While Stephen King is not my favorite author, he certainly wrote one of my favorite books of all time: The Dead Zone (1979). It is one of my favorites because, much like a Ray Bradbury novel, it has me right by the nostalgia. I read it when I was a young man and I remember staying up night after night reading it until I had completed it in a sad, bleary-eyed mess. It was a fantastic experience.
So, today, I thought I would give a spoilery breakdown of the novel and my overall impressions of it.
But, before we begin, all you must know is that the book is about a man named Johnny Smith who emerges from a comma with psychic abilities that allow him to see in the future.
The novel opens with a young Johnny Smith falling and hitting his head on the ice while skating, which causes him to see a future accident (a man gets his face burned with battery acid after jumping his car).
Meanwhile, somewhere else in the US, the bible salesmen Greg Stillson thinks about his future (and dreams of power), and then after a bout of annoyance with a barking dog, he savagely beats it to death while getting ready to drop off another Bible. It is a rough scene:
“Sometimes he wondered if he was going crazy. Like now. He had meant to give the dog a burst from the ammonia Flit gun, drive it back into the barn so he could leave his business card in the crack of the screen door.
Come back some other time and make a sale. Now look. Look at this mess. Couldn’t very well leave his card now, could he?
He opened his eyes. The dog lay at his feet, panting rapidly, drizzling blood from its snout. As Greg Stillson looked down, it licked his shoe humbly, as if to acknowledge that it had been bested, and then it went back to the business of dying.”(The Dead Zone | Stephen King)
Fast forward to 1970, Johnny Smith teaches English at a high school in main and is dating one of the other teachers at the school, Sarah Bracknell (Stephen King Wiki). They both go on a date that ends in a spectacular showing of Johnny’s latent ability when he wins a “Wheel of Fortune” carnival game over and over.
After taking Sarah home, Johnny is involved in a car accident and falls into a four-year coma. After he awakes he discovers that he can touch people and see events (typically tragedies) in their future. He has a revealing interaction with one of his nurses during the proceeding passage:
“He was still gripping her hand, looking into her face with’ a faraway, dreamy contemplation that made her feel nervous. She had heard things about Johnny Smith, rumors that she had disregarded with her own brand of hard-headed pragmatism. There was a story that he had predicted Marie Michaud’s boy was going to be all right, even before the doctors were one hundred percent sure they wanted to try the risky operation.
Another rumor had something to do with Dr. Weizak; it was said Johnny had told him his mother was not dead but living someplace on the West Coast under another name. As far as Eileen Magown was concerned, the stories were so much eyewash on a par with the confession magazines and sweet-savage love stories so many nurses read on station. But the way he was looking at her now made her feel afraid. It was as if he was looking inside her.”(The Dead Zone | Stephen King)
After Johnny’s ability becomes known, the press wants to capitalize on his “gift” by inundating him with interviews, but he begins to reject his newfound fame by becoming more reclusive. After a tabloid prints a story on Johnny that dismisses his ability, Johnny believes he can resume his old life; however, the local sheriff asks him if he can help solve a slew of serial-killings, and Johnny is able to adeptly solve the case (the sheriff’s deputy, Frank Dodd, was the culprit).
We cut to the door-to-door salesman (Greg Stillson) who is now the mayor of Ridgeway, New Hampshire, and has found success through making violent threats and other illicit activities against his enemies. Stillson later wins a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives while Johnny is teaching as a tutor in Ridgeway. Johnny decides to meet Stillson (as he has made a hobby of meeting elected officials) during a rally and has a psychic vision that the vicious, dog-killing politician will eventually cause worldwide nuclear chaos.
“There was the sense of flying – flying through the blue – above scenes of utter desolation that could not quite be seen. And cutting through this came the disembodied voice of Greg Stillson, the voice of a cut-rate God or a comic-opera engine of the dead: ‘I’M GONNA GO THROUGH THEM LIKE BUCKWHEAT THROUGH A GOOSE! GONNA GO THROUGH THEM LIKE SHIT THROUGH A CANEBRAKE!’
‘The tiger,’ Johnny muttered thickly. ‘The tiger’s behind the blue. Behind the yellow.’
Then all of it, pictures, images, and words, broke up in the swelling, soft roar of oblivion. He seemed to smell some sweet, coppery scent, like burning high-tension wires. For a moment that inner eye seemed to open even wider, searching; the blue and yellow that had obscured everything seemed about to solidify into … into something, and from somewhere inside, distant and full of terror, he heard a woman shriek: ‘Give him to me, you bastard!’”(The Dead Zone | Stephen King)
Johnny decides to take matters into his own hands by buying a rifle with the intent to assassinate Stillson.
At Stillson’s next rally, Johnny hides in an upper-balcony and eventually tries to assassinate him but misses multiple times before Stillson uses a child as a human shield. Johnny, caught off guard, is shot by Stillson’s bodyguard detachment and falls, breaking his back on a wooden bench. Before dying, Johnny touches Stillson and learns that he has prevented the violent future he saw in his premonition.
“Stillson got up abruptly, and with the last bit of his strength Johnny reached out and grasped his ankle. It was only for a second; Stillson pulled free easily. But it was long enough.
Everything had changed.
People were drawing near him now, but he saw only feet and legs, no faces. It didn’t matter. Everything had changed.
He began to cry a little. Touching Stillson this time had been like touching a blank. Dead battery. Fallen tree. Empty house. Bare bookshelves. Wine bottles ready for candles.”(The Dead Zone| Stephen King)
The book closes with letters from Johnny to his father and other loved ones that details his motives and rationale, and it also features a brief narrative including Sarah, who visits Johnny’s grave and makes peace with his death. It turns out that Johnny’s headaches were caused by a tumor that gave him only a few months to live, and he struggled with the thought of standing idly by after he tried to deter a graduation party that went up in flames. So, according to Johny, there was no alternative to killing Stillson.
I love this novel for its pacing. You get to live with Johnny Smith and his strange “gift” and it is both supernatural and extremely human. By the end of the novel, you feel for the guy because he is not some cool superhero with a magic ability, but because he’s emotional and in so much pain.
Additionally, as some critics have pointed out—there really is not an antagonist for most of this novel, so it relies on the themes of “recovery” and alienation for a large chunk of it and that makes it an excellent character story.
It is also a sad book and upset me emotionally when I was younger because it was a lot to take in for a kid who felt the interior pangs of estrangement. It is honestly one of my top three favorite books of all time and I always recommend it for somebody interested in Stephen King’s writing.