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The Running Man, Stephen King, ISBN 0-451-19796-8
by Michael Lipsius

            When reading Stephen King’s, The Running Man, after a night of watching network television, one has to wonder if King was writing a bleak piece of futuristic sci-fi or a book of prophecies on the future of American culture.

            The Running Man, published in 1982, was originally attributed to Richard Bachman, which was later found to be a pen name of the prolific King. He would argue Bachman was a completely different person. A modern copy will likely be attributed to Stephen King or “Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman.”

            In the book, Ben Richards is unemployed and destitute in 2025 after being blacklisted for being a whistle-blower about exposure to toxic chemicals at a General Atomic plant. He and his wife Sheila cannot afford to take their gravely ill daughter Cathy to a doctor or purchase medicine. The only chance he has is by appearing on the Network’s hugely popular Games. Contestants have a chance to strike it rich instantly, or die trying, on such games shows as Treadmill for Bucks, where contestants with chronic heart, lung and liver conditions are put on a treadmill which is sped up when a contestant misses a trivia question. Fans watch in excitement at home on their “Free-Vees.” It is the law that everyone own one, though a 2021 law  requiring people to keep them on 24 hours a day failed by six votes.

            Then there’s the Running Man. The Network’s most popular show on the Free-Vee.

            Richards is participating in a deadly game where he tries to outrun a gang of head-hunters for 30 days. Participants at home, who are all encouraged to loathe and hate Richards through propaganda tactics, are offered 100 “new dollars” for a sighting and 1,000 new dollars for a sighting leading to a kill. If Richards lasts 30 days he will win one billion new dollars. No one has ever lasted 30 days and it appears this is a game no one can ever win from the moment he leaves Games headquarters in the fictional city of Harding, heading to the northeastern U.S.

            What may have appeared as sci-fi in 1982, appears as dark satire today. Since the craze of reality television began with Survivor, we’ve seen shows like Fear Factor where contestants eat fish eyes and are put in cages with snakes that are supposedly not guaranteed to not bite. They are challenged to swim icy cold tunnels with a lack of air pockets. This is all for a million bucks. The stunts are supervised by professionals and it would be unlikely a major network would let a human die under their watch. No one knows this will never happen. In the late 90s Phil Donahue wanted to host a program broadcasting the execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He argued, "the public should get a chance to witness for itself the process by which convicted murderers are put to death" in a New York Post article.

            A few years ago, the Fox network ran a show called, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. They were criticized for airing such tasteless programming, but today we see the Bachelor, the Bachelorette, and Who’s Your Daddy? Millions are encouraged to tune in and laugh at the guy who absolutely humiliates himself on American Idol and Canadian Idol. We don’t have live murders on television, but look how far we‘ve come, or as some might say, how low we’ve gone with “entertainment.” The Fox network, a leader in the reality TV genre, was not in existence in 1982 and reality television game shows of this nature were nowhere to be found on the no-longer-existent dial.

            Although King is known for being dark in his novels, he is even darker writing as Bachman. This works in this novel. He is not afraid to use dark language and offensive language in order to create a picture of a grey polluted world where the little guy doesn’t have a chance.

            Those running Games do feel the wrath of revenge, however. Ironically, it occurs when a Lockheed jet comes flying through their office tower.

 

 

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