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The Dead Zone, Stephen King, Viking, 1979, 426 pp.

The Dead Zone is not the most profound book, nor is it based on the most original idea. Stephen King does not have a reputation as a prose stylist. And since this book was published, the psychic with a Cassandra complex has been used almost everywhere. TV shows, other horror novels, movies. And to all of this, I say: so what? The Dead Zone has King's typical strength -- an intensely told story. Genre fiction has often been disparaged for its focus on narrative, but I think that we need all kinds of fiction, not just that which becomes part of the academic canon. This theory of mine is nice and all, but, ironically, I lost most of my interest in the horror genre many years ago. However, when I came to re-read The Dead Zone, I was mightily impressed. This book has little in the way of the cliché and claptrap associated with horror, and it focuses on Johnny Smith and his story.

Johnny Smith is a teacher. He has a girlfriend, Sarah. He lives in a small town. None of this would be ominous, just from the fore-going description, except that with the name Stephen King on the front cover, the reader's mind is already filling in the horrific details. Johnny goes to a carnival with Sarah, and he has an incredible run of luck at a gambling tent. Meanwhile, Sarah has become nauseous, and Johnny drives her home. Leaving her house, he takes a taxi. Unfortunately, this taxi gets involved in an accident, and Johnny goes into a coma for four and a half years.

When Johnny wakes up, the world has changed. Sarah has married someone else. His mother has become a religious lunatic. And he has to undergo a series of painful operations in order to regain use of his body. Meanwhile, he has started getting visions. He tells a nurse that her house is burning down. And so forth. The media get a hold of the story, essentially ruining Johnny's life. And a Sheriff Bannerman from neighbouring Castle Rock is getting desperate to solve the case of the Castle Rock Strangler. The section that resolves the murderer's story is about the most gruesome in the book. After that, Johnny becomes obsessed with a local politician by the name of Greg Stillson. Johnny has a certain vision of Stillson's future, and he then goes around asking his friends and family if they would kill Hitler (given a time machine or similar device to go back to the 1930s with full knowledge of the future). The book's ending is a tidy wrap-up of the Stillson story. Except that nothing is tidy at all.

Johnny is quite an interesting character. Many of the best aspects of the book deal with his coma, and the problems and challenges of it. Some of the themes that get woven into this Cassandra story purposely evoke Greek myth. Johnny's parents, fate, lost love, death and new life. And in the midst of all this, King keeps Johnny as a normal human being, with integrity and flaws, with heart and emotional callouses. I liked Johnny's relationship with Weizak, the doctor he becomes close to after recovering from the coma. Johnny's father is also quite a successful creation on King's part, which might be more noticeable because Johnny's mother is that favourite stereotype of King's, the religious lunatic of a mother. Most of the other characters ring true, even the dull evil of Stillson and his henchman, but King should know better than to use the tiresome religious lunatic yet again.

King finds a clever way to end the book. Part 3 is called "Notes from the Dead Zone," and it is filled with various documents and bits of information that accumulate in the wake of the story's end. I liked the extra insight into Sarah's life, and to the way justice was done in the case of Stillson despite whatever heroic fantasies Johnny might have entertained.

The Dead Zone is a good read, no doubt about that. King sometimes skims over the implications, moral or otherwise, of the themes he uses -- like the question of killing Hitler. But the extra dimension adds a great deal to the book; there is something to think about when you have closed the cover and moved on with your life.

Also see the review of the movie based on this book.

Last modified: March 12, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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