The Dead Zone by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“We all do what we can, and it has to be good enough, and if it isn't good enough, it has to do.”
Who else but Christopher Walken could play Johnny Smith in the highly praised David Cronenberg film?
Johnny Smith is a rookie teacher with $8 in his pocket, just enough money to take his best girl Sarah, also a new teacher, to the local county fair. Sarah is coming off a couple of recent relationships that were exciting with aggressive, unpredictable men. Johnny is a step in a new direction, maybe a more responsible direction not driven as much by physical attraction as by mental stimulation.
She has no idea who Johnny is, but that can’t be helped because Johnny doesn’t really know who he is either.
We get our first inkling that something is different about Johnny as they are leaving the fair. The Wheel of Fortune guy running a crude version of the roulette wheel tempts Johnny over to try his luck with his last few remaining dollars. Johnny starts by betting on black or red and wins. As his confidence grows, he starts picking exact numbers and keeps winning. A crowd is drawn to this run of luck.
But is it luck?
He turns his meager money into three months pay.
Sarah becomes sick from a bad hot dog. Johnny quits the game to take her home. Since they came in her car, he takes a taxi back to his apartment.
There is an accident, and Johnny goes through the windshield.
He doesn’t wake up for four and half years.
His mother, never a stable person before, becomes more frantically religious. She throws herself at every new religious concept, even going so far at one point to joining a commune who are waiting for alien space ships to come pick them up to take them to God. With each new religious venture she brings the Smith’s closer to bankruptcy. Religious zealotry is always so scary to me. They believe it, whatever it is, so fervently that any rational thought is wrestled to the ground and pinned by unquestioning faith.
When Johnny comes out of his coma, he has the ability/curse of being able to touch someone or something owned by that person (psychometry) and see pieces of their future. Some key elements always seem to be missing, and those murky parts Johnny calls The Dead Zone.
An ability like this? Well...it scares people.
”The nurses were lined up against the glass of the nurses’ station, staring at him. Suddenly they reminded him of crows on a telephone line, crows staring down at something bright and shiny, something to be pecked at and pulled apart.”
That does seem to be our nature to fear what we don’t understand, quickly followed by the need to destroy what we fear. Anyone different, whether they have a unconventional sexual orientation or a disfigurement or just see the world differently, will feel the constant pressure to conform or...disappear. It is only logical of course that if Johnny knows about a fire before it happens that he must have been involved in setting that fire. The possibility of clairvoyance is too unique, too extraordinary for others to comprehend.
Johnny is ridiculed, exposed as a charlatan. He is fine with that. It might mean he has a chance to find a normal life.
He is doing well until a small town Sheriff can’t catch the Raincoat Serial Killer.
A handshake can be so revealing. And yes that is Martin Sheen playing Greg Stillson.
As Johnny is finding himself back in the spotlight, there is another man, a Bible salesman by the name of Greg Stillson, who is starting to have big thoughts, dreams of more power than any lunatic should ever have.
Stephen King is setting up a collision course between the two men, both unusual, both psychotic, but on opposite sides of the same scale.
When Johnny shakes Stillson’s hand, he sees a future that can not be allowed to happen.
If you could build a time machine and go back to 1932 and kill Adolf Hitler, would you do it? It seems logical that you would save millions of lives, which I can’t even calculate the number of descendants of those saved lives. The implications of lives that never existed in our timeline suddenly being thrust into our era are staggering. The reshuffling of the DNA deck is mind boggling. On a micro level it could change your own personal history significantly. Your grandfather might marry someone different or your mother might meet someone before your father that didn’t exist before. You could wink out of existence before you can even fire up the time machine to return to 2015. Knowing the historical results of Hitler being alive, even though there is always the risk that someway, somehow by altering history you might make our present worse, I would still have to vote that I would gladly assassinate Hitler. On top of being a monster, Adolf was also monstrously annoying.
I might even take a short detour and take out Joseph Stalin as well. I’m already rolling the dice, so why not cast them out there one more time? I’d chalk up another couple of million lives saved.
Alter another gazillion time lines of history.
Good lord, the enormity of it and the logic and the illogicalness of it all start to circle back around until it becomes very easy to talk oneself out of such a risky decision.
Nobody wants to destroy the world while trying to save it.
Johnny goes through the same thought processes. Logically, he should find a way to stop Stillson, but there is the nagging worry that he could just make things worse.
This is not a horror book. It is a psychological thriller written by a writer near the top of his game. While working in the book business, I have always puzzled over why Stephen King was read by so many people. Of course, then I didn’t read him. I didn’t need to read him because there were already plenty of people queuing up to buy and read his next book. My job, of course, was to read people like Cormac McCarthy or Alan Furst, or writers like John Williams and try to bring them to a wider audience. I have tried a couple of newer King offerings, but have found them to be bloated, overwritten, and ponderous. I read The Shining, fairly recently, and realized that the King’s gold is in the dusty trunks of his early writings.
The book spawned a movie, which spawned a popular TV show starring Anthony Michael Hall.
King even made a playful reference to his book Carrie in this novel which made me laugh-out-loud. It was a bit of tongue in cheek referring to his own celebrity.
This book also fits very nicely into my 1970s nostalgic tour of horror books even though technically I can’t call this horror. Here are the other books that I've read on this quest.
The Exorcist Review
The Shining Review
The Omen Review
Harvest Home Review
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