Phil: All the recent fuss over the outing of JK Rowling included a quote from a Waterstones spokesman, “This is the best act of literary deception since Stephen King was outed as Richard Bachman back in the 1980s.”
Which interested me as the day before this earthquake in the world of books, I’d just finished the final story in The Bachman Books, the collected series of stories penned by King under the name “Richard Bachman”. You might remember that when I first tried reading King, I wasn’t hugely impressed but several people pointed me at other examples, including Ms Nolan who spent her teenage years reading him. Her suggestion was to seek out the Bachman novels so when I tripped over a second-hand copy, I snapped it up and dived in.
Like Rowling, King wrote the books under a pen name as a test. Could his books sell just on the strength of the writing, or was he really able to put anything on paper and sell to an adoring fan base. The parallels are interesting – both authors sold but not brilliantly and both were outed by diligent research by readers.
Anyway, there are 4 books, are then any good?
The common theme is that of a journey, either a personal one or physical.
Rage – Nutty school kid takes his class hostage.
This one made me do something I never do, read the first few chapters and then turn straight to the end to find out what happened to decide if I was going to read the rest. I didn’t. Maybe I’m too old for teenage angst or maybe I’m just not sensitive enough but I didn’t care.
The Long Walk – In the future a sporting event is help where competitors have to walk continuously until only one survives. Those who don’t keep up the pace, stop or try to escape “get their ticket”, in other words are shot by the accompanying soldier.
The first one I picked. It’s good but I wanted so much more. While we live the event through the eyes of one character, I didn’t find enough background information in there. What sort of world is it that enjoys this sort of spectacle? How did it start? How desperate does your life have to be to apply to take part in a competition with a 100:1 chance of winning and a 99:1 change of ending up dead?
I didn’t want less story, I wanted a couple more chapters worth of background woven in to the narrative. The world of the Walk didn’t appear that much different to ours but yet something had obviously happened to make the concept palatable.
Roadwork – Man obsesses about a road that will destroy his house.
A personal journey story where you either identify with the main character or you don’t. I did. Not perhaps the way he went about things but you were gently introduced to his pain. The backs-try built up with his wife and children. The tipping-points in his life were there and the conclusion logical if fairly well-signposted. It didn’t matter, I was keen to know how we got there.
The Running Man – Not much like the Schwarzenegger film. Man enters competition where all he has to do is survive for 30 days anywhere in the world with hunters sent out to catch him.
The best of the book. You understand the characters motivations, the world is realistic and the end satisfying. The scary thing is that everything that happens can be extrapolated from where we are now. The pollution. The hopelessness of great swathes of the public. The separation of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The people who despite being stuck in the underclass, manage to live and survive on their wits. I couldn’t help thinking tha this is more prophetic than I’m comfortable with.
If there is one anomaly, it’s that the contestant has to record a video diary type tape twice a day and post it back to the studio. Back in 1982 when the book was written, this probably seemed logical but now it’s a great example of how technology changes can mess up your predictions.
Oddly, I also like the film despite it being a different beast. I think the novel still has an excellent film in it although perhaps the final scenes (spoiler time) of the contestant crashing a plane into the skyscraper that houses the TV company in charge of the games still won’t play well in the US.
Overall, an interesting read. I’m still not convinced by horror novels but I’m going to dip my toe in again in the future. What I do get is how the youthful Nolan lapped these up in the same way that kids nowadays drink in vampire novels. All the books speak of angst and personal change which are a perfect match for teenagers struggling to work themselves out or adults who miss that wild emotion.
I still don’t think any of these are horrific. Yes the plots and the worlds they are set in are horrible, the thoughts of the characters not nice at all, but there isn’t the splatter, gore or even the violence I was expecting.
It’s all in the mind. Maybe that’s the scariest place.