The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

kings-longwalkIn a dystopian, totalitarian America, hundreds of sixteen-year-old boys sign up for a contest called The Long Walk, seduced by the prize of being able to ask the government to fulfill any wish. Of all the applicants, one hundred are chosen. All they have to do is walk. If you stop, for any reason, you get a warning. You then have thirty seconds to get moving again. In one hour, your warning will clear. If you stop after accumulating three warnings, you will be shot dead on the spot. The trek will go on for hundreds of miles, with no rest stops for sleeping, eating, or shitting. It only ends, after hundreds of miles, when there is one left standing.

The story is told from the perspective of one contestant, Ray Garraty, charting the walk from its first paces to its finish line. It’s a tale of fast friendships forged in suffering and of the limits of human endurance. You might wonder how a novel (even a short novel) that is just about walking could remain interesting for its entire length. But King really pulls it off. He sucks you right into the psychological state of a walker as if he had been there himself – the horror of being in the contest, feeling utterly exhausted but knowing how far you still have to go.

It’s a dark story – darker than most that he tells. And I imagine the absence of melodrama is not everyone’s cup of tea. King, by his own admission, used the Richard Bachman pen-name when he wanted to release a novel that came from a darker place than usual in his own psyche. If dark is what you’re looking for, this one doesn’t disappoint. The novel is available in a collected edition called The Bachman Books.

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Rage by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

Stephen King started writing Rage when he was only nineteen years old, long before he wrote his first published novel Carrie. It was originally titled Getting It On. In fact, King attempted to get this novel published prior to Carrie, but it was rejected. It would later see the light in 1977 under the pen-name Richard Bachman. King would later release several more novels under this pseudonym. When the secret finally got out, interest in these books skyrocketed, and the publishers decided to release an omnibus edition of four of them, entitled The Bachman Books, under King’s own name.

I used to be an avid fan of Stephen King in my teens and twenties, but somewhere along the line I got tired of all the huge tomes of 700 plus pages. There’s nothing worse than plodding through a massive book only to discover that it ends up as nothing more than an average story, as is often the case. But Rage is of special interest to me, because it’s the one book that Stephen King ended up withdrawing from publication. Notoriety like that inststantly piques my curiosity.

The subject matter of this 150-page novella concerns a high school boy, Charles Decker, who shoots two teachers in his school then holds his classmates hostage. School shootings, as we know, occasionally happen in real life, Columbine being the most famous example. Unfortunately, after one such real-life incident, the perpetrator was found to have a copy of Rage in his locker. King, and his publishers, agreed that it was best to remove the book from sale indefinitely.

The novel is written in the first person and Decker is the protagonist. At no point is the reader asked to rationalise Decker’s actions, only to take a peek inside his head at the mitigating circumstances that might lead a person to do what Decker did. One prominent theme of the novel is the abuse that adults to do children – specifically parents and teachers. This abuse is sometimes unconscious and even well-intentioned in a warped sort of way. Decker tells of an occasion when he was younger and his mother forced him to attend a birthday party dressed up in his Sunday best, when he knew that all the other kids would be in casual clothes and he would look foolish. But no amount of protesting would change her mind. He also recounts the story of going camping with his dad and his dad’s drinking buddies, where he overheard his father talking about how he would slit his mother’s nose open if he ever caught her in adultery.

The story is set in a time period when the education system allowed teachers to get away with way too much. I went to school at a time when the system was starting to emerge out of this, to put teachers on a shorter leash. I could tell you some stories. I recall my junior high mathematics teacher walking up behind me and whacking me across the back of the head hard. I was stunned; didn’t see it coming. All I had done to deserve this was skip a line of my sums because I had been smart enough to work it out in my head. I recall botching a question on my biology examination. Afterwards, in class, the teacher was going over the paper, and he decided to bring the whole class to fits of laughter as he described how “some moron” had answered question 5. Then there was my high school PE teacher, the man who made me hate PE. Do the slightest thing wrong and you were ordered to do ten push-ups in front of everyone. He took perverse pleasure if you were overweight like me and couldn’t do the exercise properly. I get a little angry even now, thinking back. I didn’t know it then, but these were adults who brought their anger issues and perverse character traits into work with them and took them out on the children in their care.

So I instantly empathised with Charlie Decker’s stories. Rage is about what happens when the abuse gets to the point where the abused person says, “Enough.” But this is not a tale about a boy losing himself in violence; it’s a strangely controlled explosion. Once Decker has his classmates in isolation, he begins something that he calls “getting it on” – a thing that appears to mean getting to the heart of the matter, stripping away the bullshit and being properly honest with each other.

He begins by recounting tales from his childhood, and soon his classmates are joining in, supplying stories of their own. A strange rapport ensues between captor and captives. Meanwhile the police are gathering outside, wondering about what Decker’s demands will be. But the class have come to realise that Decker has no intention of harming them. Most of them sense that something important is happening; they are all undergoing a transition, where pent up emotions can finally be released and healed.

This was not an easy book to read, because it was filled with so much pain. But identification with that pain made it impossible to leave the story unfinished. The plot suffers a little bit from melodrama in a couple of places, but for something written by one so young, it is surprisingly honest about life. The danger, I suppose, is in identifying so much with Charlie Decker that the reader justifies his actions and turns them into something heroic. But in the story, even Charlie admits that he’s losing his mind.

A sober and insightful story about human nature. There is more worth in these 150 pages than in many a novel four times the size. Well worth hunting for a second-hand copy.