There are few books as pulverizing and cringe-inducing as The Long Walk, yet it’s often overlooked in the large, sprawling body of work by Stephen King.
This is a crime.
The story is simple; during an event called The Long Walk, 100 teenage boys must walk until only one is left. No stopping – not until 99 of them have died from exhaustion or worse. Not for weather; not for sleep; not for total darkness. You walk, or you lose.
And what then? You get your ticket. But a ticket for what?
The last boy walking gets whatever he desires as his prize. He just has to outlast all of the others first. We focus our attention on a 16-year old Ray Garroty. And that’s the last that I’ll say about the plot.
King’s genius knows no bounds. He is able to weave terror out of some of the most abstract and complicated plots – think It – or, if he decides, he can scale everything back and wrench you mercilessly in his grip throughout a story that rests on a single pretense.
Just keep walking. And walking. And walking.
It doesn’t feature any possessed cars, rabid dogs, or otherworldly demons that live on fear. It simply digs deep into the reader’s psyche by exploring what such an endeavor would do to a young boy’s body, mind, and soul. Just imagine walking hundreds of miles until your feet are bruised and bloody, walking on gory nubs.
How’s that sound to you?
The Long Walk gives a short breath before taking off on its trek, and once it starts, it does not stop until the finish line. Readers have sometimes accused King of being longwinded and going on for too long at times about every minute deal (to which I disagree, but I digress); this is a novel for those type of readers. It is unrelenting. It is punishing.
Sitting around 380 pages, it’s a deceptively fast read – once you pick it up, it’s near impossible to put down. A fast-moving, straightforward plot doesn’t hurt either.
It’s also worth a read for the simple fact that it was actually King’s first novel. Though it wouldn’t be released until 1979, King wrote it between 1966 and 1967. For perspective, Carrie was not written for another 5-6 years, give or take.
After King’s success, he began to write under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. King released four novels under this name between 1977 and 1985. This may contribute to why The Long Walk is such an underrated work; but then again, maybe not. After King was discovered as being Bachman, Bachman’s book sales skyrocketed.
Maybe it’s the lack of any iconic monsters or larger than life antagonists. Maybe it’s because the story is too simple. Whatever it is, none of that really matters; what does matter is that you read it.
With the announcement of a film adaptation, The Long Walk may finally get the reputation it deserves. Here’s to hoping it captures the agony and terror contained within these pages.