The Dead Zone (1979)

The Dead Zone, King's follow-up to The Stand, is a sombre exploration of psychic abilities and their attendant responsibilities. Reading the two books one after the other, the contrasts are striking: where The Stand is epic and expansive, The Dead Zone is lean and almost muted in tone - it immediately seems like a much more personal story.

The prologue introduces us to the two central characters of the novel, the hero and villain respectively, many years before they will actually meet. The first is Johnny Smith, a young lad who has a nasty accident while ice skating. His head injury results in a soon-forgotten burst of prophecy and years of "hunches". Meanwhile, the villain of the piece - Greg Stillson - is a travelling Bible salesman who kicks a dog to death in his first scene. Despite his obvious anger management issues, Stillson believes himself to be destined for greatness. Whether he will attain that greatness, however, will depend on much which is to follow.

Skip ahead to October 1970. Johnny is now a teacher in the small town of Cleaves Mills, and is dating one of his colleagues, Sarah Bracknell. King establishes very quickly that Johnny is a really nice person with a good sense of humour - the reader soon finds him as endearing as Sarah does. We follow them as they head out on a fateful date at the county fair, where King pulls out the first of several strong setpieces: Johnny hits a winning streak on a Wheel of Fortune stall, eventually winning several hundred dollars from his initial bet, rubbing his forehead absently all the while. However, Johnny's luck runs out at the end of the night, when his taxi crashes into some drag-racing teens, killing the driver and leaving Johnny in a coma for the next five years.

Spoilers ahead! When he finally wakes up, his old life is gone - Sarah is married with a child, his parents have used up their savings keeping him in hospital, and his mother's religion has become a full-blown mania - and he has a long road of surgery and physiotherapy ahead of him. In addition, Johnny has developed a fully-fledged psychic power: he can see a person's past or future by touching either them or their possessions. His mother, Vera, swiftly seizes on this as evidence of God's "plan" for him, but Johnny is less sure.*

I found it interesting that at no point does Johnny consider his power to be a blessing. It is mysterious, it doesn't manifest itself in any predictable pattern and it is not controllable. It is useful at times (such as when Johnny "sees" someone's house burning down and is able to call the fire brigade in time to minimise the damage), but the visions gradually become more obviously linked to head pain - even on this basic level, there is a downside to his ability. There is also, equally importantly, the "dead zone" itself: an area of his brain which was damaged in the crash. This affects Johnny both in the real world (he struggles to remember street names, for example) and in his visions; there are often blind spots in his second sight, details which he cannot see. All of which is important to the plot, as we will see. And all of which is handled adroitly by King - where I have made it sound maddeningly vague and have rambled on for ages, he slowly builds up the picture we have of Johnny's condition, essentially keeping us at the same stage of understanding as the character for much of the book.

Major spoilers ahead! While all this is developing, we occasionally break away to chart Stillson's rise through the social ranks. He becomes a successful businessman, and later mayor of his town, through a combination of underhand moves and outright intimidation. We also witness growing desperation in a small Maine town called Castle Rock, where a killer known as the 'Castle Rock Strangler' is murdering and raping (in that order) females of all ages. King weaves these elements into the novel a little at a time, until eventually Johnny is sought out by Sheriff George Bannerman. He solves the case in a matter of pages. It all feels rather abrupt, to be honest. It's almost as if King wanted to introduce his fictional town, but didn't want to divert the reader from Johnny's main storyline for too long. It just seems a slight shame to leave so soon.

The "main" storyline mentioned above revolves - as you will already have surmised - around Stillson, by now a candidate for the House of Representatives. The political background of the mid-70s runs throughout the novel, but comes firmly into focus when (a) Johnny meets soon-to-be President Carter, shaking his hand and predicting electoral success, and (b) Johnny is gladhanded by Stillson at a rally and sees global nuclear war. In about twenty years' time, Stillson will somehow become President and trigger the end of the world. This raises the "if you could go back in time and kill Hitler in the early 1930s, would you do it?" dilemma; should Johnny assassinate Stillson to save the world? Making this decision more troubling still is the fact that there are blue filters covering key moments of the vision - the dead zone.

The construction of The Dead Zone is quite unusual. As I've already mentioned, there are several background plotlines which gradually come to bear on the episodic treatment of Johnny's tale, some of which are major and some of which are throwaway bits of detail that can only be fully understood in light of much later events (a salesman's visit to a bar, for example). The structure of the final part of the book is bold: King ends the story and then shows us why it ended the way it did in 'Notes from the Dead Zone', a coda which is satisfying and melancholy at the same time. The tragedy of Johnny Smith's post-coma life - the pain, the social isolation, the terrible burden of foreknowledge - makes him stand out among King's protagonists. Johnny is arguably his most sympathetic character so far, and he is dealt a harrowing hand by his creator. It makes The Dead Zone a compelling read.

Notes for the obsessive factfan: Johnny's psychic power is hysterically compared to being "just like in that book Carrie." And a signpost in the vicinity of Castle Rock points to Jerusalem's Lot, suggesting that it isn't all that far away.

* This makes for an interesting comparison with God's influence in The Stand. In that book, Mother Abigail
repeatedly speaks of God's "plan" and "will", and (for the most part) the other characters follow this plan, regardless of their personal beliefs. In The Dead Zone, Vera's insistence on "doing God's work" is (a) rejected by her son and husband, and (b) presented as a symptom of her unhinged, obsessional mind. My theory is that King decided to balance his previous example of benign, barely questioned religious authority with this unhappy woman. In this book, God's "will" can be seen to work (if at all) through less direct methods.

Next: Firestarter.


Nathan said...

I'm loving these reviews, but at the same time regretting the day I found out about your site - I just know that I'm going to have to re-buy and re-read these books. I think I read them all up to the Tommyknockers, but sold them all a long time ago. Thank god for Amazon resellers.

Really looking forward to your review of It.

Will said...

Thanks Dan. Very Much enjoyed that review. Doesn't sound quite as gripping as the Stand (Which, judging by your reviews so far, sounds like the most absorbing of King's books - If I remember rightly). How far through this quest are you?

Dan said...

Thanks to both, glad you're enjoying the reviews!

Nathan, I'm also really looking forward to revisiting It, which is definitely one of my favourites.

And I'm about a tenth of the way through at this point, Will.

Anonymous said...

*wipes out table of chintzy ornaments*

Dan said...

Interestingly, that scene is not in the book. Instead of teenagers going through the ice while playing ice hockey, they all burn to death in a bar at their graduation party. Which ties in nicely with Johnny Smith being compared to Carrie White (although Johnny, of course, doesn't cause the fire).

Will said...

Dude, you are really lagging. Last post 05/08! You are going to have to press on if you are going to complete his entire opus (or should that be opi?) before the next olympics.

Dan said...

Ok, I'm back now!

napawo72 said...


Stephen Thorne said...

This was the first King book I read. I loved the sombre tone (which you sum up very well here) and the long relationships between the main characters.