I continue to be rather amazed by Stephen King. At the same time, I continue to be rather ashamed of my ignorant and juvenile dismissal of the man and his impressive body of work in my youth. Impressive, I’m discovering one book at a time, not only in number of books he’s written but also in the quality of those books. The Long Walk, arguably the earliest book by King, written when he was still attending the University of Main in the mid-sixties, is a short book when compared to a lot of his other novels. It’s also very simple, very direct, but this little book packs a mean punch and I took the beating willingly.
Originally released as The Long Walk by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym of King’s, this novel surprisingly doesn’t represent an unpolished or unskilled attempt at crafting a story. It’s actually surprisingly engrossing and masterful in its focus and execution. I wasn’t sure this book would be any good at all considering just how simple the plot is and considering there is but a single point of view to sustain the reader from cover to cover. It’s putting it mildly to say that the book surprised me.In a future where American has become extremely militarized and led by a man named the Major, a competition is held each year beginning on the first of May. It’s not really specified but you get the sense that this competition is meant to commemorate a military victory (or defeat, it’s not clear) of some great importance. One hundred teenage boys set out to participate in the Long walk. The goal is to walk as long as they can without stopping. They are drafted from thousands of volunteers. There are few rules. The Walk cannot stop and you must keep a pace of four miles per hour. If a walker drops below this pace, he is given a warning. Warnings can also be given when you interfere with other walkers or cause any other kind of trouble. Three warnings will get you “ticketed”. The walk ends when there is only one remaining survivor still walking. For his troubles, he’s rewarded with whatever he wants for the rest of his life.
That’s it. There’s nothing else. That’s the foundation on which King presents his story and he uses it for all its worth. Throughout the walk we follow one boy, Ray Garraty. He makes friends with some of the other walkers. He makes a few stunning revelations about his life, life in general, and his relationship with the other walkers and viewers watching from the comfort of their homes.
It’s a horrific book and horrific in the best way. One of the reasons I was so keen to dismiss King when I was young and still largely uninitiated to his work, was that I equated horror with senseless gore. I applied my personal prejudices which I cobbled together from samplings of slasher flicks and other sources for which I had no fondness and applied them to a man who’s literary career is constantly associated with the word horror. It’s only after I gave some of his books a fair chance and after reading dozens of interviews that I’ve come to realize that King deals in a specific kind of horror, one that I honestly didn’t really know existed. By reading some of his books I’ve come to understand why King is so popular and so successful. He writes books in which the characters are written about with great care and he makes the readers care about the characters more than any monsters or horrific antagonists. It’s simple, but I’d argue something that is difficult to execute well. If the Internet is to be trusted, sometimes King fucks up with this approach and it results in unsatisfying books.
That’s certainly not the case with The Long Walk. I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. It’s brutal, but the brutality works in the story’s favour. I don’t love the book because it’s brutal. I simply accept it as part of the reading experience and I think it’s worth mentioning because that particular sentiment permeates nearly every page. King makes a promise to the reader early on in the book: only one walker will survive. Because it occurs so early in the book and defines the entire plot, this promise, this expectation, hangs over the book and its readers. Will there really be only a single survivor of the Walk? It’s not a question you can shake away. King brings it one step further and twists the knife by making us care about these poor bastards who, we later find out, volunteered for the walk. I’ll let you find out on your own whether or not King fulfills his promise. What impressed me was the daring attitude that got him to make the promise then spend the rest of the book narrating the entire Walk from the point of view of one of the walkers. We spend days with these young men and we get to know them very well. Some of these kids become your friends and it’s a sobering thought to know that they’re ticking bombs, set to go off at any time.
King creates a pressure cooker plot and lets it run its course. That he doesn’t alter the course or change the rules established in the first couple of chapters is refreshing and rewarding. He trusts his readers to stick with him and he respects us enough not to go back on his word. He lets the situation work itself out and offers us front row seats to fight of man vs. man. It’s savage. There is no other word for it. Before the end of the story the pressure cooker blows because King set it up that way. It’s like one of those disasters that play and replay on TV, the kind of video footage that frightens you but also excites you and makes you feel very small, very human, and very flawed.
I had a visceral reaction to this book. I was physically affected while reading. My heart was honestly racing while I flipped the pages. When one of the walkers cramps up so bad and he can’t help but pull his pants down and shit while continuing to walk for fear of being shot dead, I’m frightened. I’m as scared and lonely as all of the other walkers because I’m there sharing their experience. At the same time, I’m secretly hoping that kid with the cramps dies because I know that only one boy will survive the walk and I’m rooting for someone else. It’s somewhat sickening for me to admit this. Sure, that young man is a fictional person, but King is so convincing in his writing that all of the participants of the Long Walk became real to me. At least for those hours I spent with them on the road.
As if heralding the boom in reality competition television shows in the decades following the publication of The Long Walk, King gives us enormous insight into the experience of participating in the Walk. He practically places us in the book as the main character. It’s unnerving, it’s horrific and, worst of all, it forces you to confront some really dark stuff about yourself. The question of “What would you do in this situation?” pops up repeatedly. I don’t know. I don’t know, dammit! Every time you save someone else on the road you’re tightening the noose around your own neck. Is there a way for your humanity to survive out on the road? What does winning the Long Walk really mean? Does it even matter when you know you survived at the cost of 99 other lives? Why do we even allow this competition to take place? Why do the walkers volunteer? Why did I volunteer?
In case you haven’t been paying attention, I think this is a tremendous book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s certainly the best Stephen King book I’ve yet to read. It works so well and for so many different reasons. It’s a mystery to me how such a narratively simple book can be so thematically rich. It’s violent and it uses the mistreatment of others as a basis for entertainment but it also holds up a mirror to humanity. This is the kind of novel that lends itself well to analysis because the Long Walk can be a metaphor for so many things (the most obviously being war, particularly the Vietnam War). I didn’t attempt to provide any analysis or interpretations in my review. My goal here is to ask questions in order to entice you enough to want to find a copy and read the book. You won’t regret it.
With The Long Walk, King messes with your head. The premise itself doesn’t seem all that farfetched. Humans have been responsible for some terrible atrocities throughout history and the scenario he puts together might indeed happen in our future. Yet, I don’t think the book’s main goal is to scare you. It’s hopeful, in its own peculiar way. If nothing else, this book will make you think about the value of human life and that every life is worth preserving and celebrating.