Tattered Tomes: Stephen King’s The Dead Zone Revisited

The Dead Zone by Stephen KingFollowing along with the psychic phenomenon craze of the 1970’s, The Dead Zone was one of many of the books by Stephen King to show us the horrors associated with the mind’s untapped abilities. Carrie covered telekinesis, and later little Danny Torrance had his ‘shine’ in the appropriately named The Shining. Many of the characters in The Stand had prophetic dreams, leading them to the light or astray into darkness, but none of King’s work so far had dived as deep into extrasensory abilities as The Dead Zone. Here we are faced with a man with uncanny, supernatural foresight, attempting to control fate simply because it’s the right thing to do. King has written many a memorable character in his career, but perhaps none as haunting as Johnny Smith. His terrible fate is sealed and delivered from the very beginning, and all we can do is sit back and watch the carousel go round and round.

Released in 1979, it wasn’t until around 1986 when I finally got around to reading it for the first time. I was very fortunate to read the book before seeing Cronenberg’s 1983 film adaptation. Seeing the film first would have cemented Christopher Walken in my mind for the character of Johnny Smith, and while that’s not entirely a bad thing, it’s nice to have been able to picture the character before any outside influences.

The story concerns one Johnny no-middle-initial Smith, an everyman character who suggests that whatever calamity befalls him could indeed happen to anyone else in the world. His character is kind, caring, humorous, loving, and just about every good quality anyone would ever think about themselves. And then, there’s the Dead Zone. Due to an early head injury, further complicated by a more severe head injury that perhaps allowed the earlier one to heal in an unexpected way, Johnny has intense visions of the past and future whenever he comes in physical contact with people. For some reason, while Johnny was in a coma for four and half years after his tragic car accident, his mind healed in a way that allows him to tap into unchartered territory in his brain. While the psychic potential for winning lottery tickets and making a killing in Vegas is there, Johnny’s experiences with his ability tend to bring more pain and misery into his life than he ever thought possible.

King plays with fate here, quite literally. Can we control our destiny? If we know what happens in the future, can we change it? Should we change it? Channeling some of the ole’ Ray Bradbury, King weaves his tale inspired by the former’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, using a county fair as the driving force that brings Johnny and his new girl Sarah together. Johnny wins big with the Wheel of Fortune at the fair while Sarah gets sick from a nasty hotdog, providing the catalyst that sends Johnny home in a cab, and then into a deep sleep for nearly five years. King brilliantly uses Sarah’s perspective to introduce us to the adult Johnny Smith. In the prologue, King used a more distanced narrator to set the events in motion, but once we are in the story proper, he gets much closer, and it makes sense to use Sarah to allow us to begin to know Johnny. Once we get deeper into Johnny’s headspace, we kinda already know him, and know what he’s all about, and it’s this knowing that allows us to feel with him later, to understand the physical and emotional pain he’s going through, both from his lengthy recovery and rehabilitation, and the discovery of his new ability.

Many would think that if you really had psychic abilities, one might want to capitalise it. The fame, the riches, could all be yours. Instead, we find Johnny at odds with his power, realising that people are going to be sceptical, or want to use him, and that’s just not what he’s all about. He even refuses to help the local Sheriff with a vicious serial killer, but ultimately knows if he doesn’t help, then more death will come, and Johnny’s not the type to let that kind of stuff continue if he can help it. He never knows when his power will come into play, or what it will show him, and there’s always a part of the vision that’s hidden, a true dead zone. But Johnny’s gift is also his curse. The understatement is that every time he slips into the trap of his psychic ability, it’s taking a little bit of life right out of him, and there’s only so much life. Once we use it up, it’s gone, and that’s part of what eats away at him. Well that, and of course Greg Stillson.

Of all of King’s villains, Greg Stillson stands out the most. This is perhaps because he is someone we’ve had to face at one time or another in our lives … a bully. Emotionally stunted, excessively violent, Stillson worms his way into local politics, using scare tactics and bribery, reaching for the stars, setting his sights on a seat in the House of Representatives. The opening scene with Stillson in the prologue was a tough read back in 1986, and was still just as tough now, even more so because with age comes experience, and we all pretty much what type of person it takes to kick a dog to death. When you’re eighteen and you read it, you definitely feel sorry for the dog, but when you’re forty-nine and you read it again, you just want to set the whole world on fire. Many writers complain that you shouldn’t use scenes like that to justify your characters, and perhaps they’re right. But no one can even come close to bringing the type of rage felt with that scene than the way King wrote it. He did that on purpose, and there is no doubt there were tears in his eyes when he actually set it to paper. It hurts, but it’s supposed to, and though I hated King for a long time for writing it, I understand why he did.

Johnny meets Stillson while tutoring in New Hampshire, and that chance encounter, the brief touch of skin, is just enough to set Johnny on his mission. He sees death and destruction through Stillson, and he knows he’s the only one that can stop it. He is determined to change fate, knowing there’s a strong possibility he won’t survive it. That is what the wheel of fortune dealt him, and he must see it to the end. Freewill does come into play, as Johnny spends much time figuring if he should so something, and then once he decides, he then spends time figuring out exactly what to do. Stillson is someone whose actions could have deep consequences for the future of everyone if left unchecked, kind of like the current political climate in the US right now. These are big decisions, tough decisions. The answers to the solution are devastating, but if Johnny believes his visions to be genuine, there’s really nothing else he can do.

The one drawback to revisiting this book is seeing the end result of what a bestselling writer could get away with back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in publishing. The Dead Zone is rich in characterisation—really, that’s what propels the story—but at the expense of feeling bloated and padded when compared to modern thrillers. If what’s being published today is to be used as an accurate yardstick to measure the sensibilities of modern readers, then it’s safe to say this novel would have a difficult time getting placed as it is written right now. Cut about 25,000 words, then it would be a very short novel, a quick and fast read, and a story that would definitely be talked about for years to come, but perhaps it would also lose what makes it such a good book, in that without us falling in love with these characters, we would never understand the incredible pains they inflict on one another.

Today, The Dead Zone is regarded as classic Stephen King, as it should be. A movie adaptation, as well as a somewhat successful TV series, propelled the book back into the national spotlight, and it has never been out of print. A little bloated, it has still managed to withstand the test of time and remains a very enjoyable read. If you’ve never read it, or have read it before, you owe it to yourself to revisit this novel and place your own bet of the wheel of fortune. Your fate is that you have a good book in your hands, and your destiny is to be entertained.


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