The Dead Zone by Stephen King

Getting in the Horror Zone

(A Book Review of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone)

Funny thing though. Just after finishing my very first Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone, I was left pondering a question crucial to the book’s plot: “If you could jump into a time machine and go back to 1932, would you kill Hitler?” And that’s just the thing that creeps me out. I suppose a Stephen King novel should scare the hell out of you, not make your mind tick with a premise seemingly real it deserves to furrow one’s brow.

John Smith, The Dead Zone’s protagonist, who’s banged his head a couple of times, suddenly wakes up after four and a half years in coma brought about by a car crash. Now his girl, his career (he teaches at Cleaves Mills High School), and his youth are gone. “But the tragedy of his loss is nothing compared to the horror of his gain.” For Johnny have been given the gift (or curse) of second sight — an ability to scan the minds, the pasts, and the futures of certain others through a single touch. This sets Johnny to ask the same question above after he shakes the hand of Greg Stillson at a political rally and gets a very disturbing vision of an unspeakable future. Now he finds himself forced into the role of Cassandra — “morally compelled to warn, and inevitably despised for his efforts.” A role which I gotta say Johnny didn’t like.

The Dead Zone evinces Stephen King’s strength as a master storyteller — an intense narrative drive and compelling character development.

First, readers might find the part dealing with Johnny’s coma a tad too boring. I dunno ’bout you but, I find that one of the many best aspects of the novel. In a magnified sort of way, King convincingly presented the problems and challenges that arose from such a situation, which successfully served to heighten the drama. I could almost feel Sarah, Herb and Vera Smith’s (Johnny’s parents) sorrow palpable that I found myself asking such questions: Will I still hold on if someone I love is half-way dead with no fighting chance of recovery? Will I give up on him/her? Can I muster the courage to pull the plug to ease his/her pain? But ain’t that tantamount to killing him/her? When one does start to have hope and when does one stop believing that the situation will get any better?

I’m impressed that King didn’t employ the cliché and claptrap devices sometimes associated with a horror novel. I’m quite surprised with his deft use of foreshadowing using the half-Jekyll, half-Hyde Halloween mask that Johnny wears as part of a prank:

“His arm cast a shadow and she saw with something very like superstitious fear that his face was half-light, half-dark.”

The image becomes more complicated and disturbing as the book progresses:

“That red left eye — and the scar running up his neck — made that half of his face look sinister and unpleasant.”

Incorporating symbolism, King utilized similes to show Johnny’s aversion to his psychic ability by means of serpentine images.

“He had thrown the scarf on the floor where it lay like a twisted white snake.”

“He looked at [the phone] the way a man might look at a snake he has just realized is poisonous.”

“Touching the coat had been like touching a writhing coil of snakes.”

Of all this the one glaring symbol that reverberates throughout the novel is The Wheel of Fortune, implying that life is like a roulette where the odds are always against us.

Stephen King created an interesting character with John Smith. Right from the day of his coma — wondering whether he’ll wake up from it or not — up to the novel’s climax, we bear witness how will this Everyman, this ordinary man triumph over as he confronts this extraordinary evil. Equally compelling is how King also portrayed him as a character worth of the reader’s sympathy. You can almost feel for the man as he agonizes over his gift which brought him nothing save suffering as those around him regard him more with fear than gratitude; as people tend to see him as a Prophet of Doom, as a freak of God. But on the flip side — the half-light, the Jekyll side of the mask if you will — we see Johnny’s humanity; his flaws, his integrity, his heart and emotional calluses. It makes you realize that all these things happening in Johnny in gravely unfair as he stands on the verge of using his talent to change the course of history. Then it’ll just sneak up on you and you end up believing in Johnny — sticking for him and what he did.

And of course people, let’s not forget the hell bent, manipulative, damn-you-if-I-don’t-get-to-fulfill-my-destiny politician Greg Stilllson. To begin with, he’s certainly depicted as the novel’s bad guy. Throughout the book we see him at his meanest. You wouldn’t want to get on his bad side…or else.

From where firsts go, The Dead Zone is the first of his book to be set on the place King put on the map: Castle Rock, Maine. The first where Stephen King playfully scatters references to his own novels: Tibbet’s Garage and a mention of Jerusalem’s Lot are all nods to ‘Salem’s Lot. He even made one character blurt out: “He made it happen! He set it on fire by his mind, just like that in that book Carrie.” It seems all of these allusions places it outside the book’s reality and what an eerie feeling that was!

King finds a clever way to end the book. Part 3 called “Notes from the Dead Zone,” and 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 the way justice was done in the case of Stillson despite whatever heroic fantasies Johnny might have entertained.

Stephen King

I also liked how this book was aptly titled. I know the feeling that when you’re reading one of ‘em books with the name Stephen King on the front cover, you couldn’t help but let your mind reel and fill up with horrific details, gross images of decapitations and creepy things that go bump in the night. It helps that the book’s title invoke images of carnage, zombies, hellfire and the underworld, when in fact it was just a portion of Johnny’s brain that no longer functions obviously affecting the way he sees his flashes and visions. Nice touch there, Mr. King.

On the matter of it’s screen adaptation, I find David Cronenberg’s 1983 cinematic vision is definitely one of the best when it comes to visual interpretation, scenery and tone — not to mention its great casting with Christopher Walken doing justice to the role of John Smith and a convincing portrayal of Martin Sheen as the manic Greg Stillson. The Castle Rock Killer subplot was handled skillfully that it helped move the story forward rather than hampering it. But the coolest thing for me that the movie innovated is Johnny being in or part of his visions or sudden flashes. How swell is that?

The Dead Zone was Stephen King’s first #1 bestseller on both the hardcover and paperback charts. Its success spoke to both the strength of the book’s narrative and King’s growing reputation as a writer. Even today, The Dead Zone remains as one of the best books with which to introduce a new reader to Stephen King — a fact that I can fully attest. Its depth of character, tight plotting, and masterful balance of pace and tone make it as approachable as it is absorbing.

Published by Viking Press
(Hardcover, 1979 Edition)
426 pages
Read in December 2009
My Rating:


12 thoughts on “The Dead Zone by Stephen King

  1. Hi there! 🙂

    This is a very nice review of one of my Stephen King favorites, The Dead Zone. Actually I find it funny that we both pondered about what King said that if we can take the time machine, would we kill Hitler thing. Haha. 🙂

    I coudn’t agree more, that King is a master writer, and he really knows how to scare you or at least keep you from sleeping for a couple of nights… He really knows how to scare us, his Constant Readers.

    Thanks again, for letting me read through your blog. Expect my frequent visits, since I will now place your link in my roll. Thanks again, Jzhun! 😀

    • Hi Ms Judy!
      Thanks for visiting my infantile blog and for taking the time to read my looong review of the book. Ahahaha! 😀
      Expect more Stephen King book reviews from me and I’m looking for your book reviews too! I’m also adding you to my blog roll.
      Once again, my thanks!
      Life is indeed full of wonders for today I’ve made a new friend — and a fellow Constant Reader at that! 🙂

  2. Wow, your reply made me smile today. 😀 Thanks!!! I’m not into writing book reviews but of course, I’ll try! 🙂 Now I am reading The Colorado Kid. 😀 It’s like CSI, and it’s an easy-read. 😀 You should read that too… 😀

    Thanks for adding me as a friend, in your list, and as a fellow constant reader. Thank you sooo much. 🙂

    Your blog is really nice. Let’s keep writing! And reading! 😀 Long live!

    • Hi Judy!
      Thanks for visiting — yet again. It’s just alright with if you’re not into writing book reviews. Yes, I already have “The Colorado Kid.” But I’m doing a self-instituted challenge wherein I’m reading Stephen King’s books chronologically specially since I got wind of a paperback copy of “Carrie” his first break out debut. Then I’m gonna continue on with “The Shining” and “The Stand” this November, my favorite month for horror books.
      ‘Til then, Ms Judy. And yeah. that was a very touching poem you’ve written for your sister. Really heartfelt.
      Thanks! 😉

  3. Hi Jzhun,

    Thanks! First, for getting rid of that ‘Ms.’ before Judy. Haha. I think ‘Judy’ is better. Haha! Ohhhhh I envy youuu you have Carrieee… 😦 Huhu that’s one thing I feel sad about. I have lots of his books but never came across a Carrie. Huhuhu. But I believe I’ll have it! And yeah, I also thought of reading it chronologically since some stories are connected… But still, I read out of randomness, I just finished The Colorado Kid and I’m now reading Dreamcatcher. 🙂

    Wow, thanks for reading that post. I’m sorry if I talk too much in this comment thread. Hihi. Thanks! Just can’t hide how happy I am to finally share SK stuff. Hahaha. 😀 Long live!

  4. Pingback: Carrie by Stephen King | Dark Chest of Wonders

  5. Pingback: This Got Me Pumped Up! | Dark Chest of Wonders

  6. Pingback: Paying my Honors to the KING | Dark Chest of Wonders

Feel free to post any of your thoughts, comments, and reactions.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s