunk away, surreptitiously blocked the exits, and then set a fire—TK gave her the option of acting with more power and more impulsively, but it was not her sole possible recourse.***

    *Her date to the prom, at which they were crowned “king” and “queen” shortly before the bucket incident.

    **However, an indirect cannot be ruled out, e.g. that Carrie’s mother would have been less oppressive without the fear of TK, which might have made Carrie less of an outsider, which might have reduced the conflict with Chris, which might have led to a less harmful series of events.

    ***Which makes me wonder what would have happened, had King written that story for his first publication. TK makes the book more interesting on some levels, but I am uncertain whether it really contributes to the story. From a more “literary” point of view, it would likely have been a better book. (I certainly rate “Rage” higher; several other of his better books are low on the supernatural.)

  6. An interesting claim/explanation/excuse offered by one of the survivors in “Carrie”, years after the events, is “We were kids.”, which has my support as an explanation (cf. above), if not necessarily as an exculpation. More to the point, it raises a question that I have discussed before: Would it not be better to let children learn adult practices from adults, instead of childish practices from children? (Cf. [1] for this and some other issues around school and education; also e.g. [2] and [3] for more on the general issues.)

Excursion on realism:
If we look at these books and actual “shoot up the school” scenarios, the personal experiences that can lead to such a situation, etc., how much attention should we pay to works of fiction? (And especially by an author like King?) I have no deeper insights into the psychology of mass killers, and I doubt that Carrie (even without TK) and Charlie are truly realistic depictions of individuals. However, King was working as a teacher at the time he wrote “Carrie” and “Rage” (?*), was not that far away from his own high-school years, and his depictions of high-school students match my own impressions reasonably (some behaviors might be more appropriate in a slightly lower age-bracket in my opinion, some allowance for artistic exaggerations might be needed). To boot, at least some aspects of Carrie’s and Charlie’s specific lives match his own (cf. above), implying that he might have some insight into the potential consequences.

*“Rage” appears to have been published in 1977, but in “On Writing”, King claims that it was written before “Carrie”. Absent a statement of how much before, it might pre-date his teaching career, but would then be even closer to his high-school days. Some additional reservations have to be made for what might have changed between the original and the published version.

More generally, I have mixed feelings about using fiction as a source of information about the world: On the one hand, there is much to be learned by seeing the (even fictional) perspectives of other people, much of fictions is ultimately based on actual personal experiences, and most stereotypes (which are likely to be found in fiction) actually are true, when we look at groups. On the other, there are many outrageously unrealistic depictions* of people/events/skills/…, not all stereotypes are true,** and even a true stereotype applies to the group rather than the individual.

*Including e.g. how fights play out, what the police can do with a video tape, what hackers can do with anything, …

**Notably, stereotypes relating to men as abusers of women, driven by consistent feminist propaganda and “Lifetime”-style exploitation of women’s fears.

Excursion on “On Writing” and on learning how to write:
I picked this book up with the intent of getting a better insight into the writing of fiction, seeing that I have plans for a book of my own. The first part* has not been very useful directly, being more of a short autobiography. However, as I realized from the re-readings of “Carrie” and “Rage”, it might still be useful in conjuncture with his fictional works, to gain an understanding of their history, his motivations, and (more obviously) what parts of his own history are present in his works (cf. above).

*Most of the remainder is still left unread, partially because I switched to reading the books under discussion, partially because he started spouting a lot of very trite advice (do not use the passive, and similar). I will finish the rest next week.

With an eye on my own book, I find the observation repeated* that the road to become a sufficiently skillful author can be quite long**, and I suspect that in order to write the book I have in mind, rather than a pale shadow of it, I might actually have to write several “practice” books (not to mention short-stories) and target a date years from now—very discouraging. This might be perfectly fine for a full-time professional author, but going pro was never really my intention… (The amounts of money mentioned by King does raise the temptation, but I have no illusions about what proportion of authors actually get rich, or even make a living. To boot, I would likely have to take a more commercial turn than I had intended to even have a chance.)

*Over the last few years, I have read most of Steinbeck’s works and the complete works of Orwell. Steinbeck’s first novel, “Cup of Gold” is horribly bad and “The Grapes of Wrath” (a candidate for his main accomplishment) was written a full ten years later. While he had improved considerably in the works in between, only “Of Mice and Men” was a great work, but it also took eight years and is “just” a novella. (“Tortilla Flats” is highly overrated in my mind.) Orwell’s first novel, “Burmese Days”, is at best so-so, despite being preceded by considerable non-fiction writings; his main accomplishment, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, followed fifteen (!) years later. Orwell did have one extraordinary effort in between, “Animal Farm”, but that too took eleven years…. To boot, I have never been quite certain to what degree Orwell had grown into a truly great writer and to what degree he had mastered a truly important subject matter. As a counter-point, there are many authors who have been great from an early stage of publishing, but then I do not know how much unpublished effort preceded this. (As for King, his early published books are very unpolished, partly amateurish, but he already had a weird ability to hook the reader, and his aspirations might have been higher than in his works until the mid-1990s, when I was last up-to-date. And, yes, there appears to have been a fair bit more than ten years between his first efforts and “Carrie”…)

**King actually addresses the topic on his own, with a somewhat paradoxical take of emphasizing practice while denying that significant leaps in ability are possible. I concur with the first, especially in light of my experiences from other fields; I reject the second, citing Steinbeck, as above, as a prime counter-example. (However, I would have concurred, had he said that there are limits to what practice can do absent inborn talent.) He also says “One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose”, which matches my own experiences—we learn most from mistakes, and why not use the mistakes of others. It might also give me an excuse to read or re-read more of his own works…


Written by michaeleriksson

August 19, 2018 at 3:24 pm

4 Responses

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  1. “With an eye on my own book, I find the observation repeated* that the road to become a sufficiently skillful author can be quite long**, and I suspect that in order to write the book I have in mind, rather than a pale shadow of it, I might actually have to write several “practice” books (not to mention short-stories) and target a date years from now—very discouraging.”

    First of all, best of luck to you.

    Second, I’m a mechanical engineer. School, including writing and English, always came very easy to me. Learning how to write fiction well (which I still haven’t mastered nearly to the degree to which I want) was one of the hardest experiences of my life. There is no set of absolute rules, only guidelines that have a billion unstated exceptions. The key, really, is to find your voice and what works for you, and the only way I could figure to do that was trial and error.


    August 22, 2018 at 6:12 pm

  2. […] As for now, I have a number of ideas for books and short-stories, one of which I have been planning in my head for some time. While the planning stage is not yet finished, I will gradually start to generate text—should I make a mess of it, well, Rome was not built in a day and even Steinbeck’s first effort was poor. (Cf. a footnote in an older text.) […]

  3. […] some discussion of my 2018 re-readings of “Carrie” and “Rage”, see Stephen King and school shootings. Going by King’s bibliography on Wikipedia, the previously newest novel that I read was likely […]

  4. […] e.g. parts of an older discussion of Carrie and the book, […]

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