Stephen King Saturday: The Long Walk

(Zoe is a local blogger who is working her way through the works of part-time Florida resident Stephen King. In anticipation of King’s forthcoming sequel to The Shining — Dr. Sleep — I’ve asked Zoe if I could start reprinting her ambitious King re-read here at Reading Tampa. She agreed! Thanks, Zoe. You can read the original posts at From Carrie to the Keyhole, or follow her running blog at Slow and Steady.)

Bachman,_Long_WalkAfter taking a post-Stand vacation, it was on to The Long Walk this past weekend. It’s a quick read, although apparently it is 384 pages, according to Wikipedia. Felt a lot faster. Maybe everything feels faster after The Stand?

The basic premise behind The Long Walk is that every year, one hundred teenaged boys start walking at the US/Canadian border in Maine and keep going until there is only one survivor. If the participants drop under 4 miles an hour (which is a brisk pace), they are given a warning and after four, they are shot. As I’ve mentioned before, if Stephen King wants to write novels that are not immediately associated with him, he might want to set them in places other than Maine (this one was also published as a Bachman book). Alternatively, don’t go in to extensive detail about Maine in the course of the novel. Just a suggestion.

The story follows Garraty, one of the walkers and the guy who eventually wins the Long Walk (I would have given you a spoiler alert, but surely you already deduced this). However, it is a bittersweet victory because he goes crazy or meets Death or something at the end. Whatever it is, it is not good. There is an earlier implication that winners of the Long Walk do not often survive for long after their victory and the same would seem to be true here.

This novel prefigures reality shows because it’s clear that the Long Walk is watched by people throughout the United States. There are some references to the fact that this version of America has a separate history and there are unusual details, such as numerous mentions of April 31. I feel like if you are going to change a calendar, you should go whole hog like in the French Revolution and have months like Thermidor, but that is just me. While some commentators on the internet seem to think that it is set in the future, I’m not sure about that. It’s not that far in the future, I don’t think. Most things seem quite normal, apart from the fact that there is a guy named the Major who runs things and entities called Squads that keep order (or something, their role is not clearly defined). In fact, that’s a potential flaw of this novel: it’s not clear why these boys are walking or what purpose this serves. More information about the society would make the story more compelling, at least in my opinion.

I think that the other element of the story that made it a bit repetitious to me was the limit of what you can say about people who are walking to death. Sure, they suffer from pain, but to me these scenes began blending into each other because the characters were constantly suffering from pain. At the same time, I wonder if this didn’t provide a rough version of what King had to do in Misery, which was find different ways of explaining pain over time–or else there would not have been much of a story. Describing a repetitive action is hard in prose, it would seem.

This novel struck me as similar to some of his contemporary writing, particularly with the focus on adolescents. Others that are similar: Carrie, Rage, and the short story ‘Sometimes They Come Back.’ You could put ‘Children of the Corn’ possibly in this category too. What struck me was that the Long Walk was a representation of what should be the most vital force in society, adolescent males, and their ritualized loss of power on a national scale. It’s made clear that the Major runs the Long Walk and it seemed like a means by which he could show the weakness of being human: even these young, fit men could be gunned down and killed if he willed this to be. There were very few dissidents shown who were opposed to the walk; instead, crowds watched and cheered on the participants.

I finished reading this book and writing this blog post while watching NFL football games and I was struck by at least one glaring similarity. Recently, we have learned a lot about the danger of such contact sports, particularly concerning head injuries and the long-term damage that they can do. Yet millions of people still tune in every week to watch men essentially maim themselves on national television. It’s no Long Walk and I don’t want to imply that it goes that far, but I do find a parallel between the desire to watch and condone such violent acts. Of course, football also displays athleticism and strategy, and the players are paid well for their efforts. The Long Walk strikes me as more of a power-play by a shady, threatened dictator.

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