Although it was published years after some of Stephen King’s most famous work—Carrie, The Shining, The Stand—1979’s The Long Walk was the author’s first completed novel. Originally published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, the book now proudly bears King’s name and remains one of his most chilling and compelling works.
The Long Walk is set in a dystopian near-future America and follows 16-year-old Ray Garraty as he competes in the country’s annual Long Walk, a competition in which 100 boys walk for as long as they can without stopping. Anyone who drops below four miles per hour for any reason is given a warning; after three warnings, anyone who doesn’t meet the minimum speed is shot by soldiers overseeing the competition.
There’s no finish line either—the Long Walk goes on until there’s only one boy left, who is then awarded “The Prize”: whatever he wants for the rest of his life.
A Dystopia of Its Own
While the dystopian premise of the novel will naturally draw comparisons to books like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner and their sequels, The Long Walk stands apart from these other books. Instead of an action/adventure story set in a dystopian world, this is a slow descent into madness as exhaustion—both physical and mental—begins to wear at the contestants. There are no rebellions here, no grand schemes to overthrow the government and build a better world, just 100 boys, an endless stretch of road, and the unfeeling gaze of their military escort.
Stephen King’s authorial superpower is his ability to make the most horrific scenes feel visceral and immediate to readers. That skill is on full display in The Long Walk in both extraordinary and mundane circumstances.
How can the horror of a body being shredded by bullets compare to the horror of a stomach or leg cramp? They’re basically neck-and-neck with King at the helm.
Throughout the novel, King ratchets up the tension as boys succumb to or, sometimes miraculously, overcome the ailments that afflict them during the Walk. A muscle spasm or a bowel movement could spell death for Garraty and his companions, and the specter of these death sentences—so easily ignored in everyday life—hovers over every page of The Long Walk.
When these things do happen, King lets loose with the terror; boys plead for their lives, desperately trying to relax steel-tight muscles before they’re out of warnings and punching their ticket.
A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Break
As the novel goes on, of course, the real danger comes in the form of mental exhaustion. After days of endless walking the contestants’ physical pain mostly fades away and is replaced with the gnawing mental anguish of sleep deprivation and the knowledge that death is literally only ever moments away.
This commitment to the slow and steady decline of the boys’ sanity is the most fascinating arc in The Long Walk—King makes you feel the bone-deep, soul-crushing exhaustion that permeates the Walk as each boy comes to term with his own mortality.
Some commit suicide, some simply collapse, and others trudge on. Even Garraty isn’t immune from the dark night of the soul that the competition becomes, his mind stretching past the point of rationality on more than one occasion.
Gentlemen of the Road
The entire cast is well drawn, with Garraty making for a compelling protagonist, almost an everyman, whose motivation for joining the Walk is left intentionally vague.
Other prominent walkers include Peter McVries (who essentially joins the Walk as a form of suicide), Stebbins (an eccentric and mysterious walker who keeps to himself, occasionally giving Garraty advice in the form of riddles), and Scramm, a young man who dropped out of school, got married, and is in the Walk to provide for his young wife.
A pseudo-antagonist named Barkovitch is also in the group, regularly taunting other walkers and causing at least one of the other boys to die.
The importance of King’s characterization cannot be understated here. Readers are introduced to several characters aside from the ones mentioned here, and King does a wonderful job giving them personalities and making you care for them—but always reminding you that only one of them can come out of the story alive.
When the characters you come to care and root for meet their untimely demise, there’s a real sense of loss, especially as the emotional toll of all that death begins to weigh on Garraty and his companions.
The Long Walk met and exceeded my every expectation. This is vintage King, brutal and terrifying and brutally, terrifyingly human. I was often surprised by how invested I found myself becoming in each character as the book went on—and by how deeply I felt their inevitable deaths. A moment with two men sitting and talking in different languages, waiting for the end, ranks among my favorite in all of King’s writing.
The book shines a light on our culture’s bloodthirst and inhumanity; it explores young men being pushed beyond their limits and responding to extraordinary circumstances; and it showcases the wealth of raw talent Stephen King has had at his fingertips from the very beginning. The ending is left open to interpretation and will sit with me for a long time yet.
The Long Walk was timely when it came out in the late ‘70s and, if anything, is even more timely now. It’s not a walk in the park, it’s something much grimmer and more profound than that. I’m calling this book Must-Read Entertainment. Take a long walk, pick up a copy for yourself, and enjoy.
You can purchase a copy of The Long Walk here.
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