Because the world is always a mess, we’ve decided to look back at some of our favorite dystopic works and examine why they remain so potent no matter how many years have passed between their creation and now.
Post-apocalyptic works never seem to go out of style, probably because the question of what happens after the world ends is on the mind of every generation. But as fascinating as the genre can be, I’ve always been drawn more to the less fashionable dystopic works, fiction that forgos backgrounds of absolute destruction in favor of society’s gradual decline to a nightmare status quo, particularly when that nightmare status quo is just close enough to reality to seem plausible and all the more terrifying for it. Stephen King has mostly stuck to post or near apocalyptic settings in his work (specifically in landmark works like The Stand and The Dark Tower series) but early in his career, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, he seemed to also be obsessed with dystopias, specifically dystopias where spectactor mob mentalities had allowed for or maintained a nightmare status quo.
King’s best known work of this era is of course The Running Man, a nasty, vicious novel that bears only a surface similarity to its film counterpart. Where the film is a winking satire that perhaps better predicted the tone and fervor of reality tv than its source material, the novel is a gruesome grind told from the perspective of a near-superhuman sociopath. That misanthropic angle of the work may make it one of the more unsettling dystopic works, but in 2016, as America’s long, meandering obsession with fascism is closer to reaching a fever pitch than ever before, the Bachman work that feels most relevant is The Long Walk.
Just as mobile as The Running Man but slowed way the fuck down, The Long Walk is one of King’s most unique and disciplined works. Built around a simple concept where young men compete in a marathon where the literal last man standing is the winner of a vaguely defined wish-fulfillment prize, The Long Walk is uncharacteristically lean and focused for a King work. In a piece for The Dissolve arguing that The Long Walk is overdue for an adaptation, Tasha Robinson stated “Of all King’s novels, The Long Walk is the most elegant in its simplicity,” and that’s true in more than just the sense of its stripped down concept and lack of King’s trademark detours. The characters in The Long Walk only reveal their depths as they’re mentally and physically worn down, with no forced exposition or flashbacks fleshing out their identities. The Long Walk is lean and simplistic yet exhaustively deep and disturbing, provoking tension through both the deadly competition and the way the narrative turns against the idea of the spectator on the whole.
Part of that comes down to the perspective of The Long Walk’s protagonist Ray Garraty, who enters into the competition for no real reason. This isn’t a unique situation– most of Garraty’s competitors are in the marathon for similarly ambiguous reasons– and King masterfully walks a fine line between writing interchangeable characters and depicting the existential dread that comes from youth realizing they’re not unique or immortal and that the dreams and desires that keep them going are flimsy at best. As Garraty and his core group of fellow runners realize the futility of the competition and life itself, they turn on society and the crowds that watch them in equally futile ways, whether it’s shouting obscenities at the crowd only to get cheers in return or attempts to directly implicate the crowds in their deaths. The Long Walk is agonizingly paced, unfolding more or less in “real time” as a way of subtly detailing how we as a culture plod along without awareness of where we’re actually heading until it’s too late. For The Long Walkers, “too late” is the realization that the competition is serious and there is no escape from it, for Americans in 2016 it’s the realization that a reality show trainwreck may become our leader. In both cases, what went from a lark for some is now a very real threat.
The scant background details King gives about the society that generated the Long Walk hint at similar developments. There are little historical facts sprinkled throughout that indicate the World War 2 of The Long Walk’s reality went on for much longer than ours, and with far more devastation. There are suggestions that the Axis beat the Allies to nuclear weaponry, and America in The Long Walk now seems to operate as a military republic, with authoritarian governors and shock troops keeping the peace with The Long Walk itself emerging as the “national pasttime” of a nation that no longer has the patience for bloodless activities like baseball. And just as Garraty symbolizes the citizen whose eyes only open when they’re on the verge of being eradicated, the ominous Major who oversees the Long Walk symbolizes the idea of authority as a superhuman and unconquerable thing.
The elegant simplicity Robinson mentions also describes the narrative stakes of the work. There’s a reason why there are plenty of blockbusters set in or featuring near, total or post apocalypses but so few in dystopias. A dystopia is ennui writ large, a feeling that things went wrong without you noticing and there’s nothing you can do about it. The Hollywood adaptation of The Running Man completely rewrote its source material, creating easily recognizable villains and a central antagonist who symbolized the more ambiguous and all-encompassing state that the novel rails against. There were enough ingredients in The Running Man novel to allow for this, but The Long Walk refuses to provide any easy villains. Even The Major, as big a baddie as you can get in the world of The Long Walk, is as likely a villain as a rain cloud; he’s simply an omnipresent background force of nature, so far removed the fears and concerns of the Long Walkers that their attempts to disrespect and taunt him are met with complete disinterest.
Garraty’s competitors are even less likely candidates for villainy. Some of them snap, and lash out, and sabotage each other, but Garraty’s chief view of them revolves around a kind of sympathy where he’s either pitying their decay or taking note of it as a future concern for himself. King’s decision to treat the other runners as fellow victims is bold even if it prohibits traditional narrative stakes. The message is simple: in society, forces are constantly working against us, and our belief that we’re competing against one another keeps us distracted from the entities and establishments keeping us in place.
That leaves the crowd (and by extent the reader) as the only real villain. Like the equally cynical anti-documentary film Man Bites Dog, The Long Walk refuses to let the spectator hold on to a sense of innocence. The crowds in The Long Walk present themselves as fans encouraging the Long Walkers on their journey but in truth they’re bloodthirsty and faceless, not just there to hopefully witness a Walker getting their “ticket” (a fatal shot from the escorting soldiers after a Walker has received three warnings for anything from walking slower than 4 mph to interfering with another Walker to wandering off the official course) but actively praying for that result. The crowds want a piece of the action in a very literal sense, grabbing dropped Walker items as memorabilia, luring the young men towards them in order to slow them down, drooling en masse whenever someone receives their third warning. That desire we’ve all felt to see someone fall and hurt themselves, or to see someone humiliated in front of others, or to watch a formerly respected celebrity fall from grace, is writ large here.
And that’s a big part of why The Long Walk feels as relevant now, nearly forty years after its initial publication. Post-apocalyptic works always feel like fantasies, impossible situations that we can marvel at while being comforted by their lack of realism. We trust that we’d never really bring ourselves to nuclear annihilation but even if we did, we’d somehow survive, even if it’s in smaller, more primitive numbers. But dystopias like The Long Walk offer no comforts. Works like these tell us that we’re always a step away from being in the same situation if we’re not already heading down that path. They detail the ways we keep each other down and allow tyrants and monsters to take over because we need comforts, like safety from our enemies, and strict laws to keep the worst of us in line, and entertainment to be distracted by. They indicate that we secretly always crave ways to watch our peers suffer so that we can forget our own suffering. They show that the things that allow us to slip into nightmare status quos never really change, and neither do the distractions that keep us from noticing.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover