Long before the glitz of The Hunger Games, there was just The Long Walk.
Originally published under his alternate identity, Richard Bachman, The Long Walk follows young men (or old boys? Whatever you call that cusp between boyhood and manhood when they’re in their late teens) who literally go on a long walk.
But this isn’t any ordinary walk. It’s a competition. No stops for sleep or bathroom breaks. 100 boymen walk at a pace of no less than 4 miles per hour until there’s one left standing. The winner gets anything he wants for the rest of his life.
If they stop or drop below the speed for longer than 30 seconds, they get a warning. After three warnings, guards shoot the offender. With no exceptions or opportunities to drop out, walking is literally a matter of life and death.
This story is set in a dystopian 1980. Worldbuilding is done strictly through the boymen’s narratives while walking. Leaving the reader with scant clues, what we do see is a stark, cruel world.
As the walk progresses, we learn that the boymen know little about actual winners. Are there any? Do they also die from the rigors of the walk? Or are they privately shot dead? And what is the purpose of the walk, anyway? Is it an exercise in degradation? A display of The Major’s power and control? Or is it a way to toy with the working class?
The Long Walk surely gets much of its influence from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
Read it here. It’s very short.
In “The Lottery,” townspeople gather for the regular depopulation ceremony. There’s no glamour or intricate society setup; townspeople have normal conversations and relationships. But when we learn exactly how they manage the resources to population ratio, it’s horrifying.
King does the same with The Long Walk. He doesn’t need to build elaborate worlds. What we read between the lines and in the course of the walk itself is horrific enough on its own.
The Long Walk
Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)
Published July 1979