Only Death Can Keep You From the Finish Line by Bev Vincent
In an endnote in the chapter about The Stand in The Art of Darkness, Douglas E. Winter mentions a dystopian novel called The Long Walk “which owes much to Stephen King.” Was this an inside joke between King and Winter, who had interviewed King extensively for the book, or an astute observation on Winter’s part? Winter does talk about The Long Walk briefly in The Art of Darkness as one of King’s early novels, but without identifying the book by name.
King wrote The Long Walk in the fall of 1966 and the spring of 1967 when he was a freshman at the University of Maine. The story was inspired by a series of 50-mile hikes throughout the country that were sponsored by radio and TV stations. King didn’t have a car at the time and the idea for the story occurred to him while he was hitchhiking back home one night. “I was hitchhiking everywhere,” he says on his website. “I didn’t finish my 50-mile hike, though. I fell out after 20 miles.”
He was living in Gannett Hall at the University of Maine at the time. He would tell himself a little more of the story each night before going to sleep. Composed, he says, in “a Bachman state of mind: low rage and simmering despair,” it was the best of the two books written before Carrie that he considered pretty good, despite the fact that it was “full of windy psychological preachments.” The novel’s open, ambiguous ending is often the source of debate among fans. Its structure was influenced in part by Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. One of the novel’s more conspicuous influences is the Shirley Jackson story, “The Lottery.”
He didn’t care much about the “vague totalitarian dystopia” in the book. “What I cared about was the life-and-death nature of the contest…What I cared about were the characters, especially the conundrum of my protagonist, Ray Garraty. I kept writing in order to find out why he was doing something that meant almost certain death. Finally, I did.” 
At the suggestion of his college professor, Burt Hatlan (one of three University of Maine professors to whom the book is dedicated), King showed the manuscript to another member of the English department, Carroll F. Terrell. Terrell recognized King’s promise, but struggled with how to convey his feelings about the novel. He thought The Long Walk was a first novel, but upon further reflection, he realized it was too expertly executed for that. It was exceptional on many levels, but there wasn’t any chance anyone would publish it, he believed. He didn’t want to discourage King from writing something else, perhaps something more topical and relevant to the era, and he ended up providing chapter-by-chapter feedback on King’s next book, Sword in the Darkness.
King submitted The Long Walk to a first-novel competition sponsored by Random House, but it was rejected with a form “Dear Contributor” letter. The lack of any personalized feedback hurt and depressed him. Convinced that it was terrible, he trunked the manuscript without submitting it anywhere else. He did receive some encouraging news at about the same time, though: he made his first professional short story sale for “The Glass Floor.”
After Bill Thompson delivered the news that Doubleday was going to pass on Rage, King sent him The Long Walk, which went through much the same process of editorial feedback, revisions and ultimately a thumbs-down from the editors. Several years later, Elaine Koster, his editor at New American Library, asked for a follow-up to Rage and he dug The Long Walk out of the trunk.
The Long Walk was released in July, 1979 as a paperback original, with a $1.95 cover price. A number of faculty members at the University of Maine knew the truth behind the Richard Bachman pen name, but they kept King’s secret. Though it didn’t make many ripples in the publishing world, the book reportedly remained in print for six years and developed a cult following. When the Bachman pseudonym was revealed years later, a bookstore chain bought up all of the remaining copies, essentially putting it out of print.
A month after its release, Viking would publish their first Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone, to far greater acclaim.
 “Five to One, One in Five”, Hearts in Suspension, University of Maine Press, 2016.
great insight, it was thanks to Ramsey Campbell that I got PB originals of the Bachman work, thanks BV
Just finished rereading this (having first read it in the 80s). What a great book! Yes its juvenile but then – in these days of “YA” fiction – how current does that make it now?
King was playing to his strengths with this one – writing what he knew. He was a teen himself. Contrast this with the horribly clunky way he writes teens now (I’m thinking Abra in Dr Sleep and the teen geek genius in Mr Mercedes).
I’d forgotten about this book. My gratitude to the rereading project!
Just recently reread this. Great gut punch of a story that seems more timely than ever.
Hope Darabont gets around to filming it someday.
Great news on this one. Wonderful info.
Great job, Bev!
This story always gave me the chills…still does.
I found this story to be one of the most disturbing of the many written by the master, Mr. King. That the country would devolve into a place where the participants would definitely die, and these deaths were cheered by the crowds watching…. well, such a comment on the barely civilized nature of humans. And he thought of this ‘battle to the death’ for the voyeuristic needs of the “fans” long before the Hunger Games. Seems like early in the story, it was explained that the country was disappointed by the lack of war in the world, and this Long Walk was almost a patriotic exhibition for the young men to show their dedication and willingness to be sacrificed. Took me a while to work through this story…
Haven’t read this in a LONG time, but I remember absolutely loving this book and it is pretty timely in this day and age. GREAT premise. Hunger Games anyone????
I actually think this is an amazingly powerful novel. I rank it as top-tier King.