The Long Walk by Stephen King

After generations have grown up with Stephen King as a byword for horror and fantasy fiction, it seems incredible to think that there was a time when he wasn’t famous. Yet, eight years before the story of a telekinetic teenager would Carrie him to the heady heights of the best seller list, Stephen King was just a young man studying creative writing. In 1967, a nineteen year old King put together his first novel, which oddly enough considering his future reputation for horror, is a grim dystopian tale with a psychological bent.

Though rejected upon first submission, fortunately King published the book in 1979 during his brief stint as sinister alter ego Richard Bachman, meaning it can be found both as a standalone novel and in the collection “The Bachman Books”. Despite its rather strange history, many Stephen King fans (including my lady), tend to regard The Long Walk as one of King’s best works, so it was inevitable I’d give it a try sooner or later.

One of the most unique things about The Long Walk is its premise. In an alternative history in which America has become a military dictatorship, The Long Walk is the national obsession. The rules are simple: 100 boys between 12 and 18 start walking from the Canadian border. Drop under four miles an hour and the walker gets a warning. If the walker doesn’t pick up the pace before 30 seconds pass, they get another warning. Three warnings and they are said to “buy a ticket”, a ticket that comes with a bullet. No sleep, no rest, no leaving the road or interfering with other walkers, just walk until you can’t walk anymore, with the literal last man standing earning the ultimate prize, anything they want for the rest of their lives.

What is odd about The Long Walk is that on the one hand the book seems radically different from the Stephen King we know and love. There is nothing supernatural, no small town rivalries or suddenly romantic twists, no hints at a darker and larger cosmology and certainly no reality bending horror. Even in its perspective, where King (especially in his earlier works), developed a reputation for creating many characters and dealing with their lives slowly and methodically (often before ending those lives in very nasty ways), The Long Walk is told from one, and only one perspective, that of sixteen year old Ray Garraty.

Yet at the same time, there is so much about the book which is quintessentially King, the excruciatingly intimate knowledge we get of Garraty’s experiences; the agonising physical and psychological ordeal that makes up the book, all the different flavours of pain in his feet as well as the knowledge that death is just a stumble away, the landscape of America seen in a dark mirror, the occasional moments of genuine joy and gallows humour, including some expertly written crassness that is entertaining through its sheer artistic profanity. Above all, though not officially what anyone would call a “horror” novel, the premise behind The Long Walk is one fit to give you nightmares.

King’s intimate details of what Garraty and the other walkers go through are nothing short of terrifying, both in terms of the slow, grinding breakdown which we experience directly with Garraty and see at second hand with the other boys, and in terms of the hints we get of a society which is not only an incredibly scary military dictatorship but one frighteningly like our own.

Though we only get hints about the history of the world  the book takes place in, the hints we get are more than tantalising, although mostly we are concerned with the world as it affects the walkers rather than the world as a whole. In particular, the mentions of people being “squadded”, and the big brother style appearance of the Major whom the boys both revile and revere. 

It’s interesting to think that when Suzanne Collins was herself just five years old, King would be anticipating so many of the themes she’d later explore in her own way in The Hunger Games. The society obsessed with a death related contest to the point where the contestant’s suffering matters not at all, the nationalistic preoccupation with the competitors even as the spectator’s cease to view them as human, indeed the way King depicts Garraty’s perception that the crowd of people morph into simply “Crowd” a homogenous single entity is downright disturbing.

Yet, where Collins’ Panem was a distant future society with only echoes and obsessions reminding us of the world we know, King’s future America has some frighteningly realistic points, from familiar brands and national mottos to a landscape of long rolling roads and gas stations not unlike that seen in many of King’s later novels, such as the long journeys taken in The Stand.

Where Collins’ contest however saw teenagers actively trying to kill each other, King’s contest is far more about passive suffering and endurance, and thus becomes a chance for King to truly explore his characters in detail, how they think and react and play off each other individually and as part of a larger group.

Garraty serves as an everyman character. He is neither particularly virtuous nor overly vicious. He has a girlfriend and mother at home whom he loves, but even though his father was taken away by the government he is no rebel. He isn’t even sure exactly why he volunteered for the contest. Yet, Garraty is anything but bland, indeed King’s definition of an everyman character seems to be not someone with no personality, but  someone who you love at times, are exasperated by at others, but in the end feel a deep seated compassion for and want to see succeed due to his unerring ordinariness.

With no chance to interfere with other walkers, rather than violence, all of the boys’ interactions come through dialogue, and here King excels.  Even characters who appear to be one note at the start of the book, such as the ghoulish and irritating Barkovich, the thuggish Colly Parker or the brash Olson are people you actually find yourself feeling sorry for as their defences break down under the continual pressure of the ordeal.

King also needs to be commended for the way he writes teenagers. Adults usually have reasons for doing as they do, whilst children (especially young children), act entirely on impulse. Teenagers are interesting however because sometimes they act as children, simply reacting to what is around them (often in ways that don’t even make sense), whilst sometimes they act like adults, sometimes though the reasons for doing what they do are carried through to extremes, indeed the very lack of reason why so many of the boys decided to undertake The Long Walk is an interesting theme in itself.

From the honest baker to the simple Scram, King depicts his teenaged characters in all their flawed, utterly human glory.

In particular, Garraty’s best friend, Peter McVries is a study in contrasts, going from sarcastic, cynical and vindictive to loyal and oddly compassionate, indeed it is these very contradictions that make McVries such a fascinating character; particularly since next to Garraty he’s the one we most get to understand, including his own reasons for embarking on The Long Walk.

Yet for all of the excellent characterisation, the book isn’t perfect.

Being an early King novel, people will note the many attempts to shock. Some of these shocks are delivered exceptionally well. In particular, whilst we know at the start of the book that 99 boys are going to be shot by the end of it, the way the shots come, from horrific to poignant to heroic, some of them off screen when Garraty has been in a doze, some of them up close and extremely personal, is nothing short of masterful.

On the other hand, the book does have a weird obsession with sex, often to its detriment.

Being sixteen, it makes sense that Garraty thinks often about his girlfriend Jan, including about her body, however as the contest continues and Garraty starts realising it is his memories of Jan that are keeping him going, I was disappointed we didn’t learn anything more about her, other than what she looked like and that Garraty wasn’t able to say the right thing to “make her go all the way” with him.

Similarly, one section, after a particularly long dark night, in which Garraty first recognizes that he’s clinging on to his memories of Jan as a symbol of life, and yet describes her as “a piece of ass that is his” was downright jarring.

It is odd, since when one is in love (especially as a teenager), it usually manifests as a total obsession with the person, the sound of their voice, small details of their appearance or habits, with any time spent together seen as almost sacred.

Yet King paints Garraty’s love for Jan more often than not as him simply thinking about her “breasts”. Admittedly, I suspect this says more about teenaged Stephen King’s obsessions than about Garraty’s feelings, but it was still discordant in making what should’ve been a moment of light in the darkness into something less than pleasant.

On the other hand, King does give us some hints of finer feelings from the other boys, especially in the tragic tale of Scram, and the way the unfeeling crowd lionise the boys and sexualise the contest in a truly disgusting way adds just another touch to the book’s horror, likely even more so in the 1960’s when the book was first written, indeed, as in Carrie, King isn’t afraid to explore the dark side of female sexuality and adoration along with the light.

The book’s pacing is (unsurprisingly), one of its best points. To say that the entire book basically features just one long running scene, the way King manages to keep our interest and keep the tension is a feat in itself, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book where a cramp, a crap, or a bout of hysterical laughter suddenly raise the stakes so profoundly. Indeed, much like the Walker’s themselves, I found this a very difficult book to put down, and nobody needed to threaten to shoot me to keep me reading.

The book’s ending has one aspect which is exceptional, yet another which was slightly disappointing. The way the winner of The Long Walk finally is chosen and how the last obstacle is surmounted is one of these perfect bits of plot that seems both utterly inevitable from the beginning, and yet a complete surprise. On the other hand, the book really needed an epilogue.

While I didn’t expect a shiny happy ending, the book has barely any closure at all, as with Garraty’s less than refined feelings about Jan; I suspect the uncertain tone of the ending was again King trying more to shock for the sake of shocking and slightly over shooting the mark. Indeed, had the ending been merely grim I wouldn’t have minded as much, albeit the book is so grim anyway a grim ending would’ve almost been predictable, but the ending we got just felt unfinished.

All in all, The Long Walk is truly outstanding; especially considering it was King’s first novel. Take one simple premise, and follow that premise through to the hilt with humour, horror and compelling pathos. Despite a few unrefined edges, I can definitely see why so many King fans regard this one as highly as they do, indeed part of me wonders if there is some other world on another level of the Tower where The Long Walk got the recognition it deserves; and King became famous for his dystopian speculative fiction rather than his supernatural horror.

Much as I’ve loved a lot of King’s horror over the years, I must admit part of me wonders what that other world might be like.

Either way, for fans of dystopian fiction who want to get into the heads of some wonderfully flawed characters being put through the ringer in genuinely frightening way, The Long Walk is definitely worth taking.

9/10 The road goes ever on and on

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The Long Walk reader reviews

from USA

Obviously a good read, after all it’s by Stephen king, BUT- terrible ending. This book gives no closure whatsoever, very disappointing. It almost seems like Mr King just quit on it, but other than that (major) flaw it’s a good book.
7/10 ()

from USA

I am a long time King fan and I just recently discovered this book. I read it and as usual was mesmerized by King's writing. Only one problem, I spent most of the book asking myself why would a society set up an event like this? Was it a result of overpopulation? Was it a way to keep enemies from rebelling? Was it simply entertainment? I came to no conclusion and wasn't let in on the secret. I may have to read the book again. But then, Stephen King's books are good for that.
8/10 ()

8/10 from 3 reviews

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