The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) (1979)
Though it's a race to the death, all the participants are willing volunteers. Ray Garraty has joined the Walk this year, for reasons he never seems quite sure of. He also isn't convinced he'll win, especially after sizing up his competition. Yet he just keeps walking. Through his exhaustion, his pain, his doubts, his fear - what else can he do but continue to walk?
The novel focuses entirely on the event at hand, never stepping back to explain the big picture. What has happened in the world that this brutal race has come to exist? Why do people volunteer for it? What exactly are the Squads that keep being mentioned, and that took Ray Garraty's father away? A tiny bit is revealed: "In the old days, before the Change and the Squads, when there was still millionaires, they used to set up foundations and build libraries and all that good shit." The Long Walk must be just one strange element of a very different world, and I was dying to know in what other ways it differed from our own reality.
What I love about King's writing - and what makes it creepy or terrifying or exhilarating - is that he knows how to make us empathize with his characters. I don't know why Ray Garraty joined the Long Walk exactly, what his motivations were, whether or not they were noble, but he is real to me and I wanted things to turn out ok for him because he's a good guy, and nobody deserves to be shot in the middle of the road for getting a charley horse. It was sad when any of the walkers died, because I cared about them. Sometimes they cared about each other too, even though they were competing to the death. There were some incredibly powerful scenes in which one boy would help another, or they'd stick together in unexpected ways.
This isn't a supernatural book, but one of psychological endurance. That is horrifying enough. Living every moment of the Long Walk with Ray, as he gets to know the other participants, even befriending some of them, knowing that only one of them will live through it - well, it's fascinating and scary and expertly written. I'm sure it's just as powerful today as when it was first published in 1979. If you like Stephen King but missed this one, go back and read it - you'll be glad you did.