“They walked through the rainy dark like gaunt ghosts, and Garraty didn't like to look at them. They were the walking dead.”
While Carrie may have been the first Stephen King book to have been published, it was The Long Walk that was the first novel he started to write. According to Stephen King, he started writing the Long Walk while he was a freshman at the University of Maine in 1966–1967, a full eight years before Carrie was published.
The first edition of The Long Walk was published under Stephen King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman in July 1979. It has been reissued several times since then and it was included in the hardback anthology, The Bachman Books, in 1985.
The novel is set in the not too distant future. America is under the rule of a totalitarian government that governs the land with an iron fist and deals with dissenters very efficiently and swiftly.
The Long Walk is an annual “sporting” event organised by the government and overseen by a character named the Major, in which 100 teenage boys set out southward’s from the Maine/Canada border, down the East Coast of the United States, on a walk that has no fixed finish line.
The rules are very simple. Keep on walking, day and night, and maintain a speed of least four miles per hour all the time. If a walker falls below four miles an hour for longer than 30 seconds, he gets a warning. If he then maintains the minimum speed for a further hour, that warning is dropped. If he accumulates more than three warnings, he gets ticketed, which we find out is a one way ticket dispensed from the barrel of a soldiers gun. The prize that the walkers are aiming for is anything they want for the rest of their life.
You might expect that, with such a brutal scenario for a novel, The Long Walk would be nothing more than a series of gory descriptions of how each of the boys die, but, in true Stephen King Fashion, The Long Walk is far deeper than that.
As the story unfolds, some of the boys form an alliance. They are still competing but, in some cases, they begin to help each other out along the way. There is, of course, a good sized serving of fear and horror in the story too. Once they have started the walk, the only way the boys can finish, is to finish up dead, or be the last boy walking. Even if a spectator tries to intervene in any way they too are subject to a ticketing.
Meanwhile, the rest of America watches the walk on TV. While the boys walk, step by step, to their deaths, spectator’s place bets on who will be the next to die. The book was written in the late 1960s, but it was almost prophetic. Today’s readers will no doubt be able to draw some comparisons between The Long Walk and some of the increasingly extreme forms of reality TV that are creeping onto our screens.
This early work of Stephen King doesn’t quite have the polish of his later work and you wouldn’t win any prizes for guessing that The Long Walk was his first full length novel. It is, however, an important part of the Stephen king back-library and, in parts, a dark and deeply disturbing tale. It’s a book that will make you think, and a book you are unlikely to forget.