Thursday, August 18, 2011

Random Stephen King-ness: The Dead Zone (Viking, 1979)

I used to be a big reader, and would pick up a book whenever I had any kind of free time and, to use a cliche, get lost in the story between the pages. Now the only time I can get my lazy brain to pick up a book is at work when I'm on lunch break. 

Anyway. I haven't bought any new books lately so I had to grab something off my shelf the other day to take to work for said lunch break. My Stephen King bookshelf is always a good place to look for something to read that I know I'm going to like. I hadn't read The Dead Zone in several years so I was excited to become reacquainted with it. And when I was done, I realized how completely in love with this book I am.

The Dead Zone is the story of Johnny Smith, who is in a terrible car accident the night he takes his girlfriend, Sarah, to the county fair. He falls into a coma and doesn't awaken until four and a half years passes. Johnny soon finds out that not only has the world changed, but he has too. When he touches a person or object, he gets psychic visions of future or past events - usually not good events. As Johnny recovers, this new "gift" allows him to help several people, but when he gets a terrifying vision of the world from an up-and-coming politician, he has to make the hardest decision of his life.

Anthony Michael Hall as John Smith in
The Dead Zone TV series
This book absolutely KILLS me. I read one completely unbelievable review of someone who didn't like this book because it was too "depressing." The reviewer wanted more psychic-vision-action and less emotional humdrum. While I hate to badger someone for their opinion, I cannot agree with or understand this. Anonymous reviewer, I give you Literature Lesson No. 1: The Dead Zone is a tragedy and Johnny Smith is its tragic hero. Which means that bad shit will happen, especially to the hero, and things will not work out all right in the end.

Johnny is much more than the main character of the piece, he is the element that the whole book hinges on. What Stephen King created here is probably his most successful and sympathetic character EVER. Quite simply, you have to like this person or the book just does not work. John Smith (no middle initial), as the name suggests, is the epitome of the Everyman. He is an average, nice guy who loves his girlfriend, his parents, and his job as a high school teacher. Everything he says and the way he deals with the situations he is thrust into makes you like and respect the man all the more. And hopefully it kills you just as much as it does me the way people treat him and the physical and emotional torture he goes through throughout the course of the book.

Actually, the only time that Johnny sways from his good demeanor is while he's having the visions. Sometimes he is able to essentially become the people he is seeing - most famously when he informs Sheriff Bannerman that deputy Frank Dodd is the Castle Rock strangler, a serial killer who has raped and strangled several women over the past few years. While handling evidence from one of the crime scenes, Johnny is put in Dodd's place, speaking in a scary voice, voicing Dodd's thoughts during the murder. This, and other incidents during Johnny's visions, hurts other people's perceptions of him, frightening those who witness it. 

Then there are the other people who treat Johnny like crap because of his visions. Of course it's logical that people wouldn't believe him. A real, honest-to-goodness psychic? Sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel. But all the detractors and people that attack him personally for what he can do makes the reader angry. He has helped people - saved a person's house from burning, caught a sadistic murderer, found a doctor's long lost mother - and still people avoid him like the plague. Even those who believe him don't want to be around him, don't want him touching them for fear of what he might see about themselves. 

Johnny never wants the limelight or even recognition for what he can do. His reaction to his most violent visions is instinctual - to help people. Even as reporters and anonymous letters call him a fraud and a terrible human being, it doesn't really seem to faze him because he never asked for any of this. He doesn't want to use his new power, but when he sees something truly frightening, he can't help but to try to help because that's just the kind of man he is, detractors be damned. The way he handles himself with these people just breaks your heart because we as the reader of course know he's not a fake and therefore we are always on his side, and we immediately loathe anybody who says something against this wonderful man that we have come to love.

Over time, Johnny begins to deteriorate. King describes other people's thoughts of him: a skinny, frail, and sickly looking man that probably doesn't have much time left. And Johnny knows it. As he investigates the politician who will bring about nuclear war, Greg Stillson, he knows this is his last chance to act on his most important vision. His attempt to assassinate Stillson fails/succeeds, as he doesn't kill Stillson but does manage to ruin his political career forever. Johnny dies shortly after - yes, the main character that we have loved and sympathized with through this whole book, whom we wanted nothing but good things to happen to, succumbs to the inevitable fate of the tragic hero. 

Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith in
David Cronenberg's film version of The Dead Zone.
His mission essentially accomplished, how should we feel about this hero's demise? His head injury as a child, coupled with the car crash in his twenties and the toll the visions take, allow a brain tumor to form. His miraculous recovery from his coma was apparently not meant to last, as fate (and perhaps a higher power) had other things in store for him. And Johnny should be admired for what he did with his second chance, even though we are sad and angry about what he had to go through.

So what I'm trying to say here is that I admire and love what King has created. As a literary device, I don't understand why Johnny Smith and The Dead Zone is not studied in English classes. Seriously. More than Hamlet, this is a tragedy of our time and even though it was written 30 years ago, all these events could just as easily happen today. John Smith is the ultimate sympathetic character, who deals with adversity and difficult decisions with integrity and strength and then must pay for his choices. He's one of the best characters Stephen King ever came up with and one that should be looked up to and studied.


  1. The Dead Zone is my very favorite of King's novels. The feeling not just of melancholy but of time passing in that book had a profound effect on me when I first read it. It's one of those books I like to point to when I argue that audiences don't want "happy" endings, they want "satisfying" endings. Regardless, I love it still after all these years.

  2. Yep, this is probably my favorite King book (I say probably because of Needful Things). As you said, Johnny is the tragic hero defined. And Greg Stillson is one of my favorite characters ever too. Mostly from the Martin Sheen version, the flashes to him as President get waaayy under my skin.

  3. Well said! I feel like this book is often overlooked since it's not quite as deeply entrenched in the horror genre as King's other works, but I was utterly captivated by this book when I first read it, enough that I ended up devouring the mediocre tv-series afterwards because I wanted more. This book really is literary excellence and really well-done.

  4. @Vulnavia: I had completely forgotten how much this book could affect me. I don't know if the ending is either happy or satisfying (because of what a great character Johnny is) but in the context of the story, it is the right ending.

    @The Mike: I can only picture Greg Stillson as Sean Patrick Flanery played him in the TV series - it's been so long since I've seen the movie. He is a great character too, though, one of those classic crazy King characters that seems too insane to be real.

    @joanna: It is so overlooked! Actually, I should have mentioned that I actually DID study this book for an English class one time. It was a Mystery, Suspense, and Horror class and I immediately suggested something Stephen King and my group partners picked this one out. As far as I'm concerned, it should be a staple in any study of a tragic hero!

  5. Flanery was a great Stillson, though I was always mad that more episodes weren't about him. Like, that shoulda been done in Season 1, not drug out over six seasons.

  6. Read this book for the first time a few years ago and loved it. I had seen the film first, so Christopher Walken was etched into my brain as Johnny Smith from the get-go. Never got a chance to get into the TV series. The book is just a fantastic read and expanded my love for the film that much more. Nice write-up.

  7. This is my favorite too, simply because everyone is so human, so fallible. People have said Wally Lamb loved his characters more than God loves His people, and in the dead zone, you can say that of King.
    The TV series was shot in my town, and they didn't even bother hiding the west coast scenery. It was a lame show. I wanted Cujo to make an appearance and chew up someone.

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  9. It's a great novel. I reread it maybe two or three years ago, and I was surprised at how political it is. I'd never really responded to that element before, but it occurs to me now that a big part of the novel's strength is in the Rip Van Winkle aspect of going to sleep for a long time and finding the world even crappier when you wake up than it had been before.

    I think you're right on target talking about it as a tragedy, and in that sense, it's got some similarities to at least one other King novel, "The Green Mile": both are about gifted men whose lives are, seemingly, spared by God for a time so that they can perform certain good deeds. But along the way, they suffer mightily, and they do not come out alive. Plus, they're both named John! Pretty cool.

    I remember at one time being disappointed that at the end, King pulled his punch a bit by not having Johnny kill Stillson, but when I reread it I got that that was not the point. As much as it is anything else, the novel is a religious parable, and the ending makes a lot of sense from that point of view. After all, if you look at it as a story of Christianity, then Johnny would have gone to hell if he'd murdered Stillson; as it turns out, Stillson being ruined without Johnny having to commit murder is kinda like a gift from God, so that Johnny gets what he wants and doesn't have to spend the rest of eternity polishing Stan's knob.

    Great, great novel. The Cronenberg movies is pretty good, too, but the television series is pretty bad; the first season was quite good, but it went way downhill quickly thereafter.

  10. @Jay: Thanks! But you guys are making me want - no, NEED - to see the movie again! And guess what? Netflix doesn't have it. Damnit. But yes, the book is a fantastic, one that I'm sure I'll be picking up every once in a while.

    @Mac: King's love for Johnny Smith is evident on every page, you are so right about that. I thought the TV show was okay for a while, but yeah, it soon descended into lameness.

    @Kyle: Hey, awesome! Thank you so much!

    @Bryant: I'm not sure if Green Mile as a whole is a tragedy, but John Coffey is no doubt a tragic hero just like Johnny. I think you're completely right about the ending and why it works so much better - even though Johnny dies. Something had to be done to stop Stillson and it took the life of a martyr to do it.

  11. I'm not a huge horror fan, but I adore the Dead Zone (and really, it's not so much horror as suspense and drama). It's one of those very interesting philosophical questions...what would you do if you saw that someone, in the future, would commit a terrible crime? (Or even, as I think is referenced at least in the film, "what if you could kill Hitler before he assumed power?") It's a hard thing to consider, a similar question to that pondered by other films like Minority Report (albeit from a different angle). Should you, effectively, punish the person for crimes they haven't yet committed? Is it even certain they will commit those crimes, or have you just seen one possible future?

    The Dead Zone offers a very nice look at the concept, and is pretty positive overall about the idea of stopping the person in advance. I actually like the way it ends, with Stillson effectively destroying himself by his actions, which reveal his cowardly and self-interested personality to those who followed him. To me, it actually makes me question Johnny's choice just a little bit--which is part of the heart of the "tragic hero," to me. Johnny is fighting for what he believes is right and taking down a villain, but he can only see one way open to him. The fact that Stillson exposes himself suggests on some level that some other resolution was possible. You feel like Johnny did the right thing, but at the same time, you'll always wonder if there was another way to expose Stillson. Similarly, with Hamlet, you believe Hamlet fought for the right thing and took down a villain, but you wonder if he really went about it in the right many people suffered and he might have been able to stop some of that. The tragic hero's flaws prevent him from achieving the success another person might.

    I don't think the ending feels at all like King "backing down" or pulling away from a proper resolution--I think its honestly his attempt to be a little more realistic with it. Aiming a rifle at a distance is a complicated thing, and for a guy like Johnny to do that quickly and accurately in a situation involving a crowd of innocents might have been a bit unbelievable. Additionally, it ensures that Stillson ruins confirms to us that Johnny was right, that Stillson would have been just as bad as he'd predicted.

    I really find the question the story asks to be fascinating, and importantly, it manages to ask the question without getting too full of itself. It is philosophical without being pretentious, and that is extremely admirable.