The Long Walk by Stephen King (1979) 370 p.
(DO NOT READ STEPHEN KING’S INTRODUCTION – SEE BELOW)
The Long Walk is the second of four early novels Stephen King published under the pen-name Richard Bachman (because his output was well over one book a year, more than his publisher was comfortable with for his “brand”) but apparently it’s also the first novel King ever started writing, long before even Carrie.
The Long Walk, apparently like the other Bachman books (it’s the first of them I’ve read) features no supernatural elements, but is still rendered so clearly in King’s unmistakeable, humble, small-town American prose that I’m surprised his pen-name wasn’t scuppered in the first review. It first appears to take place in a dystopian future, but it’s gradually revealed as the book develops to be a sort of alternate present where World War II played out very differently – there are passing mentions of German air-raids on the eastern seaboard of the US, and another war in California in 1953. King makes the references sparingly, and always in passing, successfully employing the technique of hiding the grand changes in small details.
In any case, The Long Walk takes places in some past or present or future America, fascist and dystopian, an America in which every year 100 teenage boys participate in the Long Walk – “the national pastime.” It begins in Maine (of course), on the Canadian border, with the 100 boys walking south along Interstate 95. There are no rest breaks and the Walk does not stop for any reason, including bad weather or nightfall. They’re supervised by a group of armed soldiers riding alongside them in a half-track. If a participant lags below four miles an hour, he receives a warning. After three warnings, he is “ticketed” – a euphemistic phrase which is unclear at first, but is soon revealed to the reader when a boy named Curley gets a charley horse and becomes the first walker to get his ticket:
Four carbines fired. They were very loud. The noise travelled away like bowling balls, struck the hills, and rolled back.
Why would anyone participate in an event where failure means death? The last remaining walker wins the Prize – “anything you want for the rest of your life.” At least, that’s the ostensible reason. At least some of the boys are suggested to be suicidal, or to not have fully understood the ramifications and the reality of the Walk. One, a boy named McVries, confesses to the protagonist that he’s in the Walk partly out of spite because his girlfriend broke up with him.
The protagonist is a 16-year-old Maine native (of course) named Ray Garraty, but King wisely narrates the book in third person, so it’s entirely up in the air as to whether Garraty will be the last man standing or not – and I won’t spoil it.
There are no twist endings, no grand escapes, no sudden changes. The novel begins with 100 walkers who are gradually whittled down to one, and it’s horrifying. Truly and utterly and viscerally horrible. Stephen King is obviously renowned as a horror writer, but I’ve never found his books frightening, exactly – I’ve enjoyed them because they present fascinating speculative scenarios, like The Stand or The Mist or the Dark Tower series. Even some of his lower rate work like Cujo or Firestarter I’ve enjoyed, not because I was ever at any point horrified by it, but just because it presented an unusual and gripping scenario.
The Long Walk, though, is a non-horror book that’s genuinely horrifying. Part of it, I suspect, is because we all know what it’s like to feel sick of walking – I was exhausted just the other day after trawling around the Melbourne CBD doing Christmas shopping. The concept of being forced to walk on and on and on, for 72 hours or more, even as your calves are burning away, even as your feet swell with blisters, walking forever down and endless road, knowing that if you stop you’ll die – that’s horror. That’s immediately identifiable. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to die of the superflu in The Stand or be killed by one of the spider-monsters in The Mist, but I can very easily comprehend how it would feel to be forced to walk non-stop with a gun at my head. And it’s not just the strength of the concept – The Long Walk is a very readable, fast-paced and well-executed book.
The Long Walk is clearly, to some extent, a war parable. King’s early drafts were written in the mid-1960s, and the spectre of Vietnam looms large – the televised draft lottery, the act of making new friends only to watch them die soon after, the jingoistic support from the nation at large, and the pointless nature of the whole fucked-up scenario. From a vantage point in 2012, it is horrifically inconceivable that young American and Australian teenagers were conscripted to fight in a civil war in South-East Asia, and – this is the kicker – that they would watch it happen on television, on a knife-edge, sitting on the couch with their families as their numbers were drawn out of a barrel like a fucking Powerball to see if they’d be sent off to die. That’s absolutely sickening, yet it happened. Every chapter in The Long Walk begins with a quote from a game show, including one from Chuck Barris saying, “The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant was killed.” There’s a definite sense in The Long Walk of the worlds of entertainment and violence colliding, of bread and circuses in a terrible time and place. The walkers gradually grow to hate the crowds that line the highway, knowing full well that the people of America are baying for their blood. (I doubt Battle Royale or The Hunger Games ever would have been written without The Long Walk.)
I read the first half of The Long Walk interspersed with Around the World on a Motorcycle, which I think was a mistake. This is the kind of book that should be read quickly and exclusively – maybe even in one sitting – to best mirror the relentless, onward march of the characters themselves. The Long Walk is one of the best books King has ever written, alongside The Mist and the better books of the Dark Tower series. It’s a book that’s just as powerful today as when it was written, a book that’s excellent for both adults and its target audience of teenagers, and a book that I can highly recommend to everyone.
(One final note, unfortunately a negative one – the particular edition I read of this book, the Signet reprint from 1999, includes an introduction from Stephen King called “The Importance of Being Bachman.” On the third page of this introduction he casually spoils the ending of The Running Man, another novel he published under the name of Richard Bachman, and one that I intend to read. I was flabbergasted that an author would do this to one of his own books. I stopped reading it at that point, so for all I know he also spoils the ending of The Long Walk – and, hey, maybe the endings of The Stand and The Dark Tower and The Mist. Just don’t read the introduction, even after you finish the novel.)