Wednesday, September 22, 2004

KING COVERS: The Long Walk (1979)

As far as I'm concerned, the four initial novels that King published under the name Richard Backman -- Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork and The Running Man (nothing, by the way, like the horrible, horrible movie version) -- are some fantastic books. They might not be the kind of stories that King is known for, but they're quick reads, that push strong emotional buttons, and ask important questions.

Thinner, on the other hand, wasn't very good. And The Regulators was less a Bachman book than it was an interesting marketing idea. But I'll get to those in their time.

Collecting the covers for the Long Walk tonight, I was surprised by how many good ones there were, given that wasn't one of King's best known works having come from the Bachman name. I guess it goes to show you that sometimes good book design can come from just a really good book, and not necessarily a really big name. Besides, you can put more work into the design if you don't have to stretch Stephen King's name over 1/3 of the cover.

The book itself takes place in the not-so-distant future, where an annual, national event called the Long Walk pits contestants against each other to see who can...walk the farthest.

If you drop below the minimum speed, you'll be given a warning. After three warnings, if you drop below that minimum speed again, you'll be taken out of the game. Permanently. With a bullet in the head.

You'd think that a story about a bunch of people doing nothing more than just walking might be less than interesting. You'd be wrong. Because of the simplistic setup, and the lack of huge changes in setting or plot, this is a novel that really shows King's ability to paint vibrant, vivid and varied characters. Through the eyes of the main character -- Ray Garraty -- these people come to life on the page, and, somewhat ironically, the more you grow to care about them, the more they tend to be removed, forceably, from the story.

If memory serves me correctly, the book clocks in around 200 pages, so it's a quick read from start to finish, and if you haven't treated yourself to it yet, I highly recommend it.

Now for the covers.

The original US Signet release does a good enough job capturing the facts about what's going on -- with the walkers senn in the distance between the legs of what I assume to be a military man in the foreground. The cover does lose some points for me, as it seems to be focusing more on the end of the story, with what looks an exhausted walker about to cross the finish line. I hate movie trailers that give away too much of the story, and that seems to be, at least in part, what this cover is doing. Although it's better than later US releases... this one, from Democo Media (though Signet had a release with the same cover -- it's just this was a clearer picture).

A country road, travelling by a fence. And on the fence is...a skull.

So this is a book about...what exactly? Farmers trying to scare kids off their property? Nope, sorry, not working for me.

As I've said before, I'm a sucker for minimalist designs, and this is definitely one of those -- a stark black cover with the fluttering white sheeting carrying Ray Garraty's number, 45, with what seems to be a few splatters of blood. The design of the 45 gives the impression of a race of some kind, while the blood, of course, implies a race that perhaps ends violently. This cover has just successfully given enough information to prompt someone to pick up the book. Surprisingly, though, it's not taking the grand prize today. In fact, it's actually tied for second place, with the other cover plays up Ray Garraty's #45.

Courtesy of the Netherlands, this cover shows a series of sports jersies, each with a unique number, each jersey with a big red X mark through it, indicating the players who have been "retired". Something about the red X marks gives the impression that they have not been retired in a friendly way, though, and once again the cover gives two strong, solid impressions -- this has something to with a sport, and something to do with violence -- capturing the content of the book perfectly without giving too much away.

This Spanish cover doesn't do much for me, with a picture that looks more like a guy going out for a stroll at sunset than a guy who's walking to keep himself alive.

These two covers from Germany have two very different images. The one on the left is wrong for similar reasons that the Spanish cover is wrong -- it doesn't feel like it belongs to this story; it looks more like an image that might promote "The Fugutive". The image on the right is closer, with the bloody footprints, but kind of misses the sporting event element of it, and almost looks like it could be the story of a guy who stepped on a piece of glass.

Sometimes the Japanese covers get it right, like they do on the left, with the two kids walking along the road, one of them glancing back nervously over his shoulder. And sometimes they don't, like on the right, with a picture of what appears to be someone out for a leisurely afternoon stroll. Sorry, there's nothing leisurely about the Long Walk.

This Polish cover gets close, with the simple, two colour design and the gun poking out from the left hand side, the crowd of people in the distance clearly the targets. Unfortunately, the walking element gets lost here, and it almost looks like a book about a crazy mass-murder on an office-building killing spree. Let's not count Poland out of the running yet, though...

...because this cover is fucking BRILLIANT. The road, the white traffic lines, the empty and tipped over shoe, the empty shell casings -- this cover sells me on the book more than any other cover we've looked at today. It looks lonely, it looks desperate, it looks painful. Unfortunately, it does miss some of the sporting even / race imagery that worked so well in earlier covers, and it's worth commenting that this image might have worked just a tiny bit better if it had been a sneaker or a running shoe on the cover instead of a hiking boot, but that's a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny criticism for a cover that all sorts of different flavours of fucking brilliant.

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