Before there was Carrie, before there was even Stephen King as we know him, there was Richard Bachman’s (King’s pseudonym) 1979 novel, The Long Walk, likely written around 1966-1967 when King was still in college. And before there was Andy Dufresne in King’s 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the teenage boys in, The Long Walk, were getting busy dying. Unlike Andy, though, there was no countervailing hope of getting busy living.
The Long Walk is a dystopian novel where under a military dictatorship run by the nameless “The Major,” 100 teenage boys and 100 alternates are selected to do the annual Long Walk. The Long Walk is exactly what it sounds, but worse: The 100 boys must keep walking from Maine down through the state into New Hampshire and Boston until there is only one left. If you go below a walking pace of four-miles-per hour or receive more than three warnings — even for stopping to take a poop! — soldiers following along will shoot you dead. That’s how the numbers get whittled down. I think after two hours of walking, if you have three warnings, your slate resets again.
Now, I’m feeling achy and bleh from my second COVID-19 booster shot — but that’s good! That means the antibodies are doing their thing — but I tried out four-miles-per hour on my treadmill. That’s a decent clip! Granted, any pace when you’re talking a continuous hundreds of miles under the threat of death is ridiculous. Add in steep inclines, and it’s madness. Which is sort of the point of The Long Walk: From walking like sleepwalkers to the pointlessness of it all, many of the boys simply lose their minds and their will to go on. They go from tired to exhaustion to madness. Some try to fruitlessly attack the soldiers (well, to be fair, one does succeed in killing a soldier, but it was still pointless, all told). And others merely sit down, knowing it is their time to die.
King has always been one of the most visceral writers in literature when it comes to describing body horror and The Long Walk is no different. It’s a grueling book and I mean that as a macabre compliment. Our main protagonist, Ray Garraty, “Maine’s Own,” starts off like a spitfire, full of piss and vinegar as they say, and what is done to him over the course of the Walk is the equivalent — and King uses this analogy multiple times — of putting him through the paces of a concentration camp. The way King describes his feet in particular grossed me out, swelling and purple, to where he’s walking without shoes at the end. Or how gaunt they all become. Or even just how shameful it is that they have to take a warning to poop and are then heckled by the crowd for squatting down to do it. Even so, the crowd will collect the poop as a souvenir. After all, the crowd has a vested interest in who wins because they’ve bet billions of dollars. There is one moment in the novel where King describes the crowd from the point-of-view of a rundown Garraty as this amorphous blob and it was haunting.
What’s interesting about King’s novel, again written in the middle of the 1960s, is that most of the chapters have some sort of quote from a gameshow. But it was before the advent of reality television where Americans debased themselves even more on television for “the crowd” and the hope of some sort of “prize.” I think because of that cultural sensibility, many people have wondered about a future dystopia akin to The Hunger Games where we would pay to watch people kill each other on live television — and I mean, the UFC gets pretty close! — but I don’t think I’ve read any version of it that is as awful and grinding as King’s here.
We watch as Garraty and his friends along the Walk, particularly his closest friend, McVries (and I think it is a fair supposition to say they are more than friends), go from spats to saving each other to “I hope you die” to sobbing when they are indeed killed. It’s all madness, terrible, nihilistic madness. And what does our winner, Garraty of course, get at the end? A pat on the shoulder by The Major, sure, but also a surefire ticket to an insane asylum. He’s lost it. There is no winning. At the end, he thinks he sees a Dark Figure and so, he begins to run. I don’t know if that Dark Figure implies Garraty’s death, but that is a fair interpretation. I just took it as madness manifest.
This isn’t like Pet Sematary that suffocates you under unrelenting grief or Misery, where you’re terrified by the madness of a woman, or The Shining, where you’re chilled by evil forces possessing a man; it’s more a slow, grinding undoing and it’s unlike anything I’ve read from King because of that. He thoroughly strips these boys of everything and there is no consolation. There is no hope. There are no rebel marauders who try to stop the Walk. It is just walking and death and the roar of the insatiable crowd.