This was a short and scary book. 384 pages penned under Richard Bachman, just alongside Rage and Thinner, and it probably stands close in time with Running Man. I think Stephen King foresaw what entertainment would look like in the future. Murderous games done as entertainment, Survivor, Big Brother.
“To hell with you. You just don’t want to admit it. Those people, they’re animals. They want to see someone’s brains on the road, that’s why they turn out. They’d just as soon see yours.”
“Sure they’re animals. You think you just found out a new principle? Sometimes I wonder just how naive you really are. The French lords and ladies used to screw after the guillotinings. The old Romans used to stuff each other during the gladiatorial matches. That’s entertainment, Garraty. It’s nothing new.” He laughed againd. Garraty stared at him, fascinated.
In the near future, where America has become a police state, 100 boys are selected to enter an annual contest where the winner will be awarded whatever he wants for the rest of his life.
The Long Walk takes place in a slightly different reality, where Germany had a nuclear reactor in Santiago in 1953, and where the Major runs a spectacle ever year, The Long Walk. The Long Walk seems like an ancestor of The Hunger Games in some ways, although the Long Walk seems to be voluntary.
The game is simple – maintain a steady walking pace of four miles per hour without stopping. Each contestant, called a “Walker”, must maintain a speed of at least four miles per hour; if he drops below that speed for 30 seconds, he receives a verbal warning. A Walker who slows down again after receiving three warnings is “ticketed”.
A Walker clears one warning for every hour that he stays above the minimum speed.
If the story were told now there would be a lot more about the media coverage, and the whole thing would probably have a corporate sponsor. Plus, the walkers would have matching shoes and uniforms designed to look cool and keep them walking longer. They’d also probably have a more sophisticated method than soldiers with rifles and stopwatches dispatching the lollygaggers, too.
The Walk begins at the Maine/Canada border at 9:00 on the morning of May 1 and travels down the east coast of the United States until the winner is determined. There are no stops, rest periods, or established finish line, and the Walk does not pause for any reason (including bad weather or darkness); it ends only when one last Walker is left alive. According to the rules, the Walkers can obtain aid only from the soldiers, who distribute canteens of water and belts packed with food concentrates (apparently similar to the ones developed by NASA’s space program) just before the Walk begins. They may request a fresh canteen at any time, and new food supplies are distributed at 9:00 every morning. Walkers may bring anything they can carry, including food or additional clothing, but cannot receive aid from bystanders. They are allowed to have bodily contact with onlookers as long as they stay on the road. While they cannot physically interfere with one another to detrimental effect, they can help each other, provided they stay above four miles per hour.
It is implied that many past winners have died soon after the Walk, due to its hazardous mental and physical challenges. The Long Walk is not only a physical trial, but a psychological one, as the Walkers are continually pressed against the idea of death and their own mortality.
But there are weak men who can lift cars if their wives are pinned underneath. The brain, Garraty.” McVries’s voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper. “It isn’t man or God. It’s something…in the brain.
One contestant from past years is described as having actually crawled at four miles per hour after suffering cramps in both feet. Several characters suffer mental breakdowns, one of them killing himself by tearing out his throat, and most characters experience some mental degeneration from the stress and lack of sleep.
Along the road, the Walkers learn that one of their number, Scramm — initially the heavy odds-on favorite to win the Walk — is married. When Scramm gets pneumonia, the remaining Walkers agree that the winner will use some of the Prize to take care of his pregnant widow, Cathy.
Some of these guys will go on walking long after the laws of biochemistry and handicapping have gone by the boards. There was a guy last year that crawled for two miles at four miles an hour after both of his feet cramped up at the same time, you remember reading about that? Look at Olson, he’s worn out but he keeps going. That goddam Barkovitch is running on high-octane hate and he just keeps going and he’s as fresh as a daisy. I don’t think I can do that. I’m not tired -not really tired- yet. But I will be.” The scar stood out on the side of his haggard face as he looked ahead into the darkness “And I think… when I get tired enough… I think I’ll just sit down”
Members of the public interfering with the Walkers can receive an “interference” ticket. This nearly occurs when the mother of a Walker named Percy tries, on several occasions, to get onto the road and find her son (at her last attempt, he has already been killed for attempting to sneak away). Only the intervention of the local police keeps her from being executed. The second instance is when a spectator’s dog runs across the road in front of the Walkers and is shot. However, one man is able to throw the Walkers watermelon slices before being hauled away by the police rather than the soldiers; several Walkers receive third warnings after taking the watermelon, but none of them are shot.
“They walked through the rainy dark like gaunt ghosts, and Garraty didn’t like to look at them. They were the walking dead.”
By the morning of the fifth day, the Walk has progressed into Massachusetts, the first time in 17 years that it has done so. There are only seven Walkers left. Earlier, Stebbins revealed to Garraty and McVries that he is the illegitimate son of the Major. Stebbins states he used to think the Major was unaware of his existence, but it turns out that the Major has numerous illegitimate children nationwide. Four years earlier, the Major took Stebbins to the finish of a Long Walk; now Stebbins feels that the Major has set him up to be “the rabbit”, motivating others to walk farther to prolong the race, just as rabbits are used in dog races. Stebbins’ plan, upon winning the Walk, is to ask to be “taken into [his] father’s house” as his Prize. Finally, Garraty decides to give up after realizing that Stebbins has shown almost no weaknesses over the duration of the Walk. Garraty catches up with Stebbins to tell him this, but before he can speak, Stebbins collapses and dies; thus Garraty is declared the winner.
Unaware of the celebration going on around him, Garraty gets up from Stebbins’ side and keeps on walking, believing the race to still continue, as he hallucinates a dark figure not far ahead that he thinks is another competitor. He ignores a jeep coming towards him in which the Major comes to award him the victory, thinking it is a trespassing vehicle. When a hand touches his shoulder, Garraty somehow finds the strength to run.
Unlike the Hunger Games, this book is pretty brutal. Imagine having to go to the bathroom in front of a crowd of spectators while continuously walking. And never being able to sleep. And seeing people gunned down in front of you after they’ve been warned three times. Like I said, pretty brutal.