The Dead Zone: Aging Gracefully by Chet Williamson

the-dead-zone-smallI 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.

The Dead Zone is now, along with still being a fine novel, a time capsule for me. I had to chuckle at what was then thought of as a good annual salary, at the price of gas, at the idea of talking with a World War I veteran, and I found myself remembering that this book was over thirty-five years old. I wonder if eventually an annotated edition will be necessary for new King readers.

The only thing that took me out of the book was the moment where a character refers to John Smith’s abilities as being similar to those of Carrie in the film of the same name. It’s a dramatic moment that’s rendered almost silly by the self-referential comment, which brings King’s fictional Maine into our own real world too awkwardly for my taste.

But very much to my taste were King’s views on politics, and his prognostications on the rising of the fringe right. Johnny Smith’s mother Vera is a religious extremist in the vein of Carrie White’s mother (do all people with strange talents have religious nut mamas?), but back then she and her kind were pretty much seen as individual crazies. Thirty-six years later, they’ve joined together and now wield considerable political clout.

Though King didn’t specifically predict the rise of the Religious Right in this novel, he accurately depicted the political atmosphere that could create a candidate this particular demographic would be likely to support. I speak of course of Greg Stillson, the evil faux-populist whose rise to power is stymied by Johnny Smith’s actions. While the ending of the novel is bittersweet, at least we readers in 1979 could take comfort in knowing that Greg Stillson’s political career was over. But in 2015, we see in hindsight that Stillson’s politics have triumphed, at least among the most vocal minority of Americans.

As scary as that is (to me, at least), The Dead Zone isn’t intended as a scare-at-all-costs book. Instead it’s a beautifully crafted look at the dangers of knowing too much and feeling too much. Johnny Smith is Everyman, and is given a gift that proves life-saving for some, but life-destroying for the man who has it. Johnny becomes Christ, sacrificing himself for the good of humanity . It’s a novel at once human and mythic. The characters are real, the settings vivid, the plot concise. It’s a book which has aged well, and readily speaks to today’s readers. And it is, as I’ve said, King’s best constructed book.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, after having read the book again, I’m going to go watch the DVD of the film, which I recall liking as much as I did the book…


The complete list of the books to be read can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.


Chet Williamson is the author of over twenty books. Among his published novels are Second Chance, Ash Wednesday, Soulstorm, Lowland Rider, McKain’s Dilemma, Murder in Cormyr, Mordenheim, Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller, Reign, The Crow: Clash By Night, and the paranormal suspense series, The Searchers, which includes City of Iron, Empire of Dust, and Siege of Stone. He has also written two children’s books, Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas and Pennsylvania Dutch Alphabet.

16 comments

  • This one cemented me a Faithful Reader. Great concept married with great characters. A tragic tale told wonderfully.

  • Glen

    One of my early favorites, thanks for the essay! Well said!

  • Mark Fulton

    “I wonder if eventually an annotated edition will be necessary for new King readers.” That’s a very interesting and perceptive thought. I firmly believe people will be reading King 100 years from now. Will students in classrooms not quite understand some things because they don’t get the pop culture references? It’s easy to imagine annotated editions eventually appearing.

  • JoDon Garringer

    The funny thing for me is that I didn’t particularly like this book when I read it in the 80’s. I was born in 1970 and my first SK book was Different Seasons. I was hooked and then went backward and read his earlier works. I remember being scared silly by ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shinging, but The Dead Zone just didn’t register with me. When I his novels in the early 2000’s I actually skipped this one (along with couple later clunkers), but upon rereading this book a few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed with emotion for Johnny Smith.

  • Very good review. I guess I will now have to pull the novel off the shelf and read it again.

    • Ditto. This is probably my favourite of King’s books. For some reason it has stuck with me more than his others. I think the idea of being able to do what Johnny Smith is capable of doing after the coma fascinates me.

  • Thomas Gutheil

    I fully concur with all aspects of the review. I find this the most affecting and powerful of SK’s novels and have formed the habit of reading the book and seeing the DVD once a year or so: it never disappoints. I had no idea of SK’s underlying motive, which he revealed in “On writing”: to take the most loathed figure in American culture, the presidential assassin, and make him a sympathetic figure. Some scenes and lines are burned into the brain (as in the laughing tiger “game”: “Under the beast skin, a man, yes; but under the man skin, a beast.” In my view the DVD went the book one better by having the woman and child be Sarah and hers; that was a lost opportunity in the novel but absolutely right.

  • Wanda Maynard

    Thank you for the great review. THE DEAD ZONE, to me, is, by far, one of SK’s best, and it aged very well. I also agree that it talks to today’s readers. I loved the book. I loved the characters. Still a great read today.

  • iain hotchkies

    I reread this a month ago having not read it since first reading it in the mid 80s. I remembered it fondly but kind of wish I hadn’t reread it. I agree with the comments about it being a period piece but for me this was a negative not a positive. It is well written and the characterisation as always second to none.

    I settled down to re watch the movie after rereading the book but the glacial pace and miserable production values made me fall asleep quickly.

    (Reread the green mile recently and lovedinner every word)

  • Jon Malone

    Thanks for the well written review. The Dead Zone was my first King novel, which I read 34 years ago back in 1981. Still have the old paperback, but since then I’ve always bought SK books in hardback the date of release. Looking forward to Finders Keepers on 2nd June. For me The Dead Zone is a precious memory, being my first SK book, and my memory is that it is one of his very best. Funny how I have never re-read. Perhaps I’m nervous in case the memory is spoiled and it turns out to be not the same book that I remember, but I think your review has convinced me that now I need to revisit. So, thanks for that.

  • Iain Hotchkies

    Apropos annotated versions there’s a very affordable (and huge) annotated Lovecraft anthology out at the moment.

  • The Stand, The Shining, Rage (unbeknownst to me this was King at the time) The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, Christine, Pet Semetary, The Talisman, Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, and currently reading Revival.
    These are the King books I have read. The Dead Zone is the one that has had the most influence on me and stays with me.

    In my possession I have From a Buick 8, 11/22/63, Doctor Sleep, and Mr. Mercedes.

    I’m kind of liking Revival but feel I am going to be let down in the end. What book, of those I have, would you recommend I read next?

  • ann Smith

    Has anyone else noticed the use of fire and gas as a cleansing agent for evil? This power is founded by anger and used to defend something or someone the character loves. The conflagration (I love that word) eradicates the bad thing but there is always a continued suffering as that character continues on life’s journey.

  • V Wilder

    Loved the book when I first read it in the 80s, just finished re-reading it a couple of weeks ago- as good today as it was in the 80s. Anyone know why this is the only one of SKs major works not out as an audio book?

  • I am re-reading this along with others and have similar thoughts. No one (that I’ve seen here) has mentioned the TV show that I absolutely LOVED. They changed a few plot points around but I thought it was awesome. I have always wondered what Mr. King thought about those plot changes. Some of them were to the better (i.e. the father of the child).

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