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.