The Dead Zone: Aging Gracefully by Chet Williamson
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.
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.