The Long Walk by Richard Bachman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I kind of blame Stephen King for reality television.
That’s not fair because he certainly wasn't the first person to do stories about murderous games done as entertainment, and it’s not like he produced Survivor or Big Brother. However, two of the books he did under the Richard Bachman pen name before being outed are about death contests done to distract the masses in dystopian societies. So whenever I see an ad for those kinds of shows I can’t help but think that the people who make that trash read those books but saw them as great TV concepts rather than horrifying visions of the future.
The scenario here is that 100 teenage boys volunteer to be part of an annual event called The Long Walk. The rules are simple. You start walking and keep up a speed of 4 miles per hour. If you fall below that pace you get a few warnings. If you don’t get back up to speed immediately, you get shot. Easier than checkers, right? Here’s the real rub: You absolutely cannot stop. All 100 boys walk until 99 of them are killed. Last one still teetering around on whatever is left of their feet then wins the ultimate prize.
On the surface you could say that this concept that could seem silly or absurd. Why would anyone volunteer for this? Answering that question turns out to be one of the best parts of the book as King moves the walkers through stages while things get progressively worse for them on the road. What King tapped into here is that realization that deep down we all think we’re special, that things will always work out for us, and this is especially true when we’re teens with no real ideas about consequences and our own mortality.
While the story focuses on one character it really becomes about all of the walkers, and we get to know them through their conversations and how they deal with the death that is literally nipping at their heels. Eventually the grim reality of their situation sets in, and we also view how the boys react to realizing the true horror they signed up for. We also learn a bit about the world they live in, and it’s an interesting minor aspect established in a few stray bits that this is essentially some kind of alternate history where World War II played out somewhat differently.
I’d read this several times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but hadn’t picked it up in the 21st century so it felt like there’s a dated element to the way that Long Walk functions. The boys essentially just show up in whatever clothes they have and they start walking with little fanfare. It almost seems like a contest at a county fair instead of something that captures the nation’s attention. There’s some explanation given about how they don’t want crowds or TV cameras around as distractions at the start until the walkers get settled into the routine.
However, that doesn’t seem to fit with the idea that the event is being orchestrated as a distraction and weird kind of motivational tool. If the story were told now there would be a lot more about the media coverage, and the whole thing would probably have a corporate sponsor. Plus, the walkers would have matching shoes and uniforms designed to look cool and keep them walking longer. They’d also probably have a more sophisticated method than soldiers with rifles and stopwatches dispatching the lollygaggers, too. This doesn’t hurt the story at all, though. Instead it gives the whole thing a kind of dated charm like watching a movie from the ‘70s where everyone is smoking and people have to wait by the phone.
One more note about Stephen King: The man really needs to have a spoiler warning branded on his forehead. I had to stop following him on Twitter after he spoiled major events on both Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. My friend Trudi had part of The Killer Inside Me ruined for her by King's introduction in which he described several key twists. I was listening to an audible version of this that had an intro from him talking about why he did the whole Richard Bachman thing. In it, he casually gives away the end of The Running Man novel. Fortunately for me I'd already read that one, but Uncle Stevie clearly just doesn't get the concept and why it pisses people off.
Overall, The Long Walk held up to my memories of it as one of the better King books as well as having a chilling idea at the heart of it. Sure, some might say that the idea of contest that dehumanizes people for entertainment to make things easier for a fascist ruler is far-fetched. On the other hand, this TV show will be premiering a few days after a certain orange pile of human shaped garbage takes power.
It’s a Richard Bachman world, people. Get ready to walk. Or maybe run.
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