Revisiting The Dead Zone by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

the-dead-zone-smallUnlike 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?

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.

* * *

SCARIEST SCENE…

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.

FAVORITE SCENE…

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.

FAVORITE LINE…

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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16 comments

  • Gerry Littell

    The dead zone was the first Stephen King book I read. It moved me so much I had to read it again instantly. The connection to Johnny was something I hadn’t felt from any other character in another book. The Dead Zone is still my favorite book suppose it will always be I suppose.

  • Brenda Moon

    This is my favorite essay so far. You put into words everything I’ve always felt about THE DEAD ZONE and didn’t even realize why. I’ve read it a dozen times, at least, and always hope for a better ending for Johnny Smith.

  • Wow! While I was reading what you wrote, I felt that same chill going up my back and through my scalp!! Thank you. That was awesome.

  • Nice review. This is my second favorite King novel, right behind Salem’s Lot. To me the heart of the plot is when Johnny questions his physician about whether, if given the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler, before the Holocaust he would. The physician shows him the number tattooed on his forearm and then explains that as he had taken an oath to help other’s, being a physician . So , yes! He would kill the SOB.
    ( I think that was in book ? But I may be mixing up movie and book in my mind.?)
    I also think this is easily the best adaptation of a King novel to big screen. Christopher Walken – perfect as Johnny. Plus several other outstanding performances- Martin Sheen, and Brooke Adams, are great.
    The scene when Johnny gets his first vision upon awakening is excellent. He touches nurse and suddenly bed is engulfed in flames . A real shot of adrenaline .
    Also it should be pointed out that this book starts out with a passage about cocaine, an autobiographical moment King has written about since.

    • Jeanne Harris

      Absolutely! The best movie adaptation of any Stephen King book (or possibly any book for that matter). I can’t remember if the doctor’s Adolph Hitler comment was only in the movie, but Richard can tell us, and it was significant to me as well. I agree wholeheartedly about the actors being brilliant! Plus I enjoyed your example about the first vision and every word you wrote. Spot on, Robert.

  • One other question I had. Was anyone else reminded of Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in King’s use of county fair before the crash that puts Johhny in coma? That image jumped to mind when first read, and I always thought that was intentional . Has King written or commented about that??

  • Jeanne Harris

    I feel fiery and chilling and hundreds of thrilling emotions. The Dead Zone was my first Stephen King orgasm book (kinda figuratively) and you explored every inch I enjoyed so deeply. For now, I’m fully satisfied. Thank you.

  • Wanda Maynard

    That was great, Richard. I enjoyed it. Stephen King makes you think and feel. You may think about a certain line that someone said for weeks. Like right now, I feel so sad about that poor dog. Stephen King’s writing is deep.

  • Studio Rose

    A friend at work once told me, when I was nattering on about some amazing new King novel, that she refused to read his work because “in one of his stories, someone did something terrible to a cat.” I had read pretty much everything he wrote at that point and could not remember anything like that in any of his stories or novels. (It would have turned me off, too!) At the time I wondered if she had mistaken him for some other author. But now I wonder if she misremembered the scene in this novel as being about a cat instead of a dog? Or maybe there really was such a scene and I repressed it! Because until you mentioned it again, I had completely forgotten it.

    I still hope she was wrong. 🙁

    Wonderful review, as always! You’ve been making me want to re-read everything along with you (if only there were 24 more hours in a day).

  • Susan B

    Great review, thank you! I can’t wait to re-read it again.

  • I love The Dead Zone. I don’t think it’s necessarily SK’s best book, but I think that John Smith is one of his best characters. One aspect of the book that you didn’t mention was the repeated imagery of the “wheel of fortune”. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but now I don’t know how I missed the similarities between the wheel of fortune in Dead Zone and “la loteria” in Duma Key. Obviously, those are just symbols for a bigger concept, like fate or predestination or ka(ka), but now I’m wondering if SK has ever said anything in interviews or in his nonfiction writing to the effect that he does believe in fate? It’s strange that of everything I’ve read about him, I can’t remember if he’s said anything like that. I’m sure I could google but I’d rather talk to other fans 🙂

  • This was the book that turned me into a life long StephenKing Faithful Reader.

    The whole concept of taking a Lee Harvey Oswald type character and making him an everyman sympathetic character totally blew me away. King may have come up with the most common name possible for his character – John Smith – but he also made him one of the most relatable and real characters too. A man robbed of his life but still able to look outside of himself and make the necessary sacrifice to save others.

    So poetic. So good. So sad. So tragic. So cool

  • Wim Van Overmeire

    It has been a while since i had read the dead zone. I like it better than i did before. I remembered it as a thriller about a man and his battle against one evil man. But it’s so much more than that: the backstory about Johnny and Sarah really adds heart to the tale. some favorite parts: Johnny waking up from his coma, Johnny investigating the bench and getting a vision about the murderer and Ngo’s tiger story.

  • Adam Hall

    After nearly 4 months, I finally finished The Dead Zone. This wasn’t due to it being a bad book…..not at all…..it’s just been a crazy, busy summer so far.
    King ends the 70’s decade with a bang with this gem. This is one that definitely belongs in my top ten list of favorite King books. Although it took me a while to get through this time around, I thoroughly enjoyed this book just as much as I did when I first read it in the winter of 2008/2009. I first tried to read it in high school when I was a sophomore and just discovering Stephen King but it didn’t catch me right away, so I put it down and picked up another King novel called Eyes of the Dragon that did hook me right away so I went with that one instead.

    Anyways, I can remember various places I was at while reading this book the first time. Laying on my couch staying up really late for night long reading marathons, hanging out at my friend Daniel’s house choosing to be glued to the pages of this novel while he played video games, reading a good portion of it while waiting to see our community college’s dramatization of The Mouse Trap at the old melodrama theater downtown and also during intermission. It’s so awesome that King’s writing can stick with you like that to the point of remembering where you were at while reading it.

    Upon revisiting it, I discovered that I felt so bad for Johnny this time around. Richard is totally right. He deserved better. He was just a great person who was cursed with this gift and is just hit over and over again with bad luck. The epilogue had me close to tears. Stephen King’s ability to just punch you in the gut, reach up and rip out your heart is never as strong as it is with this epilogue. It was a real downer. But I loved it all the same.

    But I usually always recommend this book to people I know who have never read a Stephen King book because all they think he writes is horror because The Dead Zone is pretty much just a straight thriller.

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