The Long Walk: A novel about exhaustion

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Long Walk by Stephen KingThe Long Walk by Stephen King

Ray Garraty, Maine’s own, lives in a near-future dystopian America where boys enter an annual game, the Long Walk, in which the winner is given anything he wants. The winning boy must walk at four miles per hour longer than any other boy in the competition. Boys whose pace drops below four miles per hour are given a warning, which they can lose after an hour of at-pace walking. Boys that collect three warnings, however, receive their “ticket,” a bullet.

The Long Walk was originally published under Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, in 1979. Bachman’s true identity was exposed in 1985, and King has since rereleased the novel with an introductory essay “The Importance of Being Bachman.” King explains that Bachman was a voice that he hoped could articulate the “place in most of us where the rain is pretty much constant, the shadows are always long, and the woods are full of monsters.” Ironically, “Stephen King” had become too optimistic a brand and so Stephen King began looking for a voice through which he could explore dark subjects.

However, I find it even more ironic that anyone reading a summary of The Long Walk today would likely assume that it’s a young adult novel, and a “lite” one at that. (Wikipedia even notes that the American Library Associated has recommended it to teenage readers.) Compared to an ultraviolent novel like The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, The Long Walk seems almost laughably light hearted, and, to an extent, such an assumption bears out. The Long Walk’s dystopian future is only fuzzily sketched out — there is a Major, who’s authoritative but whose character otherwise goes unexplored — but the novel otherwise carries no political overtones. There are no mass killings, aside from the boys who die one at a time in the Long Walk. The novel’s not especially gruesome by today’s standard, and there is very little decapitation in comparison to today’s young adult novels. When these children die, they are often given only a sentence describing the blood splattering for our mind’s eye. Also, Garraty’s not a deadly killer, and, worse still, he’s not involved in a love triangle. I wonder if The Long Walk would be published as it is today.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading The Long Walk. Though very little happens — a large group of boys starts walking on a highway — King focuses on the way that these boys, so many of whom are convinced that they are invincible in their youth, slowly come to realize the truth of their existence as walkers. They are not invincible, and their death is at hand. Like so many other Stephen King novels, there is a healthy number of twisted characters. Barkovitch, for example, entered the competition because he finds it thrilling to “dance on the graves” of those who get their ticket. However, most of the boys are just boys, trying to sort out their feelings about girls and their sexual identity and their relationship with their parents. There are no otherworldly heroes here; instead, King writes about boys who have made bad decisions. Now, they are trying to find reasons not to sit down, a conflict that I found surprisingly moving.

King has written elsewhere that The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote, preceding his breakthrough debut, Carrie, by several years. It does have many of the best ingredients that we expect from a Stephen King novel. After all, King has long had a knack for turning things like dogs and proms — which, admittedly, can produce scary experiences — into horror stories. The Long Walk, a novel about exhaustion by walking, is no exception.

Publisher: On the first day of May, 100 teenage boys meet for a race known as ?The Long Walk.? If you break the rules, you get three warnings. If you exceed your limit, what happens is absolutely terrifying… On the first day of May, 100 teenage boys meet for a race known as ?The Long Walk.? If you break the rules, you get three warnings. If you exceed your limit, what happens is absolutely terrifying…

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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