Stephen King: The Bachman Books

by Rachel Baker on January 11, 2011

Last week, I bought The Bachman Books and spent a few days reading The Long Walk and Roadwork. I put off reading The Running Man, but I will get to that in a minute.

The Long Walk was one of the most seriously disturbing stories I’ve read in a long time. Based on the title, its pretty easy to surmise the story is about a long walk. What you don’t know is ‘the long walk’ is a game that is accepted by society. Boys under the age of 18 sign up for a long walk in which the winner can win anything he wants for the rest of their life. They walk from Maine to Massachusetts maintaining 4 miles per hour – or they are shot, right there on the road. When they sign up, they know being shot will be the outcome for all but one of them.

The Longwalk is a masterfully written, simple tale that contemplates the depth (good and bad) of the human condition. Unlike Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, where everyone participates because the lottery has a tradition-like appeal, the Long Walk is a look at what happens to the mind when something seems appealing in the beginning (being set up for life) and the actual outcome isn’t really taken into consideration until that something has already begun and one can’t back out, and the consequences start to become reality.

Roadwork was just as fascinating but in a different way. In Roadwork, we watch one character go crazy in what seems like a short amount of time (a few months); though as the story goes on, it appears as if a very personal loss three years earlier was probably when his mental health began deteriorating. Roadwork is very interesting in that even though the main character is a kook, the reader has little choice but to be sympathetic to the character’s feelings towards the loss of his house and property so a highway exchange can be added. It seemed like King was asking his reader to contemplate the questions – “What would you do to hold on to everything that was dear to you?” and “When there were no options left, what would you do?”

Now, let’s talk about The Running Man. I didn’t read this one immediately. I read both The Long Walk and Roadwork in a span of three and a half days. I waited almost a week before reading The Running Man. I actually didn’t want to read it. I’d seen the movie several times … and well, it sucked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest time in reading the book. and then yesterday, I astounded myself with the thought “Wait! What? You can count on three fingers the number of movies based on Stephen King books that are good? Since when is this a reason not to read a King story?” I listened to my own personal critic, got a fresh cup of coffee, plopped down on the couch and began reading. Several hours later, I was really glad I did. This was a phenomenal story and well, it was nothing like the movie … AT ALL. And frankly, it was, like the other stories in this collection, completely different than I expected.

Like The Long Walk, it is based on the premise of a game show. Also, like The Long Walk, the winner takes all, but its more likely that the contestant will die before he can be a winner. The Running Man isn’t really about the game as much as a social commentary. Society has gone to hell – those ‘of means’ love the Games, and those ‘without means’ are the contestants in the games. The risk is big, but because of the fissures in society the only way for someone without means to get by is with the hope to win the games; or one can work in factories that sterilize any thought of having children. Later on, we find out the government is lying about the amount of pollution in the air – thus killing those that don’t the money for nose-filters (those without means). We also find out The Running Man game is rigged for the worst possible outcome for the contestant and the best possible ratings for the Network.

This story is timeless, I think. One of the big successes of this book is when Ben Richards (the contestant and main character) has to get a rich woman to help him. She’s the evolving character in this story. She goes from thinking of him as nothing more than a ‘maggot’ and a murderer, to someone she should help … someone she should help even though it goes against all that she believes in. She personifies the idea that maybe everything we hear on tv should not be taken as fact, but questioned as to its basis in reality.

Throughout the whole story, once the game began, I was on the edge of my seat, rooting for Richards to win. In his world, there was no money for medicine that would cure his very young daughter of pneumonia. In his world, his wife turned tricks for the grocery money, but that was what happened for all those without means. Winning the games would have cured his daughter and kept him wife from having to turn tricks. Richards entered into the Games for a noble reason. Richards wins The Running Man game – he’s smarter than most contestants and employs intelligence and wit. And then there’s a horrific twist that leaves the reader completely disappointed, but with the understanding of how and why. The twist left this reader wondering if we are as noble as we’d like to believe when push comes to shove; what the definition of a noble act is and when does acting on it go too far; and at what point does nothing else matter.

I’m not going to tell you the twist. I want you to read this one.

The Bachman Books is a great collection of Stephen King books written as Richard Bachman. King published these under this nome de plume mostly because he wanted to see if he could, and to see if they’d sell. The Long Walk is very early King; Roadwork was prior to The Shining; and The Running Man was published in the early 80s. The books written by Richard Bachman were never really marketed, at King’s request, and they didn’t sell well. They are very different than most King novels yet, in my humble opinion, they are just as good. While King novels more often than not contemplate the human condition in the abstract, the books in this collection put the human condition right out there in all its naked glory.

There’s one other book that originally came with this collection. Rage was not in this edition. Rage was pulled after the Columbine shootings, and King had all the copies pulled.

I highly recommend these books to those that love King, and those that have never read King. Stephen King, I think has been classified as horror, when he shouldn’t have. His books are about way more than just the scary clown, the dominating murderous vampire, and the enraged dog. His books are always about the human condition and how average people survive some pretty horrific things. Obviously, I’m not talking to King fans here – we know this. I’m talking to people who think they wouldn’t like King because he’s scary and think that because the movies left a lot to be desired, the books probably do to.

If you haven’t read any of his books, its time. Read some of what he’s got out there – not everything is an epic novel, and not everything will keep you up at night when the shadows begin to move on the wall. If you truly absorb what you are reading though, you may be kept up at night with the understanding that maybe, just maybe, you’d have made the same choices.

(Linked is the Kindle Edition – without Rage)

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