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).

 

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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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The hush at the end of the world

Good Morning, Midnight ★★★★
by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Random House
Available: August 9th 2016

goodmorningGood Morning, Midnight is the quietest apocalypse book you’re ever likely to read. From the stark, icy silences of the vast Arctic, to the soundless black infinity of outer space, this introspective book is about loneliness and isolation, not bombs, or germs or zombies and fighting like a dog over the last can of beans.

If your reader’s desire is to immerse yourself in a well-constructed and deftly explored end of the world scenario then you just might be disappointed here. Getting into the nitty gritty details of an apocalypse — the whys and wherefores — that’s not this book.

Instead what we have here is a thoughtful and poignantly written contemplation on the ways humans can cut themselves off from other humans, can so easily become trapped in their own inability to connect and build lasting relationships, moving through life untethered — on the outside of everything, apart from everyone. The two vividly described settings — the Arctic and outer space — are perfect metaphors for our disconnected protagonists to move in. Our genius astronomer Augustine is stationed at the top of the world in a remote Arctic research station when the world ends. Our intrepid female astronaut Sullivan (or Sully) is on a round trip back to Earth from the outer reaches of Jupiter, confined in tight quarters with the rest of her crew.

Each is struggling with a loneliness they can’t quite define, a torment that only becomes amplified and more crushing as the terrifying realization begins to crystallize that the world might just have ended. From space, Sully and her crew are disturbed at the utter hush of zero communication coming from Earth. What sort of cataclysmic, inexplicable event could have happened to the home planet they are speeding toward? Augustine’s Arctic life is just as silent, save for the company of a mysterious young girl left behind after the research station is evacuated.

The real strength of this book (especially considering its modest length) is the striking descriptions (at times breathtakingly rendered) of life in space and in an Arctic research facility. The attention to detail put me RIGHT THERE, I could see, taste, touch everything. I lived on the Aether and experienced the excitement, the boredom, the claustrophobia, the anxiety, the fear. The challenge of meals, and going to the bathroom, and sleeping, and staying in shape. I came to know the frigid wind of the Arctic wanting to rip my face off, and the despair of feeling swallowed up by a white frozen landscape void of humans and seemingly hope. Until the sun rises. And the descriptions — often eloquent — are not plodding or heavy. No word is wasted. The prose is so sharp and so observant.

Our protagonists Augustine and Sully — though they keep themselves busy and strive for ways to normalize a far from normal situation — will have a lot of time on their hands, empty hours that will torment them, and force them to confront painful truths about themselves and the life choices they’ve made. What lies on the other side of the apocalyptic silence is a mystery that won’t be solved, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers to be found.

An advanced reading copy was provided through Netgalley.

Book Review: HUSK by J. Kent Messum

Husk ★★★★
J. Kent Messum
Penguin 2015

husk_messumOctober Country 2015 #1

Eeek! I’m already behind on my October reading (let alone reviewing) but wanted to make sure I drew this one to your attention.

HUSK (which every time I see that title I’m overcome with the urge to shout “Tusk!”) is not horror per se, but it is a thrilling, page-turning nightmare vision of the near future. Reading this I couldn’t help be reminded of King’s early Bachman books, especially The Running Man. Both are set in a bleak future where people are struggling to eat and live, so much so that it is driving them to do desperate, dangerous things for money.

In HUSK’s case, people are being driven to “rent out” their bodies to the very, very rich — the 1% of the 1% — to inhabit and do with as they please for periods of up to 72 hours. I don’t even like to lend someone my jacket or use my bathroom. Imagining someone taking over my body and using it up in any porny, germy, physically punishing way they can think of gives me the heebie jeebies. Unclean! Unclean!

As if all the drug-fueled orgies and exposure to all kinds of STD’s isn’t bad enough, not to mention the cuts and bruises and dehydration and sheer exhaustion from lack of sleep (talk about being rode hard and put away wet), our protagonist Rhodes begins to suspect his body is being used for more sinister and nefarious purposes. ::cue ominous music::

It’s especially worrisome when other Husks begin to show up dead or missing.

All the elements are present and accounted for here to make for a gripping read. Messum — author of the unputdownable BAIT — has a keen sense of where the pressure points of tension live in his story and how to exploit them. This isn’t as fast or burning a read as BAIT — it takes its time a bit more with world-building and character development and unraveling the mystery at the heart of the story, but these are all good things.

It wasn’t surprising for me to read then that HUSK’s been optioned by a UK company to adapt into a television series. The tone and themes are very similar to another show I adore and can’t wait to get more of — Black Mirror. That HUSK would make a great Black Mirror episode is probably the highest praise I can give it.

***The author was gracious enough to provide me with a free copy for review.

About the author:
Official Website
Twitter: @_JamieK_

Also available:

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New Nick Cutter book is a mad mélange of literary ingredients

The Acolyte ★★★★
Nick Cutter
Chizine Publications
Available May 5, 2015

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

The Acolyte (2015), Chizine

Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah

~ Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

I don’t know how to describe the mad, dark, mash-up genius contained in the pages of Nick Cutter’s upcoming release The Acolyte — but I’ve found myself in a similar state of speechlessness with other titles released by the incomparable ChiZine Publications. Their motto is Embrace the Odd and embrace it they do with abandon. ChiZine’s book covers alone are enough to send this bibliophile into paroxysms of delight. Here are a few of my favorites:


ChiZine has also recently gotten into the graphic novel game and I adore this cover too:

Let me wrap up the fangirling over cover art to conclude that ChiZine is a wickedly weird and dangerous publishing house ruthlessly seeking out unique voices in speculative fiction. There is nothing safe or sanitized or boring about them. And while I’m not always in the mood to enter into the wacky landscapes they pimp, I’m very grateful that they exist, and very proud that they are Canadian.

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Craig Davidson (aka Nick Cutter)

Nick Cutter (a pseudonym for Craig Davidson) blasted onto the horror scene in 2014 with The Troop — the book Stephen King declared scared the hell out of him. For the record, it scared the hell out of me too. In January, Cutter followed up with an equally gripping and richly written sci-fi horror novel The Deep.

Fans of either or both of those books should not expect the same kind of story in The Acolyte. I’m not surprised it was ChiZine who published it for him because it is an odd, intense mixture of horror, police procedural, dystopia, and noir. It is violent, contemplative, thematic, and disturbing. It’s not a book you ‘enjoy’ or ‘savor’: it is one you endure and survive.

And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Read the plot summary if you want, but it’s not going to help prepare you for what lies in wait in its pages. If you are feeling adventurous and brave, and want a taste of something not so mainstream that will take you off the beaten path into a darker part of the forest, then by all means take The Acolyte home with you.

An advanced reading copy was provided by the publisher for review.

Check out more horror from Nick Cutter:

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It’s waiting for you in The Deep

The Deep ★★★★
Nick Cutter
Gallery Books, Jan 2015

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Save your last breath to scream.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of horror and the older I get, it seems to me the harder it’s getting to scare me and to get my hands on the good stuff. One positive thing about this sad development is that it’s forced me to venture out into other genres and try new things and find new loves. My first love however — my one true love — will always remain horror. It’s in my DNA (literally probably because my parents were huge fans of things going bump in the night). I was weaned on the stuff, and on the stuff I shall die.

Why am I rambling thus? For a fan with such an unquenchable appetite for these matters, discovering newcomer Nick Cutter is the equivalent of venturing to the end of the rainbow and having a leprechaun hand you over his pot of gold. I’m so gobsmacked and excited by my good fortune (our good fortune) that I’m still in a bit of a dizzy fangirl spin. The only thing that could make this any better would be if this discovery heralded an ushering in of a whole new Golden Age for horror the likes of which not seen since the ’80s. Yes? Please? C’mon now!

Well, whatever the case, Nick Cutter is doing his part penning two terrifying tales in two years, written to make grown women scream and grown men wet their pants. He’s got the horror cred down; you don’t have to read him too closely to see that he too was weaned on the stuff and inside his writer’s heart beats the heart of a horror geek.

Reading The Deep I was put through quite the mental and emotional ringer. Between its covers some of my most vulnerable pulse points of fear were ruthlessly exploited. I was reminded of Sphere, The Thing, Event Horizon, and Alien. There’s body horror that’s going to remind you of early Cronenberg. And just when things start to feel familiar and you think you have a handle on it all, Cutter veers the story off into an angle of Weird that’s psychologically trippy and very Lovecraftian in execution. And while this story is going to remind you of a lot of other things, it is still going to shock you and lay you down and have its way with you.

Nick Cutter is a pseudonym for a talented author who can write a mean literary novel and win prizes for them. But I’m selfish and insatiable. Now that he’s ventured over to the dark side I want him to stay here and to play here forever, and ever and ever. Yeah, I’m a smitten kitten alright.

*Look for The Deep coming in January 2015 from Gallery Books*

A free copy was provided through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Check out my review of Nick Cutter’s not-to-be missed debut fright fest — The Troop.
I also shared a Q&A with the author. Check it out here.
Follow @TheNickCutter on Twitter and Goodreads.

What’s in the box?!

Bird Box ★★★★
Josh Malerman
Ecco, 2014

Something is out there . . .

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, Malorie has long dreamed of fleeing to a place where her family might be safe. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

4.5 stars

bird boxWhoah. This is some really good shit. Color me very impressed. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked this one up, but it totally delivered on tension and suspense, a palpable dread, and a suffocating sense of doom.

Just as a launching off point I’m going to throw two pop culture references at you that I couldn’t stop thinking about while reading this book. The first is the music video “Just” by Radiohead. Remember that’s the one where there’s this guy who just lies down in the street for no apparent reason and when this other guy starts screaming for a reason why he’s done this and when the man finally tells him, everyone who is in earshot lies down too, as if whatever he’s said is just too huge and overwhelming for the mind to process that the only human response is to collapse.

The second reference I’m going to throw at you is a Twilight Zone episode from the ’80s called “Need to Know” where everyone starts going insane in this small town and it’s eventually discovered that the source of the problem is not a physical disease, but an idea, a single short phrase, that is being passed from person to person by word of mouth. That horrible phrase is nothing more or less than the purpose and meaning of existence; the moral of the story being — Knowledge we are not ready to receive will drive us mad.

I freaking love that Radiohead video and I was twelve years old when I saw that Twilight Zone episode and it scared the crap out of me (which is Trudi speak for I loved it). So in a lot of ways I was already primed to love this book where a mysterious pandemic plague is causing the “infected” to go on homicidal killing sprees before killing themselves. In the escalating chaos and confusion, the source of the infection is identified as having seen something the human mind cannot fathom, a creature that is so beyond our comprehension we are literally driven mad by it. But who is to know for sure, since no one has survived to confirm what it is that they saw.

Your only defence is to close your eyes, and keep them closed.

Humans hide in houses behind windows that are painted, covered with blankets or boarded up. They dare not venture outside for water or food unless they are blindfolded. If you thought surviving the end of days was tough with all of your faculties and sight, try doing it completely blind and feeling hunted and watched the entire time.

I love survival stories of all kinds: but an apocalypse scenario where the group must survive together is my favorite. And it’s done so well here, I really can’t stress that enough. The way the tension builds gradually as the unknowable threat outside the doors of the safe house becomes more menacing and tangible. How so much is implied rather than relying on big gushy scenes of gore and explicit violence. How the daily trek to the well blindfolded to get fresh water becomes an exercise in exquisite pulse-pounding suspense to unnerve the most steely-nerved of all readers.

Did you hear that? Sssshhhhh. I think it came from behind you. Whatever you do, don’t open your eyes.

Readers who have a perpetual desire for answers and reasons may find the lack of explanation here troubling. I didn’t. I was okay that we really don’t know what the hell is going on and can only guess (and imagine our worst fears). If something like this ever goes down for real we’ll be just as much in the dark as the characters in Bird Box discovering we are as much at the mercy of our ignorance and fear of the unknown as anything that may or may not be hunting us.

One is the loneliest number

The Martian ★★★★
Andy Weir
Crown, 2014

 

This whole book left me stupid happy and deliriously impressed and I spent most of my time declaring:

Jesse would have loved Mark Watney. I love Mark Watney. He’s super smart but not just in a poindexter nerd alert bookish kind of way. Watney’s got some serious problem solving skills; he’s McGyver in a space suit. Give this guy a toothpick, some tinfoil and a ziplock bag and he’ll build you an airplane. But don’t forget the duct tape. Duct tape is awesome and I will be putting in a supply of it in order to survive the zombie apocalypse.

the martianWatney is also a funny, the glass is half-full kind of guy who gets repeatedly knocked on his ass but finds a way to get right back up again. And who doesn’t love a fighter?

The Martian is being referred to as Cast Away in space and that’s pretty accurate as those things go. It’s definitely an adventure survival story (my favorite kind), and just like Tom Hanks, Watney finds himself stranded and completely alone. The only difference is rather than washing up on a deserted island with a plethora of unopened FedEx packages, Watney finds himself abandoned on Mars with….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

There’s a lot of geeked out science descriptions, but I found most of it to be pretty accessible, even to a softcore sci-fi gal like myself. There’s a real balance and warmth to the story as Watney battles with the unforgiving Mars environment that wants to kill him every time he turns around. It’s thrilling and edge of your seat stuff with lots of laughs built in to break the inexorable tension.

Add author Andy Weir to the growing list of self-published authors who have successfully transitioned to a traditional publishing house. And there will be a movie, and I’m betting it’s going to be freaking epic.

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