The Bachman Books (1985)

(writing as Richard Bachman)

As I mentioned briefly at the start of my review of Thinner, Stephen King published various early novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. In his introduction to The Bachman Books, King tries to explain this decision.

'Why I Was Bachman' finds King in his usual chatty form. While attempting to give us some insight into the logic behind adopting (and later killing off) the Bachman name, he cites his publishers' concern that he was oversaturating the market under his own name - a pseudonym allowed him both to indulge his inner role-player and "to turn the heat down a little bit; to do something as someone other than Stephen King". Tied to this is King's admission that he has "a restless need to publish what I write when I don't need the dough", a statement which I'm sure will be a surprise to almost no one. King's sheer productivity - even today, with around 60 books to his name - continues to be a source of delight to his fans, and yet it's also a stick his critics love to beat him with. Whether you like King's work or not, attacking him for being prolific has always seemed odd to me. As he previously touched on in his introductions to Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, King isn't just grinding out one book after another - he feels compelled to write; it's a key part of him.

Of course, some tales are more successful than others, and King is quick to point out the flaws in this collection. "I was not quite young enough when these stories were written to be able to dismiss them as juvenilia," he states. "On the other hand, I was still callow enough to believe in oversimple motivations (many of them painfully Freudian) and unhappy endings." It would be tempting to conclude that the real reason why King published these stories under the Bachman name was because he didn't fully believe in them, or because they might disappoint his usual fanbase. Certainly, the stories on display here are an odd mix of straight fiction, science fiction and horror. And it is true that Bachman's novels were released straight to paperback (in King's words, "just plain books", "cannon fodder") with very little fanfare, which some might argue smacked of burying slightly shameful early work. King anticipates this interpretation and refutes it - the books might not be perfect, but they don't "suck like an Electrolux". When he was finally outed in 1985, King killed Bachman off ("cancer of the pseudonym") and republished the novels in this collection under his own name (at which point, predictably, sales increased by a factor of 10). As he states near the end of his introduction, "I only published them (and am allowing them to be republished now) because they are still my friends; they are undoubtedly maimed in some ways, but they still seem very much alive to me."

Anyway, let's move on to the stories themselves. The Bachman Books is a collection of 4 novels, running to 865 pages in my edition. As a result of my attempts to deal with the book in a way that did each novel justice, my original review spiralled hopelessly out of control and eventually derailed this whole project for more than 4 years. My (actually quite simple now that I think about it) solution has been to give each novel its own review, tied together by this introduction. Once you've read the posts linked to below, you'll find a brief discussion of the collection's themes further down this page. Elegant, right? You're welcome.

All done? Ok. Spoilers ahead!

While the novels in The Bachman Books differ in terms of plot, tone and style, there are some clear through-lines, especially when you read them in a row rather than as distinct entities. In reductive terms, the central theme of each book is authority, and the point at which a protagonist finally cracks under the pressure of control. It's therefore also a collection about rebellion - against adults or against the state. How each central character approaches these issues defines and differentiates each book.

Another repeated element is weaponry - the protagonists of 3 out of the 4 novels take up arms against their (perceived or actual) oppressors, although things don't work out especially well for any of them. But there's no doubt that these books highlight King's strength at writing violence, and his skill at holding it back until the time is right to deliver a sharp blow to the reader. They also show his facility for developing a high concept premise into something engrossing and engaging, featuring well drawn characters (some more sympathetic than others, a factor which I think determines which of these books I like best). While The Bachman Books is certainly a mixed collection, it's eminently readable - and sometimes excellent.

As I mentioned above, King is affectionately critical of various elements of the Bachman novels, and I thought I'd end this review by quoting some of the author's own views. Make of them what you will...

"Both The Long Walk and Rage are full of windy psychological preachments (both textual and subtextual), but there's still a lot of story in those novels."

"Roadwork... was an effort to write a 'straight' novel... I suspect Roadwork is probably the worst of the lot simply because it tries so hard to be good and to find some answers to the conundrum of human pain."

"The reverse of this is The Running Man, which may be the best of them because it's nothing but story... and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side."

Notes for the obsessive factfan: Later editions of The Bachman Books contain a new introduction, 'The Importance of Being Bachman', which reportedly contains a reversal of King's opinion about Roadwork quoted above (it's now his favourite), as well as further discussion of the other books. I don't have that edition, sorry. However, an interesting note in this introduction reveals that both Rage and The Long Walk were written before King's first published novel, Carrie, making them his earliest long-form works. Also of interest is the revelation that Bachman was due to follow Thinner with "a rather gruesome suspense novel called Misery", although his death prevented this from being the case.

Next: It.

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