The Dead Zone by Stephen King
This classic, by the master horror writer, was first published in 1977 but has aged remarkably well. It’s strange to think that some readers of such fiction today were not even a glint in their sexed-up father’s eye when King penned The Dead Zone. In fact, there may be grandparents alive today who did not exist when Stevie sat at his old typewriter to knock this one out. Yet The Dead Zone is still as good a book as anything written today. Now that’s a classic.
Johnny Smith is a likeable everyman, teaching high school in the small Maine town of Cleaves Mills. He is in love with Sarah, also a teacher there. They are just starting out on their journey together and it looks promising. That is, until the night of the fair in Esty.
What Sarah doesn’t know, and what Johnny can’t remember, is that he had a bad fall as a small boy, knocking himself out. After the headaches had subsided, young Johnny was left with something resembling prescience. It is many years later at the Wheel of Fortune that Sarah’s boyfriend displays his uncanny ability, winning a large sum of cash. But Johnny wonders if there is a price to pay for such good fortune, a balance to be regained perhaps.
He doesn’t have to wait long for the answer. It’s in the taxi-ride home that night that Johnny discovers that his luck has run out. A terrible crash leaves him in a coma for almost 5 years, as his mother succumbs to increasing religious mania, his father struggles to pay the medical bills, and Sarah eventually falls in love with another and, for the most part, moves on with her broken life.
When Johnny emerges from his stasis, he faces a very long and painful road to recovery. His body is a mess and requires operation after operation. He struggles to walk and is horribly scarred. His emotional battles and psychological wars are even worse. For John Smith, it is still 5 years previous when his life was on track and he was in love with the most beautiful girl in Maine, and she with him.
Running parallel to Johnny’s story are those of a serial killer torturing the town of Castle Rock, and Greg Stillson, a psychotic salesman turned politician with some mean intent. Johnny is approached by Sheriff Bannerman of Castle Rock who asks for his help in identifying the crazed killer who has been raping and murdering females of all ages. The plagued Mr Smith reluctantly agrees and is successful in uncovering the killer. But it comes at a cost. His privacy is further eroded and he is now viewed by many an an exhibit, a freak to be smiled at but avoided.
But it is when Johnny shakes hands with Congressman Stillson at a rally, that he has his strongest premonition yet. It’s this concrete realization that causes Johnny Smith to undertake some serious introspection. If a man knows for certain that someone is going to be responsible for enormous terror, death and destruction in the future, then to what extent should that man act to stop them, even if that means breaking the law? Think time-machine and Hitler. Poor Johnny is a good man facing a terrible and unenviable dilemma.
This novel is beautifully written. It’s a great story-line and typical of King in that. But it’s the writing that rules. It’s perfectly paced. Although longer than the average novel, the reader will not realize it. Every line is a hook, every passage an adventure and every page an addiction. The Dead Zone is a tragedy with much greater oomph than that Shakespeare crap everyone harps on about. It is about as poignant a story as you will ever read. Johnny Smith must be one of the most sympathetic and likeable, yet hard-done-by, characters you will ever encounter.
Rebel Voice will readily admit to being emotionally moved by this novel. It seems that no matter how decent John Smith is, life was never going to give him a chance at a normal existence. Every time Johnny fights to stay ahead, fate decides to throw a wicked curve-ball straight at his pleasantly smiling face. Yet, in the manner of all heroes, he perseveres.
Interestingly, Greg Stillson’s rise to power in the halls of D.C. might remind the reader of Trump’s progress. The similarities are frightening. Rebel Voice wonders if Stephen King looks at Trump, then remembers Greg Stillson and shudders. It really is a case of life imitating art. But is there a Johnny Smith out there to save us poor souls of today?
Many novels strive to provide depth to their characters and few truly succeed. In The Dead Zone, King has created some of the most perfectly formed and well presented characters ever. Johnny Smith will feel as if he is your very good friend. Your heart may bleed a little for him. Sarah, Stillson, Johnny’s father and mother, and Dr Sam Weizak are all incredibly engaging and profound. Yet the story never drags. It is never dull or overbearing.
The reader’s emotions will rise and fall with Johnny’s. His journey becomes that of the reader’s. You may even shed a tear at the conclusion of this masterpiece. King has penned many laudable tales, the equal of which will rarely be seen. But The Dead Zone might well be his best, at least for this reviewer.
If the reader is to take anything from The Dead Zone, let it be that although we can try our best to do the right thing, we should always remember that, sadly, sometimes life just isn’t fucking fair. Just ask all the adults who were abused as children, or perhaps think upon the children who never got to be adults. If only we each had a Johnny Smith in our lives, what a wonderful world that would be. The again, maybe some of us have but just don’t realize it yet…
Sult scale rating: 9.5 out of 10. Everyone on the planet above the age of 16 should read this book. Never mind your Dickens, or Elizabeth Bennett and that posh wanker, Darcy, The Dead Zone is where you will enjoy true literary genius. This book needs to be on all secondary school curriculums.
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