Being a massive Stephen King fan, the Long Walk, written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman is a bit of a favourite of mine.
One of the things that really sets the book apart from a lot of King’s work, for me, is the setting. Often in King’s world, as Constant Readers will know, we find ourselves in a situation with normal everyday people, people that we can understand and relate to – our contemporaries if you like – suddenly dropped into an incredible and horrifying situation.
Take books like The Stand, Cell, The Mist and so on. Unlike many dystopian tales, these stories chart the cataclysmic events which lead to the dystopian future, following a normal person who we can understand – essentially one of us – into that future, seeing how they cope with the events and the horrors along the way.
The Long Walk is different in that it starts in this Dystopian future, and only hints at the events which have led us to this. There are hints along the way that this is an alternate history America, and that at some point in the past there has been a military takeover which has resulted in America as a dictatorship.
One of the things that strikes me most about the book is the casual acceptance of violence – by the Walkers themselves, the crowd – even small children. It is seen as entertainment, and life is apparently very cheap. However – this clashes with some of the descriptions in the book – the spectators and the boys themselves are very much of our world – the high school students, the problems, dreams and aspirations, and the experiences that the Walkers discuss. This makes the situation that much harder for us, as the reader to understand. On one level we can completely identify with the characters, but on another we can’t imagine the world in which they live, and what has led them to such a casual acceptance of their own mortality, and that of their fellow Walkers, in the name of entertainment. This is reinforced by the fact that the Walk is a voluntary activity – these boys have put themselves forward for it, and bypassed opportunities to back out at several stages.
I think this is a really clever way in which King puts the characters on our level whilst also putting up a barrier of understanding between them and us, which throughout the book we seek to break down.
The stories of the different Walkers form the backdrop of the story – punctuated by the violent and sometimes disturbing interludes as one by one the boys receive their ‘ticket’. The slow pace of the book adds to the feeling of creeping fatigue, and in a very real sense, you feel like you are going through this experience with the boys.
Again, we never really find a real motivation for the majority of the Walkers to be there. Most come from stable and loving families, they have various tales of regret or problems in their lives, but nothing that you could imagine would push someone to the extremes that they have chosen.
And so, I started thinking – is the Long Walk an allegory for life itself? And the Walkers, and the way they take their ‘tickets’ symbolic of how people approach their own deaths? Or even of the elements of our personalities, and how they change and distort as we approach the end? Even the concept…walking down your fellow Walkers until you approach the end alone stripped clean of the various facets of personality until there is just the compulsion to continue – could very well be symbolic of the journey through life, with Ray Garraty, our protagonist, symbolising all of us? Or maybe that’s too deep and meaningful! But I liked it!
Another very interesting thing about the book is the idea of the Long Walk as a televised reality show. In the era of books such as the Hunger Games, and with a proliferation of reality shows such as Big Brother on TV, one may think that this is standard fodder for a fiction writer. But you must remember that the Long Walk was written in the 60’s, one of King’s first books (although published later), so pre-dated reality TV by decades. This makes it all the more interesting, almost prophetic in its themes of real people as consumables for the masses, stripped of voice, personality, humanity.
The crowd is often described almost as an entity in itself – a solid shouting, jeering, undulating mass, single-minded in its uncaring brutality. This adds to the feeling of isolation of the Walkers. Though constantly surrounded by people, it is as if they were the only ones who are real – even the death-dealing soldiers on the half tracks are faceless automatons, part of the rolling scenery of the Walk.
As with much of King’s work, the characters are the crux of the story. Whatever else is happening, whatever horrors await, the characters are so deftly drawn, so real and vital, that they become the focus of the story – everything else becomes secondary to them – their thoughts, feelings and actions. King is a master of character building – his are living breathing characters – not just ‘bags of bones’ that he uses puppet-like to voice his dialogue. That is what makes a story like this so powerful, the realistic strengths and weaknesses of his characters – there are no ‘good guys’ or ‘baddies’ in his story, the good have bad points, the bad good. Just like in real life!
In summary, I think that the Long Walk is a gruelling, often gut wrenching, and sometimes heart breaking read – it makes you think about mortality in a different way – not as something momentous and hallowed, but as a switch that can be flicked at a moments notice by stumbling once too often as you pass along the road.