The true identify of Richard Bachman did not get out until the publication of Thinner, Bachman's fifth book. These first four Bachman novels were the sorts of books you might find in a grocery store or - more likely - never have come across at all because they weren't really marketed at all - at Stephen King's request. Naturally, they didn't sell all that well - not until the true author was revealed, of course. These represent an interesting cross-section of King's writing life. Rage and The Long Walk are truly early King novels, Roadwork emerged in between the novels 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, and The Running Man was published in 1982, the product of a mere seventy-two hours of writing. They are quite different novels, yet they all share a common theme - a man displaced by society and doing what he can to combat the forces closing in around him.
This collection is about the only place you can find the novel Rage these days. After the Columbine tragedy, Stephen King basically had all copies of Rage pulled from the shelves. The novel features a high school student who wigs out, shoots two teachers, and holds his class hostage for several hours. The real heart of the story is the way the students react to their captor during their ordeal; they go way beyond merely sympathizing with him. King really breaks down the emotional walls of these characters, mining some of the real issues that teenagers have to deal with in their lives. To me, this novel is raw but instructive, surreal yet amazingly open and honest, and well worth reading.
If you ask me, The Long Walk (written while King was a college freshman) may well be the most fascinating novel King has ever written. It's a disarmingly simple tale centered on a seemingly mundane activity, yet in King's masterful hands The Long Walk burrows into the core of a number of characters, lays down miles of metaphors about the human condition, and absolutely mesmerizes you with its emotional force and power. The contestants (all but one of whom will die - and they know it) do a lot of talking while they're walking; most of them dance around the "why" issue, but we see clues to some of the reasons as each lad draws closer and closer to death. Cockiness turns to anger, fear, shock, and just about every other kind of dark emotion you can imagine. The boys are stripped bare in both body and mind as the Walk goes on and on. Through his characters, King is basically asking the reader how he/she will face death when it comes. Will you freeze up early on? How long will you fight to stay alive after you've pushed your body far beyond the breaking point? Will you lie down and accept your fate, or will you lose control and lash out at your perceived enemies? I could read this novel over and over again without ever growing tired of it. It's just endlessly fascinating and illuminating.
Roadwork represented an attempt on King's part to go straight, to prove he could write a mainstream novel. In its essence, Roadwork is the story of a man pushed beyond his means of coping with change. We the readers basically watch Bart Dawes go insane as the days pass. We watch him lie to his wife and to himself, drink himself into nightly stupors, procure destructive objects from dangerous men, and plot revenge on those who have taken away the few things in life he could cling to. At the center of his problem is his son Charlie, who died of a brain tumor three years earlier; George can't understand why his son had to die, and he can't bear the thought of his home, Charlie's home, being destroyed. Even as we watch Dawes do some terrible things, we can't help but sympathize with a man so beaten down by the cruel vagaries of life. King has said that Roadwork was in some ways a product of the death of his mother. The book served as a vehicle to let him work through his own emotional issues over his loss. Why does a loved one have to die? That question permeates this novel. It's a very personal story, but it is one almost any adult reader can relate to very well. It's a surprisingly impressive exploration of emotional disintegration.
With The Running Man, we have a complete novel that was written in only three days - and was published with almost no changes. Obviously, The Running Man is not your typical Stephen King novel. Action is the gas pedal, and King floored it from page one until the very end. Surprisingly, though, there is some pretty decent characterization of the main player - and a heavy undertone of social commentary worked into the book.
The setting is a future America in which society has totally fractured, leaving those on the wrong side of the tracks doomed to a life of misery. Ben Richards personifies that social inequity. Unable to provide for his wife and sick little girl, there is only one way out for him - the Network Games. No show satisfies the bloodlust of the public like The Running Man, and a man of Richards' temperament is just the kind of player the show is looking for. Richards proves himself a worthy contestant indeed - the Game in fact, will never be the same. To me, this novel is like a weak film adaptation of a King novel - stripped of all the nuances that make King such a special writer. That's not to way this isn't an exciting novel because it is - that's about all it is, though.