Written under a pseudonym (Richard Bachman), The Long Walk is unmistakably a Stephen King book. It’s got all the themes of friendship, adolescent mishaps and extreme horror you’d expect from King, with the added bonus of feeling strangely, compellingly profound. Whilst at the same time being a novel that spends its course describing a group of 100 young men walking along some roads. As we all know from a number of manifestations of the dream of the Great American Novel, though, it’s whilst people trudge aimlessly along roads in America that the most profound thinking and life-changing experiences occur.
In the case of this story, most of that thinking and life-changing is focused on death. The walkers are walking a death sentence, locked in a meandering but inevitable battle of wits and physical endurance until they die. In the time it takes them to walk to death, they have to question what life’s all about, and what it’s all for, with some haunting, and some touching, results.
It’s an everyone-is-damned deal, once they’re in there’s no way out. There’s a totalitarian theme behind it all, though it never needs to be explicitly explained how society got into this state: there’s something all too believable about the willingness of the contestants to agree to such a challenge, and the willingness of the greater public to feverishly support the act. The politics is very much in the background; it’s really a story about people. People putting themselves in this nightmare situation, and people coping with the situation in their own ways.
The Long Walk was hard to stop reading; you might think a story about a bunch of boys walking is hardly an enticing plot, but once they start it’s difficult to draw your attention away. You’re locked in the same grim inevitability of the walk that they’re taking, not necessarily because you’re so interested in how it will end, but because you have to see it play out. A story like this, after all, is never about the ending – and it’s a rare novel that so effectively ties you into the ride for the journey. King masterfully draws you in, makes you feel every step of that arduous walk, every emotion the characters are going through.
This novel has similarities to King’s other stories, the friendship and bonding of King’s Stand By Me and the death-defying game-show of Running Man, for starters, but its themes are wide and far-reaching. What it reminded me of most, in fact, was Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, another novel that stirs profound thought behind a seemingly trivial (if nightmarish) plot. The Long Walk questions fate, makes you think about what’s really important, and gives you that grim feeling that you’ve really accomplished something reading this book. Even if you don’t know exactly what.