Back in the late seventies and early eighties, renowned horror novelist Stephen King carried out a little social experiment in an attempt to find out if his success came down to pure luck or his literary skills. This was after the resounding success of his first three novels, Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining, and somehow, he managed to convince his publisher, Signet, to release four books under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman.
Perhaps, to prove a point about his diverse proficiency, King chose to deviate from his winning horror formula and use the Bachman pseudonym to dabble in grim, dystopian science fiction and obsessive psychological fiction for the early Bachman books. As longtime readers (or Constant Readers, as King would dub) would undoubtedly know, King’s forte lied in his uncanny insight to the neuroses and psychosis of otherwise mundane folks, thus these books actually proved extremely effective for his writing styles. Re-reading the Bachman books of late, it is quite surprising to note how dark and foreboding some of his early works can be.
Rage is the story of one Charlie Decker, a high school senior who bought a gun to school, killed two of his teachers and took his classmates hostage while strangely creating a psychotherapy group where the classmates shared painful and cathartic stories about their wasted youth. Sounds like your typical high school killing spree, doesn’t it?
Except that the first high school killing spree happened in the late eighties and the perpetrator was said to carry a copy of Rage and had strongly identified with Charlie Decker. Throughout the eighties and nineties, there were multiple similar incidents where disturbed students carried out killing sprees and were known to be inspired by Rage. King was so perturbed by the killings that he decided to let Rage fall out of print. That so many sociopaths identified with Rage was a testament to King’s insight of adolescent repressed rage, however unflattering the association may be.
The Long Walk (1979)
A hundred teenage boys joined an annual “Long Walk” for a shot at a vague ultimate prize. If a participant’s walking speed fell below 4 miles per hour for more than 30 seconds, he will get a warning. Three warnings earned him a hole in the head, courtesy of the armed enforcers standing by the wayside. Only one participant will survive and win the ultimate prize. The Long Walk was set in a dystopian version of the USA. There were no rhymes or reasons why the US citizens would allow such brutality to happen. Since its inception, The Long Walk had inspired similar works such as Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While the latter may be more graphic in their depiction of the contest-inflicted deaths, The Long Walk was more chilling as it was set in an otherwise virtually identical United States and participation in the Long Walk was voluntary and not due to any forms of distress.
As a psychological thriller, Roadwork doesn’t quite work as readers can pretty much see how the story will likely play out from page one. As a character study of the impact of grief and loss of identity on a man’s psyche, Roadwork is actually quite astute. Barton George Dawes was a relatively normal guy who was consistently dealt the wrong hand by life. Dawes dropped out of school, taking a blue-collar job at the local laundry to support his pregnant girlfriend. Unfortunately, his son died three years later from brain cancer, leaving Dawes to continue labouring at the laundry, with nothing but an emotional attachment sustaining him. When a proposed government roadwork was announced, Dawes lost his job, his wife and his house due to his inability to sever the emotional bonds and relocate. Dawes wired up his house with explosives and blew himself up, which prompted an inquiry that revealed that the only reason for the roadwork was to ensure that the city remain eligible for federal funding.
The Running Man (1982)
If The Running Man made you recall a super buff Arnold Schwarzenegger in spandex delivering gruesome deaths to so-called hunters, you might be pleased to know that the novel (which the movie was loosely based on) is nothing quite like the movie. Set in Detroit in 2025, the novel is an unflattering portrayal of how the government and corporations worked hand in hand to get the masses addicted to reality television as a means of escapism from cumulative problems. And there were plenty of problems, including but not necessary limited to widespread poverty, irreversible, health-damaging pollution and disdain for the well-being of the under-privileged.
The Running Man was a televised program whereby a contestant was declared an enemy of the state and sent to be hunted by professional killers. The contestant earned $100 for each hour he survived and eluded capture. In a bid to procure expensive medical care for his daughter, who was slowly but surely dying from a common flu, Ben Richards took part in the Running Man. As he tried to stay one step ahead of the Hunters, Richards uncovered information about the Government’s scheme to disenfranchise the under-privileged. Apart from the fact that King was spot-on about reality television (a 2000s obsession), King also described one of the most foreboding scene of all time – a plane crashing into a prominent building in the book’s finale.