One of the interesting things about researching these historical context essays is that they demonstrate how unreliable memory can be. Contradictions abound. For example, depending on which account you believe, The Running Man was written either before Stephen King started Carrie or immediately after he completed that book’s first draft, which would make it either his fourth or his fifth finished novel manuscript.
The Running Man was written in the “winter of 1971,” which some sources assign to the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. King remembers writing it during February vacation, which would place it in February 1972.
Sources generally say that King wrote the novel in a weekend or, more specifically, over a period of 72 hours. In a 2013 interview in The Guardian, King says he wrote it in a week. “I was white hot, I was burning. That was quite a week, because Tabby was trying to get back and forth to Dunkin’ Donuts and I had the kids. I wrote when they napped or I would stick them in front of the TV. Joe was in a playpen. It seemed like it snowed the whole week, and I wrote the book.” As with the other novels from that time, King says it was written “by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing” in a “Bachman state of mind: low rage and simmering despair.” » Read more
THAT WAS THEN…
When I was a teenager, I spent several summer vacations working a government job at nearby Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Edgewood Arsenal. My duties ranged from laying asphalt to landscaping to pulling up old railroad tracks to shredding government documents.
The summer of paper shredding (as it would come to be known) was a memorable one for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I was assigned to work under a great guy. His name was Lonnie. If I ever knew his last name, it’s long forgotten now.
Lonnie was a hard worker and a good boss. At first, he was quiet and kept mostly to himself. But the more we got to know each other, the more we discovered we had a lot in common, despite our age difference.
Lonnie was a Vietnam veteran and I was (at the time) obsessed with military history, especially the Vietnam conflict. I had read dozens of books on the subject and watched every documentary I could lay my hands on. As Lonnie learned to trust me and respect my curiosity, he shared dozens of stories about his time in Vietnam that I still remember today.
Lonnie also loved fishing, as did I, and in the years following that summer, I would often share my catches with Lonnie and his family.
Finally, Lonnie was a reader. We would often read paperbacks during our lunch breaks. He tended to like science fiction and non-fiction, while my tastes ran more to the dark stuff. » Read more
I couldn’t wait to read the Bachman books. By that time I was rereading the early Stephen King bestsellers simply because I needed a fix. I am of the age when realistic fiction was the standard form of the masters. In my top ten of novels is In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. And the first trilogy I ever read was Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. Proletarian fiction if you will.
I’ve always maintained that Stephen King is the last of the working class novelists. I realize that the socio-economic background of his characters range up and down the scale. But I think his soul is with the folks he grew up with. He can break your heart with his take on the lives of average people.
And it is average people, teenage boys, King gives us in this spot on science fiction short novel about a militaristic government and a thrill-hungry populace drugged on spectacles of agony and violence.
So what we have here is a hundred teenage boys enduring a brutally competitive walk that ends only when all but the last one is eliminated. And by “eliminated” I generally mean has died from either sheer exhaustion or for violating the rules. An example of said rules: if you don’t keep moving at four miles per hour or better—and you are warned about this three times—you get shot by the soldiers tracking you on the sidelines. » Read more
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.” » Read more
By 1973, Stephen King had been writing for twenty years and had been publishing short stories for over a decade. He had already embarked on his long road to the Dark Tower. However, he had yet to crack into print with a novel, even though he had written over half a dozen.
King had established contact with an editor at Doubleday named Bill Thompson who saw promise in his writing. Getting It On (aka Rage) and The Long Walk had piqued Thompson’s interest, but even after extensive rewrites the editor couldn’t justify acquiring either, and he showed little interest in The Running Man.
King was living with his wife, Tabitha, and two kids in a doublewide trailer in Hermon, Maine, just outside Bangor. He had recently given up his $1.60 an hour job at a commercial laundry (immortalized in “The Mangler”) for a $6400 a year position teaching high school at the Hampden Academy, a job that left him with little spare time or energy. Tabitha was working at Dunkin’ Donuts and he moonlighted at the New Franklin Laundry during summer vacation. If not for his wife’s support and encouragement, he might have given up on writing. » Read more