The Dead Zone, by Stephen King, was originally published in 1979 and follows the life of Johnny Smith who, after an accident as a child, shows a degree of ESP like abilities, which fully manifest just before and after a serious car accident that leaves him in a coma for five years. His prime years stolen from him, Johnny has to not only rehabilitate his body, but also adjust to a life where Watergate happened and the love of his life married another man.
John Smith. With a name like that you would think that he’d be a rather unassuming figure who would melt into the background of life and just go about it. But with DZ being a Stephen King novel this of course means that this ordinary, “pleasant-rather-than-handsome face” will grow to become something more and that we will witness in excruciating detail the journey Johnny Smith makes from boy to teacher to infamous psychic.
The book is set over the course of the three decades or so running up to 1979. Taking place in New England, New Hampshire, etc, the novel dwells upon familiar ground for King fans. Like with many of King’s earlier novels (this was his eighth book) he manages to make the ordinary become something more than the everyday.
Every detail of this regular, not-so-different-world-from-our-own, is important and has its place, but King only gives us the important things, making The Dead Zone a balanced book on a descriptive level. Compared to his novels from the 90s, like Insomnia, DZ is not a mountain of a read, because King didn’t go over the top with describing every single minute detail and moment of the characters and their surroundings.
Parts like part nine of chapter nine show King’s appreciation for not going OTT, this part being the single, short sentence that comprises the whole of this part:
The dinner that night was a great success.
A believable protagonist
Unlike the 2000s TV series, the Johnny Smith of the novel is a far more troubled and thoughtful man. The psychic abilities that are awakened in him are shown by King to give Johnny immense discomfort and little satisfaction. When Johnny sees something bad, he’s not happy when he turns out to be right, because he’d rather not have a gift that gives him such terrible insights. In the way that Johnny’s dislike for his “gift” is shown, the conflicts it creates and the misery it brings to other people, it’s made perfectly clear why Johnny isn’t going off solving mysteries and crimes all over the country.
Bringing forth the internal conflict that Johnny suffers for much of the novel, his struggle with his own destiny, is a strong point in King’s writing here. Having read the novel twice, I’m now quite certain that King manages to get the right balance between the internal and external worlds of the novels main characters and especially of Johnny.
Perhaps what lets things down a little is the motivations of several of the novels antagonists. While we’re shown their progress from being nothing but regular Joes to people who need to be feared, the motivations of the Castle Rock killer are, today, cliché from a forensic psychology/criminology point of view and there seems to be almost no motivations for the headline antagonist Greg Stillson.
Worth a read?
For some readers today, especially those from outside the United States, they may need to get up to speed with some of the major political events of the US during the 20th century in order to fully appreciate elements of the story. Beyond that, The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King’s more accessible novels and a good read if you find the length of his later work unwelcoming or aren’t feeling squeamish enough for earlier stuff like The Shining. Basically: it’s a page turner, give it a go.