(writing as Richard Bachman, collected in The Bachman Books)
The final novel in The Bachman Books, The Running Man, is also the most dynamic. An energetic piece of storytelling (written, as King notes, "during a period of 72 hours and published with virtually no changes"), the book stands in stark contrast to the static character study we saw in Roadwork. Once King has taken the time to set his parameters, The Running Man is almost entirely plot-driven - here, action is king.
We've seen a version of totalitarian dystopia in The Bachman Books already (see The Long Walk), but here King pulls out all the stops - there's nothing subtle about this vision of the world. In 2025, France is under martial law, there's war in South America and cannibal riots in India, and the US is under the effective control of the Games Network, which provides 24-hour entertainment (distraction) on the Free-Vee to its many unemployed, dying poor. And when they become desperate enough, these are the very people who find themselves volunteering for the games - which range from the mildly injurious ('Treadmill to Bucks', 'How Hot Can You Take It?') to the lethal. 'The Running Man', the biggest, most lucrative game of all, is one of the latter.*
Our introduction to this system comes as 28-year-old Ben Richards makes the decision to apply as a contestant. Blacklisted from work for his anti-authoritarian streak, he needs medicine for his sick 18-month-old daughter. As Richards travels through Co-Op City to the Games Building, King swiftly establishes the rules of society - the poor live amid chronic air pollution, urban violence and government informants, while the wealthy live for pleasure in a protected enclave of skyscrapers and decadence. After a series of physical and mental examinations (which serve to introduce his antisocial personality traits in amusing style), Richards finds himself selected for 'The Running Man'. In case you haven't read the book (or only know the very different and very silly film adaptation), here are the rules.
Spoilers ahead! Competitors run for their lives, as a crack team of Hunters and the show's viewers try to catch them. They get a 12-hour head start and some money upfront so that they can travel or buy weapons. Each competitor (or more usually his family) receives $100 for every hour he remains free. If he lasts 30 days, he wins the grand prize of $1 billion. He gets an extra $100 for every Hunter or lawman he kills. He is also given a video recording device and a stack of 60 clips - and must send back two 10-minute clips per day from any mailslot for later editing and broadcast or forfeit his money (though the hunt will continue regardless). Harbouring a running man is punishable by death, although there are better reasons for viewers to give away his position: they get $100 for a verified sighting, and $1,000 for a sighting that leads to a kill. As Dan Killian, the game's executive producer, explains to Richards, in 6 years no one has ever gone the distance. Indeed, contestants are not expected to survive, and it's become a useful way to dispose of potentially dangerous undesirables.
With the formality of a sneering, demonising studio appearance completed, King is finished with his set-up, and Richards is on the run. And once the running starts, the book quickly builds up momentum. Moving around the country with fake IDs and some basic disguises, it's not long before Richards is struggling with paranoia and jumping at shadows. King inserts a few slower sequences into the proceedings to give us a little breathing space - including Richards' initial attempts to go to ground, and a subplot in which he learns the truth about the deliberately poisoned air - but the nature of the plot means that these are necessarily brief interludes; Richards must keep moving, improvising as he goes. The video clip mailing issue is a clever addition in this regard, because it forces the character into movement where he would otherwise have been able to hide out.
When Richards comes into contact with people, we're faced with the question of whether he can trust them. With a bounty on his head, and extreme poverty all around, it is perhaps strange that the most reliable people are those from his own level - after all, they have the most to gain from turning him in. And yet, as King makes clear, the real danger comes from the more affluent segments of society; they believe the fiction they've been fed, and they actively, genuinely hate him (and by extension the vilified, lazy poor). This class distinction is brought home in the final third of the novel, when Richards carjacks and takes hostage a well-to-do woman, Amelia Williams - her view of the world is so blinkered that we finally understand (if we didn't already) the insidious and dangerous power that the Games Network wields. However, while class warfare and the dangers of TV are running themes throughout the novel, we never feel like King is bashing us over the head with them - because he seems far more interested in the actual running.
Major spoilers ahead! Memorable episodes crop up with increasing frequency, beginning with the early jolt of panic King creates during a misunderstanding in a New York bus station. In Boston, Richards' sudden realisation that his hotel is being surrounded leads to a breathless rush to escape into the sewers and the fiery death of 5 cops. His betrayal by the old mother of a supposedly safe contact underlines the fact that our assumptions are shaky at best, and triggers a series of injuries and deaths. A short scene with an innocent, kind country kid contrasts strikingly with the carnage that is to follow. As The Running Man enters its final phase and Richards' hostage gambit leads to a high stake game of poker with the Chief Hunter, King starts throwing everything he has at the plot - bluffs, counter-bluffs, twists and reversals - before events, inevitably, take a turn for the bloody. The eleventh-hour revelation that his family were actually murdered during a robbery while he was waiting to start his game feels like a low blow, and prompts an increasingly gruesome race to the finish, full of shattered heads and unspooling guts. It's truly grotesque - as it needs to be: for the final pay-off to succeed, King needs Richards to have no hope. His desperate attempts to beat the system once and for all, as the seconds tick by and he becomes weaker and weaker, make for an exciting (if rather queasy) climax.
The Running Man reads almost like an exercise in the mechanics of story. The book is even structured so that the chapter headings count down to zero as the novel progresses, making the process of reading it a race against the clock. That it also features a sympathetic protagonist fighting against a corrupt system and liberal doses of sly humour, tension and violence make this pretty much the definition of an action romp. You can see why the book appealed to the high-octane 1980s film industry - it's just a shame they didn't make this story instead of the one they did.
* Other games include 'Run For Your Guns', 'Dig Your Grave' and 'Swim The Crocodiles'. Coming to Saturday nights wherever you live in due course. Don't say you weren't warned.
Next: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.