I was delighted when I was asked to write a guest essay on Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, since I think it’s King’s best written and most well constructed novel (with the possible exception of The Green Mile). That was the feeling I had when I first read it on its release in 1979, and, on re-reading it for the first time since then, I was pleased to find that it’s aged remarkably well.
In his writings about writing, King has always prided himself on working without an outline, the literary equivalent of working without a net (or, as I tend to put it, leaping off a cliff and hoping that a hang-glider will come floating by). I can believe that many of King’s other works were written that way, with frequent deus ex machina and slapdash final conflagrations, but I can’t conceive that The Dead Zone was, since the construction is too perfect, the set-ups too well planned. Despite the often graphic violence, The Dead Zone is precise and practically genteel next to some of King’s other novels.
I’d forgotten how episodic the book was. It’s very much in three parts: Johnny’s coma and discovery of his wild talents; finding the Castle Rock killer; and the Greg Stillson plot. All three are deftly interwoven throughout, which only enhances the graceful construction.
Thanks to King’s referential use of pop culture and current events, The Dead Zone today reads like a period piece, very much of its time. That was why I liked it when I first read it, and why I like it still. Johnny Smith, the protagonist, was about my age, and his external life was similar to mine: from a modest but loving home, graduating from a state school, teaching high school, falling in love. We grew up through the same political crises, listened to the same music, shared the same views. I am glad my life didn’t parallel his in the more dramatic ways. » Read more