The Long Walk of Life
BEFORE THE WALK
I was having brunch with a friend of mine on a recent Sunday, a horror film actress in fact, who asked: Do you really think there’s anything spiritual about Stephen King’s books?
The question was served cold with a heaping side of skepticism, and it took me slightly off guard. It’s not the first time I have been asked the question since starting this column three short months ago, and I’m always somewhat alarmed by it.
When asked, the first thing that springs to my mind is self-doubt: What if I’m wrong? What if there really is nothing spiritual about Stephen King’s stories and I’m just grasping at straws here? What if I’ve doomed myself to write a monthly column about… nothing? The writer’s worst nightmare.
Okay I’ll admit, I’m the kind of person who can find spiritual wisdom and life lessons in the pages of Penthouse just as easily as a church pew. So what makes Stephen King different? What makes his stories rich with the stuff Sunday schools are made of?
For me, the answer is: Talent. Stephen King is a supremely talented writer. More than writing about horror, he writes about people – and he writes about people in a way that is so brutally honest, we see ourselves in his characters. This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between reading a Stephen King story, and watching a film based on it. A 90-minute movie can’t touch the characterization King provides us with in hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pages. In King’s novels, his characters live, breathe and have souls of their own – not merely the soul of the actor or actress adapting it. By the very nature of the medium, the characters have the potential to be less black and white, more multi-dimensional, more human, more like us.
It is because of King’s immense talent for portraying humanity (particularly that of modern day American culture) that it is so easy to not only relate to his characters, but to learn from them. It is in the reflection of their choices that we often find ourselves stopping to reflect on our own.
So to answer the horror film actress’s question: Yes. Yes, I do believe there’s wisdom and life lessons to be found in the works of Stephen King. And so, let us get on with it.
This month’s doo-dad goes out to K. Edwin Fritz, who was the first to comment on our introductory column, saying he “couldn’t wait” for a write-up on The Long Walk. See what happens when you leave a comment?
The request lines are now open.
Earlier this year, I attended a Fleetwood Mac concert.
News flash: They aren’t young anymore.
Bigger news flash: You’d never know it.
For performers in their late 60s, you might expect them to “phone in” their shows, warbling out a handful of tunes from their Greatest Hits album for an hour and a half before retiring backstage so they can all still get to bed by 10. This, however, is not the case.
Fleetwood Mac performs 25 songs in a show that is nearly three hours in length, its fearless leader Lindsey Buckingham gyrating his way up and down the stage with more energy than he had in his 20s, Stevie Nicks twirling and belting, Christine McVie doing her Christine McVie thing, and Mick Fleetwood exuding the same wide-eyed mania he embodied the day he stepped onto the scene.
About halfway through their show, my legs started to hurt from standing so long.
I jumped and danced more, which made the dull throbbing sensation dissipate but only temporarily. By the end of the three hour tour through their vast catalog of classics, sitting down for an encore felt a lot like eating after a fast.
I found myself wondering: How do they do it? They’re not just standing, they’re performing! How have their legs not given out on them?
It was then that my mind wandered to Ray Garraty. After all, if this is what my legs felt like from standing for three hours, what must Ray have felt during the walk?
The Long Walk is the second of Stephen King’s novels to be written under the guise of Richard Bachman, first published as a paperback original in the summer of ’79. While The Long Walk might not be the most popular of Stephen King’s work, it is astonishing to think that he wrote it at 19 years old. It’s extremely mature in its scope and allegory. The Long Walk depicts an annual contest operated by the government, wherein dozens of teenage boys chosen from a lottery compete against each other while the world watches on as a spectator sport. (Think Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies.)
The goal is to not stop walking.
You cannot stop to eat. You cannot stop to sleep. You cannot stop to tie your shoe. You cannot stop to relieve yourself of bodily functions. All of these things must be done while keeping the pace.
The punishment for stopping? Being shot on sight.
It’s a walk to the death, the last man left standing winning the ultimate prize: Whatever you want for the rest of your life.
Because the action is somewhat limited (they walked, then they walked some more), King’s gift for characterization gets to shine bright here. King focuses on the characters: Who they were before the walk, how they plan to win, what they plan to do with the prize, the friendships they form on the walk, the enemies they make, and the heartaches they suffer watching their rivals slowly descend one by one into mental insanity, physical deterioration, heatstroke-induced madness… or succumb to the choice of giving up. In fact, my favorite line is when Ray’s newfound friend, Peter McVries tells him:
“I’m not tired. Not really tired – yet. But I will be. And I think… when I get tired enough… I think I’ll just sit down.”
It’s a bleak story, and I’m not surprised no one would publish it until King became King. It’s far too dark for an author’s debut, and maybe too ambitious in its message. But that isn’t to say it’s not beautifully written, or any less hypnotizing than any other King story.
I fell in love with Ray, and his relationship with Peter, which becomes all but romantic due to their circumstances. The care and understanding they have for each other, the life-altering decisions they make to put the other’s safety ahead of their own, is the breath of air that makes the story’s strangulation palatable. And the ending, ambiguous though it might be, I also adored — reading it over and over.
Many have suggested The Long Walk is a metaphor for war, more specifically Vietnam, which was the ongoing conflict during the novel’s gestation – a fight to the death where whoever makes it out alive might be so irreparably damaged, he wishes he weren’t alive at all. A fight that, perhaps, no prize is worth.
But it seems to me that The Long Walk could also be a metaphor for life.
We know very little about Ray before the walk begins – just enough to know that everything has led up to this. Ray’s life, as we know it, is the walk itself.
On the walk, Ray is faced with all of life’s most monumental challenges and blessings, the first of which is marked as the moment he leaves his mother’s car and the comfort of the home he once knew to begin his trek and face his destiny. He’s flown the proverbial nest here, his wings still strong and clean. Along the way, he experiences a little fame, and with that suffers at the inevitable hand of embarrassment. He is faced with adversaries who promise to defeat him, and finds comfort in the friendship of like-minded souls. He makes plenty of mistakes, and tries to learn from them. He has to learn quickly, if he wants to keep moving. He evolves over time, growing to not only accept his enemies, but to feel empathy and compassion towards them when they are down. He experiences great love and great loss, which leads him to those great moments of bewildered wondering: What is it all for? He endures physical and emotional agony. He learns to laugh despite the pain. He looks forward, not behind, toward the hope of another sunrise.
At its purest core, The Long Walk reminds us that life is a journey, not a destination.
One can’t help but feel a little inspired by The Long Walk.
If Stevie can keep twirling after all the drugs, if Christine can still play “Songbird” with a broken thumb, if Lindsey can keep dancing like he’s in his 20s, and if Ray can keep walking just a little while longer… then by God, we too must walk on.
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly,Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.