Book #8. The Dead Zone.
First published August, 1979.
I know I’m going to say this a lot as we go through the reviews of all of Stephen King’s bibliography, but The Dead Zone has been one of my favourite books from the first time I read it. To be honest I read it three or four times in a very short period when I first got it, and then probably once every year for a number of years after that. In recent years I haven’t been able to devote that much time to re-reading old favourites, but having just finished this once again, I can only say that it was a wonderful and magnificent experience. Again.
The plight of Johnny Smith, who from an accident at an early age and a subsequent much larger accident in his early twenties that leaves him in a coma for four and a half years seems to develop an psychic ability to be able to see parts of a person’s life – either past or present or future – just from having contact with them directly or with an item that they have touched, is one that seems to have little joy for the individual in question. An unassuming man with a lop sided smile, his whole life is turned upside down while visiting a local carnival, from which the rest of the story expands. It’s a sad story in retrospect. Johnny’s whole life from this point on is a mess, full of pain and agony and stress, as he tries to find his place in the world that has left him almost as a freak of nature.
The different parts of the entire story are woven into the fabric of the book all the way through, and on first reading most seem completely out of place, and irrelevant to what is happening at that time. And yes, this is partly true. It isn’t until each part suddenly shows up in the life of Johnny Smith that the lightbulb goes on in your head and you think, “Ohhhh… THAT’S why that was spoken of earlier!”. And as each of those instances turns up, you become more and more impressed at the way the story comes together.
What do I mean by that? Well, I’m not specifically speaking of Greg Stillson and his antics, as he is obviously seen as the main event antagonist from the very beginning. The madness and imminent danger of Stillson is apparent from the very start of the novel, with the initial scene of him kicking a dog to death particularly violent and disturbing, and his introduction so early in the piece alerts you to the fact that he is to be a major player. His building of power throughout the story is obviously significant to the end game. But the by play and side stories I am alluding to are such things as the Castle Rock Strangler, with the early telling of those murders not really coming into the main story under Sheriff Bannerman makes contact with Johnny later on in desperation to try and find the killer – and suddenly it is a part of the main storyline. Or the visit of the salesman to the bar in the desert, who really has only come in for a drink but decides to have a crack at selling the establishment the lightning rods he supplies to help protect it. It seems like a random and unusual chapter in the book, until it becomes the venue for Chuck’s graduation party later in the novel, and Johnny sees it burn to the ground, which sets off another of the ‘big picture’ events of the book, and once again you realise how clever the earlier set up was.
The novel also utilises the real events in the United States from the first half of the decade of the 1970’s as a backdrop, and especially in the growth of Stillson’s political movement. King also highlights the growing religious fervour of the time by instilling the madness into Johnny’s mother, and her growing need to follow the many different ‘cults’ and religious and UFO movements that graced that period in the country.
Throughout the whole story, the question of Johnny Smith’s ability is handled wonderfully well by King. He does not get ‘flashes’ from everything and everyone he touches. He can’t search for information that he or someone else wants to get from touching an object, he can only receive the information the object or person gives off. That’s what makes his ability so fascinating. He is not looking to find information in most instances, the information is forced upon him. It is only really when he decides he wants to meet politicians at rallies for the forthcoming election that he seeks out people with the direct focus on finding out about them. Certainly when he goes to see Greg Stillson, it is with this directive. What he discovers changes what remains of the rest of his life.
Through it all, Johnny wants to remain normal. His love for Sarah is a battle as he can never reclaim the four and a half years of his life in which he was in a coma and through which she changed her life considerably. His dream is to teach again, but at every turn he is surrounded by the hysteria when he once again has one of his flashes which changes the course of his life. The struggle and comparison throughout the novel of whether or not God has given him this gift for a reason, as his mother fervently believed, or if he has been cursed for the loss of those years in a coma, then the rehabilitation, and then being unable to lead a normal life because of the constant publicity surrounding him, is easily transferred onto the pages, and allows the reader to believe what they wish without King writing a right or wrong essay on the subject. Even at the end, with the final deed carried out, King allows both sides of the argument to air their thoughts when it is discovered that Johnny had a brain tumour, and while some would believe he tried to kill Stillson because the tumour was corrupting his brain and thoughts, others would believe he truly had the gift of foresight and it was only because his time was running out that he had to act. Again, King leaves it open for the reader to decide. The one big marker being that Johnny did have this ability, and as such would he have killed Stillson if he didn’t think people were in danger?
The book is so well crafted, and so well written, that it is impossible to put it down while reading. It is just over 400 pages long, but once again I had finished it before I knew it. Just three days on this occasion. Each part is fascinating. The accident at the lake in Johnny’s youth. The evening at the carnival with the Wheel of Fortune. The years of coma. Johnny’s awakening and those early flashes. The night at Castle Rock. The teaching of Chuck. The travelling to the political rallies. The lightning strike at the high school graduation party. All with Stillson’s growing demeanour throughout, and leading to the final conclusion to the book. This is truly one of his masterpieces, and without doubt one of his best ten. Most likely (which I won’t know until the end of this process) one of his top five.
Rating: The curse of the ‘nice guys finish last’. 5/5