Continuing into The Bachman Books, the next novel was The Long Walk. I’d heard about this one years ago and never read it, but always thought the concept was an interesting one.
100 teenage boys (if it were written today instead of nearly 40 years ago, I’m sure it would have included girls as well) gather just over the northern border of Maine. Their names are called by a man known only as the Major, an ominous figure who runs the walk, and is revered by all.
At 9:00, all 100 boys begin walking south into Maine, including our main character, Ray Garraty. After this point, they aren’t allowed to stop walking. Not to rest, not to eat, not to sleep, not to use the restroom. Anyone who drops below the minimum speed of 4mph is issued a warning by the soldiers monitoring the proceedings. Three warnings in a row and that boy is shot.
This continues until there is one Walker left standing. That winner then gets to claim his Prize: literally anything he wants for the rest of his life.
Yes, morbid. But this is Stephen King we’re talking about here so no great surprise. One thing I didn’t know beforehand is that the Long Walk is voluntary. Each year, boys all across the country try to get in. They have to pass physical and psychological exams, and even then there are thousands of candidates that get selected in a lottery.
Bits of this story felt like they were foreshadowing The Hunger Games.
Being selected for the walk is a tremendous honor. The entire nation watches. Huge crowds gather. It’s not until their fellow Walkers start getting picked off one by one, and exhaustion actually sets in that they all start to wonder why they volunteered. What were they thinking? Why are they, any of them, here?
Some walk because they need the Prize to help a friend or loved one. Or because their family has nothing, but if they win they’ll be set for life. Others walk because they didn’t think they’d get in. It was a joke when they took the tests, but the joke got away from them. Others have deeper, more personal reasons.
In addition to that sort of analysis (both of themselves and their fellow Walkers), another main focal point of the story is the toll the Walk takes on the various characters. The terror of walking, seemingly endlessly through the day. Seeing the sun set and wondering (doubtfully) if they’ll see it rise again in the morning. The sheer terror of walking through the darkness of midnight in rural Maine, unable to stop but wondering how much longer they can go on.
A small group of the Walkers cycle in and out of each other’s lives during their short time together. They get to know one another. They grow to resent and hate some, and genuinely like and bond with others.
The friendships and bonds of mutual respect that form are astounding. They’re all competing against one another for their lives, yet at the same time they feel like they’re in it together.
As the Walk goes on, more and more of the Walkers break. For some this happens physically, from illness or sheer exhaustion. For others it’s psychological.
As the number of miles travelled climbs, and the number of remaining walkers falls, the crowds get bigger and bigger. The walkers (or at least our main character) begins seeing the throngs of people lining the road as simple Crowd. A huge, thunderous entity that screams and cheers from a thousand faces, delighting in the inevitable bloodshed of the Walk. It’s pretty chilling.
King draws an interesting comparison to the actual voluntary competitions our society puts people through, referencing different game shows of the day at the beginning of each chapter. I once heard King speak, and he said a great number of his stories come from a simple “What if?” With stories like this, I believe that’s very true.
So… what if game shows had penalties for losing that were proportional to the prizes for winning?
The answer isn’t pretty. I shudder to think what King would have dreamt up if he’d known that shows like Fear Factor and Survivor were only a few decades down the road.