Revisiting The Running Man by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I first read The Running Man in the fall of 1985, when the Plume omnibus edition of The Bachman Books was published. I was nineteen years old and laid up with torn ligaments in my ankle, an unfortunate lacrosse injury. I read a lot of books that autumn.
I remember The Running Man because I tore through it in a single day sitting outside in my parents’ screened-in back porch, a November breeze sighing in the trees that bordered our yard, falling leaves dancing just out of my reach.
Feeling sorry for myself was something I rarely did, but I remember my mindset that day, and if I wasn’t slipping into a dark hole of self-pity, I was pretty damn close. I was just coming off my sophomore year in college, a year that saw me earn All American status as a lacrosse midfielder and a scholarship to a Top 20 Division One university.
I had worked hard my first two college seasons to overcome a nagging knee injury, and now my ankle was a mess and I was hobbling around on crutches. It felt like I couldn’t catch a break.
Of course, I knew better, and it didn’t take long for common sense to make an appearance and kick me in the ass. A lot of things contributed to the quick rebound: my own stubborn nature, the support and encouragement of family and friends and teammates, and books like The Running Man.
As a lifelong fan of “man hunting man” stories such as “The Most Dangerous Game,” I knew that The Running Man was my kind of book just by glancing at the overly brief jacket copy:
Welcome to America in 2025 when the best men don’t run for President. They run for their lives…
Cheesy as hell, but that’s all I needed.
Sitting back in my favorite patio chair, bum ankle propped up on a picnic table bench, I flipped to the opening page of The Running Man—and entered another world. A dark and dangerous world set decades in the future.
The story wastes little time. In a short opening chapter, we meet Ben Richards and his wife, Sheila, and their sick baby, Cathy. We learn about Co-Op City and Development apartments and the Free-Vee. We learn about the game shows; not The Running Man, not yet, although it’s hinted at, but shows like Treadmill to Bucks. We also learn that the Richards’ – and so many others – exist in complete desperation and hopelessness, and that Ben Richards is determined to do something about it.
By the end of that first chapter, Richards is already out the door and on his way—and so are we as readers.
It’s been thirty years – my God, that felt strange to write – but I still remember my two immediate reactions to the start of The Running Man:
Firstly, I loved that the book was broken down into 101 short chapters – long before James Patterson started utilizing this device – and that they were laid out in a countdown format. Talk about a built-in “ticking clock”!
Secondly, the prose was very different from other Stephen King books I had read and even The Long Walk, the only other Bachman book I’d read at the time. The writing was sparse and straight forward. There were very few stylistic flourishes or lengthy descriptive passages or long asides into character backstory.
In fact, The Running Man was all story. All forward momentum. Reading it was like riding on the back of a blazing bullet. Once it left the chamber, there was no stopping it and all you could do was hang on for dear life. (All of which made perfect sense when I discovered a short time later that King had written the novel in a single week!)
I have one other very clear memory of that initial reading, and it involves the deaths of Richards’ wife and daughter. I was blindsided by the development – especially the casual reveal by Dan Killian – and I was pissed. I recall thinking: No way, it’s gotta be a dirty trick.
And when I read this gruesome passage, I was downright convinced it had to be. No one could be this cruel.
Then, a final scrapbook picture: a glossy eight-by-ten taken by a bored police photographer who had perhaps been chewing gum. Exhibit C, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. One ripped and sliced small body in a blood-drenched crib. Splatters and runnels on the cheap stucco walls and the broken Mother Goose mobile bought for a dime. A great sticky clot on the secondhand teddy bear with one eye.
No one could be that cruel, right?
Thanks, Steve. Thanks a lot.
It would be years before I would forgive him. Well, at least until his next book came out.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
How can you go wrong with a paperback featuring a glaring Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing some kind of gaudy, skin-tight jumpsuit on the front cover?
Well, when the book is a movie tie-in edition of The Running Man and you’re reading it for the fourth or fifth time, you can’t.
I’ve always liked The Running Man quite a bit, despite its sparse prose and unrelentingly grim nature. Or perhaps I’ve always liked it because of its sparse prose and unrelentingly grim nature.
I’ve even forgiven King for killing off Richards’ wife and daughter. It was the only way the story could have ended the way it did; I know that now.
The Running Man has always been labeled as Science Fiction, but it’s clearly a pulp adventure novel set in the future. Completed in a week, King described the novel as “a book written by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing.”
It’s an honest and accurate description. The Running Man is most definitely an angry and energetic book. It’s also a frighteningly prophetic one.
Who else was reminded of today’s ever-expanding – and boundary- and good taste-shattering – glut of reality shows when they read about the Games Network? We’re not hunting or killing desperate game show contestants yet, but we’re sure as hell torturing them and subjecting them to moral and physical dilemmas unheard of just a decade ago. And who knows what the next decade or so will give birth to?
Who else had a flickering thought of our recent Presidential debates or the recent urban riots when listening to Bradley rail against a corrupt government and poor living conditions and a brainwashing media?
Was there a single reader among us who didn’t immediately flashback to the tragic events of September 11, 2001 when reading the climatic scene at the conclusion of The Running Man? I know I did.
And how many of us thought about the popular series, The Hunger Games, when we first read about the “Hunters” and the rules of The Running Man game show? I’m pretty sure Suzanne Collins did.
It’s downright eerie when you stop and think about it. It might have only taken King a week to churn out The Running Man, but it appears he had a crystal ball sitting on his desk right next to his typewriter.
One final note: I’ll admit that, after numerous re-readings of The Running Man, I’ve found very few new observations to make about the book. It’s just not that kind of layered story.
So, it was a nifty surprise, that upon my most recent revisiting, I found myself especially captivated by King’s supporting cast of characters—young Stacey and his brother Bradley, the “immensely fat” Elton Parrakis and his backstabbing, scarecrow mother, Virginia, hostage Amelia Williams, and Chief Hunter Evan McCone and Executive Producer Dan Killian.
This time around, it felt like it was as much their story as it was Ben Richards’—and that’s the beauty of a Stephen King book. It’s like sitting down and visiting with old friends. It’s like coming home again.
* * *
In “…Minus 063 and Counting…” Ben Richards and Bradley sit in the dark in a small back bedroom and talk about the harsh truths of the world they live in—poverty, disease, pollution, government corruption, corporate greed, the Have’s ruthless suppression of the Have Not’s.
Bradley has the final say in the conversation just before Richards drifts off to sleep, and his words cut right to the dark heart of it:
“People’s mad,” Bradley said. “They’ve been mad at the honkies for thirty years. All they need is a reason. A reason…one reason…”
The Running Man was first published over 30 years ago, and sadly most of what Richards and Bradley discuss in this scene still holds true today—especially Bradley’s haunting words.
“People’s mad. All they need is a reason.”
That’s my definition of scary, folks.
This one appears at the end of “…Minus 001 and Counting…”:
Killian looked up from his desk and stared into the wall-to-wall window that formed one entire side of the room.
The twinkling vista of the city, from South City to Crescent, was gone. The entire window was filled with an oncoming Lockheed TriStar jet. Its running lights blinked on and off, and for just a moment, an insane moment of total surprise and horror and disbelief, he could see Richards staring out at him. His face smeared with blood, his black eyes burning like the eyes of a demon.
Richards was grinning.
And giving him the finger.
“—Jesus—” was all Killian had time to get out.
Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker. Sweet revenge.
(The scene where Ben crawls out of the manhole covered in dirt and seven-year-old Stacey thinks he’s the Devil runs a close second.)
My favorite line in the book comes courtesy of that little firecracker, Stacey, talking about his older brother, Bradley:
“You kill me an he’ll make you shit in your boot an eat it.”
Maybe not the most sophisticated sentence in the novel, but I dig it a lot.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
The shocking reveal that occurs at the end of “…Minus 014 and Counting…” still breaks my heart:
Richards tried to speak, could say nothing. The dread was still in him, widening, heightening, thickening.
“There’s never been a Chief Hunter with a family,” he finally said. “You ought to know why. The possibilities for extortion—”
“Ben,” Killian said with infinite gentleness, “your wife and daughter are dead. They have been dead for over ten days.”
A killer scene, folks—and one that caught me completely by surprise.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
I’d love to know what happened to Ben’s hostage, Amelia Williams—and based on this passage from near the end of the novel, I’m not the only one:
Amelia Williams cried steadily in her seat long after the time when all tears should have gone dry. He wondered indifferently what would become of her. She couldn’t very well be returned to her husband and family in her present state; she simply was not the same lady who had pulled up to a routine stop sign with her mind all full of meals and meetings, clubs and cooking. She had Shown Red. He supposed there would be drugs and therapy, a patient showing off. The Place Where Two Roads Diverged, a pinpointing of the reason why the wrong path had been chosen. A carnival in dark mental browns.
START DATE – August 4, 2015
FINISH DATE – August 9, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Another great essay, Richard! I first read this one in the fall also, but in 1999 when I was 16 years old. I was working at our old, run down movie theater at the time (which has now long gone out of business) and I read the majority of this book amidst the smells of freshly popped popcorn and musty building aromas while sitting at the ticket booth during downtime between shows. This was like the 6th or 7th King book I ever read and it’s premise intrigued me from the get go and it’s apparent to me now after seeing the popularity of dystopian fiction for the last several years that Stephen King was cool before it became a cool thing. He’s a true genius.
I enjoyed it just as much this time around. Even though I don’t think it’s quite as good as The Long Walk, it’s still up there as one of the best Bachman books. It’s a page turner, for sure with the nearly non stop action and suspense and short “ticking clock” chapters. The loss of Ben’s wife and daughter I had COMPLETELY forgotten about. I remember quite clearly how the book ended with Ben crashing the plane into the high rise building, but the death of his wife and daughter was a punch to the gut that all of these Bachman books have. No such things as happy endings when it comes to Mr. Bachman, for sure.
I’m leaving for a trip in the morning and I was staring at the pre-order of Bazaar of bad dreams, wishing I had it for my trip. So glad I received this email tonight! Going to wade through my book collection in the basement and pack The Running Man for my flight!
Anyone get the feeling Amelia grew up to be Irene Tassenbaum?
I have always loved the Bachman books. In my opinion they were some of his King’s stronger work. He wasn’t farting around. He was digging in and chewing hard.
The Long Walk should have been a movie. I can see that long hot road and that big machine gun following behind. Paint it in shades of Cool Hand Luke and The Lost Patrol. The Hunger Games on a diet, worn bone thin and gristle lean.
The Running Man sang a similar song. A hard-driving pile-driver of a yarn that just lit out and took you deep into the Territories beofre skinning your carcass and leaving hamstrung and staked out for the buzzards to chew on. A King of pulp and bark and thunder. However, The Running Man with Schwarzenegger was a good story thrown away and spat upon – and I actually LIKE Schwarzenegger movies.
Roadwork was another good one. A man against bureaucracy.
Each of these yarns were tales of endurance and chutzpah – the kind of guts that a man needs to pack in his saddle bag if he is fixed and determined to set out upon the path of the writer. They were Stephen King when he was still young and hungry and filled with guts and youthful anger – hiding behind the carcass of a thirty-something would-be writer.
It was a good read, Rich. Thanks for reminding me about a few books that kept me awake and grinning long past sunset.
Speaking of man-hunting-man stories, King’s in good company with this one. Huck Finn is a man-hunting-man story. Chew on that, literary snobs.
King’s skill as a writer will always shine through with whatever he writes. But the anger and sorrow shows through so much more in “The Running Man,” one of my favorites, because it moved me.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts again Richard. Really dislike the movie version of this. It really needs a remake.
I only recently was directed here by one of my fellow King junkies and I’d like to start by saying that I am really enjoying revisiting all of these stories with you and everyone who is contributing. It’s just so nice to read about everyone’s memories, thoughts, and Bev’s little bits of histories. Top notch stuff, so thank you.
I felt compelled to actually leave a comment because I feel as though I am the lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to the movie version of this story. I love it. Not because it is good (because it’s really not), not because it has much of anything to do with the original story (because it is an enormous departure from its source material), but it because it did manage to do one thing absolutely correct. Killian. Richard Dawson as Killian remains one of the scariest and most frightening villains to me. He doesn’t have superpowers, he’s not some sort of ancient evil – no, he’s just the average, smarmy, regular type of evil that one can encounter on the daily. Dawson was really effective. Upon rereads of this book after I saw the movie, Killian is ALWAYS Dawson in my head because he was just that good. King has always been good at writing those types of “evil” characters – the ones you recognize. I’ve found that in movie adaptations, the actors aren’t always up to the task of portraying that, if you know what I mean.
The other reason I love the movie? It really is THAT bad and I can’t help myself.
Ha, you’re not alone! I grew up with the movie before I read the book, so the movie was all I knew when I was 9 or 10 years old. Richard Dawson just NAILED that role. So very good. And yes, the movie really is that bad, but in a fun kind of way, not like a lot of the BAD movies flooding Netflix and the such today.