The Running Man by Stephen King (1982) 317 p.
Like The Long Walk, this is another novel which Stephen King initially wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. It was one of his early books which I quite wanted to read because it’s very different to King’s traditional horror fare, being more of a science fiction thriller. It’s probably more famous for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaptation, which is only loosely based on the book, and which neatly slots into the so-bad-it’s-good category. (It’s probably also the most Eighties film ever made, even more than Back to the Future).
The Running Man takes place in then-distant 2025, when America has become a polluted dystopian wasteland where the rich rule over the poor and the masses are kept entertained by nightly gladiatorial game shows in which contestants compete for their lives. Ben Richards is a poverty-stricken 28-year-old father whose baby daughter is dying of pneumonia, who makes the difficult decision to enter the deadliest game show of all: The Running Man, in which the contestant must survive as long as possible while being hunted across America by a team of killers.
A down-and-out protagonist struggling to feed his family is a running theme in much of King’s early fiction, reflecting his own circumstances for much of his early life – married young, kids to feed, living in a trailer, working dead-end jobs. There’s an undercurrent of anger in The Running Man, as Richards rails against the injustice of the gap between rich and poor, and as the novel heats up towards the end there’s the sense of a brewing class war. The dystopian future America of The Running Man is obviously an exaggerated vision (whether one looks at it from 1982 or 2013) but there’s no doubt it was born from very real thoughts and observations King made about his own situation as a young man in the 1970s. (Although it’s very… American of King never to lay the blame on capitalism itself. For a foreign writer – or perhaps even a modern American writer – that would be considered an indisputable fact.)
My enjoyment of The Running Man was limited by the fact that I was spoilered on the ending, which probably would have been a really great one if I hadn’t known it was coming. I was spoilered not by my own curiosity, not by Wikipedia or another book review, but by Stephen King’s own introduction to The Long Walk. (The same introduction precedes this edition of The Running Man, which was part of a series printed by Signet in the late 1990s; I imagine it also precedes the other two Bachman books, Rage and Roadwork – if Rage was reprinted at all, which, come to think of it, I don’t believe it was, on King’s request). Spoilers are irritating at the best of times, but when the author himself spoils you it’s beyond stupid – particularly when he does so in a completely different book! The idea for reprint introductions in general, I suppose, stems from the days when it was a 19th century classic that was being reprinted, and it was assumed everyone had already read it and would appreciate 20 pages of some literary analysis at the beginning. Putting that questionable notion aside, it’s completely ridiculous to carry the custom on into the modern age, when many of us are picking up books that we’ve never read, for the first time, in a reprint edition. And even then, why not put it at the end, after the book is fresh in our minds, and we’re thinking about it, and might appreciate somebody else’s perspective?
Just, sorry, again: Stephen King wrote an introduction for his book in which he tells you the ending. And then put it at the beginning of other books as well.
Anyway. Aside from this fuckwittery, did I enjoy The Running Man? Yes, but not as much as I was expecting to, even knowing I’d been spoilered. The Long Walk is by far the superior Bachman book – though it’s also, in my opinion, one of the best things King ever wrote. The Running Man, in comparison to The Long Walk’s chilling simplicity, takes place in a much more complex world, and makes much more of its science fiction and dystopian aspects – not always skilfully. Richards’ rage and contempt are thinly veiled facades for King’s own, and the injustices of this future America are often awkwardly shoehorned into the plot. I’m thinking specifically of his pillow talk conversation about air pollution records, including specific years and legislative acts, with his black street hoodlum saviour – and let’s not even get into King’s phonetic dialogue for black characters.
Worth reading, but not the best of the Bachman books – and for the love of God, don’t read the introduction.