Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy meet The Hunger Games

I recently read Stephen King’s The Long Walk. Although it’s one of the “Bachman books”–early King novels published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman–it already shows the darkness and the fluid prose of his later and better known works.

The premise is simple: each year in a near-future United States, a hundred teenage male volunteers gather on May 1 at the Canadian border with Maine. At 9:00 a.m. they start walking south along the highways. Whoever drops below four miles per hour for more than a few seconds gets a warning from armed troops who shadow the walkers in a half-track. Whoever slows down after three warnings is shot dead. The contestants can work off a warning by walking one hour without getting another one.

They keep walking day and night until they die. They eat and drink as they walk. They learn to empty their bladders while walking backwards at the required speed. They empty their bowels on the roadway, hoping to finish the job quickly enough to get only one warning. As they pass through towns, cheering crowds greet them with encouraging signs and shouts.

Why do the walkers put themselves through all this? For the Prize, only vaguely defined as “anything you want for the rest of your life.” The boys group together and break apart over the miles, discussing their lives and their motives for competing. They sound more educated and introspective than real-life teenage boys; the characters give the author a chance to ruminate about life.

The Long Walk has ample literary connections. It shares with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a New England setting and a business-as-usual attitude toward horrors grown familiar. It also works as a precursor to The Hunger Games, with teenaged characters competing until only one survives. It shares a brooding, hopeless tone with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Although the book is not King’s best work–it gets slow in the middle when nothing happens for a while–it’s certainly worth reading.

 

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