Title: The Dead Zone
Author: Stephen King
Publisher/Copyright: Signet, 1980
My reading relationship with the works of Stephen King is a complicated one. I greatly admire his craft, he’s an excellent writer. The Shining is one of my favorite books ever, and may be the only one to ever actually scare me. (I don’t usually read horror, as a rule, so there haven’t been many opportunities.) I’ve been meaning to read this one for a year or so now, ever since King piqued my interest in it when he discussed its premise in On Writing. Fortunately, I found a copy at the library book sale last week, and here we are.
Johnny Smith is on the face of things nothing exceptional, but his brain hides a secret of astounding power. A childhood concussion gives him occasional headaches and vague premonitions, but it is not until a run of spectacular luck at the fair is balanced by a near-fatal car accident that plunges him into a coma for four and a half years that this gift or curse is unlocked to its full potential. He awakes to find a world that is changed–Watergate has forever ruined the American people’s faith in the White House, long hair isn’t just for hippies anymore, and his girlfriend married another man after the doctors said Johnny would never wake up. The real kicker, however, is that Johnny now has the ability to “read” certain people and things, touch them and know something about them he shouldn’t otherwise know. He tells one of his doctors how to find his supposedly-dead mother. He informs a nurse that her apartment is on fire and she should go save her cats, and tells another nurse that her son’s surgery will be a success. He tells Jimmy Carter he’ll win the Presidency. And one day, when he shakes the hand of an up-and-coming politician, he is treated to a vision of impending full-out nuclear war….
I like King. I really do. That said, there are some things about King and his work that I am less a fan of. For example, in the works I’ve read so far anyway, the supernatural is almost always bad, almost always horrifying. The exception to this rule has been The Shining, where the boy’s power is at worst neutral and could potentially be used for good. Now The Dead Zone makes the list as well, since John Smith’s ability or curse has positive applications.* The Dead Zone also makes the list of exceptions to the other general rule for King novels–I usually don’t like the characters. Johnny Smith is likable. So is Danny Torrance and the old cook who has the same ability in The Shining. I liked Jake Epping, the protagonist from 11/22/63 as well, but most of the characters King writes (that I’ve read) are less likable. I pity Carrie, but I don’t like her. Neither did King, according to On Writing, so that may have had something to do with it. Paul Sheldon doesn’t deserve what happens to him at the hand of Annie Wilkes in Misery, but he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue–let’s not forget he fell into her hands after driving drunk during a snowstorm. I don’t remember strongly reacting to the characters one way or the other in The Eyes Of The Dragon or Cell, so I’ll leave those be. Johnny Smith, however, is a rarity for King’s body of work (again, so far as I’ve read.) He’s a true tragic hero in every sense of the term. On multiple occasions it would be so much easier to ignore his premonitions and just let things be, but his conscience gets the best of him every time. To quote Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Christians don’t fare well in King’s novels (again, so far as I’ve read.) Carrie’s mother is a full-blown psycho fundamentalist, as is a character’s mother in this novel. Johnny’s mother is on her way to becoming the same way, but never gets beyond eccentric and gullible to become destructive. If I didn’t know better, I’d say King’s mother had something to do with this recurring theme, but I don’t recall that being discussed in On Writing. On the other hand, he does take care to distinguish these characters who are so far off the deep end from the main body of Christians, so that’s at least not quite so annoying.
CONTENT: R-rated language, not so gratuitous as you will find elsewhere. Some violence, occasionally graphic, and some related content that is fairly disturbing. Gred Stillson’s first appearance is a disturbing example of animal cruelty. Sexual content, non-explicit, including a serial-killer/rapist whose victims range from an old church-lady to a nine-year-old schoolgirl. This is in no way glorified, but written such that the reader feels only repulsed (as they should be!) Stephen King is no stranger to occult content, but I don’t think this quite qualifies. Johnny’s power is played as scientific, albeit far from understood, a side effect of his brain accommodating the damage done in the accident.
*You could argue whether it’s truly supernatural, however.