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.
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)
Read in December 2009