Fiction Review: The Dead Zone



It's been a long time since I read Stephen King's The Dead Zone. I believe I received it as a Christmas gift in a boxed set back around 1987. First published in 1979, The Dead Zone isn't really a horror novel - it is more a crossover of a political thriller and a tale of a man gifted/cursed with psychic powers.

What I found striking was how the book both worked as a period piece and how it is relevant today. It tells the story of John Smith - yes, that's his real name. Ever since an accident he had as very young boy (one he has no memory of) he's had the occasional psychic flash. This is illustrated in the beginning of the novel, set in October of 1970, where he and his girlfriend Sarah, both first-year teachers, are at a carnival and he has a wild streak of luck at the wheel of fortune. However, his luck soon turns ill as he gets in a car accident which puts him in a coma with nearly no chance of recovery.

We follow Sarah as she meets Johnny's parents, Herb and Vera, for the first time in the hospital. They all react in different ways. Vera becomes very extremely religious (she'd already been extremely religious), getting involved in various doomsday cults. Herb is horrified by his wife's instability and while he greatly loves his only child, is at the point that he wishes John would die and be free. Sarah stays in touch with John's father and struggles with the loss-but-not-loss of a man she had just begun to love. Eventually she moves on with her life and marries, with Herb's blessing and attendance.

Of course Johnny wakes up. Four and half years later. He discovers the world has changed, in huge and in small ways. There is of course the shock of his girlfriend now being married. And there is the shift in politics, with the Vietnam War over and Richard Nixon gone.

Johnny's psychic flashes have become far more powerful - a form of psychometry - by touching a person or object he can often (though by no means always) get flashes of the future or the past. His ability to trigger it is not reliable but when it does activate it is always accurate. Though the future he sees can be changed with these warnings.

The rest of the novel deals with Johnny getting a psychic flash that an up and coming independent politician, Greg Stillson, will one day become president - and will be a disastrous president. Around this main storyline Johnny has to learn to walk again, his muscles having atrophied. And he has to handle being an occasional celebrity as word of his abilities becomes known, though by no means universally believed. Johnny really wants to go back to teaching, something that proves rather difficult given the reputation he acquires, especially after a desperate Castle Rock police force makes use of him to find a serial killer.

Written in a period when it seemed to be open season on incumbents, especially Republican ones, it's interesting to view Stillson through a more modern lens. Stillson, though at his core quite ruthless, presents a bit of a whacky exterior, giving out free hot dogs at his rallies. Part of his platform is to send all pollution into space. His unconventional nature obviously makes one think of Donald Trump (and depending on one's political views, the danger Stillson represents).

In addition to the big story elements, the small ones are just as vital to the story. Johnny's relaitonship with his parents, his father in particular, is vital. As is his attempts to reconcile what happened with Sarah - the feeling that they were cheated out of a life they should have had together.

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