Published by Signet Classics on 1979
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Imagine coming home from watching The Shining, turning on the light, looking down a long hallway, and finding two long-haired 5 year old girls in nightgowns standing side-by-side – staring at you. Terrifying, right? It is. I would know because this is exactly what happened to me when I was 17 and came home at around midnight after watching it at a friend’s house. The girls, who were actually my sister and her friend, thought my scream was hilarious at the time but none of us knew that this scene would traumatize me for life. As a result, I’ve never read Stephen King and more or less stopped watching horror movies.
But after two years of insisting that not all King is horror (from Rebecca at Love At First Book), I finally decided to check him out. I double checked with Rory at Fourth Street Review to make sure Rebecca wasn’t playing some cruel joke (I didn’t think she was but you never know with King fans), and settled on The Long Walk. I read the first few pages with trepidation but soon found myself worrying less about being re-traumatized and more about the fates of the boys in the book. It was a strange feeling, to say the least.
The Long Walk is about 100 boys who set out on a march of epic proportions. The length of the march is inconsequential – the point of it is that there can only one winner – and everyone who fails is subjected to something pretty awful. There are many reasons why boys end up on the walk and each boy has a different, yet strangely similar, story. It is told through the eyes of one of the walkers, 16 year-old Ray Garraty, who offers up his musings on life, love, and the physical and mental tolls of such a tremendous undertaking. The entire book is about the walk and the reader is made to feel as if they marching alongside the boys, which is pretty terrifying and gut-wrenching.My first Stephen King: What I liked, didn't like, and whether I'll read him again. Click To Tweet
So how do I feel after reading my first King? To be honest, I’m conflicted. The book was extremely well written and I flew through the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen to each of the characters I came to love (or hate). I became very attached to the narrator and was afraid to keep reading at times because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how it ended.
(The next two paragraphs may include spoilers) On the other hand, it left me in a state of disbelief. Their apathy and acceptance of the situation angered me and, frankly, I don’t know that 100 teenage boys put into a position to fight for their lives would be so amenable and accepting of their positions. Then again, there wasn’t a whole lot of context given for how the country found itself in a world where this long walk was acceptable – even the soldiers representing evil were evil in an apathetic and abstract way. As someone who likes to know the how’s and why’s of of things, I had some trouble with the murkiness. Come to think of it, this is probably why I don’t read or enjoy a lot of dystopian fiction.
Setting that aside and assuming the events leading up to the walk don’t matter and what matters is what happens during it, the book is pretty amazing. Because really, it’s a book that explores both sides of the coin of human nature – the good and the evil. On the one hand, it’s about the consequences of groupthink and blind deference to authority (recent events lead me to believe it’s also a warning about an apathetic nation, but we’ll save that for another day). It’s about the mental and physical toll such an undertaking can inflict on a young man and the wildly different reactions individuals will have. On the flip side, it’s about the goodness of people in the face of impossible odds and certain doom. It’s about shining a light on the overall goodness of humanity, even when there is evil permeating it. In short, it raises a lot of questions.
In the end, I’m glad I read The Long Walk as my first King. Most of my questions came up after I finished the book because I was too immersed in the story to consider them while I was reading it. The main characters are mostly likable but the premise is pretty sickening. I will say that if King’s other books are written with the same amount of care and skill, I can understand why he’s so popular and I’m sure to pick him up again (if it’s not horror).