by Jay Wilburn
The plan is to reread all of Stephen King’s novels and collections and assorted other publications. Richard Chizmar of Cemetery Dance set out the challenge for himself and invited others to join in. It is an idea which indulges my obsession with King’s writing. I’m doing it because I am a writer and I want to improve my long fiction and storytelling. I think there are secrets to be discovered or rediscovered in it too. As Chizmar posts his after read posts and Bev Vincent posts his accompanying history, I will add links to those in my corresponding posts.
Here are Richard Chizmar’s thoughts on rereading the Long Walk.
Here is Bev Vincent’s historic essay on the story.
Here is a guest essay about the story by Ed Gorman.
You can also go back to the beginning and read Before Carrie and follow all the blog posts through each book.
Much of what I write in these posts will really be notes for me. I will do my best to make them into coherent observations for you. I will also style my comments to be as spoiler free as possible for those who haven’t read the book, but that will also work for those who have read the books. Be warned though that I am discussing the content of the book and the writing.
So, let’s revisit The Long Walk.
In rereading the essay at the beginning of The Bachman Books where King explains why he wrote as Bachman, King admits to being a pantser. He starts out the first page with only the vaguest idea of how it will end. In other places, in his nonfiction work, On Writing, I think, he discusses going back through the first draft and pulling out the themes which are hinted at within the prose of that first draft. It’s hard to argue with results.
He wrote the Long Walk while a freshman in college. That story is detailed well in Bev Vincent’s essay linked above. King thought “Getting It On” was a pretty good story when he wrote this essay for the Bachman Books decades ago. He didn’t care for it as much in later years amidst more recent events.
He got letters asking if he was Bachman from the beginning and tried to lie. He claimed Bachman metaphysically died upon discovery, but it appears, of course, he was resurrected for a couple more novels later in King’s career. Misery would have been a Bachman book, if he had not been outed.
In the Long Walk, “The Major” is the Big Bad, but he takes a background role along with his mysterious, dystopian government to the more immediate monsters of the road and the crowd. It is he who shall not be named behind reflective sunglasses perched upon his jeep and drawn in fireworks in the sky. “God and Mammon” The idea that you cannot serve two masters though we all try. The crowd and the Major become both. Both life and death.
“Being squadded” Big government under the world of the Major. There’s laws about stealing cars, but that’s not squad trouble. “Night riding” which is old code for KKK activities is a squadding offense. Only young kids do it anymore in this world because old-timers don’t want the consequences. This echoes modern terrorism. One walker’s father was taken by the squads for loose, drunk lips about his politics. Another’s father works for the squads which we find out deeper things concerning later on the road. They mention “before The Change” and “The Squads” when there were still millionaires. Maybe the walkers and the Major are the only millionaires now.
The technology is not made ultra-futuristic. It also slips to the background and mixes with common sixties and seventies life. They use a transistor radio to know the weather. There is a computer terminal in the guard booth which collects and keeps analog ID cards. Hank Aaron’s homerun record was unbeatable in this universe. “Win one for the Gipper.” 3 dollars an hour in a sheet factory in Arizona. A Ray Bradbury reference. There are 51 states. Mentions giving away the Panama Canal. Charles Atlas and John Travolta must have stayed popular in the future as they still appear on advertisements. Or maybe The State is using old paper for making confetti. Our hero recognizes them though.
Game show quotes are used before each chapter. Art Fleming is quoted as the host of Jeopardy. Bob Barker is quoted as the host for Truth or Consequences. Johnny Olsen on the New Price is Right. A Sesame Street quote. Also, kids’ nursery rhymes.
There are hints the walkers are advised to follow for survival such as Hint 13: Conserve energy whenever possible. These hints and preps prove less and less useful the longer the 4 mile per hour race goes.
One walker gets three warnings while fixing his sock. Three warnings and then the fourth drop below 4 miles per hour means getting shot. Leaving the road gets you shot. Impeding a walker even if you are not part of the race will get you shot. You have to walk an hour without warning to clear a previous warnings earned. Three hours to clear three then. The kids walk backward to see what happens to this sock fixer. I don’t think I could walk backwards at four miles per hour. Tense moments build with mounting warnings.
An unpopular boy coaxes another walker to get his ticket punched. The other boys label him a killer and it haunts this kid for the rest of his steps, dancing upon graves.
“They kept walking.” Well, of course, they did, but King hammers this home with these simple reminders like the single plod of a footstep. You don’t notice these steps as much in the beginning, but these short steps of phrase sting and ache as we approach the end. The walkers give defiances of varying weakness and futility as they go along.
Our hero stops for a kiss and to cop a feel. He gets three warnings, but feels it was worth it. This begins a psycho-sexual undertone through the story which mixes the sex and violence for the walkers and the crowd. Another boy runs off the road to kiss a girl. It amps higher and ends differently. Lots of popped flies and grinding in the stands. Undertones of sexual perversion in the excitement. Profane souvenir gathering.
The Crowd begins to be presented as a single living creature. This is great for the description and the themes in this story. Well placed all the way through.
Racism creeps into the field of walkers. Homophobia later. They get mean as time passes. As King says in The Stand, long held prejudices tend to have trouble surviving age and time along this long road. Some become too weak to truly hate any longer. Characters go from brazen to broken along this road.
Stephen King really lets Stephen Foster and Poe have it for their less than stellar traits and histories.
A man rubbing at a wart as he watches the walkers in a fixed stare from the side of the road is a simple, off-putting detail which hints at the monster which will be the hungry crowd farther down the road.
Stats are kept like any sport. Longest beginning stretch without a kill. Longest walks. Stories of famous final moments. How many state lines crossed. Most to make it a hundred miles. A street is named after a long walker winner of the past who died of a bloodclot a week after winning. I wonder if that sort of thing puts an asterisk by the win on your collector card.
I wander if the walker planning to write a book if he wins the walk is Stephen King. Maybe the odds of surviving to write a book out of the hundred trying to walk you into the ground is the long odds against succeeding as a writer.
“An insomniac’s half-sleeping wakemare” Great phrase.
Boys work against their self-interests to help each other. Later, they vow to stop. “I owe [him] a couple.” We never get to fully pay back those along the road who helped us the most. One character helped our hero many more times than I remembered from my first reading.
He used the term “bullet headed” a few times. He uses “obscenely” a lot too. Wind “soughs” through the trees a few times. “Mailsack thud” is used often for dropping bodies.
A kid’s hair goes grey. Hair going white is an oft used device in King stories over the decades.
Rats in the pj factory in New Jersey. This type of detail sticks with King.
I was unaware before this reread that treble means the same as triple.
“Any game looks straight if everyone is being cheated at once.” Great line.
The final deaths and the final sentence give a powerful and chilling end to the story.
Rereading this story made me ache. I went through a lot physically with kidney failure. It was hard to walk. I rode a bike to build up my endurance to be ready for recovery once I would be able to get a kidney transplant. Every inch was a struggle. I walk more now, but careful of pain from the recent surgery. This story makes me hurt, thinking about pushing that edge of what I was capable of doing each of those times in my life. When they lose their shoes while walking, it fills me with dread and despair. When the hero gets an unexpected boost of energy, I think about my moment of physical recovery from the disease which could have ended my walk by punching my ticket.
King discussed in the essay before The Night Shift that horror always drives toward the One Great Fear of Death. We are all on a long walk. All waiting to get our ticket punched by dumb luck or the inevitability of time. Some of us decide when it is time to sit down. Some fight back. Some of us save others along the way. Some of us leave in our minds before checking out of our bodies. We start to notice how old the few walkers left among us begin to look. Our view of the road under us changes as we go. Some of us outlast. Some of us are mourned. A few of us go much further than we ever thought we could. “Do you think you’ll win?” Will you somehow still find the energy to run when you feel death touch your shoulder?
I hope this long walk of observations serves some interest to readers and fans. I still love The Long Walk and it means something different to me know reading it this far along my road.
Next on the list is The Dead Zone, so Before The Dead Zone will be the next post.
Thank you for following along,
Jay Wilburn, writer, constant reader, long walker, still haven’t bought my ticket,*, do you think I will win?