I always considered myself something of a King fan, I’d gorged on the horrors of It and The Tommyknockers and ‘Salem’s Lot as a teenager, and then loyally grabbed all his new releases as they arrived in bookshops every year or so. I’d even watched Kingdom Hospital, for goodness sakes. So I was surprised as anyone when I came across a forgotten King masterpiece from 1979 and it became my absolute favourite.
The Long Walk, at one point published under his Richard Bachman alias, is one of those books that’s so compact and punchy you can’t believe it hasn’t been made into a Hollywood blockbuster three times over. Instead it seems to have been forgotten, lost under the years of bestsellers and big series.
The Long Walk is set in a dystopian, alternate history where the USA is home to an annual walking competition in which 100 teenage boys must compete. All they have to do is walk, walk, and walk until only one boy remains. Those that stop are executed, those who walk too slowly are similarly dispatched, with a figure called The Major overseeing the march and soldiers on hand to offer water, food, and verbal warnings and punishments to those who lag behind. Basically this is The Hunger Games mixed with the nightmares of any kid who skipped PE on a regular basis. (Maybe it chimes with me so much because I’d rather feign a limp and summon an Uber than walk a single mile.)
King says The Long Walk is actually the first novel he ever wrote, before Carrie even, which would explain why it’s able to recreate the workings of a teenage boy’s brain with what I’m reliably informed is brutal accuracy, from the hero Raymond Davis Garraty to the mysterious Stebbins, marching for his own reasons. It’s King at his best, a simple, horrible idea and an ensemble cast to play out each possible scenario until the bitter, inevitable end. I’ve read it so many times, at first I was one of the walkers, wondering what my own strategy would be as I pounded the roads. Now I’m older I read more into the behaviour of the parents forced to watch their children complete the pointless, awful task, knowing that to try and help them is to condemn them.
It’s brilliant, grim, determined and sparse, like the most depressing sports biography you’ve ever read. It’s teenagers wondering what the hell adults have done to the world, paying the price for history’s mistakes. It was YA before YA was a thing!
I’m not blind to the issues that permeate the book as they do with so many from that era– for one thing, women and POC are bit players. One of the reasons I’m desperate for a movie adaptation is just how much more interesting a diverse cast would make it. I’ve actually given up on a movie ever being made, despite Frank Darabont (who adapted King’s story The Mist to bleak effect) having the rights. It’s the sort of cruel and twisted tale that King does so well, but probably wouldn’t lift many hearts during test screenings. This isn’t The Hunger Games. There is no glorious revolution.
The best I can do is keep marching in my own personal parade for this kickass King novel, and forcing it on friends. And with Christmas coming, this seemed the perfect time to give it a shoutout here. Happy holidays everyone! Depressing dystopian novels all round!