There are some books that contain ideas or images which make an impression on you that is wholly disproportionate to the novel itself. In other words you principally remember not the novel but a scene or an image from it, long after the name or the author has been forgotten. One example from my early twenties was a novella describing a walking competition, entered by children only, where if the contestants slowed below four miles per hour on more than three occasions they are shot dead where they stand. It was a brilliantly realised conceit, shown through the eyes of one of the walkers, and the final scene of the winner driven mad from exhaustion remained vividly with me for years. The background and context – how this barbaric race came into being – is only ever hinted at and is kept deliberately vague. Despite this contextual vagueness the details of the race itself are carefully catalogued.
I had always assumed this story was a science fiction novel that had just made a particular impression on me, for reasons I didn’t investigate. It was a surprise therefore when I came across a collection of Stephen King novels, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which included this very story, under the title “The Long Walk.” Re-reading the text I remained impressed with its power and impact.
I have mentioned previously that I enjoy spotting links between novels, and the recent success of the Hunger Games trilogy, the first of which has just been released as a film, prompts me to point out the links between these two works. (I wish I could claim this as an original insight, but sadly once again Google proves me wrong). The “bread and circuses” concept, where the masses are kept simultaneously subjugated and entertained by bloodthirsty gladatorial spectacles, is well established, but these stories share much more: a post apocalyptic setting with fascist rulers combining children and sudden death as a sport. The winners in each story – and there can only be one – are rewarded with whatever they wish for. Once again, as with the Harry Potter/Jane Eyre comparison, I am not suggesting any borrowing went on, and I don’t have a problem even if there was, just that I enjoy spotting links like this. But if I had to chose, and that genuinely is a silly game because I don’t, I would say the Long Walk is the more impressive, chilling of the two, not least because there is no hint of romance in the novel, and no hint of a happy ending.