not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
Okay, so, first things first: of the four novels in this collection, one is basically a dramatization of a school shooting, and one ends with the protagonist crashing an airplane into a skyscraper. Stephen King wrote these novels between 1966 and 1982, and it took 3 years of human history to render half the collection permanently politically incorrect.
That’s not to say these stories should be ignored. The Bachman novels tend to be meaner than his other stuff, or, in his words from the introduction, from a time when “I was still callow enough to believe in oversimple motivations (many of them painfully Freudian) and unhappy endings.” But there are other similarities shared by the books, including a protagonist caught in a system he believes is rigged against him, and responding with a suicidal singlemindedness that perversely gives him the means to transcend it. Against these outcast protagonists, King places the golden boys of society, the kids who manage to fit in and believe all the right things and who hate the protagonist with the hatred of the righteous, even if they don’t realize it until the outcast starts acting out.
So, let’s go through the novels, quickly. Rage begins with a disturbed high school student pulling a fire alarm, walking into a classroom, shooting a teacher in the head, and holding the class hostage. It’s almost needless to say that this is the only King book to have gone out of print. Moreover, King wrote this when he was a senior in high school, which makes you wonder what’s going to happen to the Stephen Kings of this generation, who will probably be clueless enough to publish their school-shooting fiction online, and are likely to run into some trouble as a result. But despite King’s disavowal of the book, it maintains a vital energy, and you can see why he couldn’t bring himself to kill it. The most potent idea the book has is how the preemptive nostalgia of senior year–the consciousness that your life will never be the same after this, that things are going to change, that you can reminisce without consequence about the last 18 years of your life–is essentially a type of Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a sneakily brilliant idea to which the surrounding novel doesn’t quite live up.
Roadwork, which was written around the same time as ‘Salem’s Lot and appears to be King’s attempt to ditch being typecast as a horror writer, isn’t nearly as effective, for all its literary pretensions. As with all these books, the protagonist is an angry white man railing against some soulless social change, but this one is oddly compromised, partly because it’s King trying to do Updike, mostly because he doesn’t give in to his bloodiest impulses as he does elsewhere.
No such internal censor is on display for The Running Man, which is mostly known for an Arnold Schwarzenegger adaptation that is shockingly loose even by King standards. This almost reads as Grand Theft Auto: The Novel, and it’s got the same perverse energy as Rage, and moves faster than anything in the collection.
The best novel in this collection by far, though, is The Long Walk, which manages to take the premise behind The Hunger Games trilogy and boil it down to 250 absolutely brutal pages. King’s introduction laments the psychobabble a college-age version of himself ladled over the characters and situation, but it’s not very noticeable when you’re reading, mostly because the central conceit is so stomach-dropping that you don’t mind when the narrative takes a reprieve. This might be one of the five best novels King ever wrote.
So yeah, if I had to advise you on this collection, I’d say that Roadwork is worth skipping, but the other three books are all excellent reads. And the two Bachman books not included in this collection, Thinner and Misery (which was originally intended to be a Bachman book before King’s cover was blown) are also excellent reads.