Synopsis: Waking up from a five-year coma after a car accident, former schoolteacher Johnny Smith discovers that he can see people's futures and pasts when he touches them. Many consider his talent a gift; Johnny feels cursed. His fiance, Sarah Bracknell, married another man during his coma and people clamor for him to solve their problems. When Johnny has a disturbing vision after he shakes the hand of an ambitious and amoral politician, he must decide if he should take drastic action to change the future.
The last novel published by Stephen King -- under his own name or otherwise -- during the 1970's, The Dead Zone is, arguably, one of King's most mature and intricately-plotted.
From a historical standpoint, The Dead Zone is a very interesting book in the world of Stephen King. It was his first release with Viking after making the move from Doubleday. It was his first hardcover bestseller. King was already on the rise with Brian de Palma's film adaptation of Carrie hitting the big screen three years before and resonating with movie audiences in a way few horror movies had before. He was becoming a household name. Sales for his books were going up. By 1979 King was on the fast-track to becoming the star he is now, and this novel hitting number one had a big part in that.
What is so interesting about this book hitting number one is it is so different than anything else Stephen King had attempted before. Sure, this book combines elements from previous works -- religious fanaticism and clairvoyance chief among them -- but this isn't a horror novel. Not at all. If anything, this book is a tragedy.
Essentially, the plot is this: Johnny Smith, everyman, school teacher, et cetera, is in a car wreck on the way home from a date with his love, Sarah. He slips into a coma for over four years. The wreck happens in late 1970 and he awakens in early summer of 1975. In that time Vietnam ended, Nixon resigned, the Oil Embargo had grabbed America by the throat. The early '70s were a pivotal part in America's history, and Johnny misses it all, stuck in a hospital bed and plugged up to life support. He comes to and realizes his life has changed forever -- Sarah has gotten married and has a child, he is five years older, and his body is a wreck. It's a set-up from which I could not truly glean the tragedy during my first read, but this reread (my fourth in all) was different. I could truly feel Johnny's pain and sense of loss and depression. His life has been dramatically altered forever, and he feels the heavy weight of implications on his shoulders. As well, his great power to see the future brings scoff and ridicule and some amazement, too. He must learn how to deal with the gift he's been given.
As I said earlier, this book is one of King's most intricately-plotted (or, at the very least, it's one of his strangest plots). There is no central bad guy to drive the narrative forward aside from, perhaps, the Castle Rock Killer or Greg Stillson, but the reader only sees short glimpses of both at any given time, bringing to mind Charlie Jacobs from Revival. The novel's sole focus is Johnny Smith as he moves forward through physical therapy and moving back home with his parents to becoming a tutor and living in his own place again to, eventually, getting involved with local politics which brings him face to face with Greg Stillson, a corrupt -- but only Johnny can see just how corrupt -- politician with a winning smile and a kick-the-losers-out attitude. (Bring to mind a certain someone, hmmm?) If anything, the villain here is fate itself... or maybe God or luck. Or perhaps all three. Like in The Stand, the idea of a master plan and doing our duty to the best of our ability is explored here, but in The Dead Zone it's on a smaller scale, thus making it more intimate and relateable to the reader. There are no expansive landscapes or epic fights for souls here. It's simply one man dealing with tragic loss and trying to pick up the pieces of his life the best he can. In that way, King was already paving the way for masterful tomes like Duma Key and Bag of Bones long before they were actually written.
Unlike King's other novels that deal with psychic powers -- Carrie, The Shining, and Firestarter -- Johnny Smith was not born with his powers and, therefore, the way he reacts and uses the powers is handled in a different and more realistic way. John's powers are unwanted and he can remember a life over twenty years long in which he had no special powers and, therefore, was not considered a freak or con-man. He was an ordinary American citizen -- a teacher in a small town and engaged to the love of his life -- but that is no more, and he did nothing to cause it. And now that it has happened, he cannot run from it but must use his power to save humanity from its greatest danger. And it is on that that the crux lies, causing the reader to ask him or herself the question so chillingly asked by Johnny himself -- "If you could go back to 1932 and kill Hitler, knowing you would probably get caught, would you do it?" The theme of political assassination is one that would come up over thirty years later in King's excellent 11/22/63, thus linking those two novels together, making them twins of a sort, albeit with different ideas and objectives -- one is about an assassination saving the lives of the American people by way of preventing World War III and the other is about preventing an assassination for the betterment and salvation of history as a living, breathing thing that can be changed and formed... and also preventing World War III.
In conclusion: although I've always loved The Dead Zone, this reread made it one of my very favorite King novels and it might just be my favorite work I've explored in this reread thus far... maybe. That's hard to say, though. Regardless, this is a must-read for any King fan or lover of political thrillers. It's a chilly, autumnal novel -- a good read for the cold months ahead.
King connections (the page numbers are listed are from the American hardcover first edition):
- Sarah moves into an apartment on Flagg Street in the town of Veazie, Maine. (p. 20)
- Johnny bets the house on nineteen in a game of wheel of fortune at the local carnival. (p. 38)*
- Johnny makes plans to visit his mother at Cumberland General, a hospital just above Jerusalem's Lot. (p. 171)
- A teacher (and murder victim of the Castle Rock Killer) is said to love the works of Robert Browning, author of Roland Childe to the Dark Tower Came. (p. 236)*
- Johnny tutors a boy in a reading, and the book being read -- Fire Brain -- stars a gunslinger. (p. 282)*
- King's debut novel Carrie is referenced. (p. 368)
- Roger, the boy Johnny is tutoring, mentions leaving for Stovington Prep -- the school Jack Torrance taught at before becoming the Overlook Hotel's winter caretaker in The Shining. (p. 370) '
- In a cemetery, Sarah passes by a row of headstones for a family of Marstens. This, of course, could be a reference to Hubie Marsten from 'Salem's Lot. (p. 423)
* - Since it was published in 1979, The Dead Zone came out a few years before the first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger, was available to the general public. However, King is on record as saying he started it in 1970 and sections of the story were being published in magazines in the late '70s, so I choose to believe the Tower series was on King's mind at the time and the asterisked references are, in fact, references to the world of Roland the Gunslinger. Everything is nineteen.
“What would his father do then? Go on, Johnny supposed. People had a way of doing that, just going on, pushing through with no particular drama, no big drumrolls.”
It's hard to choose, but I guess I'll go with the press conference that's held just after it's found out by reporters in the media that Johnny is clairvoyant.
We're turning up the heat. It's Firestarter! (Before that, however, I'll probably do a write-up of King's '70s works. Stay tuned.)