'The Long Walk': Stephen King's Best Novel

Stephen King has 54 novels under his belt. I'm here to tell you which one is the hands down, no doubt, absolute best.

The Long Walk is a novel King released under his pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1979. It was the first novel he wrote (Carrie was the first one to be published), which is impressive, considering how good it is. He was still in college at the time. I'm not suggesting that King was never able to match his first effort; he wrote other masterpieces after this one. It's just that this one inches over the finish line first. 

Before I get into my thesis, let me introduce the book to anybody who might not have read it (that's warning number one).

The Novel

The Long Walk is set in a kind of dystopian future (we assume; there’s nothing really futuristic about it) where an annual walking contest takes place. A televised lottery serves as the draft. 100 boys are chosen. There is only one winner. Everyone else will die.

Whenever I hear somebody say Stephen King is overrated or a bad writer or a hack, this is the book I want to bash their brains in with.

Slowing down, falling, giving up, interfering with other contestants, all get you a warning. After three warnings, the soldiers that are escorting the contestants will shoot. Attacking the soldiers or attempting to leave the road is an immediate death sentence, no warning. The sole winner of the Walk receives The Prize: Anything they want, for the rest of their lives.

Garatty is "Maine’s own boy" and the protagonist of the novel. Together with some other boys, they form the “Musketeers,” a kind of impromptu group of friends that try to get each other through the Walk, ignoring the irony of the situation. Every one of them (except one, if they’re lucky) has to die for the race to end.

The majority of the novel deals with getting to know these kids and exploring their reasons (if any) for volunteering or not trying to dodge the draft, and what they plan to choose as their prize should they win. There’s a kind of antagonist in the form of a boy named Barkovitch, who gets another contestant killed by taunting him throughout the walk. He is subsequently hated by everyone and ostracized.

You’d think that the soldiers (and perhaps the crowd watching) would be the antagonist and they kind of are, but they’re essentially a neutral force; an act of god. They’re easy to hate, but they are simply the instrument of the Walk. You give up, you fall down, you get sick, you will be shot. They are emotionless and the punishment inevitable. Probably the one villain the book has is the Major, a kind of Uncle Sam figure that organizes and shills for The Walk. 

It’s hard to describe the novel in a way that can illustrate the gut wrenching feeling you get when you're reading it. The prose is so tight, there’s almost no fat (and as much as I love him, that’s not something you can say about a lot of later King novels). At the same time, this is peak King: The dialogue, the characters, the unpretentious prose. It’s just pared down a lot, down to the essentials. It fits the story well.

The Thesis

Anyway, back to my thesis. What makes this the single best Stephen King novel? What’s wrong with The Shining, or Salem’s Lot or The Dark Tower or whatever you favorite might be?

Well, nothing, really. It’s just that every other book, you can find something, a flaw, a not-so-great character, a little extra fat on the bones. I love The Stand, even read the uncut version, but despite some chapters being pure greatness, there’s also a lot you can find fault with; length being the the first thing. Different people have different complaints: The whole religion thing. The ending. That creepy wannabe rapist character. That one favorite character dying. The middle part and that bomb. You know the one.

The same could be said about any of his novels.

Could you say the same about The Long Walk? I dare you. There's nothing extraneous about it. The stakes are set up from the start; you can't claim it's bullshit when your favorite character bites the bullet. They all will, except for one. The novel lives between the lines. There's as much said about these kids in the quiet as they walk through the night as there is through their dialogue. It's flawless. 

There aren't enough pages for the book to ever slow down. The march is merciless. King uses the slow moments to dig deeper into his characters and then punctuates with another tragedy, another dead kid. A kid you got to know in the last fifty pages, perhaps someone you rooted for. Well, he's dead now. Keep walking. You've been warned.

Whenever I hear somebody say Stephen King is overrated or a bad writer or a hack, this is the book I want to bash their brains in with. Maybe you think ghosts are dumb and so are monsters. Maybe you feel Misery is preposterous, you'd totally knock that lady out from your wheelchair and escape. Lisey's Story isn't very good, I agree. But you can't read this and say, ''Oh yes, this man writes airport fiction, this isn't good at all.'' I mean you could, but who would believe you? Warning number two.

Literature 101

The prevailing theory on ''like, what is this book about, man'' is this: It's about the Vietnam war (or any war, really, but having been written in 1971 or so, it's obvious what the inspiration was).

I tend to agree. It's really effective as a metaphor (hey, I'm not saying it's a very obtuse one). The draft, the Major talking up the Walk as some kind of honorable thing that every American youth should be proud to be a part of, the crowds coming out to watch (just like those parades, eh?). The occasional volunteer that can't really explain why he joined up, the kid who could have dodged the draft but didn't, for similar reasons. The soldiers/enemy presented as ruthless but also emotionless; faceless. Watching your friends die in front of you, or hearing about them getting killed somewhere out there in the dark. Going insane from the trauma. Struggling to stay alive but also to find a reason to keep fighting.

Winning and wondering what the fuck you won, anyway?

I'm not really one for deeper meanings, but you don't have to dig deep to find this one. Maybe that's why it's such a chilling read. The Walk is equally as meaningless as any armed conflict.

Give it a re-read and look at is as the story of a bunch of young recruits in the jungle. See where that takes you.

Dissenters

I get it, what I'm saying sounds preposterous to many of you. It's hard to knock down the false idol of The Shining. My second most favorite King book is Christine, for god's sake. I'm not well in the head. I've been told. Tell me how wrong I am. I'd love to talk it out.

I can see you firing up that Twitter, clicking on the comment field. I know you're coming for me. You come at me, you better come prepared. Warning number three.

Image of The Long Walk
Manufacturer: Scribner
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George Cotronis

Column by George Cotronis

George Cotronis lives in the wilderness of Northern Sweden. He designs book covers and sometimes writes. His stories have appeared in XIII, Big Pulp and Vignettes from the End of the World. He is also the editor in chief at Kraken Press and Aghast: A Journal of the Darkly Fantastic. You can see his work at www.ravenkult.com or read his rants over at his blog.

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Comments

BrianAsman's picture
BrianAsman from San Diego, CA is reading The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker February 22, 2017 - 2:11pm

While I don't think this is my favorite King novel (that's either The Stand or one of the Dark Tower books. Probably The Wastelands, if I had to pick, but this is up there), I have to agree that it's probably his best. What gets me most about the book is this:

I couldn't write this novel.

Let me qualify that really quickly, I'm not comparing myself to King. What I'm saying is if we were drawing plots out of a hat, I could take "virus wipes out 90% world," "vampires attack a small town," "a writer goes crazy at an isolated hotel," etc. and go write a novel. If I got "a bunch of boys are forced to walk through New England until there's only one left," well, I get the feeling I'd spend a lot of time staring at a blank screen.

I'd at least have to add in some robot pterodactyls or something. 

George Cotronis's picture
George Cotronis from Sweden is reading Baltimore February 22, 2017 - 3:08pm

That's a really good way to put it, Brian. I feel the same way. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 22, 2017 - 3:12pm

Definitely in my top ten King books, as noted HERE at BuzzFeed. Totally agree. Great book. 

Paul Michael Anderson's picture
Paul Michael An... from Virginia February 22, 2017 - 5:18pm

For me, this is tied with The Running Man in the "lean and mean motherfuckers" category of King's novels. 

David Roberts's picture
David Roberts February 22, 2017 - 6:01pm

I too find this to be my favorite King novel.  The major bookworms In my life don't like it, I presume, because it is simple and "far-fetched."  Only, I don't think it is (I'm looking at you MMA fans).  Is the idea of kids willing to die to get ahead so unrealistic?  I don't think so.  And having been force-marched in the Army, I've experienced a taste of being pushed beyond physical limits.  I love this story and I look forward to J.J Abrams or Kevin Smith getting their hands on it!  :)

John Whipple's picture
John Whipple February 22, 2017 - 8:02pm

First, thank you for this validation. I read the Long Walk fairly young, and every re-read still puts me right back on that road. I even bought the audiobook version recently to appreciate the dialogue in a new way. Dilligently working through King's back catalogue right now, and completely agree it's hard to like anything else so completley. 

Joe P's picture
Joe P from Brainerd, MN is reading John Dies at the End February 22, 2017 - 7:46pm

The Long Walk is in my top five King books, which is really saying something when you think about it. Outside of Dark Tower, I think Bachman is better than King. So pulpy and punchy and schlocky... all the things that Maximum Overdrive should have been, but weren't. It's just great stuff. What's weird about the Long Walk is how good it is and how few people have read it or even heard of it. My Number 1 Stephen King? Hard to say, but Longest Walk is in the running.

PeteGoold's picture
PeteGoold from the UK is reading Julian Barnes: The Noise Of Time February 23, 2017 - 3:35am

As someone that has enjoyed King since my mid teens, i can't believe I haven't read this. Hard to argue with the statements though if this is up there with The Shining and The Dark Tower. George - thanks for the tip, I'll add it to my (already massive) list!

Kristin Peterson's picture
Kristin Peterson from California (living in Puerto Rico) is reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane February 23, 2017 - 9:15am

Brian, as a budding master of lean writing yourself, I think you could absolutely write a novel about some boys walking down the road until there's only one standing. Yours would just be walking through a melting Salvador Dali landscape dodging stilt-legged elephants—and probably robotic pterodactyls.

In reality, my favorite King books repeat this theme about kids working together in their child world. They are almost like Peanuts specials with the adults cut out or speaking that "wah-wah-wah-wah" language. I love It. The thing about It is that if I jumped in at the end, I would absolutely put the book down and never pick it up again. But King spends a thousand pages chipping away at my disbelief so effectively that I am terrified and filled with belief, forgetting to breathe as I plummet toward the end. 

Although I love settling into King's big fat books (The Stand is my favorite of his, lean or fat) patiently waiting for him to blow my mind with something completely absurd, I also appreciate his leaner, shorter works. Riding the Bullet and "The Road Virus Heads North" haunt me more than any other stories, and "The Man in the Black Suit" digs right to my marrow. Even King's introduction to the re-release of Lord of the Flies has become part of who I am. (I do realize that none of these are novels, so don't really qualify for this debate and may defy the warnings.)

I've long seen King with his recurring themes as John Irving's counterpart (in many other ways as well). So much of Irving's work revolves around Vietnam, so it's nice to see you make the assertion that The Long Walk is about Vietnam. Is it any wonder that Lord of the Flies is King's pick for The Book That Changed My Life?

Despite your warnings, Mr. Cotronis, it seems I've countered your lean and mean argument with mine in favor of big fat novels.

The Dark Lord's picture
The Dark Lord from The Void is reading The Book of the Dead February 23, 2017 - 10:12am

Seems like a bold statement.

Never read The Long Walk, but your article has me intrigued. Already bought it on amazon. 

Eyes of the Dragon would be at the top of my list. In what other works of his do you get to momentarily have a dog as a POV, napkins woven into a rope using a tiny cotton gin to escape a castle, a dragon, poison that causes a man to spontaneously combust, my favorite rendition of King's man in black (Flagg), etc.

Granted I read its creation was from a story he told to his kids…not sure what that says about my tastes...

Phil Jones's picture
Phil Jones from San Francisco Bay Area is reading The Shining February 23, 2017 - 11:44am

I agree with you regarding The Long Walk.  I've often said that I like Bachman's writing style better than King's.  King as Bachman tends toward tight action in interesting situations, almost more novella-like.  King as King often doesn't listen to his inner-editor enough and tends to go too far beyond what the story demands.  Which is also why I like King's short stories better than his novels.

MikeDuke44's picture
MikeDuke44 February 23, 2017 - 7:07pm

I completely agree George. It's been my favorite for over 25 years now. The Stand is my close second. Great to hear someone else loves it as much or more than me. 

maderr's picture
maderr February 23, 2017 - 9:04pm

I still think It is his best work, I've read that book multiple times and have never once gotten sick of it. I also really love 11/22/63, that book was amazing. I've never loved a book with time travel so much. I also think Needful Things is one of his most horrifying books, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon doesn't get enough love.

Christopher Tea Bear Roxby's picture
Christopher Tea... February 27, 2017 - 8:28am

Good article, and I highly agree. It is also the first King book I read, back in the wilds of 1983, my Juinior year in HIgh School. This was, of course, before King was revealed as Bachman. Later that year I also read Salem's Lot and I immediatley recognized that Bachman WAS Stephen King. That will always nudge this book to the top of my Favorties list. I actually own a 1st ed copy.

You did make a mistake, however.

The lottery does not act as a Draft. It chooses who will participate, yes... But it is a point that rams home the propaganda machine that exists in that dystopian world: THE BOYS ARE ALL VOLUNTEERS. Yes, even though they Know that 99 of them will be killed.

 

I don't know if you can edit that little tidbit into the article at this late date... but it is farily important to understanding the story.

George Cotronis's picture
George Cotronis from Sweden is reading Baltimore February 27, 2017 - 6:11pm

I did mention later on that boys decided to not dodge the ''draft'' and that they are volunteers, but you're right!

Lesster Diamond's picture
Lesster Diamond April 4, 2017 - 8:06am

I never knew that "The Long Walk" was a *stand alone* book, my first and only exposer to it was in a paper back I bought at a drug store in the 80's called "The Bachman Books". It was after King was *outed* as Bachman because it said Stephen King on the book and that's why I purchased it. That book contained quite a few little gems, the most famous probably being "The Running Man". "The Long Walk" was definitely my favorite short story in that book and as good as it is/was I can't place it above "The Stand" on any list of King novels. His best short story? Maybe. Best book? Never, that would be "The Stand", he'll never beat that and probably shouldn't even try.