Columns > Published on February 22nd, 2017

"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.

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.

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.

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.

Get The Long Walk at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

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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