Saturday, 22 February 2020

The Long Walk

1st Edition cover, 1979
Author: Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King)
First Published: 1979
File size/Pages: 978KB (Omnibus) / 384pp (Individual)
Ebook Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Ebook Date: March 2010 (Omnibus)

During the 1970s Stephen King experienced literary success with a string of novels such as Carrie (1974), 'Salem's Lot (1975) and The Shining (1977). He was due to release The Stand in 1978, but had another older manuscript from 1966 languishing in his trunk. Thus was born Richard Bachman's Rage (now pulled from circulation due to its subject matter. If you can track down an old version of The Bachman Books omnibus you'll find Rage still included).

His test of the reaction to a non-King book with Rage resulted in the request for a folllow up by Bachman from the publishing house, so he delved back in to his trunk and out popped The Long Walk in 1979.

King has written that he was asked if he published as Bachman because he thought he was over saturating the market with 'Stephen King' books - his reply is categorically 'no' - but his publishers did want to limit his output at the time and he was reduced to launching a single book a year. Therefore writing as Bachman would allow him to issue a second book, as well as finding out if his success was due to genuine writing skills or simply buyer association to a famous name/brand.

The Long Walk has a wonderfully simple plot at its heart. In a dystopian future version of America, the country is transfixed by a competition run by a mysterious military 'Major'. Each year 100 teenage boys (called 'Walkers') are picked from a pool of volunteers to take part in a gruelling walk where they must maintain a pace of a least four miles an hour. They are not allowed to stop or take breaks for any reason, including eating, sleeping or bathroom breaks - everything must be done without stopping or slowing down below 4mph. If they slow down, they are Warned. They have only three Warnings. They can 'lose' a Warning by maintaining a pace above the speed limit continually for one hour, thus effectivly regaining a life. If they attract a fourth Warning they are eliminated from the competition - literally. They are ruthlessly shot dead by a group of soldiers who have been tracking them since the start line. The last Walker left alive wins whatever they wish for.

UK NEL paperback edition, 1980
The book centers on Walker No. 47, Ray Garraty, a local lad (of course, being a Bachman/King novel, the events take place in Maine) who arrives at the start line with his mother and girlfriend. Garraty soon makes contact with the other boys around him as they set off rather naively on their horrifying journey.

Among the other notable contestants that accompany him are Peter McVries, fit, confident and savvy; Hank Olson, witty but slightly stand-offish; Art Baker, serious and straight talking; Barkovitch, a decidedly nasty character who seems to annoy everyone he meets. Finally there is Stebbins, a blond skinny boy who keeps himself to himself but facinates Garraty.

As they set off, the boys form a group and start to talk about The Walk and their backgrounds, how they ended up as Walkers, their dreams, fears and wishes. Barkovitch is soon singled out as a bad person, someone who appears to glory in the 'eliminaton' of others. The friends take against him, but due to the nature of the competition cannot really escape his company. Stebbins is part of thier group, but his tactic appears to be to walk at the very back and not talk to anybody - only Garraty seems to be able to get anything out of him - is Stebbins the dark horse who has the perfect stratgey?

The Long Walk is a fascinating read, the sheer purpose of The Walk keeps you reading. King's skill at eliciting characterisation out of aimless conversation is clear to the reader. The book is about people walking, quite literally, to their deaths. But he manages to make it so interesting and captivating that you are depserate to know who will win, who will die, and who holds the most interesting secret.

As the story plays out, other characters come and go, each of them feel fully fleshed out to the point where you have your own favourite, and desperately don't want them to get eliminated. Although the book is not necessarily presented as an outright horror novel - King does add some ghoulish details. The execution of the Walkers is not always clean and simple, some will suffer horrendous deaths, some will crack under the pressure and try to escape, all under the souless scrutiny of the soldiers elected to deliver the final bullett to the back of the head (if they are lucky).

Original 1979 cover painting
As The Long Walk gathers pace (no pun intended) I was starting to get quite anxious, the impending inevitiability of the fate of the characters does play on your mind; will Garraty win? What will he wish for if he wins? What if he doesn't win? Will the book just end suddenly from his point of view? It certainly delivered the suspense that I was hoping to get.

The ending of The Long Walk has generated some debate among those that have read the book. I won't spoil anything. I'm sure you can find a lot of discussion about it online.

As a reasonably experienced King reader, I would place The Long Walk amongst one of his better novels (I'll readily admit I've not read all of them). Considering he wrote it at a very young age I can only say the man is incredibly talented at telling a story, and has clearly had that talent since his youth.

I read this novel as part of an omnibus version. This is currently available online at Amazon UK for £5.49 which is good value considering there are two other Bachman books included in the set.