The Long Walk ★★★★★
Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
“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.
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).
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?