This is one of Stephen King's oldest books, originally written in 1966 and then published a decade later under the pen name "Richard Bachman." It tells the story of Charlie Decker, a high school student who goes on a short shooting rampage in the process of taking his algebra class hostage. Charlie has severe problems with authority and seems to have a few bugs working away at his mental health, which leads to a pretty tense situation. After he takes over the classroom, the balance of the short novel is spent seeing how Decker proceeds to play mind games with the adults who try to defuse the situation and the classmates who are trapped in the room with him.
This is, understandably, an disquieting book to read in a post Columbine and post Virginia Tech world. There's probably a lot more going on than King intended. In fact, this undercurrent started started well before either of these recent shootings. Following the book's publication there were at least three possible copycat shootings where student shooters either quoted directly from the book or had a copy of it in their possession. For this reason, King demanded that the book be taken out of print, which it has in the U.S. So, you know --collector's item.
I found the book itself to be okay, though certainly not among King's best work. It's hard to deny that the premise is an interesting one, particularly in the way that the real focus of the work isn't on the violence itself (that's pretty much over within the first few pages), but on the relationship that forms between Decker and his classmates as he holds them hostage. Most of the other students actually identify with their captor and take the opportunities he gives them to act out against authority, break down class and clique barriers, and gain an understanding about each other that would be impossible in a normal day at school. Imagine The Breakfast Club as directed by Quentin Tarantino and you get the idea.
Unfortunately King doesn't really take the premise and run with it anywhere particularly interesting besides "nobody understand kids" and "the popular kids get their comeuppance" with a few dirty stories thrown in for effect. There was an opportunity here to do a lot more and explore the nature and pitfalls of childhood social systems more deeply, but I don't really feel he hit it squarely.
The other problem I had with the novel is one that I have with a LOT of King's work. The main character, Decker, is supposed to be a teenager, but King writes him using the same kind of omniscient, overly clever and almost world weary voice that he reverts to in so many of his characters. Decker spouts colloquialisms and insights that you just don't believe are coming from a 17-year old kid, even a supposedly intelligent one. It's not quite as egregious as in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, but it's distracting.
So, not a terrible book, but not one of his better ones, either. The premise sets up something potentially interesting but King just doesn't yet seem to have the insight to turn it into something about the lives of teenagers that's thought provoking. He does, in fact, seem to do this a lot better in later years with books like Christine and It. I'd recommend those books way before this one.