The Bachman Books (1986)
By: Julian on March 25, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Credits
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Pages: 865
My copy of Stephen King's The Bachman Books, a collection of four short novels written over a five year period under his pseudonym Richard Bachman, includes the 1977 tale Rage. Incidentally, it's one of the best stories in the collection but its publication has been discontinued after the Heath High School shooting some twenty years later, during which a fourteen year old shot dead three classmates. It was later found the boy had a copy of Rage in his school locker, and King ordered his publisher to remove the story from future publications of his 'monster quartet'.

Rage, originally and more provocatively titled Getting it On, introduces Charlie Decker, a disturbed pupil attending Placerville High School. After a series of events causes his expulsion, Charlie returns to his locker, torches it, guns down his algebra teacher and holes up in the classroom. The remainder of the novel is a series of monologues delivered by Charlie, and dialogues between him and his classmates, which range from the schizophrenically voluble to alarmingly perspicacious.

It's clear then why Rage proved so controversial in 1997 after Heath, particularly given the frequency of school shootings in the US around this time. Earlier, Rage had flirted with controversy (but remained in print) after a 1989 incident in Kentucky that ended peacefully, and a 1996 shooting in Washington state that claimed three lives. The latter's emulation of Rage was chilling: perpetrator Barry Loukaitis, 14, had said he wanted to "model his life on Charlie Decker's", and quoted a line from the book ("this sure beats algebra, doesn't it?") after killing his algebra teacher and two students.

But that King was so self-censorious is itself alarming. All sorts of sociological arguments can be mounted in favour of or against King's actions, and I'm not interested in any of them: the simple fact remains that many readers will miss out on one of Stephen King's most intelligent and profoundly disturbing character studies. All four stories possess, in some way, the sharpness and brevity characteristic to King's best novels but it is Rage that most benefits from it. Decker can ignobly stand alongside Jack Torrance and Annie Wilkes in the pantheon of Stephen King antiheroes, and King's typically economic style works wonders in a hundred and twenty pages of, essentially, just speaking.

Obviously the inclusion of Rage makes trawling through second hand bookstores worth a King fan's while, but for those who have picked up a new copy of this omnibus, you can rest assured that The Long Walk is the A-grade inclusion. In fact, this entry – first published in 1979, the Bachman chaser to the King novel of the year, The Dead Zone – is probably the best work of King's I've read. In terms of scope, this isn't too dissimilar to Rage: it's centred very much on the characters, and the hundred or so pages it occupies breezes past, the sure mark of a brilliant thriller writer. The premise: sometime in the future in an America governed by a totalitarian despot, and where a game called 'the long walk' is the national sporting attraction. 'The Long Walk' begins on the border of Maine and Canada and is a last-man-standing contest.

I had the benefit of knowing even less about The Long Walk than the few lines I've written above, and it really is much better to go in absolutely fresh. A couple of comments on the narrative itself: the government of the day is mentioned fleetingly, which keeps the scope narrow and allows King to focus just on the characters and their common plight. Had King explored these broader issues, the novel would have failed in the same way The Running Man did (more on that later). Again, King's superb command of dialogue and characterisation makes this a must-read and while this lacks the almost-perfect subtleties of Rage, its absolutely cracking pace makes The Long Walk is the best thing the author has ever penned. It should be getting the cinematic treatment by serial King adapter Frank Darabont who, in an interview on the publicity circuit for The Mist, said he had the rights to The Long Walk and intended to make it "weird, existential and very contained... more an arthouse film than anything". Stay tuned.

Thirdly is Roadwork – or, as the 1981 paperback declared, "a novel of the first energy crisis". Barton George Dawes' life is in tatters: he is grieving the death of his son, his marriage is fast disintegrating and his house is facing the wrecking ball in favour of a highway expansion. So, Barton George Dawes buys two big guns – a .44 Magnum and the very big .460 Weatherby Magnum, an elephant gun – and meticulously plans his next move.

As far as a character oriented piece of writing, Roadwork is more intense than Rage but the narrative is weaker, with a series of micro-climaxes that get progressively more underwhelming. It hits its strides about fifty pages in, during which it is a stellar piece of work, but slowly loses traction and deteriorates to a very understated climactic sequence. King has expressed his disappointment in the story itself, but recognises it as a very personal work: Dawes' attempt to find closure over his son's sudden death of a brain tumour was similar to King's after his mother died of cancer in 1974. Like Dawes', King hit the bottle in a pretty big way as he tried to discern some purpose to the world.

But to call Roadwork self-indulgent is unfair. It's a highly readable piece of work, if not particularly intelligent during some vacuous attempts at profundity. It's not in the same ballpark as Rage or The Long Walk, and is probably indicative of where King was at personally than anything else - during the eighties, he was at the height of his drug and alcohol addictions that culminated in a successful intervention after The Tommyknockers' publication in 1987.

Finally is The Running Man, probably Bachman's best-known novel after it was filmed as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in 1987, five years after the paperback was published. The Running Man is my least favourite of the Bachman Books simply because too much is crammed into too few words – a failing the author happily shied away from when writing The Long Walk. It's not particularly well written – by King's own admission, it took him a week to complete and was "a book written by a young man who was angry, energetic, and infuriated with the art and the craft of writing". It doesn't make for a particularly literarily fulfilling work but what does work to The Running Man's advantage is its pace – like The Long Walk, it's a ball-tearer.

The year is 2025 and the United States is a barely-liveable dystopia teeming with slums and various human scum. Ben Richards is living with his wife, who turns tricks for cash, and his terminally ill son, who he must finance medical treatment for. At the end of his tether and desperate for cash, Richards competes in a game show called The Running Man, financed by the bread-and-circus outfit Games Federation. After a plethora of physical and psychological tests designed to whittle a large group of prospective competitors to one man, Richards is selected. He becomes an enemy of the state and Games Federation televises his attempts to escape a squad of hitmen and a blood-lusting public out for a hefty prize.

The Running Man is essentially a bit of cyberpunk pulp and the fact that it's not a terribly well crafted piece of work makes its out of place content harder to swallow, coupled with the fact that there's just too much happening all over the place. It's an exercise in hyperactivity and King is frequently clumsy, though I remember it being a much better read when I picked up a copy of the 200-page paperback a few years ago, not as the crass tail end of a triptych of subdued, slow-burning (at the core) character studies. This isn't awful – the painful sci-fi frills are ameliorated by a subgenre favourite for this reviewer, the human hunting yarn – but it belongs in a secondary tier of King inventiveness and literary skill.

The Long Walk is the best thing Richard Bachman ever penned, the absence of Rage in most publications is a terrible shame, Roadwork is interesting if flawed and The Running Man is better seen as a sub-par paperback yarn written by the King in his wilderness years. All in all, you'd be a fool not to have this sitting proudly on your bookshelf.

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