In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews The Long Walk, the first novel Stephen King wrote
It’s well-known that Carrie was Stephen King’s first novel. Published in 1974, it tapped into an international appetite for tales of demonic possession: it was just one year since The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s terrifying adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, had been a smash hit in cinemas. King sold the paperback rights for Carrie for $400,000 and, more or less overnight, went from writer on the breadline to hot property. And according to King himself, it was all down to his wife, Tabitha, who retrieved the early drafts for the novel from the bin and urged King to continue with the novel.
But Carrie, although it was King’s first published novel, wasn’t the first one he wrote. Stephen King actually completed his first novel back in the mid-1960s, when he was still a teenager. It would sit in a drawer somewhere, unpublished, until 1979, when, having become established as one of the most popular novelists in the world, Stephen King – by now a household name – handed the manuscript to his publisher and had this actual first novel published under the name … Richard Bachman.
The reason for the pseudonym was that King’s publisher was a little concerned about glutting the market with new Stephen King titles. It doesn’t pay to be too prolific, it would seem, since literary fecundity is too often (and often erroneously) associated with poor quality hack writing. So the first novel Stephen King actually wrote became published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, as did several later novels, including The Running Man (memorably filmed, in a quite different style from the original book, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role). But it all began with this first novel, called The Long Walk.
The Long Walk was written by King when he was a college student, majoring in English at the University of Maine, in 1966-7. He sent the manuscript off to a major publisher as part of a first-novel competition and quickly received a form rejection. The manuscript was thrown into a big trunk and remained there until 1979, when King dusted it off and published it under his nom de plume.
The Long Walk is, in many ways, more hauntingly prophetic than the more famous novel The Running Man. It focuses on a walking competition, in which 100 teenage boys walk – to the death. That’s it. It’s literally ‘last man standing’, or last boy standing, anyway. And the whole thing is televised, like one long marathon, only the stakes are much higher here. There will be only one winner, but also, only one survivor (and even the winner doesn’t always survive for long, as the competitors reveal while discussing past champions). If a boy stops walking, he is given three warnings and then shot by one of the soldiers following the boys on their route. All of this is presided over by an enigmatic figure called the Major: Big Brother for 1960s America.
Given the time at which King wrote The Long Walk, and the military elements in the novel, it’s tempting to see The Long Walk as one long allegory for Vietnam. I think there’s clearly a link. But the novel floats free of its 1960s origins and Vietnam-inspired context and remains eerily contemporary, especially in an age in which young adult dystopian fiction remains a publishing phenomenon. In many ways, The Long Walk feels as if it could have been written yesterday.
The question which King’s novel elides – rightly, I think, as it makes the premise more sinister and taps into something more unsettling within us – is why would so many mothers and fathers agree to let their young sons take part in such a deadly competition? One answer is poverty: the winner can theoretically have whatever he desires, and a pile of prize money, as in King’s later Bachman book, The Running Man, would come in handy to feed the rest of the family. Here, too, the Vietnam connection provides helpful context, because one might as well ask what would possess a mother to allow her teenage son to go off and fight in such a dangerous warzone, from which so many returned in stretchers or with mental and physical scars that would last the rest of their lives? Again, money – but also, I think, glory. The fact that The Long Walk is being televised is a masterstroke, since it promises the boys taking part a measure of fame – even those who won’t make it alive to the end.
There is, of course, little glory or dignity in the televised carnage that the ‘long walk’ leads to (again, footage of warzones, becoming more popular and more powerful with the advent of colour television in the 1960s, comes to mind here), although the promise of (empty) glory is there in the book, with the crowds cheering and watching from the side of the road. If the prospect of a 250-page novel focusing on a single ‘long walk’ sounds unappetising, it is King’s little touches which make the novel so gripping and chilling. One kid gets diarrhoea, and is shot with his pants round his ankles. Another falls and cuts himself, so badly he needs stitches, but the only option is to keep on walking, slowly bleeding to death, or else stop and get shot. One boy has an epileptic seizure and is shot like a dog where he lies, convulsed, in the road. Balanced against this are the moments where Garraty, the novel’s protagonist and chief focaliser, is recognised by teenagers watching the walk from the side of the road as the competitors pass through their town. One of the girls has big breasts, and this, along with the kiss from a girl at the start-line, awaken something within the virginal Garraty. These are just boys, adolescent boys; but such moments do more than remind us of the youth of the central characters. It also plays off life against death, Eros against Thanatos.
Perhaps more so even than The Running Man, The Long Walk exerts an influence over later dystopian fiction. It’s closer to The Hunger Games than that later Bachman book in all sorts of ways: the teenage contestants, the sense of being out in the open rather than hiding out in the city (what Ben Richards does in King’s novel, The Running Man), and the fact that the whole thing is being televised, with the teenage competitors being played off against each other, locked in a fight to the death. Of course, in The Long Walk all they’re doing is walking, not fighting each other. In a way, that is what makes The Long Walk so chilling.
The Long Walk was collected in The Bachman Books, along with King’s other early novels published under a pseudonym.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.