Written by Stephen King as Richard Bachman, 1979
Stephen King’s publishing pseudonym was created because, presumably, the public would not accept an author who published more than one novel per year. Thus Richard Bachman was created, an alter-ego that allowed King’s market output to keep pace with the author’s throughput. Bachman was also the mouthpiece for an angrier breed of story; stories King felt were a little farther from the realm of supernatural horror consigned to his name. Such is The Long Walk, a furious piece of writing as brutal as a pickax to a pregnant stomach, more terrifying than being buried alive in a coffin crafted from porcelain doll faces, and easier to recommend to fans of the macabre than it is to recommend a rock of crack to a crackhead.
In a despondent future America 100 teen boys are chosen for "The Long Walk";a non-stop trek along the Eastern spine of the US, from Maine on down. The rules are simple and 100% inflexible; all walkers must maintain a speed equal to or greater than 4 miles per hour, walkers must never deviate from the path, and no walker can interfere to the detriment of a fellow walker. Violation of any of these principles, and a few more subtle ones, will result in a warning. Any received warnings will be removed after an hour. A walker may collect 3 warnings. A fourth consecutive violation results in a ticket. A ticket, naturally, being several bullets in the brain from the eagle eyed soldiers who stand on the backs of military halftracks. Last boy standing gets the prize.
Center to the story is 16 year old Ray Garraty, who going into it knows as much about The Long Walk as the reader does. He knows not of the intricacies of its horror, the effects a death march has on the mind. He goes it alone, as do all 100 boys early on, but with nothing to do but kill time on the road friendships are reluctantly formed and conversation becomes the morphine that keeps the boys alive. Ray, Pete McVries, Art Baker, Hank Olson, Collie Parker, Pearson and Abraham inadvertently form the ‘The Musketeers’. It is here that King excels, forging in the midst of this all-or-nothing scenario a heart wrenching persistence.
The terror comes from King’s refusal to give quarter to any of his meaty characters. There is no relief to be found, no reprieve for any of the contestants. They walk the road. That’s it. They walk the road, they walk it at four miles per hour and if they fail to do either of those things three times in a row a soldier of unfailing indifference will cut them down in the middle of that God forsaken road while hundreds of cheering Americans stare from the sidelines of small towns across the Eastern seaboard.
The Long Walk is a relentless stare down with death incarnate. Reduce it and it reads trivial; Stephen King wrote a story about the road of life and set it literally; all his characters come to know is the futility of the road, of life. This is the real horror, this is the real brutality of the story and it is unflinching. Scoff not at the setting and goal either, it may read trivial, but the product is nothing of the sort. It is a satire with jet black razors for teeth. There is a palpable fear for the lives of not just Ray Garraty, but all the Musketeers, for all the walkers. Sympathy for what they’ve decided to take on, and an eerie reflection of self-loathing seen in the crowds that scramble to glimpse the walkers in the hope that one of them is going to be given their ticket in front of their eyes.
Written nearly 30 years ago, The Long Walk predates the reality TV boom by more than a decade, and yet its depiction of the relationship between contestant and viewer is alarmingly prescient in the year 2008. The extreme nature of the walking contest may not be on the horizon (though it may, depending who is being asked), but the psychology of the consumer is. Watching such degradation with wide, eager eyes. We watch, and we read and we eventually die. They walk the road. Ray Garraty "pick’s ‘em up and puts ‘em down." That is it. Yet I am confident I’ll not read a smarter, more horrific tale this year.
Read it. Read it. Read it. The finality of the The Long Walk, of the road, of the walkers, of us the ‘viewers’ – it’ll wrench even the most stoic of guts and send shivers down the most rigid of spines.