On your marks…

“She was squinting at the thermometer in the white light coming through the window.”

We all know who the Queen of Crime is (and if you don’t, you definitely haven’t been on my blog before), but the King of Horror is another title that isn’t in question. In fact, it’s so much the case that it’s actually his name.

Despite how well known Stephen King is, and his international infamy as the undisputed master of writing horror, I’d never actually read any of his work before. I’ve had Under the Dome on my shelf since its release, but given that it’s the size of a wardrobe, that’s a little daunting. As such, I’ve begun with The Running Man, less a horror and more of a dystopia, but still horrific enough to earn a tag here as being in the Horror genre. Besides, it feels wrong to put King anywhere else.

Like so many good dystopias, this one takes place a short distance into the future, in this case 2025, written from the vantage point of 1982. America is polluted with toxic gases and corruption. The divide between the rich and the poor is at its widest point so far in history and either you have it, or you’ll never get it. Ben Richards is one of the have-nots, having lost his job. He is unable to get other work now, but his daughter has pneumonia and medicine is expensive. He has only one option left – to head to the Games Network and get on one of the violent game shows that now dominate the Free-Vee channels at all hours.

After being vetted, he finds he has been selected to take part in “The Running Man”, the most dangeous and fatal of all the game shows. He must survive thirty days without being killed by one of the Hunters. He can go anywhere in the world, do whatever he must to survive, but since his face is on every single Free-Vee screen and the public get 100 New Dollars if they report a sighting, the odds are most definitely stacked against him. If he lives through all thirty days, he wins the prize of $1 billion. The current record is eight days.

Richards gets a twelve hour headstart, and then he’s off on a race for his life…

I love dystopias, and this is a deeply harrowing one where people have to wear nose filters to protect themselves from the pollution that smothers America, and society has crumbled and become more and more violent. Bearing in mind the novel was written in the early eighties, long before Big Brother, Survivor and its ilk became commonplace, it does wonders to predict how obsessive the populace would become about reality television, a term that isn’t actually used in the book. The game shows in question are, however, more violent and extreme than what we have today. Aside from the titular “game”, we have things like Treadmill to Bucks, a game show in which people with known heart and lung defects must run on a treadmill while answering trivia questions while trying not to pass out or die. We’ve only got 11 years before this future is here – do we dare get to that point?

Any book that tries to predict the future will sometimes be almost prophetic and othertimes be wide off the mark. This one is a little extreme, but like any future-set novel written prior to the new millennium, there is a distinct lack of things that we now take for granted, such as mobile phones and the Internet. Neither seem to exist because few people ever seemed to imagine them before they became a reality. The wider world isn’t much explored – there’s no one new to show things to, Richards in theory knows it all and doesn’t need to stop and tell us what’s going on. As such, there is a passing mention to France now being under martial law, and a few comments about a popular sport called killball, but no explanation as to what it involves. There is, however, still a Pope, but he is now widely discredited, his speeches appearing as the jokey, fluff pieces at the end of the news.

Gory (the last twenty pages or so are particularly graphic in nature), creepy and an excellent representation of how humans can just keep on sinking lower. It borrows from Orwell and from Huxley, and in the mix King conjures up something brilliant.