While writers like Suzanne Collins and Margaret Atwood define their dystopian worlds by the lack of choice the characters have, Stephen King’s The Long Walk operates on an opt-in basis. In King’s vision of the future his protagonist Raymond Garraty, along with 99 other teenage boys, are chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in the annual long walk, a competition which ends with only one winner: the sole survivor.
The boys are followed by a group of armed guards who give the participants a warning if they walk slower than the stipulated four miles an hour for more than thirty seconds. Three strikes and you are out. In King’s world teens are murdered where they stand in a competition they volunteered for.
The walk is overseen by The Major, and the event is televised in major cities. Swarms of onlookers cheer as the teens become increasingly exhausted and suffer mental fatigue as they see their peers picked off one by one, fearful that it is them next. A day into the walk, Garraty is shocked and pleased to see:
a huge sign, letters with pine boughs across the front read:
GARRATY’S OUR MAN!!!
Aroostook County Parents’ Association
The reader wonders why thousands of teenage boys subject themselves to the walk, knowing that their chances of winning are infinitesimal. Unlike dystopian novels which present a moral message on the perils of treating women as a commodity (The Handmaid’s Tale), separating society into sectors (Brave New World), and banning the distribution of information (Fahrenheit 451), King does not create the walk for any other purpose than entertainment.
‘Walk or die, that’s the moral of this story.’
King’s story feeds on greed and the demand for engaging television. The boys apply for the walk because the prize is anything they desire, a stake just high enough to risk their life for. The community cheers the walkers on and watches them on television because they have been desensitised to gratuitous violence, and the American desire for more more more leads them to applaud the 100 boys for walking to their death. This twisted desire for entertainment means that Garraty is hailed as an all-American hero, ‘Maine’s own,’ willing to undertake the grueling task of dying for the sake of the public’s enjoyment.
The characters, as young as they are (Garraty is only sixteen), seem to be aware of their dire situation, which makes the premise all the more shocking. One walker asks, ‘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?’ As the story goes on, King adds the arrogance of 100 teenagers to the list of why the walk was possible in the first place. The reader wonders whether anyone would have signed up to a girls only long walk.
Despite all of this, I am willing to suspend disbelief for a dystopian novel, and especially a dystopian novel as good as King’s. He fleshes out the characters and creates relationships with such realism that the reader is shocked when, having taken three warnings, Olson is murdered by the guards. The reader feels the joy of the walkers when an onlooker manages to give them watermelon without the guards intercepting it.
Like most of King’s novels, the ending is harrowing. Having outlasted his peers and won the walk, Garraty imagines that:
The dark figure beckoned, beckoned in the rain, beckoned for him to come and walk, to come and play the game. And it was time to play the game. There was still so far to walk.
The need for more continues as the delirious Garraty wanders off into the distance, unaware that he has won his prize because he cannot see past the need to go on, to strive for more in a consumerist world where even death has become a commodity that can be sold to the attentive viewer.