Set in an ultra-conservative alt-history version of the US, The Long Walk is, for me, the most memorable novel in The Bachman Books. I still remember the first time I finished reading it, as a teenager, and the stunned feeling of numb horror the final pages evoked. That I was of an age with the protagonists clearly made it all the more affecting - but while time may have dulled my youthful vigour (if I ever had any), the book still packs a mean punch.
The premise is remarkably simple. Every year, 100 teenage boys from all over the US volunteer for and participate in a Long Walk - that is, they start walking at 9am on 1 May and they walk without stopping until there's only one person able to continue. Each boy gets a belt of food concentrates at 9am each morning, and water refills when they request them. If any of the walkers drops below 4 miles per hour, they receive an official warning. If they can walk for an hour without picking up another, they drop that warning. If they breach their limit of 3 warnings, they are "given their ticket" and their Walk is over. The victor's prize? Everything they want, for the rest of their life.
Spoilers ahead! The catch? Being given your ticket is a euphemism, as King craftily reveals after about 20 pages. The walkers are being followed by a military halftrack vehicle which carries monitoring equipment and merciless soldiers with heavy calibre rifles - and when you stop walking, you die. The penalty for not winning the Walk - as 99 boys will discover - is execution.
Our focus throughout the book is 16-year-old Ray Garrety. From the beginning, King uses Ray to lure us in and push our buttons, opening with his nervy anticipation and swiftly moving through shock into outright horror. The sequence in which the first walker gets cramp in his leg and is shot brings home with sudden clarity (both to the reader and to the other walkers) the sickening reality of the situation. Ray's naivety mirrors our own, and his loss of innocence is matched by our growing understanding of what we're reading - a gruelling, relentless struggle for survival. As the Walk continues, we see the devastating effects that trauma, sleep deprivation and physical exertion can have on the human animal. The elements (rain, sunshine, cold, hail) and various afflictions (blisters, cramp, sunstroke, fever, convulsions, diarrhoea) start to take their toll. A boy who faints is chillingly given his warnings while unconscious, and then shot.
The repetitive plot - walk or die - allows King to focus in on the psychology of the walkers, whose hopes and regrets (while explored) swiftly become irrelevant in the face of the crashing of the rifles. Brief friendships and groupings might provide morale and support, but not when the death of one underlines the fact that the others could easily be next. King excels at conveying the escalating hysteria that spreads like wildfire when a walker stumbles, but equally unsettling are the quieter passages where a character retreats into isolation, withdrawing from everything but the road. In this world, a bloody footprint can be as affecting as a violent execution. As the boys learn to step over the fallen without breaking stride or helplessly vomiting in horror, we understand that there's only so much distraction their conversations can provide. In the end, they're alone - with their thoughts, their memories and varying levels of determination.
The question King keeps coming back to is this: why are they walking? Why did they volunteer for this hell? Is it somehow possible that they all have a genuine death wish? Their very participation could perhaps be seen to reflect the sickness of their society, with its death squads that "disappear" loud-mouthed dissidents and its leader, the Major (a "society-sponsored sociopath", as one character describes him) - which by extension would make their almost-certain deaths a form of rebellion (and maybe the only form of rebellion possible). Indeed, the walkers' changing attitudes to the Major, who shifts from glorious father figure to despised betrayer, would seem to represent a final (if far too late) understanding of how wrong this alt-US really is. Their opinion of the crowds lining the road is similarly affected - what starts out as support quickly becomes a faceless, baying wall of noise to be shut out.* Anyway, regardless of exactly why the walkers are taking part, it gradually becomes clear that this isn't about survival of the (physically) fittest, but instead about mental strength - the winning walker is likely to be the one who retains their sanity the longest. The alternative is death.
There are numerous sequences where King cranks up the tension - see, for example, the boy who staggers along the very edge of his final warning, the guns coming down at him, then lifting, then coming down, then lifting again, a moment echoed when Ray later finds himself in a similar predicament - before easing off, giving us a nasty jolt before soothing our jangled nerves. Small things (a pond at dusk, birdsong, a cool breeze) take on greater significance in the walkers' heightened view of the world. Ray's memories similarly come to preoccupy him, with reveries of his girlfriend, Jan, driving him onward.** When the Walk passes close to his home town, he is finally granted his most heartfelt wish - to see Jan again - but King makes the scene as terrible as it is emotional. The experience forces Ray to strive for survival, but it also damages his already frail psyche. Because when you decide you actually want to live, you die slower, bit by bit, desperately hanging on until the bitter end. And in The Long Walk, the bitter end is especially awful. By this point, the Walk has lasted 5 days, and the few remaining boys are almost catatonic, their shoes shredded and discarded. I won't spoil the climax here, but I still find it haunting all these years later.
In the final analysis, the novel confronts us with questions of mortality, strength of character and self-worth - in other words, it's a coming of age story, only taken to a horrifying extreme. Friendships rise and fall, and powerful lessons are learned. As what's left of their lives plays out before us on the road, the walkers occasionally manage to create for themselves rare moments of dignity (even nobility) in the face of casual brutality. Readers of The Hunger Games and its sequels may notice various points of comparison, but The Long Walk is grittier, darker and better. I recommend it.
* Regarding the crowds of semi-orgasmic spectators, King is clear - they exult in the Long Walk because everything in life is better, more intense, when you're doing it in front of dead men. A horrible thought, especially because it might well be true.
** King also returns several times to Ray's most troubling childhood memories, which include the death of a classmate in a car accident and Ray playing doctor with another boy. The latter strikes perhaps the only off-note in the story, because King beats us over the head with Ray's shame and confusion without it ever really leading anywhere.
Next: The Dead Zone.