Content warning: Mention of gun violence and pedophilia

In 1997, in West Paducah Kentucky, 14-year-old Micheal Corneal opened fire into a group of high school students, killing three.  In 1996, at Moses Lake Washington, 14-year-old Barry Dale Loukatis shot and killed four. In 1998, at San Gabriel High School, senior Jeff Cox held a class of sixty students hostage. In 1989, at Jackson County High School, Dustin L. Pierce held eleven hostages, and after a nine-hour standoff, released them without incident. The one connection in all these cases? A singular book, Rage by Stephen King, written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, was found in all their possessions.

I am no stranger to the conversation surrounding censorship. I finished Lolita the other day, a book banned in parts of the world for its heavy descriptions of pedophilia, and to say I fell utterly in love with its writing is an understatement. I value literacy for its beauty, I value art for the sake of aesthetics, and there is a certain gorgeousness that is only accomplished by depicting grotesqueness with care and beauty. But I understand the underlying reason for the censorship of Lolita – because the allure of its beauty is a glorification of pedophilia, a normalization of it. In admiring Humbert Humbert’s wit and sarcasm, we are complicit in condoning his behavior, however underlying and unconscious our approval is.  I would argue there is not necessarily malice in censorship – though often there is, in cases of politics and dictatorships – in the case of Lolita, its prohibition comes from a place of concern, that if an individual who nestled the same underlying psychological tendencies as Humbert Humbert were to stumble across this book, their tendencies may be affirmed and sustained by the one-sided and biased narrative. Although Nabokov may not have any intention of promoting pedophilia, it is inevitably up to the viewer to interpret the narrative themselves, and they may do so in a supportive light if they are so inclined. This is the problem that arises with any work of art, interpretations can be malevolent, and in that malevolence, violence may arise. This becomes a tangible reality in the case of Rage, the novel that inspired school shootings and mass violence. 

In 1977, Stephen King's novels flooded the literary scene, and his publishers, in fear of saturating the market, stopped publishing his books. So he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, partly because of his publisher’s hesitation and partly because he wanted to see if his work could stand on its own merit without the attachment of his name. Rage follows Charlie Decker, who after striking his chemistry teacher with a pipe wrench, proceeds to hold his class hostage. What follows is a long game of witty toying with various authority figures, flashbacks to his troubled childhood, and, more surprisingly, turning his hostages into a psychotherapy group when he confesses his trauma and regret. They semi-voluntarily start sharing their secrets and embarrassment after identifying with Decker, having found solidarity with each other and their captor. A copy of Rage was found in the possessions of the four shooters. The troubled boys found themselves also identifying with Decker, and suddenly the fictional character’s fear and violence, and hatred had manifested themselves in the real world. The shootings that consequently happened were a direct inspiration from the novel. Rage did not cause the shootings. No novel, no art, however twisted and grotesque, could directly produce a crime as heinous as these. But it does not mean that this book wasn’t just another domino in the line, it does not mean that this novel did not inspire and accelerate the tendencies that already festered in these boys. King, after hearing of these tragedies, quickly pulled the book off the shelves, stating that, My book did not break Cox, Pierce, Carneal or Loukaitis, or turn them into killers; they 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. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.” The argument for banned books goes further than the suppression of knowledge and censorship – it begs the question of the greater good, of unintended consequences, and the promotion of gratuitousness. It is important to be given the liberty to create works of art that touch on the taboo, to shed light on the unconventional, but these run the risk of having real-life implications. We should never censor art, but when the art is dangerous, where do we draw the line? At what point does authoritative, Orwellian censorship cross into the bounds of for a greater good? I loved Lolita, and it troubles me to know some may love it too much. Rage is a cautionary tale for the bounds of law and liberty and everything in between.