Dead Zone, The by King, Stephen, 1979

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It is almost funny how different early Stephen King books are from some of the latest ones. I have always harped on King for his self indulgent style, for his indecipherable local colloquialisms and the long-winded and sometimes boring family and town histories that he inserts into the his stories. But it seems to me that King was on his game as a young man, and off of it in his middle years, in a way that really kind of redefines the phrase "he's lost it." Although there were some YA books that I read earlier, King's SF, fantasy and horror books from the 1970's were what got me into genre reading in the first place. I still think that The Stand is one of the best SF books ever written, and it is still in my top 25, along with The Gunslinger. The Shining and Jerusalem's Lot are two incredibly well done horror novels, and Night Shift continues to keep me riveted. But if I had to pick King's one masterpiece book, that one book in which he outdoes even his young self, it would have to come down to a choice between The Stand, and this one, The Dead Zone. For those of you who have not read this one in years, you should go out and read it again. For me much of the impact of the story was lost in a haze of mediocrity that wafted up from his pile of later novels. Rereading it this week reminded me how excellently good this thing truly is.

The Dead Zone is about an average, run-of-the-mill good-guy, Johnny Smith, who becomes a bit of a reluctant superman. Johnny has always had a touch of precognition, at least from when he was a boy and cracked his head on some hard ice sometime during his youth. But as an adult Johnny suffered a subsequent brain injury in an automobile accident that left him in a coma for five full years. When he emerged from the coma, Johnny was a full-fledged psychometric who with some exception was able to divine the entire history and future of inanimate objects and people by merely touching them. That exception is the reason for the title of the book. Certain things Johnny is incapable of seeing in his visions, and he says that those things are in his "dead zone." Typically they include addresses, directions and streets, but sometimes other things fall into that part of Johnny's brain that died in the accident, that dead zone.

The book is a big one, so King meanders around a bit before getting to the point, but all of it is really necessary for the proper telling of this story. She was a religious nutter who really went off the deep end when Johnny was in his accident. While he wasted away in his coma, Johnny's mother began subscribing to the "Jesus in the center of the Earth" theory. Some of King's most bitter prose is directed towards the illiterate boobs who attend church meetings with her, but her heart was always in the right place. When Johnny awoke his mother told him that God had a mission for him; an idea which he only gradually and very reluctantly accepted in the end. It took Johnny a long time to even begin really evaluating her prophecy. That task was pushed to the back burner as the hopeless and the beaten down begged Johnny to fix their lives for them with his powers. All of that pushed Johnny away from society for a long time, and only when he began to accept the horrible changes the accident really caused in his life, did he begin to venture out into the world again. When he did at first he still had a slight hatred for his own ability. But he made the best of it, and even made a hobby out of going to political rallies and shaking the hands of candidates of all types. King made Reagan, Carter and others minor characters in this way. One morning he shook the hand of an up and coming candidate, Stillson, who was also a carefully restrained sociopath. When Johnny shook his hand he saw immediately that Stillson would cause the war-to-end-all-wars, and people, and life, and resolved to do something about it. The book ends as Johnny figures out what to do and does it.

I think what King really has going on here, what makes this book so fantastic, is that his backdrop is much more than sleepy little New England villages and the horrors that reside therein. In the case of The Dead Zone King instead uses as a backdrop the entire political world of the 1970's from Goldwater to Nixon to Carter and Reagan. Usually King has to create an entire mythology around the history of whatever small town he has conjured or co-opted for any particular story, and he usually does a pretty good job of it, sometimes going back Michener-like to pre-history. But in this book itís the incredibly scandalous political life of the 1970's that he uses, which was all ready for him to come along and adapt to his own needs, and he really, really did it well. King's cast of characters in this book does not differ too much from what you usually find. There is a babbling religious nut, a sympathetic and good-hearted hero, who discovers something along the way to make him an anti-hero, an older character who is the voice of reason, but who is not readily available every time a problem arises, a fun, sassy and beautiful love interest who for circumstances out of their control, is unavailable, and a crazy-dangerous evil enemy who comes not from the id, as with a Lovecraftian enemy, but from suburbia and the life that we all know. King uses these characterís New England pragmatism very well to frame the political backdrop, often in a very offhand manner that is picked up and then left in a single sentence.

One other thing that is readily identifiable in this book is King's well-developed sense of sarcasm. Actually, this is the one admirable quality of King's that I think has never faltered or failed. Itís as easily observable here as it is in any other King book, and I just love it. Here Johnny is in the early stages of digesting his mother's prophecy. A local cop has just asked him to help find out who a local serial killer is, too. None of it is going over well with him. This paragraph also kind of sums up the immediate effects of the accident, before Johnny starts to view his power as a burden.

What a power God has given you, Johnny.

Sure, that's right, God's a real prince. He knocked me through the windshield of a cab and I broke my legs and spent five years or so in a coma and three people died. The girl I loved got married. She has the son who should have been mine by a lawyer who's breaking his ass to get to Washington so he can help run the big electric train set. If I'm on my feet for more than a couple of hours at a time it feels like somebody took a long splinter and rammed it straight up my leg to my balls. God's a real sport. He's such a sport that he fixed up a funny comic-opera world where a bunch of glass Christmas tree globes could outlive you. Neat world, and a really first-class God in charge of it. He must have been on our side during Vietnam, because that's the way he's been running things ever since time began.

He has a job for you, Johnny.

Bailing some half-assed country cop out of a jam so he can get reelected next year?

Don't run from him, Johnny. Don't hide away in a cave.

He rubbed his temples. Outside, the wind was rising. He hoped dad would be careful coming home from work.

A part of me always believed that King's meta message here is that the price of picking your fate is doom, but another more practical side (call it my New England side) thinks really that King gathered together a bunch of genre themes and motifs and just ran with them and tried to give a good story. The latter image is probably the right one, because figuring out any social message in King's books is generally next to impossible. In this one, however, the central question is spoon fed to you by King, and its right out of Geoffrey Male who asked, if you could go back to 1932 and assassinate Hitler, would you? Granted, that is not the most difficult question to answer, though King manages to give us one character who, believably, would not. King also falters a bit in his own style of prose, particularly the rattling and jarring segues to letters written by the characters, which he does several times in the book. He had the same problem in The Stand when he shifted from a narrative style to Frannie's or Harold's diaries. And even though King does put the idiom of SF to good use, he mixes several of the themes horribly, especially an amateurish mixing of birth and death metaphor at the end of the book. But please, don't let these very few shortcomings throw you from reading this book. It is a true masterpiece and deserves to be read more than once.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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