Revisiting The Dead Zone by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
Unlike THE LONG WALK, I don’t have any specific memories of where I was in my life when I first read THE DEAD ZONE.
No idea how old I was, where I was living, whether I was in high school or college or freshly graduated, whether I was single, engaged, married.
When it comes to the exact timeline, my mind is a blank…which is unusual for me. Especially when it relates to a book I enjoyed so much and one for which I have so many specific memories.
So, without further rambling, here are some of those crystal clear remembrances from that mysterious “Dead Zone” of my life:
* Johnny — and his love for Sarah — form the backbone of THE DEAD ZONE, and what happens to that love absolutely shattered my heart. I might not remember where I was in my life when I first met these two, but I do remember how difficult it was for me to accept their fate, much less read certain sections of the book because they hurt too much.
I’m talking about when Johnny finds out how much time has passed while he was in a coma and that Sarah is now married and has children; when Sarah comes to visit Johnny at his father’s house and they make love (this one hurt the most); and Johnny’s poignant letter to Sarah at the end of the book.
I held out hope for a happy ending for these two long after it became painfully obvious that it wasn’t meant to be. I just couldn’t let go of that hope. A lot like real life, huh?
* I adored Johnny’s dad, Herb Smith. Much like Stu Redman from THE STAND, he reminded me quite a bit of my own father. Stoic. Dignified. Responsible. A man with a wonderful, loving heart facing great obstacles.
* Johnny’s mother terrified me. Greg Stillson is a first-rate villain — anyone else remember the dog scene in the prologue? — but I was just as frightened and disturbed by Vera Smith and her growing religious fanaticism. Still am.
* I remember getting royally pissed off when the press started treating Johnny so unfairly, and when people started viewing him as a freak and a monster and, even worse, a sham.
I wanted to strangle that sonofabitch Richard Dees, the scumbag reporter from Inside View (and many years later, I would read King’s short story “The Night Flier” with a very big smile on my face).
I felt so badly for Johnny and understood his struggle when Sheriff George Bannerman came to request his help in Castle Rock, but I knew he would do the right thing. Didn’t he always?
* Speaking of the Sheriff, I wished the Castle Rock scenes were twice as long. In fact, I wished King had devoted an entire second novel to Johnny, the Strangler, Bannerman and the good folks of Castle Rock.
Little did I know we would meet — and say a final goodbye to — Sheriff Bannerman again soon enough.
* The creepy reveal of Frank Dodd’s bedroom is carved into my memory. I still get goosebumps reading this scene:
The two of them stood in the doorway for a moment, looking in. It was a child’s room. The wallpaper — also watermarked — was covered with dancing clowns and rocking horses. There was a child-sized chair with a Raggedy Andy sitting in it, looking back at them with its shiny blank eyes. In one corner was a toybox. In the other was a narrow maple bed with the covers thrown back. Hooked over one of the bedposts and looking out of place was Frank Dodd’s holstered gun.
“My God,” Bannerman said softly. “What is this?”
* Despite the aforementioned “Dead Zone” in my past, there is one hazy image that has resurfaced …
Did I really throw my paperback of THE DEAD ZONE across the room when I first read that the school board had terminated Johnny’s teaching contract because he was considered “too controversial to be effective as a teacher”?
You’re damn right I did.
I flung that sucker and thought: just give the guy a break, will you?!
* Lastly, although it’s not my favorite line from the book, I’ll always remember Johnny’s immortal words to his beloved Sarah–
“For the last time, kiddo, get off that cocaine.”
— and they still make me smile today.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
In my Afterword to PS Publishing’s anniversary edition of CHRISTINE, I referred to THE DEAD ZONE as the most melancholy of all Stephen King books — and I stand by that statement today.
THE DEAD ZONE is a first-rate supernatural thriller, but it’s also a novel of uncommon emotional depth. A heartbreaker.
When I recently re-read the novel and sat down to write this essay, I realized that this is (for me) the common theme found in most Stephen King books.
He doesn’t just scare me or gross me out or put me on the edge of my seat. It’s much more than that. It’s deeper than that. King’s stories make me think about the world around me, the people around me, and they make my heart feel something in a way that most other writers can only dream of.
And that’s the key for me — the feeling. It’s Stephen King’s gift.
King’s eyes and ears are razor sharp and his writing is unpretentious and painfully honest; he doesn’t turn away from the hard stuff — and I’m not talking about blood or gore here. I’m talking about the human condition. Joy and sorrow, love and loathing, envy and guilt, success and failure, hope and regret, good and evil. It’s all there in King’s stories. Usually all messy and tangled together. Just like in the real world.
I think the emotional resonance is a highly underappreciated vein of King’s work, and one of the main reasons why he has remained so well read for decades.
Take Johnny Smith and THE DEAD ZONE for example. On one hand, it’s a superb novel of suspense and the supernatural. There are scares aplenty and enough scenes of darkness for even the most jaded genre fan.
I also believe it is one of King’s most finely plotted novels. Sit down some time and break it down scene by scene; its pace and structure are nearly flawless.
But, once again, there is much more to the story:
The soul of the book is its people, specifically a very good man by the name of Johnny Smith — and how fate’s fickle hand deals this very good man a losing hand.
In this way, THE DEAD ZONE practically reads to me as a modern day Greek tragedy. Meaning by the time I reach the three-quarters point of the book — no matter how many times I have read it — I am practically yelling at the pages to “give Johnny a damn break, will ya!?! He deserves better!”
But Johnny doesn’t get a break — and neither do we as readers.
We are forced to watch — and feel — as Johnny’s accident at first denies him the love of his life and then curses him with frightening visions and a “dead zone” inside his brain.
Once the secret gets out, we have no choice but to watch as he is treated like a sideshow freak and accused of being a phony by the press.
At first, this appears as a blessing in disguise, as it gives Johnny the slim chance of once again leading a quiet, normal life.
But, as with most other opportunities for his happiness, such hopes soon go out the window when Johnny is pulled into the investigation of the Castle Rock Strangler. He does the right thing, of course. He leaves the relative safety of his home and helps to find the killer — and with that feat, he once again loses his anonymity…and, as a result of all the widespread press, he also loses his second love in life, teaching.
But, true to his nature, Johnny eventually bounces back — as a private tutor in New Hampshire — and once again we embrace some semblance of hope for his future. After all, it seems like a great gig. He has an eager student. Good pay. Bonuses. Even a nice new place to live.
It’s finally time for fate to leave Johnny the hell alone, right?
Not so much.
Graduation arrives for Johnny’s student — his grades and attitude are much improved with Johnny’s help — and the entire class is planning a big blow-out to celebrate. There’s only one problem (of course!): Johnny sees fire and death and destruction instead of beer and balloons and streamers.
He has no choice. He warns the partygoers. Some listen. Some don’t — and die in the blazing fire.
As I type these words, I think to myself: this isn’t merely a recounting of the plot, this is Johnny’s life. And I feel as if I have lived it along with him.
Johnny carries all of this pain and madness inside him wherever he goes, and you think it would be enough. It should be enough.
But it’s not.
There are bigger fish to fry: like maybe saving the whole damn world.
Johnny starts filling notebook after notebook with his personal thoughts and research findings about Greg Stillson.
He starts asking people if they had a chance to go back in time to assassinate Hitler, would they do it?
He can’t stop thinking about the Laughing Tiger.
He stops sleeping and eating.
He is a shell of who he once was.
As are we right along with him.
We are not merely witnesses — we feel everything.
And when I turned the final page of THE DEAD ZONE, I had one overwhelming thought: Johnny Smith deserved better.
So much better.
* * *
The Castle Rock Strangler is one of several subplots in THE DEAD ZONE, but it very well may be my favorite part of the book. It’s certainly the most frightening.
“You knew?” he whispered.
Her fat, wrinkled mouth opened and closed, opened and closed. No sound came out. It was the mouth of a beached fish.
“All this time you knew?”
“You’re a devil!” she screamed at him. “You’re a monster…devil…oh my heart…oh, I’m dying…think I’m dying…call the doctor…George Bannerman don’t you go up there and wake my baby!”
Johnny let go of her, and unconsciously rubbing his hand back and forth on his coat as if to free it of a stain, he stumbled up the stairs after Bannerman.
A page later:
“Oh God,” Bannerman said in a flat, choked voice. “Frank.”
Johnny could see over his shoulder; could see too much. Frank Dodd was propped on the lowered seat of the toilet. He was naked except for the shiny black raincoat, which he had looped over his shoulders; the raincoat’s black hood (executioner’s hood, Johnny thought dimly) dangled down on the top of the toilet tank like some grotesque, deflated black pod. He had somehow managed to cut his own throat — Johnny would not have thought that possible. There was a package of Wilkinson Sword Blades on the edge of the wash-basin. A single blade lay on the floor, glittering wickedly. Drops of blood had beaded on its edge. The blood from his severed jugular vein and carotid artery had splashed everywhere. There were pools of it caught in the folds of the raincoat, which dragged on the floor. It was on the shower curtain, which had a pattern of paddling ducks with umbrellas held over their heads. It was on the ceiling.
Around Frank Dodd’s neck on a string was a sign crayoned in lipstick. It read: I CONFESS.
I love the scene where Johnny’s father tells him that he plans to remarry — man, does that old guy deserve some happiness! — but the conversation takes place via the telephone and I think that robs a very special moment of some of its emotional impact.
So, my favorite scene of the book goes to the moment when Mr. Chatsworth, the father of the high school student Johnny is tutoring, comes to thank Johnny for working magic with his son.
Johnny opened it. Inside the envelope was a cashier’s check for five hundred dollars.
“Oh, hey…! I can’t take this.”
“You can, and you will. I promised you a bonus if you could perform, and I keep my promises. There’ll be another when you leave.”
“Really, Mr. Chatsworth, I just…”
“Shh…it’s been my experience that ninety-five of the people who walk the earth are simply inert, Johnny. One percent are saints, and one percent are assholes. The other three percent are the people who do what they say they can do. I’m in that three percent, and so are you. You earned that money. I’ve got people in the mills that take home eleven thousand dollars a year for doing little more than playing with their dicks. But I’m not bitching. I’m a man of the world, and all that means is I understand what powers the world. The fuel mix is one part high-octane to nine parts pure bullshit. You’re no bullshitter. So you put that money in your wallet and next time try to value yourself a little higher.”
It’s just a quickie, a minor scene, but I think it’s pretty damn wonderful to see Johnny forced to accept some sincere praise for once in his life. He’s such a good man, and it warms my heart to see him feeling like one for a change, if only for a moment.
This is from Johnny’s final letter to Sarah at the end of the book. It makes my heart ache to read it again. Honest, brave words from an honest, brave man:
Well, we all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.
(Least favorite lines: He blew a kiss. “Feel better,” he said, “and we’ll talk.” She nodded, but it was four-and-a-half years before she talked to Johnny Smith again.)
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
This scene comes very early in the book, and while there are many tough-to-read moments yet to come, this one is my winner:
With a snarl, it struck out blindly, snagged the right cuff of Greg’s white linen pants, and tore it.
“You sonofabitch!” he cried out in startled anger, and kicked the dog again, this time hard enough to send it rolling in the dust. He advanced on the dog once more, kicked it again, still yelling. Now the dog, eyes watering, nose in fiery agony, one rib broken and another badly sprung, realized its danger from this madman, but it was too late.
Greg Stillson chased it across the dusty farmyard, panting and shouting, sweat rolling down his cheeks, and kicked the dog until it was screaming and barely able to drag itself along through the dust. It was bleeding in half a dozen places. It was dying.
“Shouldn’t have bit me,” Greg whispered. “You hear? You hear me? You shouldn’t have bit me, you dipshit dog. No one gets in my way. You hear? No one.” He delivered another kick with one blood-splattered airtip, but the dog could do no more than make a low choking sound. Not much satisfaction in that.
Nasty nasty stuff. All you have to do is mention “the dog scene from THE DEAD ZONE” to any Stephen King fan, and watch the pained expression on their face. Works every time.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Greg Stillson. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of this bad boy. Not by a long shot.
START DATE – March 25, 2015
FINISH DATE – April 2, 2015
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