Short break from animu.
Inspired by the always-fantastic Erica Friedman, of the yuri blog Okazu; I was just telling her how much I liked her Summer Reading reviews, where she looks at non-manga/anime fiction, and I thought – “Wait, I can do that too! I have my own blog! I can do what I want!” So here we are, and I’m going to tell you about what I believe to be Stephen King’s best novel, The Long Walk.
I’ll admit that I’m not a big King fan – while the books of his that I like, I like a lot, much of his work leaves me unsatisfied and slightly disappointed. I don’t think this is particularly surprising for an author of such volume, though. I do, however, think it hurts the accessibility of his better works (my favorites are The Long Walk, The Mist, and Salem’s Lot, in that order; The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was creepy when I read it, but that was long enough ago – nine years! – that I don’t think I can really say how good it was or not). King is one of those authors who gets sneered at in more “polite” company, which is really too bad, since when he gets a hit, he smashes it right out of the park.
The Long Walk is one of those hits, and perhaps its fascinating that it apparently was his earliest work – he originally published it after he’d become famous under the pen-name Richard Bachmann, but then admitted later on that he’d written it as a freshman in college. Its a tale that is heavily reminiscent of the Hunger Games, but with much less detail and fuss; don’t expect to get much background here on the why of the titular contest, nor of a larger narrative past the contest itself. The Long Walk is about a grueling physical contest in which every other contestant perishes, and specifically about the boys who compete in it, and that really is it – its a slow-building horror tale that is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s works, where the terror is in the slow understanding of how repulsive the reality of the story is and the unraveling of the protagonist.
Our “hero” here is sixteen year old Raymond Garraty, and while he doesn’t come off as neurotic right off the bat the way that Jackson’s heroines typically do, its obvious that he wouldn’t be playing the part he plays, i.e. as a participant, if he didn’t have some sort of hang-up. We meet him in the early hours of the morning as his mother drops him off for the Long Walk, and we learn the details of what the Long Walk entails as we meet Raymond and the boys who become his “friends” of a sort. The contest and its rules are very simple – one hundred boys start walking, and whoever is the last standing wins. There are no breaks (not to eat, piss, poop, sleep, you name it), and those who do not keep pace are given warnings, and eventually shot. The only limit on the contest is how far the final boy standing gets.
I think King is at his best when he’s at his most minimalist, and its on full display here. We get some broad details about the socio-political setting of the world of the narrative, but otherwise the focus is entirely on Raymond and on his view of the boys around him. And when the walk ends, that’s it – there’s no sticking around for the aftermath, to watch what happens to the winner or to the people around him. While I will give credit to the Hunger Games for giving a rare portrait of a young woman suffering from PTSD and the ugly truth that “getting better” often means learning to just be able to make it from day to day, The Long Walk’s ending is far more unsettling, as it is entirely left up to the reader to imagine what may happen next.
Anyone who is into stories wherein people are pit against each other for survival will likely find The Long Walk to their tastes, although I’ll caution that anyone expecting something along the lines of Battle Royale might find the lack of inter-personal physical violence disappointing. The boys involved certainly do take likings or dislikings to one another, and there is some physical violence between them, but its ultimately the road that proves the deadliest enemy even as the participants slowly lose their grip.
As King is an avid advocate of digital publishing, The Long Walk is readily available in several different e-book formats, although I myself read it in mass-market paperback form. Its also pretty easy to come by used, and very cheap that way – its has been released approximately forty thousand times, which helps. But even if you’re going to be a high roller and shell out for a new copy, its far less than the price of a movie ticket in an urban setting.
Can’t really recommend this one enough. A must-read for horror fans, for thriller fans, for anyone who enjoys watching people slowly but surely sink into an awful situation.