The Long Walk
By Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
This was the first Stephen King book I'd ever read. Some "friends" recommended that it was one of his best, so I thought I'd give it a try. Before this my only real exposure to the horror genre was reading Poe in high school. Overall I found this to be a good reading experience, though it was a little long and the end was disappointing.
Every year, 100 teenage boys go through The Long Walk, a competition of endurance and survival. They start near the Canadian border in Maine (being a King book, where else would it start?) and go through New Hampshire, possibly into Massachusetts if anyone survives. The winner receives a Prize, wherein supposedly they receive everything they could ever want. The only drawback is that if you don't win, you die. Get three warnings in a row and you get executed.
So the rules are simple: keep walking or die. There are no stops to use the bathroom or sleep or eat or get a foot massage. You walk all day and all night until you stop walking and die. It's sort of like the Tour de France then if the bikers had to keep riding 24 hours a day and the losers were all killed. The contest is broadcast on TV and is a huge thing in Vegas. Throngs of people show up on the sidelines to cheer on the Walkers, showing little concern even as the losers are shot on live TV. (A similar premise to another King story, "The Running Man." With reality TV the way it is today, is such a thing really so implausible? I think not.)
In the current year's competition is young Ray Garrarty, a local boy from a small town in Maine. His father was abducted years ago by "the Squads", some kind of fascist secret police. (The story takes place in an alternate history where either the US lost WWII or otherwise turned into a fascist state. It's not entirely clear what happened, but there is mention of Germans bombing the US east coast and a raid on a German nuclear plant in Santiago in the '50s.) Ray has since lived with his mother and has a girlfriend named Jan. But for whatever reason he signs up for the Long Walk along with 99 other boys from around the country. He bonds with some of them like the cynical McVries and the weirdly prophetic Stebbins even as they are ostensibly trying to kill each other. They face a variety of physical challenges like steep hills, cramps, and fever but the real challenge is the mental fatigue from pushing on while watching all the people around you drop and die. Can Ray make it to the end? And what then?
I thought this book probably would have worked better as a short story or novella. At 370 pages it's a little too long. It sort of sets into this pattern of they walk for a while, someone gets shot, they talk to each other, some more people get shot. Yadda, yadda, yadda. What saves it though is the bonding between Ray, McVries, and the other characters as they become well-fleshed characters. You really do want to see who's going to make it and who isn't.
The end was disappointing, ending with a whimper instead of a bang. After going so far, I was really hoping for something a little more epic when it gets down to the last handful of people, but instead King/Bachman wraps up the last stage in just a couple of pages. So it seems like a lot of buildup for little payoff.
Still, it was a good book and makes me want to get my copy of "The Green Mile" off the shelf.
That is all.