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?

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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WOOL by Hugh Howey

Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool #1-5) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
by Hugh Howey
Broad Reach Publishing (Kobo edition), 2012

Outstanding!

woolWOOL began its life as a self-published short novella in July of 2011. That’s hard to believe. I feel like I’ve been hearing about this thing for ages and ages.

So I’m late to the party, but not that late. Due to excited reader response over WOOL 1, author Hugh Howey quickly released the next four parts in the series. Then came along this Omnibus which collects Parts 1-5. There is now a 2013 edition with a great new cover that features a blurb by none other than Justin Cronin, author of The Passage.

In a few short years, Howey has given all struggling writers out there toiling away at their craft in obscurity real hope. Word of mouth among bloggers and enthusiastic readers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads has the potential to lift the curse of invisibility from self-published works so that they may find their way to audiences who will love them. Never before have the barriers between author and reader been so few, the access so direct. No longer are authors strictly dependent on big publishing houses to discover them and deem their work important enough to go to market accompanied by a sexy publicity campaign. Authors and readers are doing it for themselves, and I for one think it’s a beautiful thing.

I love everything about this story — I love the details of the world-building, I love the characters, I love the shifting points of view, I love the slow burn when you’re not sure what is going on. When it became clear to me exactly what was going on I love that I wasn’t disappointed. For a post-apocalyptic story trodding very familiar science fiction territory, it still feels fresh. The author definitely gives it his own spin.

I love that the stakes are so high. I love that the author is patient and in control of his narrative. That he doesn’t reveal too much too soon. That he understands the relationship between tension and release. All of that to say, I love that the writing is so strong and capable (I’ve read too much self-published stuff where the prose is inexcusably sloppy). Howey’s writing is the exact opposite of sloppy. It’s polished. Its engine hums. The shoes are shiny and it’s wearing a tie. It’s ready to take home to mom.

Finally, I love Juliette. She’s Ellen Ripley, Katniss Everdeen, and Dana Scully all rolled up into one. She’s got brains and courage. Her heart is huge, her will made of iron.

There’s a lot of under-developed, underwhelming dystopian fiction kicking around out there these days. WOOL leaves those attempts in its dust. It’s worth your time. Trust me.

Find out more about the author and his on-going writing projects here.

Book trailer available here

This review can also be found on Goodreads.

The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology

The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology ★★★

new deadChristopher Golden (Editor)

I’m giving this three stars because overall, the stories are okay and several are completely forgettable. But I also encourage you to pick up this anthology because a few are outstanding and it would be a crying shame if you missed them.

Making it to Outstanding:

What Maisie Knew by David Liss:

At turns creepy, sick and disturbing; absolute compelling reading. If this premise has come up before, it was new to me and I loved it. The zombies are not the monsters of this story. The squick factor is off the charts.

Kids and Their Toys by James A. Moore:

Think The Body meets The Girl Next Door. There is a reason why children shouldn’t play with dead things. I haven’t been this creeped out since reading “Children of the Corn”.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead by Joe Hill:

Mr. Hill hasn’t totally blown me away with his novels, but his short stories are EPIC and this one is no exception. If only all Twitter feeds were this engrossing and suspenseful! What starts out as a young girl’s whiny bitch-fest in installments of 140 characters or less, morphs into heart-stopping terror.

Family Business by Jonathan Maberry

Easily my favorite of the bunch just because Maberry took what were the ingredients of a major story and turned it into a kick-ass novel called Rot & Ruin. Read the novel first though because the short story contains major spoilers.

House of Stairs – one step away from the beast within

House of Stairs★★★

by William Sleator

I am insanely addicted attracted to stories about “the group in peril”, when people are thrust into an alien setting absent of any social rules and obligations. Under such circumstances, it usually doesn’t take long for humans to throw off the shackles of civilized conduct and resort to a more brutal “survival of the fittest” approach. That’s not just the pessimist in me coming out, but the realist.

house of stairsWhat we become in extremis is both fascinating and frightening in the heroic heights we reach and the craven depths we sink to, and how quickly we revert to our most primal and baser urges. One hundred thousand years of evolution gone in the blink of an eye. William Golding shows us this in Lord of the Flies, as does Scott Smith in The Ruins, Jose Saramago in Blindness and Stephen King in his novella The Mist. These books teach us that there are even worse fates than losing your life – it’s losing your humanity.

In House of Stairs, William Sleator proves just how quickly humans can be stripped of their humanity. First published in 1974, I imagine Sleator was influenced at least in part, by some of the more famous psych experiments of the first half of the 20th century including the Little Albert Experiment and the Milgram Obedience Experiment. Just a few years prior to its publication there was also the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment – a study designed to ostensibly observe the effects of becoming either a prisoner or prison guard. Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. This “experiment” degenerated so rapidly into violence and the dehumanization of its subjects that it had to be stopped after only six days. Good times.

The five 16-year-old protagonists here are subjected to much the same mindfuck (pardon my French), enclosed in a never-ending space of stairs – there are no walls, no floors, no doors, no ceiling, just stairs, going up, going down. That’s the set-up. What follows is pretty tame by today’s standards, and in my books does not hold a candle to Lord of the Flies; however, it still makes for pure, unadulterated compulsive reading. It doesn’t surprise me that in 2000, the American Library Association, with teen participation, chose it as one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of the last 50 years. Recommended!!

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!!!

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