I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was twelve years old, but I still have quite a bit of his oeuvre left on my TBR, which includes works by Richard Bachman, an early pseudonym used by King. At the very end of October, I picked The Bachman Books, a collection of four short novels written by Richard Bachman / Stephen King. It took me almost three weeks (more than half of November) to get through this 700 page collection, but it’s finally behind me and I’m ready to reflect on each of the four stories: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man.
Instead of my usual review format to talk about the book as a whole, I’m going to share a bit about each of the four stories before going into general thoughts on the collection.
Rage: This is the story that initially interested me most. It’s an out-of-print story about a school shooting that’s caused a lot of real trouble. This is a bad reason to be interested in a book, but I also just wanted to pick it up because I’m afraid it will become increasingly difficult to find and I didn’t want to end up reading all of King’s works except this one.
There is surprisingly little killing here for a story that revolves entirely around a teen gunman. Instead, Rage is filled with the conversations between students and teachers that the gunman is able to facilitate. I was somewhat put off by the weird and unnecessary sexual turn that basically every one of these conversations took, but it was an interesting look at power dynamics in the school system and I found every character fascinating. Even so, I don’t understand how this book caused so many problems- overall, I found it a pretty mediocre read.
“When you’re five and you hurt, you make a big noise unto the world. At ten you whimper. But by the time you make fifteen you begin to eat the poisoned apples that grow on your inner tree of pain. It’s the Western Way of Enlightenment. You begin to cram your fists into your mouth to stifle the screams. You bleed on the inside.”
The Long Walk: This was my favorite story from the bunch. It seemed like a true Stephen King horror tale, one of the “Where did anyone ever come up with an idea like this?” sort that I particularly enjoy. I’m left with a few unanswered questions about the society that supported and made sport of this fatal long walk (100 boys volunteer/are chosen to walk until they can walk no farther- at which point they are shot. The last boy standing wins). The ending was not surprising or impressive, but 99% of this story completely captivated me. You walk or you die– what a choice. I wonder if Suzanne Collins read this story before writing The Hunger Games, it seemed like The Long Walk could’ve been an inspiration for that sort of thing.
“They got that way, Garraty had noticed. Complete withdrawal from everything and everyone around them. Everything but the road. They stared at the road with a kind of horrid fascination, as if it were a tightrope they had to walk over an endless, bottomless chasm.”
Roadwork: The bane of the collection, in my opinion. I struggled so much with finishing this one, especially in the first of the three parts that it’s divided into. The main character was clearly on a downward spiral, but the narration took SO. LONG. to get past the premise introduction and into the real conflict. I think part of the reason I couldn’t get into this story is that it opens with a character who deals with things he doesn’t like by lying, putting them off, and just generally fooling himself into thinking that if he delays long enough the problem might go away. That’s the way I deal with things I don’t like, at least at first, and I had something I was putting off when I started reading so it was giving me real anxiety to see this character’s problems blow up in his face as he tried to ignore them. And even when I’d gotten past that part, I just didn’t like him. His trajectory was unsurprising and largely uneventful until the final stand- personally, I would’ve enjoyed this a whole lot more if the narration showed only that final scene and worked a minimal amount of backstory into the action of it. I’m still not entirely sure why I spent 2 weeks trying to read 200 pages that did not remotely interest me.
“But it didn’t matter. It had gone too far. He had let the machine run without him too long. He was hypnotized by the coming explosion, almost lusted for it.”
The Running Man: The third of four stories that have a surprising amount of focus on roads… This one was more engaging, thankfully. It features a “contestant” on a “game show”; the main character needs money to take care of his family, which in this case means signing up for a televised event in which he spends thirty days (if he can survive that long) running for his life. He can go anywhere, do anything, but the entire nation is watching the show and helping hunt for him, as are professional “Hunters”. This was another favorite of the collection for me. There’s a lot of psychology, a lot of high-stakes action, and it’s set in a futuristic world that’s clearly a future imagined from the 1970’s/80s, which I found amusing.
” ‘I’m sorry you can’t help kill me. Should I leave a note saying I was here?’ ‘Jesus, couldja? That’d be-‘… ‘Let me out here,’ Richards said abruptly… ‘Couldja gimme that note-‘ ‘Get stuffed, maggot.’ … ‘I hope they getya early, you cheap fuck!‘ “
There’s also an introduction to the book by Stephen King, titled “The Importance of Being Bachman,” which was not entirely gripping and seemed defensive, but there is some interesting info included. Some highlights: King talks about being interviewed by the FBI when Rage was linked to real school shootings, how writing with a pseudonym allowed him to publish a book he wouldn’t have been able to under his own name (The Regulators, which was similar in plot to a novel he’d already written) and how writing under two names inspired the plot for another of his novels (The Dark Half).
What I do think about these Bachman books as a whole is that they seem a bit juvenile compared to works published under his real name. Carrie was King’s first published novel though, and even though that came before any Bachman books hit shelves it didn’t feel that way to me. These stories, however, feel like the thought experiments of a writer just finding his feet, taking crazy ideas as far as he can just to see what happens when you’re the God of your own fictional worlds and can make the characters dance any way you like. They’re not fantasies, but they feel like tests. Try outs. I feel like I’ve seen a piece of King that I never had before, though I’ve read fifteen others of his works, including his memoir. This is different. Dedicated Stephen King fans might be interested to compare and contrast these books with other early King works, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll be recommending The Bachman Books as any sort of Stephen King staple or even as an introduction to his works, despite their early place in King’s publishing chronology.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars (overall- I am not giving separate ratings for each of the four novels though I’ll say I liked them in this order: The Long Walk, The Running Man, Rage, Roadwork). I’m glad I read this, even if it did wreck my motivation for a couple of weeks. I’ve been curious about this collection for years, so I’m proud of myself for following through and finishing these 700 pages even when I wasn’t loving the stories. But I do think I need a little break from Stephen King- or at least from Richard Bachman.
Have you read anything by Richard Bachman? What did you think?
Sincerely, The Literary Elephant