I initially thought that when I sat down with the Stephen King omnibus, The Bachman Books, I would read the individual novellas and write one review at the end. I’ve read more than my fair share of King’s collected stories, and assumed this would be the same. I guess I still could have done something like that, but after reading the first two novellas, Rage and The Long Walk, I felt that each deserved something special of their own.
King published all four of the “Bachman books” under the pseudonym Richard Bachman between 1972 and 1982. The novels were written at various times, Rage and The Long Walk very early during King’s career, as a matter of fact. If I’m not mistaken, King began writing Rage during high school and The Long Walk in college, and so both are great early examples of King’s iconic styling and a mind already on the path to twisted glory.
Now, in the introduction “Why I Was Bachman,” King lists several reasons why he chose these four novels for Bachman (Roadwork and The Running Man being the last two). Prominent among them was the desire to tempt fate a second time; he had already garnered quite a bit of fame by ’77, and he wanted to see if lightening would strike twice. What I found most interesting, however, was that he was unsure how the public would react to both Rage and The Long Walk since they lacked the supernatural element so many of King’s readers had grown to expect. What? No evil clowns lurking in the sewers? No invading aliens? No blood-drenched prom queen setting the school on fire? Of course, we know now that some of King’s best works are his most “normal” stories—The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, etc. But what Rage and The Long Walk lacks in the supernatural department, they more than make up by being great psychological thrillers that dance around the fragile state of human sanity.
Rage follows the story of Charlie Decker, a mentally deranged high school student who holds a high school math class hostage with a gun and a discussion of the dark side of adolescence. This story had everything I love about Stephen King: a simple story that, while pretty violent, delves into the horrific, nasty side of growing up. Keen readers of King’s ouvre know that growing up is one of King’s favorite themes, and one that he masterfully illustrates time and time again. Growing up, King argues, is pretty damn scary. There are a lot of secrets buried under those teenage faces—enough to drive you crazy. We don’t really know the exact reason Decker goes mad—because he is certainly crazy—but we feel there is a horrible logic to it. I particularly loved the discussion he leads with his fellow high school seniors (after he shoots two teachers, of course). Decker freely admits he doesn’t know why he’s doing this, and that he will probably regret it afterward. However, the other students seem to understand his desperation on some level. They succinctly engage in a long discussion on how they became the people they are today—going over all the broken promises, beatings, backseat sex, drugs, abusive parents—and eventually develop an admiration and respect for Decker. All except for one student, Ted Jones. Aside from playing vicious mind games with the administrators and police officials, Decker makes it his task to break the golden boy. With help, he does.
Sometime ago, King requested that Rage be taken out of print after the book became a model for real high school shootings. Rage has been found in the possession of several students who turned guns on their fellow students, and King has said he’s relieved the book is out of print. While not denying the horrific reality of school shootings, I find taking Rage out of print to be troubling. While violent and terrifying (I found myself muttering, “Oh no, don’t do it Charlie…”), Rage is an honest assessment of the realities facing young people. It is shocking, but brilliant.
The second novel, The Long Walk, is equally fascinating, although a tad long-winded. And by that, I don’t mean it was long, but that the narrative keeps going…and going…and going…with nothing to stagger the narrative flow. The Long Walk returns with another 17-year-old protagonist, Ray Garraty, but this time in an alternative, distopian future where gladiator-themed violence descends on middle America. In this world, the “national sport” is The Long Walk, where every year, 100 boys just shy of 18 start walking from the Canadian-American border. They must keep walking at 4 mph or more. If they fall below that pace, stop or attempt to leave the walk, they receive a warning. They can “walk off” their warnings, but if they receive three and fall short again, they’re shot. Dead. The walk continues until only one boy is left.
The Walk reminded me of The Hunger Games, where a totalitarian government seeks to satiate the public’s thirst for blood, as well as retain control, with gladiator-like games. Reading The Long Walk was almost stupifying at times; you try and convince yourself that something like this could never happen. I mean, American citizens are placing bets on which boy will survive long enough to win. They crowd the roadside as the boys walk by, screaming their approval when someone’s brains are splattered over the road. The Walk is inhumane, cruel, and almost physically impossible. It’s a bataan death march, with the folks at home keeping score while they watch on TV. Boys go crazy, die from seizures and sunstroke, try to escape, fall nursing charley horses. And yet, their humanity is lost in the crowd’s lust for blood.
I find this theme to be fascinating, and was therefore glued to the page. However, while King makes the occasional allusions to the world in which this “sport” exists, he leaves everything else up to our imagination. Nowhere is the all-important “explanation” chapter, the chapter you find in nearly every King novel. In this chapter, King backs away from the main action, drifts into a flashback, has the main character explain everything to an dim-witted bystander. I desperately needed this chapter because I was dying to know more about this alternate universe—this place where the Germans blitzed the American East Coast during WWII, where the Connecticut Provo Governor stormed the German fort at Santiago, and where a mysterious “Major” figure overshadows all. I particularly wanted to know why Garraty got involved in The Long Walk in the first place, but King only dances around these questions. Now, I understand the point of keeping the narrative with The Walk—this is what the book is about, after all, and if we want to know more, we can infer what we will from the hints King leaves behind. However, I don’t like being teased and I felt more than a little frustrated at times.
So, other than a few annoyances, I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I’m now knee deep into Roadwork, the third novella in the collection, and will fill you in on that and The Running Man sometime soon!