Why I like The Long Walk
1) I'm a sucker for stories about death contests. The first short story I ever read in class was The Most Dangerous Game and I've been fascinated by idea of deadly contests ever since. I'm always drawn into any story that involves making a sport out of life and death.
2) I started reading Stephen King around the same time kids these days get into Young Adult fiction. While King isn't specifically a YA writer, his old horror novels are pretty kid-friendly. I know a lot of horror fans from my generation got our start reading him.
3) I had heard that King wrote a bunch of books under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. They were supposed to be more dark, more extreeeeeme than his usual work. Kids love things that are more extreme -- look at all youth marketing from the 90s -- so I couldn't wait to check them out. Most of the early Bachman books dealt with either cruel adolescence or death contests. The Long Walk combined them both.
4) The gist of the story is that there's a future contest where a hundred teenage boys walk as far as they can, followed by soldiers on a halftrack. If they slow down, they get a warning. After three warnings, they get shot. If they leave the road, they get shot. If they attack the soldiers, they get shot. If anyone from the crowd tries to help them, the interfering person gets shot. Warning get removed if a kid goes an hour without getting another one. They're given food and water at regular intervals. The last survivor gets the Prize: anything they want for the rest of their life. Simple enough.
5) Nobody dies for a good long while in the story. No one talks about dying. They talk about "getting a ticket." The kids walking the race are all laughing and joking, but there's an edge to their humor. The narrator notices one kid wearing sneakers and wonders what the kid was thinking. Someone complains about a charley horse, gets a couple of warning, and eventually walks it off. By that point, we know that something is very wrong, but King never directly explains the danger until the charley horse kid gets gunned down by the soldiers on the halftrack. The other walkers react with shock; the Long Walk just became real to all of them.
6) One of my favorite things about the book is how little we learn about the world that it takes place in. "Worldbuilding" has become the big buzzword in speculative fiction, but saturating The Long Walk with details would have taken the focus away from the characters. We get the sense that something terrible has happened to America and it's become a fascist Orwellian state. One of the walkers had his father taken away by the authorities. Another has a connection to the creator of the Long Walk. That's all we really need to get and we don't need much more than that.
7) The teenagers who walk the Long Walk are all (mostly) volunteers. Some do it our of desperation, some think they have a shot at winning, some are fulfilling a death wish, and some (like the narrator) aren't entirely clear why they've chosen to participate. As the story goes on, we get to know their personalities and motivations. Horror often works as a hotbox that puts people into situations that reveal their character. It turns the book into half-dystopian horror novel, half-meditation on mortality.
8) Teenagers make great protagonists for brutal dystopian stories. They're old enough to have some ability, but young enough not to have any agency against the adults that force them into deadly situations. The one thing that the book conveys more efficiently than anything else is the walker's sense of powerlessness.
Conclusion: It's popular to dismiss Stephen King for a lot of his little stylistic quirks, but there's no question that he's an absolute master at building suspense. We feel the walker's strain, their exhaustion, and their mental degeneration. It sucks being a teenager in the dystopian future, but King managed to create one of most compelling visions of teenage murder games that I've ever read.