In my first two posts I talked about What Horror Isn’t and What Horror Is.
What I’d like to do this week is begin what I hope to be hundreds of short reviews on some of the best-known and never-heard-of Horror stories of all time. My goal is to both entertain and inform. If I do this right, you’ll feel compelled to read/ watch the more interesting among them, then tell me how right or wrong I was.
First Edition Cover (I own one of these. Would kill to get it signed). Notice that Author Name! (“Richard Bachman” was King’s brief foray into a pseudonym).
So where to begin? Well, the best of the best, of course… my favorite Horror novel- indeed my favorite story– of all time: The Long Walk, by Stephen King.
You: “Woah, wait… what?! Your favorite story… ever?! Really?”
Me: “Yes. Really.”
To be clear, I didn’t come to this decision lightly. A few years ago I created a list of every story I’ve ever read where I grade each and mark my favorites. In making the dozens of decisions it took to compile that list, I discovered that I value complexity, surprising plot moves, literary value, and above all else, pure entertainment. The Long Walk excels in all of these.
But can I convince you of its brilliance in under a thousand words?
Probably not. But I’ll give it a shot. [Fair Warning: This will be a longer-than-normal post. I tried to keep it short, but I love this book so much I just had so much to say about it. To be honest, I feel like I’m still barely scratching the surface].
Every year, 100 boys aged 13 to 18 are picked from a large group of volunteers to be in a nationally-televised contest called “The Long Walk”. It begins at the northernmost tip of Maine. At 9am on the designated day, the walkers gather, are assigned their numbers, and begin to walk.
Another Cover- This one is less subtle about the internal context
- They may not leave the road or impede other walkers.
- They may not slow down below 4 mph.
- If they do slow down, they are given a warning.
- If they walk for an hour without getting a warning, an old warning is removed.
- If they are walking with 3 warnings and slow down again, they are shot dead by armed guards.
- The last walker living wins “Anything he wants for the rest of his life.”
Pretty brutal, right?
But if part of you is thinking it’s also kind of cool, then you may just be a Horror fan. You see, The Long Walk is deceivingly complex, something a savvy reader will already suspect.
WHAT MAKES IT BRILLIANT
Yet Another Cover- This one is more suggestive & less In-Your-Face. I like it.
Simple on it’s surface, King’s story is nevertheless a microcosm of society. As I read in a similar blog post on this book several months ago, because the action is light (they walked… and then they walked some more), it’s the characters that shine so bright here. They are believable, complex, varied, & representations of us all.
Among them are:
-the ignorant hero (Garraty) whose progression through story mimics our own progression through life
-the literal antagonist (Barkovich) whose plan to is demoralize the others into submission
-the myseriously wise (Stebbins) whose strategic intelligence is matched only by his social obfuscation
-the moral compass (Baker) whose musings on death resonate with every step they take
-the loyal friend (McVries) who is selfless to a fault
-the mentally unstable (Olsen) whose stubborn refusal to die is both inspiring and tragic
-the posterity historian (Harkness) whose omniscient viewpoint is respectable but misguided
-the favored jock (Scram) whose physical perfection will take a monumental feat to beat
-the embarrassed little boy (Percy) whose overprotective mother may very well smother him to death
-and the angry jerk (Parker) whose frustrations at the terrain and weather slowly overtake his mind
Another Cover- love those colors!
Yet these are just the walkers themselves. King’s book also features some atypical characters, each adding another layer of complexity and entertainment…
-The Major runs the Walk. He is the beloved face of their nation’s greatest game, and he is a brilliant propagandist. Only a few see he is a publicly-approved sociopath.
-The Soldiers who monitor & shoot the walkers are emotionless blocks of wood. The boys quickly grow to hate them with a fevered passion despite knowing they are only doing their jobs.
-Weather plays a role so significant it feels like a living thing. Each time it rears its ugly head, at least one boy dies.
-Nighttime looms like a depressive blanket. While the story always slows at these times, the development of so many other characters would be incomplete without it.
-Terrain, especially the Hills, are killers as well. The boys do more than groan when one approaches. They fear it like they fear the guns themselves.
-Finally, the Spectators are the most complex of all. King gives us a dozen small stories about the people who watch the walkers pass. They start out as individual people: pretty girls, crying children, impassive farmers, opportunistic business owners, and passionate gamblers. They cheer and hold signs and collect discarded walker objects as coveted souvenirs. They laugh if a walker stops to defecate. They stand in silence knowing they are witnessing 99 sanctioned murders. But then, halfway through, the “Spectators” turn into “Crowd”, an uglier relative of Spectator that is faceless and ever-present. Crowd lines both sides of the road 3- and 12- and 25-deep. Crowd doesn’t cheer, it screams. Crowd doesn’t watch, it leers and drools. Crowd is frantic and insane and most of all wants nothing more than to see another kill.
Each of these, Garraty and the Crowd in particular, could easily warrant a full thousand words of analysis.
But we don’t have that kind of time, and there’s something else more important I need to discuss…
Yet Another Cover- This one’s more ominous… all that blackness in the background. And is that a body up ahead? Yikes.
Long after finishing this book you will realize King showed you how the boys learned to appreciate life & beauty before they died. You’ll remember how some of them went insane while others merely stayed angry. You’re heart will twist thinking of that one boy who cried while he walked or how that other pleaded uselessly for his life. You’ll marvel how luck killed some but saved others. You’ll respect that King didn’t ignore bodily functions but drew attention to them. You’ll see a newer appreciation for the obvious, simple truth that food = energy = life.
But more than anything, you will be haunted by the relentless, slow building up of this story. We are subjected, like the walkers themselves, to an agonizing, constant description of the physical pains that grow with each step and the inevitable breaking down of their sanity even while their humanity is polished. Reading it, your spine will whimper, your thighs will groan, and your feet will scream for the relief that simply will not come.
It’s like the grueling ticking of a battered clock. We don’t want to hear its discordant tone, but we can’t bear to hear it stop either.
A quarter through this 400-page book, there are still 93 walkers left in the race. And we’ve already been given point-by-point, harrowing descriptions of each of the 7 who have fallen.
A third through, there are still 71.
Halfway through, there are still 64. By then the boys have been walking for 24 hours and have traversed more than 100 miles. And still, not even half of them have gone down.
And all of it is presented through the eyes of Ray Garraty.
He begins the walk both innocent & ignorant, but you will feel how every step he takes pushes him closer to becoming woefully aware of- and wholly insane from- the world he is living in.
In short, he is us. We begin our lives hopeful & happy, but as we age we learn how tough life is and can only hope to get out with our sanity.
And what Ray experiences is but a single version of what the other 99 boys go through, each of them a little different, each of them a little more like you or your cousin or your neighbor. Their stories are each a gradual coming-aware of the horrors of the contest, but also of horrors and beauty of life itself.
WHAT I’M SKIPPING
Another Cover- I never liked this one. Yes, the blood under the sneakers is quite suggestive, but it feels too cartoonish in my humble opinion.
I started out saying this book is layered with complexities, which is pretty amazing considering King wrote the draft when he was still a teenager & only revised & published it in his 20s.
I also mentioned I was just scratching the surface in this post. I really could go on for another couple thousand words on all of this, and to prove my point without belaboring your time even more, here are the things I’ve been forced to ignore…
-The ending. God, that ending! It’s controversial, ambiguous, and as improbable as it is perfect.
-Garraty’s relationship with his girlfriend, his mother, and his missing father.
-The subtle commentaries on homosexuality.
-The surprising, deeply-meaningful relationship between Character X and The Major. [spoiler: Stebbins is actually The Major’s SON! WHAAAAAT?! ].
-The amazing power and resilience (and eventual breakdown) of the human body.
-The mental fortitude it takes to persevere through extreme pain (aka: The power of the human spirit).
The walkers learn that in their horrible contest each year, nobody wins. Not the last boy standing, not their society, not the Major, not even their TV executives who rake in billions of advertising dollars.
Readers, meanwhile, learn the same thing. But we’re also reminded of that age-old truth: life really is a journey, not a destination. So enjoy every step you take.
-K. Edwin Fritz