Richard Bachman – The Running Man (New English Library, 1983)
Every night they tuned into the nation’s favourite prime-time TV game show. They all watched the ultimate live death game as the contestants tried to beat not the clock, but annihilation at the hands of the Hunters. Now there was a new contestant, the latest Running Man, staking his life while a nation watched.
Far, far darker than the sanitized, feel-good Schwarzenegger vehicle, and so much the better for it. King regards it as the best of the first four Bachman novels: "it's nothing but story - it moves with the goofy speed of a silent movie, and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side."
Ben Richards, 28, has surprised everyone, not least himself, by fathering a daughter as his old job at the General Atomic plant left him sterile. But his little girl is dying of radiation flu, his wife is turning tricks to raise money for her medicine and Ben's one of several million unemployed wretches living in Co-op City, a polluted, sprawling, poverty-stricken crime-zone on the outskirts of New York, doomed to live out his short life in misery and squalor unless he takes the Free Vee network's dollar and participates in one of their snuff game-shows - Dig Your Grave, Treadmill To Bucks, How Hot Can You Take It, Swim The Crocodiles and the sign-your-own-death warrant The Running Man.
Ben, obviously, makes it through the selection process and finds himself a contestant in the latter, a modern-day version of The Most Dangerous Game for all the family. If he can survive at large for thirty days (no-one has ever got close) he wins $1 billion, but to do so he must evade assassination by the crack team of hunters led by killing machine McCone, the police, freckle-faced Hitler Youth types, the general public .... essentially, just about everyone is out to nail him and his fellow runner, the cynical Parnakis, and do so in the most awful manner (the gorier the death, the better the ratings). By a mixture of brains, pluck, savagery and good fortune, Ben gets through his first week (largely thanks to the assistance of Bradley, a young black kid who heads a covert anti-pollution campaign), but he's inevitably sold out and forced to take a young woman hostage to save his skin. Amelia Williams is one of the blessed, brainwashed, like just about everyone else in the US, into believing that Richards is a cold-blooded cop-killer who deserves everything he gets, but even though she detests him and fears for her life, she doesn't get him killed when she has the chance which sets her up for even worse horrors. Coming on like a suicide bomber, Ben uses Amelia to barter a Lockheed Trystar and crew to fly him back the way he came to the Games Federation building. He also forces the ruthless McCone to join him on the ride .....
That's where the novel takes a turn for the bleak.
I thought this one was excellent, sporadically gory, as grim as Pet Sematary and, at around 160 pages, incredibly compact seeing as how there's so much going on. It's also very spartan on the Sci-fi trappings (give or take the 'air car' there's little concession to "the future") - if anything, the painfully prophetic sequence on the plane reads like the climax of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, but with more spilled intestine! Somehow i've got this far without mentioning half the main cast - Killian, The Running Man's figurehead is a charmer - but fuck it, i never said i could write proper reviews and you might wanna read this one yourself!
By chance, Sunday gone i ran into a copy of Needful Things, King's play on the Temptations Ltd. theme. For all i'll ever know it's brilliant, but ... 790 pages?
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.