Richard Bachman was an American fiction writer who died in 1985. His books were quite dystopian and unpleasant. From what I can figure out, he was a friend of Stephen King – both authors repeatedly reference each other in their works, and Stephen King wrote introductions to several posthumous editions of Bachman’s books. I’m a big Stephen King fan, so I decided to spend a few months reading every book that Bachman wrote. I’m reviewing them here in the order that I read them, not the order that they were published.
Rage – 1977
This is the only book by this author that’s out of print. It’s about a kid killing two of his teachers and then taking his class hostage. While being held hostage, the students start opening up and sharing their deepest secrets with eachother. I found it pretty hard to swallow the idea of the kids bonding in a situation like this. At the end, they gang up on a boy (not the shooter) and brutally attack him.
The shooter had a messed up home life, but it wasn’t nearly messed up enough to justify his behaviour. None of the victims in this novel deserve what they get. There’s no satisfaction when they die. School shootings have become a far more frequent occurence since this book was published too, and some actual school shooters’ lockers have been found to contain this book. I didn’t like this one much.
The Long Walk – 1979
This is the story of 100 teenagers in a competition to see who can walk the furthest without stopping. If they stop, they are shot dead. An interesting idea for a story, but it’s not an enjoyable read. A few months ago, I complained about how Henry James used frustrating language to make his readers feel the frustration that his characters are going through. In a similar way, Richard Bachman wrote a gruelling book about a gruelling experience. Like the road the characters are walking, this book goes on and on. While reading it, I kept wishing that it was a short story – it’s a straightforward concept that can only end one way, perfect for that format – but a short story wouldn’t bring out the true horror, the monotonous, inevitable, tortuous misery of the Long Walk.
I kept hoping that the walk would reach a point where the walkers started dropping off quickly, but that doesn’t really happen. The concept is quite brilliant in that way – the further the walkers go and the fewer of them that are alive, the better each individual’s chances become, spurring them on to continue. It’s a really clever, yet absolutely horrible, idea. The book is succesful in making the reader feel uncomfortable – for a book set on the open road, it’s strangely claustrophobic – but I can’t really say I enjoyed the journey. It reminded me of sitting through the 5th hour of a 10 hour flight. A rotten book that will make you feel lousy.
Roadwork – 1981
I’m still not sure if this was a good book. While its ending is only marginally less obvious than The Long Walk, I found getting to that point to be more entertaining. (There’s only one potential destination for the characters in both novels, but the protagonist of Roadwork has several potential ways of getting there.) This is the story of a man’s life falling apart. It was clearly written by a person who was upset. No real surprises, but entertaining all the same.
Blaze – 2006
Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork and The Running Man used to be published together as a collection called The Bachman Books. I can’t remember why, but I took a break from that collection after Roadwork and read this 2007 book. Blaze was written in the 70s and revised for publication 30+ years later. Essentially the author has taken the 2 main characters from a famous Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and put them into very different circumstances. Instead of ranch workers, they’re now small time criminals, and once George is murdered, Lenny (or Blaze, as he’s called here) comes up with a plan to make a million dollars. If you’re familiar with Steinbeck’s work, you’ll have an idea of how things are going to end here, but that doesn’t ruin this story. There is only the slightest hint of supernatural activity towards the end of the novel, and I think it’s quite a push to describe this as a ghost story. It’s not a bad read though.
The Running Man – 1982
Honestly, this felt like a much improved version of the Long Walk. It’s the same basic idea (a government that kills people for entertainment), but this one has more of a futuristic, sci-fi vibe to it. Again, there’s only a few ways this story could possibly end, and by the time you get to the last quarter of the book, there is absolutely no question of where this is going. The chapters are numbered backwards too, and the whole countdown thing is pretty cool. I tried watching the movie, but I only got 40 mins into it before giving up.
Desperation – 1996
Ok, so I know you’re probably surprised to see a Stephen King novel in this post, but let me explain. In 1994, Richard Bachman’s widow found a manuscript of an unpublished novel called The Regulators in her cellar. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somehow the manuscript managed to find its way into the hands of Stephen King. There is a brief reference to the Overlook Hotel (from King’s The Shining) in The Regulators, and King has name-dropped Bachman in several of his works since Bachman’s death, so I assume the two authors had become friends at a literary party or writing convention or something in the 80s. If Bachman’s wife or agent had stayed in touch with King, they might well have sent the manuscript to him to help get it published – by the mid 90s, King was the most popular author in the world. Before exerting his influence to have the book published, King seems to have decided to pay homage to his fallen comrade by writing a companion text to Bachman’s unpublished novel.
This post is about Bachman’s books though, so I’ll explain that in more detail in reference to his text later. As for King’s book, this is definitely one of his less brilliant novels. The concept is decent, the story is super gory, and there are some genuinely creepy ideas in here, but I reckon this would have worked better as a novella. At 700+ pages, Desperation is needlessly long. It’s also surprisingly religious. King was going through some difficult stuff in his life and used writing this book to work things out for himself. There’s a lot of discussion about the nature of God. This book has weird sex things, underground monsters, blood and guts, but it’s actually quite shit.
The Regulators – 1996
This book features the same characters as Stephen King’s novel Desperation, but instead of them fighting against the demonic Tak in a ghost town filled with corpses and scorpions, they get to battle him without leaving their neighbourhood. The Regulators is set in an alternate universe where the characters from Desperation are neighbours rather than drifters in the desert. Realistically though, most of the characters share only a name with their counterpart in Desperation. (David and Ralph Carver switch places as father and son.) Tak, the antagonist, is quite different too.
The Regulators was fairly shit, but I don’t think I noticed how shit it was until I was finished. It was exactly like a Goosebumps book for grown-ups. The plot was quite dumb. If a person was determined to finish all of Bachman’s books, I would suggest reading King’s Desperation before The Regulators. I know that sounds a bit strange given that The Regulators has to have been written before Desperation, but let me explain: The Regulators is quite short, and I think that Desperation’s mammoth size was King’s attempt to flesh out Bachman’s concept without editing the original text. Both books are shit though, so you’d be better off just leaving them alone.
Thinner – 1984
Out of all of Bachman’s books, Thinner was the one that I wanted to read most, so I saved it for last. Somehow my friend Damo and I managed to rent a VHS copy of the movie version when we were kids, and while I remembered very little of the plot, I knew that this one was going to be a fairly straightforward horror story. Reading through a story that I had seen in a movie almost 20 years previously was a bit strange. I’d realise what was going to happen just before the book revealed it.
A fat man gets cursed by a gypsy and starts losing weight. The story is quite Bachmany in its inevitability – horror stories about curses can’t have happy endings. From the very beginning, you know that the protagonist is either going to waste away to nothing or have the curse lifted only to suffer an even more miserable death. The drawn out misery of the first two thirds of the book reminded me of The Long Walk. Things definitely pick up towards the end, but I think that this would have been more enjoyable as a short story than as a novel.
There’s a reference to Stephen King in here too, strengthening my belief that the two authors were friends.
The only known photograph of Bachman
Well, that’s it for Richard Bachman. Apparently his wife still has some unpublished manuscripts, so it’s possible that another one will come out in the future. In honesty though, I’m happy enough waiting. These books weren’t anything special. Bachman’s friend, Stephen King, writes more enjoyable books.