I haven't quite made up my mind about Stephen King. Part of me is repelled by his trendiness; that part also recognizes an author with flaws of dialogue and resolution and an author who needs to better listen to his editor (or find a new editor). And yet the guy can craft a really riveting, well-told story, ie “The Body.” No work better displays both sides of King than The Stand, a wonderfully constructed tale that suffers woefully from diarrhea of the pen.
But I keep coming back because there is a draw. After a year or two away, something about King's works calls to me. Sometimes I'm glad I returned. Other times, I'm like “eh.” This time around, I am truly, genuinely surprised.
I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of The Long Walk. It's not one of the author's more notable works. The summary of the book brought to mind ideas of a potentially strong story, but greater likelihood of cheesiness. And knowing that King would have to maintain an entire novel of teenagers talking with one another frightened me.
But this novel really, truly worked. First, The Long Walk is believably scary. This isn't about killer clowns or murderous cars, it's about a society that encourages and delights in the sacrifice of its youth. Once a year, one hundred teenage boys begin walking. They cannot stop until there is only one left. What happens if they stop or walk too slowly? They receive a warning. After three warnings, they're killed. That's it. So simply terrifying. And the walk goes on day after day, because when your only choice is to live or to stop and rest, you find the will to keep going (or maybe you don't.)
But this isn't really a story about a dystopian society in love with the long walk, now is it? This is the story of war. Boys on the verge of manhood being sent on some ridiculous quest. They're spurred on by the words of a general shouting encouragement at them. They're cheered on by the patriotic fervor of the crowds that watch from the sideline, but never join the walk. They're shell-shocked and unsure why they'd even started walking in the first place. Published in 1979,The Long Walk likely was inspired by the war in Vietnam, but it could easily be about any war.
One of the things that almost doesn't work but ends up working spectacularly in this novel is the dialogue. Some of these conversations are so brilliant. Others are completely asinine. Who would believe that these individuals would have the conversations they do right after watching their neighbor being gunned down. But isn't that exactly how it is in war? Don't these soldiers become so immune to it all that while they may from time to time philosophize about life and death, they're just as likely to talk about Saturday morning cartoons? At times, the raging hormones of these one hundred became a bit over the top for my tastes, but largely I believed this group's actions and discussions.
The only area where I would've liked to have seen change was in the contemporary setting. King places these kids sometime in the sixties or seventies, I'm never quite sure. Again, this probably alludes to Vietnam, but it dates the story horribly. The boys discuss the music, the cars, and the babes of the era. In 2018, it makes an otherwise universal story sound a bit hokey at times. This was a problem thatThe Stand suffered from as well.
I was really pulled into this novel and I must say that while I've read relatively little of King's complete bibliography, this has been my favorite so far. There are some really wonderful passages here and the overall story is quite engaging. The Long Walk truly made me hungry for more of King's writing.