A lot of people have said over the years that Stephen King is the master of spinning a tale taking place in one spot and making it interesting somehow. I would say that King is good at it, but Richard Bachman is the master. Rage was intense, and the Long Walk is just as if not more.
The basic premise is that every year, kids from all over America apply to be in the Long Walk. 100 get in, and they all start walking at the same time, armed only with a toolbelt of food and water. If any of them fall below 4 miles an hour three times, they ‘buy their ticket’, which actually means getting shot in the head. They keep going until there is only one left walking. Or likely trudging along all fucked up, because I don’t know about you, but I’d have probably bought a ticket within the first few hours.
This book was published in 1979, long before any of these new young adult dystopian novels of our time were even thought of. Even good ol’ Battle Royale didn’t come out until 1999. We live in a culture now that loves to imagine sending our children to kill each other, but I would be willing to bet that the Long Walk was pretty jarring in the seventies.
The story follows Garraty, who is the only one out of the 100 who was born and raised in Maine, where the Walk starts. He makes a few friends, enemies, and alliances, but mostly he learns about himself as fatigue sets in, physical and mental. You learn about the characters as they start to break down.
In classic King style, the book ends with Garraty not even realizing he’s won and pretty much insane. So you never really find out anything beyond this little clip of his life. Not a whole lot before, and nothing after. You never find out who the Major really is, and why the Long Walk exists. Which is frustrating, but the story is so good that it’s okay. I feel like King was just trying to put down a glimpse into this kid’s world, and at that he succeeded.
Side note, there are no girls in the Long Walk. I don’t know if the competition is closed to females, or maybe it’s not and the girls are too smart to enter? (Ha ha!) You have to admit that entering a contest where you have a 1 in 100 chance of not getting shot in the head is pretty stupid. Obviously these kids have some kind of damage, one of them comments that they all entered because underneath it all they want to die.
Let’s say you trained for it, and walked every day for hours and hours, maybe even did a few trial runs where you walked for four days straight without changing shoes or stopping to piss, let alone taking a dump. So you’re physically ready to walk at 4 miles an hour for as long as it takes to win. You’d better make sure your immune system is good too, because you don’t know what elements you’re going to face. The kid that was the #1 favourite and most physically suited to win died of pneumonia on the third day. So, there’s that.
Are you mentally ready to watch 99 other people die? Because that’s how you win. You have to watch them all deteriorate and wither away until somebody puts them out of their misery with a bullet.
So I guess if you can deal with all of that and still be standing and sane afterwards, then it makes sense to do it. But of course these are all teenage boys. They weren’t prepared, though some of them were cocky enough to think they were. It’s so fucked up. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But that is what Bachman is intensely good at.
For the Dark Tower Fans: Nothing really. Unless you, like I, suspect that the Major is actually Randall Flagg.
Fear Factor: This story isn’t necessarily scary. I found it rather uncomfortable. It’s that subtle disquiet that King is oh-so-good at. It’s fucked up, and it leaves you shaking your head and feeling like the human race is kind of shitty.
“You don’t know,” McVries said. “You’re dying and you don’t know why.”
“It’s not important after you’re dead.”
-The Long Walk, Richard Bachman, 1979
I also just wanted to point out that in the reprint I have, at the beginning there is an essay by King called ‘The Importance of Being Bachman’, in which he explains why he had a pseudonym and why it sucked really bad when he got found out. It’s really interesting, and you can read it here.