I don’t remember how many times I’ve read Richard Bachman’s (i.e. Stephen King’s) The Long Walk, but I’ll never forget the first time.
I was starting the fearful year of 7th grade, back in the very late 80’s when 7th was the First year of junior high and not the middle year of middle school. I was whiling away a fall evening doldrum at my neighbors’ house. These were neighbors who would go on a road trip with no notice or preparation. “They’ve got the Christmas lights up in Wheeling, let’s go!” “Rock 105 is doing a free T-shirt give-away at Heck’s. Get in the car!” Compared to my parents, they were the fun, oddball neighbors.
Being the oddballs, the older sister had a paperback copy of The Bachman Books. My mother had a smattering of books (a bio of Montgomery Clift, a Reader’s Digest published manual on sewing, a coffee table book of Norman Rockwell illustrations), but certainly no Stephen King. The paperback I found buried under a pile of clothes beside an end table had a road winding into the distance with Skulls dotting the center line. I’m sure my eyes went wide the first time I saw it. Tom Sawyer this was not.
Dipping back into it now, I’m surprised at how unrepentantly dark it is. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the 13-year-old me, listening to an un-haircut Metallica play “Ride the Lightning” on my Walkman and watching Blockbuster rented VHS tapes like Silent Night, Deadly Night, was drawn to this. I do recall being a dark kid. I just didn’t remember being That dark.
But in the newer preface to The Bachman Books (circa 1995), King talks about how Bachman was his outlet for that kind of darkness. Yes folks, even Stephen King needed an outlet for his deeper darkness. If, like me, you have heretofore only read the original foreword to the old Bachman paperbacks, I would highly encourage you to pick up a newer copy to experience the “updated” one. King goes a bit deeper into why he was Bachman. For me, he exploded the myth that he did it to see if he could sell a comparable number of books as Bachman than as King. Not true. This is not something I really picked up from the original Bachman books preface. If you’re at all interested in King’s Bachman stuff, the newer foreword is at least worth checking out from your local library. WARNING: if you’re buying the newer version of The Bachman Books, you sadly will not get Rage. Mr. King grew tired of seeing news reports of kids shooting up schools with copies of Rage swimming around in their backpacks. To paraphrase the aforementioned forward of Mr. King, good things happen all the time (“Man makes it home from work, yet again!”), but they don’t necessarily make for a compelling story. The 9,999,999 kids/ young people who read Rage and had that catharsis–“Aw, no way! I’ve totally had those crappy days where everyone is being a Complete %^&hole and I just wanted to go friggin’ NUTS! Go, Stevie, go,”–, and didn’t bring a bag of guns to school isn’t as compelling as the one kid who did. But I digress.
I was impressed at how well The Long Walk held up. I reread The Catcher in the Rye a year or two ago, and Holden Caulfield just sounded like he was whining to my now adult ears. As a kid, I can remember what the inside of the school bus looked like in vivid detail after I read Salinger’s first page of Catcher. Alas, that it not the case now.
Perhaps King peopled his story with more fleshed out characters. Maybe it’s the lure of the Long Walk itself, with the sci-fi, “violent games of the future” overtones that does it. Perhaps it’s the barely mentioned, Philip K. Dick-type alternate history, that keeps it fresh. Whatever it is, the story still chugs along. I’m still drawn to the next page. King mentions in the preface about it being a bit too preachy, but it’s not heavy-handed.
The biggest knock to The Long Walk is the lack of female characters in it. You could cover for that by saying that The Long Walk can be read as a metaphor for America’s draft during the Vietnam War. You could be right, but it still wouldn’t put any substantial female characters into the novella. [note to self: put more Margaret Atwood books onto my booklist]
I’m not one for buying the newest, repackaged widget, but the “new” preface to The Bachman Books is definitely worth checking out. Just don’t toss out your old, paperback copy because you’re not going to get a Rage reprint anytime in the foreseeable future.