A long love affair with a long walk: Re-visiting classic King

The Long Walk ★★★★★
Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Signet, 1979
thelongwalk

“They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddam sure that makes us human beings?”

“They walked through the rainy dark like gaunt ghosts, and Garraty didn’t like to look at them. They were the walking dead.”

How much do I love this book? There are too many ways to count actually, which is why no matter how many re-reads I’ve done of it (and there have been many over the years), The Long Walk has always left me too intimidated to review it. I managed a brief blurb of something when I listened to the audiobook a few years back, but never a “real review”. So heaven help me, here’s my real review.

RichardBachman

Richard Bachman

According to King, he wrote The Long Walk while in college in 1966-67 and it became one of those “drawer novels” that got put away to gather dust when he couldn’t get it published. King wasn’t a household name yet of course. First, he had to publish Carrie in 1974. Then Salem’s Lot in 1975. Followed by The Shining in 1976. In three short years King became a household name. So much so that he got the idea to become Richard Bachman.

 

King decided he would use this pseudonym to resurrect a few of those dusty “drawer novels” and rescue them from obscurity. He believed they were good (for me, two of them are better than good, they are outstanding — The Long Walk and The Running Man — according to King written in a 72 hour fugue in 1971). But King wanted to know readers thought the books were good because they were good, not just because his name was on the front cover in giant letters. His publisher at the time also didn’t want to flood the market with more King books when he was already churning them out one a year.* Hence, Bachman was born.

*(these were the days before James Patterson decided it was okay to publish 20 books a year and only write one of them yourself).

 

longwalk

Original Signet paperback cover, 1979

The Long Walk is easily, hands-down my favorite Bachman book, but it also ranks as one of my favorite King books period. Top 5 without even blinking an eye. It’s lean and mean, with a white hot intensity to it. What I love about The Long Walk is what I love about King’s early short stories collected in Night Shift: There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me The Long Walk has always burned bright as if King wrote it in a fever. There’s a purity in these pages, a naked desire to tell the tale that still gives me chills every single time I pick up the damn book and read that opening sentence: “An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.”

 

Clumsy? Sure. A bit of an awkward simile? Absolutely. But what a hook. And the hook only digs itself in deeper as each page is turned. Until finishing becomes a matter of have to, any choice or free will stripped away. It’s one of those books that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let go until it’s finished with you.

Before the dystopian craze spawned by The Hunger Games trilogy, before the rise of reality TV with shows like Survivor, King imagined an alternate history American landscape where an annual walking competition would become the nation’s obsession. One hundred boys between the ages 16-18 start out walking, and continue to walk at 4mph until there’s only one remaining — the winner. Boys falling below speed for any reason get a Warning. Three Warnings get you your Ticket, taking you out of the race. Permanently. It’s walk or die. And as someone who’s done her fair share of walking, the idea of that much walking without ever stopping makes my feet and back ache just thinking about it.

But King will make you do more than think about it, he will make you walk that road with those boys, to experience every twinge of discomfort, to feel the rising pain and suffocating fear, to suffer with the boys in sweat, and cold, and hunger, and confusion, as they walk towards Death and consider their own mortality. You will hear the sharp cracks of the carbine rifles and your heart will jump and skip beats.

One theme that King has revisited over the years is writing about the human body under brutalizing physical duress, at the body in extremis and what humans are hardwired to do to survive and go on living another day. Excruciating physical peril undeniably comes with a psychological component and no one writes that better than King. We see it in books like Misery, Gerald’s Game and the short story “Survivor Type”. King uncovers all the nitty-gritty minutia of human physical suffering and asks the question: How far is any one person willing to go to keep on taking his or her next breath? Stephen King knows pretty damn far. Just ask Paul Sheldon or Ray Garraty. Or the castaway in “Survivor Type” — him most of all. King also knows that the human body has an amazing capacity for trauma. It can withstand a lot — so much so that the mind often breaks first.

Each chapter heading of The Long Walk quotes a line from a game show host, but the one that really sticks out (and presumably gave King his idea in the first place) is this one by Chuck Barris, creator of the The Gong Show — “The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant would be killed.” And isn’t that the truth? Certainly, the Romans knew this as they cheered for Gladiators to be mauled to death by wild animals (or other Gladiators). Just ask the French who cheered and jeered as thousands were led to their deaths by guillotine. There is an insatiable blood lust that lingers in humans that I don’t think we’ll ever shake completely, no matter how “civilized” we think we’ve become.

Violence as entertainment is part of the norm, so I have no problems believing that under the right (terrifying) conditions, death as entertainment could become just as normalized. Outwit, Oulast, Outplay on Survivor suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

One of the things I’ve always loved about this book is how King handles the audience as spectators, complicit in this cold-blooded murder of its young boys. When the novel first starts, the spectators are individuals, with faces and genders and ages. As the story progresses, spectators increase in number to “the crowd”, loud and cheering, holding signs. By the novel’s climax, spectators filled with blood lust have morphed into a raging body of Crowd (with a capital C). It is an amorphous and frightening entity that moves and seethes with singular purpose obsessed with the spectacle, and baying for blood like a hound on the scent. It’s chilling because there’s such a ring of truth to all of it. Were it to ever happen, this is how it would happen. When King is writing at his best, the devil is always in the details.

Another aspect of the story that has always engaged me is the boys’ compulsion to join the Walk and be complicit in their own execution. I’ve always wanted to ask King if he meant this story to be an allegory for young boys signing up to die in Vietnam (considering he wrote it as Vietnam was heating up and on the nightly news). I think naivety and ignorance got a lot of the boys to The Walk, including Garraty. I think young people (especially young men) believe themselves to be invincible, that death is not something that can happen to them no matter the odds or circumstances. I’m sure no boy went to Vietnam thinking he would come home in a body bag, though many of them did.

If it’s not obvious by now, I could talk about this book until the sun burns itself out, or the zombies rise up. If you haven’t yet, read this book. If you have a reluctant teen reader in your life, give them this book. If it’s been a long time since you’ve read this book, don’t you think it’s time to read it again?

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Quick kisses in the dark

Night Shift ★★★★★
Stephen King
Doubleday, 1978

Signet paperback, 1979

Signet paperback, 1979

In his introduction to Skeleton Crew, Stephen King writes: “a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair” whereas the short story “is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” My literary proclivities definitely lean towards those long affairs. I don’t read a lot of short stories nor am I a fan of the format (though I’m improving). At least give me a novella!

Stephen King is one of only a handful of authors who can make me a believer in the beauty and effectiveness of the short story. For a man who has been lambasted for his “bloated” novels – King himself has referred to his condition as “literary elephantiasis” – he can still write a short story like nobody’s business. Stories that will stop your heart, chill your blood, and see the world in a new way.

King has written hundreds of short stories over his lifetime but for me none can quite compare to the ones collected here in Night Shift. The majority of these stories first appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier, written before Carrie’s publication in 1974 and the gargantuan financial windfall that followed. King has talked quite a bit about what life was like before that watershed moment:

There were some hard, dark years before Carrie. We had two kids and no money. We rotated the bills, paying on different ones each month. I kept our car, an old Buick, going with duct tape and bailing wire….

The boy who would be King.

The boy who would be King

There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me these stories burn bright and hot as if King wrote them in a fever. I can picture him now pounding them out on his wife’s Olivetti portable typewriter between the washer and dryer of their cramped trailer’s tiny laundry room. The modest sale of these early stories was often a reprieve from the poverty bearing down on the young King family, cash-strapped with two small children. That was motivation enough, but it wasn’t the only motivator. King wrote because he had to, the stories lived inside of him screaming to be born.

There’s another reason why I love the stories in this collection – they represent King’s early fascination / obsession / dedication to fear, to what haunts, creeps and crawls. King knows what scares us, because it scares him too. He gets it, it’s not a put on and these stories are as authentic as fear gets. In the introduction he writes:

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never grab my ankle.

No waking or dreaming…but only the voice of the writer….He’s telling you that you want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right – you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more; he wants you to put your hands on the shape under the sheet. And you want to put your hands there. Yes.

I think Poe and Lovecraft would agree.

For me, this collection contains some of the best examples of the modern horror story. King has tapped an artesian well of contemporary fears and anxieties penning macabre, ghoulish tales that deserve to be called classics. Not to be missed: “Children of the Corn”, “The Boogeyman”, “The Mangler”, “Strawberry Spring”, and “Quitter’s Inc.” My deepest thanks to King who was the first to convince me that sometimes even I, can be seduced by that quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. Oh yes.

An extraordinary debut

Tell the Wolves I’m Home ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Carol Rifka Brunt
Random House, 2012

The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible. ~Tell the Wolves I’m Home

tell the wolvesI don’t know how to write a review for this book. I’ve made a few false starts already. It’s always SO HARD to review the exceptional, the beautiful, the sincere and heartfelt. When what you’ve just read humbles you, when it so keenly reminds you of the raw power of storytelling — of why we read in the first place — it can leave you floundering without any words to describe the experience (a cruel irony if there ever was one).

I have no words, or I feel like I don’t have enough, or know the right ones to use to capture the intensity and sweetness of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Like Mozart’s Requiem, it’s meant to be experienced. It’s the really funny joke that “you had to be there” to find funny at all.

I can tell you it’s a coming of age story that hits all the right notes regarding that excruciating, confusing transition between childhood and adulthood, from innocence to innocence lost. June is fourteen and bright and funny and loveable, but also fierce and stubborn and selfish. She’s prideful and lacks confidence, while at the same time marches to the beat of her own romantic drum. She’s learning to love, not just perfection, but flaws and failures — discovering that real beauty, real love, has scars and history, mistakes and disappointments.

There is so much character in this story — not just June, but her sister Greta, their beloved uncle Finn, and his beloved Toby. Each character is whole with lives and souls to call their own. Their voices are distinct, their points of view crystalline and unique. It makes you care, it makes you feel and cry, and sigh and laugh out loud.

There’s also a sense of place — a time really — that’s so vivid it acts as a powerful subtext to the entire novel. June is growing up in the 1980’s while her uncle is dying from AIDS. We remember the music, the clothes, the movies and that makes us smile. But then we remember the ignorance and fear, the prejudice and cruelty — as much a part of the disease as its auto-immune deficiency — and we weep. Toby and Finn, with genuine humanity, symbolize the tragic loss of so many young men in the early days of AIDS, before anyone really understood what was happening, before anyone had the courage to do anything about it when they finally knew exactly what was happening.

Ultimately, this book is about profound loss and the giant grief that accompanies it. It’s about finding yourself in that loss, and then finding your way through it. If you’ve been there, you know. There are no shortcuts. It is what it is and it’s you and it. But if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky, there will be someone beside us to hold our hand, to pull us in, to catch our tears, to guide us back to the land of the living.

This is an emotional story, but it is in no way maudlin or melodramatic. It could be that book, that smacks of manipulation and exploits tragedy for the big win. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not that book. It is the very opposite of that book. I’m going to end this review with a Hemingway quote that I would like to dedicate to June and Greta and Finn and Toby. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Literary zombies is not an oxymoron

The Reapers Are the Angels ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Alden Bell
Holt Paperbacks, 2010

Alden Bell proves that the literary zombie novel is not an oxymoron.

reapersAbout zombies, you can say I’m … earnest. I love how they can be so many different things at once – pathetic, savage, terrifying, unrelenting. Zombies are shambling and starving, haunted and lost. They ramble and feed, yet there is a hint, always just a hint, of some long lost memory of who they used to be. Nothing captures that better than the scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead when the zombies come in waves to the mall:

“Why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

More than anything else, I love what zombies can teach us about ourselves because surviving a zombie apocalypse is going to cost you: your soul, your sanity, your faith, your humanity. Like any zombie story worth its salt, The Reapers are the Angels is not about the zombies. It’s about the survivors — the ones left hanging on by their fingertips to the jagged edges of a dying world that just won’t die and stay dead. A world that shifts and groans under the weight of biting, grasping corpses.

Temple knows this world. She’s been hanging on by her fingertips to the jagged edges for ten years, since her orphanage was overrun when she was just five years old. Now she is fifteen, fierce and feral. She might long for human connections and to find her place in the world, but the basics of human interaction and social etiquettes have passed her by. What she knows is survival at any cost, and it has cost her plenty. She can’t help but think: “I got a devil in me.”But Temple’s not a monster. Even as he hunts her across the country, Moses Todd explains: “I’ve seen evil, girl, and you ain’t it”. This is a redemption story, because really, that is what Temple seeks even though she cannot articulate that basic human need in herself, for forgiveness, for someone to lay their hands on her and tell her she’s just a girl after all, and not an abomination.

Tor paperback cover, 2011

Tor paperback cover, 2011

I love the title of this book – there is something so poetic, so portent, so Old Testament medieval about it. The Reapers are the Angels … yes, I want to read that book. I want to know what that means. Alden Bell delivers prose to match that is so achingly beautiful in its stream-of-consciousness style. I love the heavy Southern dialect that’s been bastardized by time and trauma.

You give me a compass that tells good from bad, and boy I’ll be a soldier of the righteous truth. But them two things are a slippery business, and tellin them apart might as well be a blind man’s guess.

This is a short novel that manages to be epic in its themes and scope, all at once horrific, heartbreaking and rife with tragedy. The violence is explicit but even as the blood and stinking offal pour across the page the book’s magnitude and terrible beauty is never in dispute. Alden Bell is writing Southern Gothic set in a landscape where things are not “gross” but rather “grotesque”.

What more can I say? Read this book.

View all my reviews

The last man on Earth is definitely not alone

Y: The Last Man – The Deluxe Edition Book One ★★★★★
Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra (Illustrator), José Marzán Jr. (Illustrator)
Vertigo, 2008

y deluxe 1Pardon me while I flail about in fangirl mode, but OMFG and all that is holy, Y: The Last Man is totally a.w.e.s.o.m.e!!!! I didn’t think the graphic novel format would ever win me over entirely, but it’s happened – I’m in love – hook, line, sinker, fully, completely. Not only is this an addictive premise taken to the extreme reaches of the most fertile imagination, it’s brimming with fully fleshed out characters who live and breathe with histories, motives, strengths and vulnerabilities. The best part? This edition only collects Issues 1-10; I still have another 50 to look forward to!

How’s this for a premise? – last guy on Earth is not alone — literally. Yorick is a hapless, near to agoraphobic, practicing escape artist, madly in love with a young woman a hemisphere away in Australia when a sudden unexplained plague hits the planet and kills every last mammal carrying a Y chromosome. Every last mammal that is except for Yorick and his pet Capuchin monkey Ampersand. Think it would be a laff riot to be the last guy on Earth surrounded by a few billion ladies? Think again gentlemen. Welcome to your new nightmare.

Vaughan’s world-building here post-plague is incredibly detailed and believable. With all men suddenly blipped out of existence women aren’t standing around singing Kumbaya (did you really think we would?) and the world does not become a better place. Far from it. Vaughan deftly explores the harsh realities that must be faced when such a monumental, unpredictable, counter-evolutionary shift happens to humans with no warning.

The graphics are superior; each character has their own unique look and the action is propelled along not just by Vaughan’s ripping dialogue, but by Pia Guerra’s sharp interpretation of the action. I love that I get so much story delivered on such a small canvas. I could have taken days to plow through a 650 page novel and not felt as sated or panting for more, the way I felt here after indulging in a mere 250 pages of colorful, comic book cells. That’s storytelling magic. I can’t wait for more!

My deepest thanks to my graphic-novel reading friends who kept throwing this series title at me for ages – I finally get it now!!!

A dystopian classic for readers of all ages

The Giver ★★★★★
Lois Lowry
Houghton Mifflin, 1993

“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?”~The Giver

giverI always thought of Lois Lowry’s The Giver as the little book that could. Written almost like a parable, its deceptively simple story delivers some heavy, reverberating hits. I consider this little book to be a significant contribution to the genre, ranked right up there with such dystopian classics as Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Soylent Green. I love it because of its simplicity and accessibility; it’s the perfect way to introduce younger readers (especially reluctant younger readers) to some pretty powerful themes.

It’s a book that can only generate discussion and debate amongst the young and young at heart on the importance of personal choice. You fight for it. You don’t ever let it be taken from you. Sameness, calmness, serenity… these may sound like lofty goals, comforting words, but they should never come at the cost of the individual’s right to explore, question, challenge, choose.

Some readers may be left unsatisfied by the ambiguous ending; I have to admit, first time reading it I was a little frustrated. But like any good parable, the ending is probably the best launching off point to a passionate debate of “what-ifs” “maybes” and “for sures”. Other readers might be put off by Lowry’s lack of detailed world-building; this is a teensy book – a long short story really – and with such a small canvas there really isn’t room for answers, mostly questions. There is a lot we don’t know – the how and why this community came to be. But the mystery inspires some addictive speculation, especially in the context of other dystopian tales which surely influenced Lowry here.

The Giver is a chilling bedtime story, as good at warning us and teaching us a lesson, as it is at entertaining us. That’s a magnificent book that can do those things all at once.

A book like no other

The Book Thief ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery…

The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you. ~ The Book Thief

the book thiefThis book left me gutted and absolutely speechless.  It is the kind of book that we can only hope to see once or twice in a generation. And that’s if we’re lucky.

Narrating The Book Thief is Death, who confesses he is haunted by humans — our beauty, our savagery, our contradictions. I, on the other hand, will remain haunted by Liesel’s story for the rest of my life (and little Rudy Steiner). There is really no way to describe this book that will come anywhere close to doing it justice. It defies all regular categorization and usual comparisons.

There are only a handful of books that after the reading is done I want to run out and buy copies for everyone I know and plead with them to drop whatever it is they are doing and read it immediately (before they get hit by a bus or a comet smashes into the Earth) — this is one of those books. The words lyrical and profound, spiritual and uncompromising are quite often overused, to the point where we’ve rendered them almost meaningless and that’s too bad, because I want to use them here and have them mean something.

Summer came. For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews. When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.

Zusak’s prose is staggeringly gorgeous both in its simplicity and in its complexity; his choice of words is flawless and inspired. I am humbled by such immense talent. The Book Thief is a gift for the ages, a love song to words, books, and what it means to be human.  It is a story that will steal (and break) your heart.

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