That glorious time came once again a couple weeks ago: the time to pick up another Stephen King book. I’ve been reading King since age sixteen, when I picked up (for some reason) a monstrous cigarette-smelling volume from the library calledInsomnia. I’ve been hooked ever since, and have largely hopped around King’s catalog chronologically, reading both his newest and earliest works, as well as those 80’s and 90’s oddities in-between that the hardcore fans say aren’t any good—I don’t agree, for the most part.
I intend to read each and every King work eventually, but this time around, I felt like tackling a ‘classic,’ and chose The Dead Zone. I have vague memories of the 1983 David Cronenberg film starring a young (but still old-looking) Christopher Walken. I think it was edited for television, but I still remember being terrified as a little boy at the idea of a man sitting in a bathtub, impaling himself in the eyeball with open scissors as a form of suicide. My memory of the scene is probably more gruesome than the real thing could possibly have been on TV. Also, no such thing occurs in the book. But now I look forward to revisiting the film as an adult and with the book fresh in my head.
The story is that of Johnny Smith (yep, John Smith, who mentions the comic irony of his own name), a young man with the pseudo-psychic ability to see secret or future things about others when he touches them. It is suggested that this power came as a result of two major head traumas Johnny experienced; one as a child in an ice-skating accident, the other as a twenty-something in a head-on car collision. Following the crash, Johnny goes into a nearly five year coma, from which the doctors never expected him to awake. He does, obviously (that’s not a spoiler), and is devastated to find that the world has moved along five years without him, and that his sweetheart at the time of the injury is married with a child.
What follows are a series of episodes in which Johnny is able to use his psychic abilities, either intentionally for the sake of helping someone, or accidentally, often leading to haunting discoveries. The ‘Dead Zone’ refers to the blanked-out areas in Johnny’s mind during his visions where he cannot fully see the future in detail; he receives flashes of things that may happen, but cannot always discern every element.
The book is oddly paced, and that’s not to say necessarily bad, but I think it could have done with a more cut-throat editor, despite its already short length. I felt that there were about thirty or forty pages that could have been cut, primarily towards the beginning regarding Johnny’s slow recovery and physical training after having been in a coma. These portions were well-written, but tended to drag, and only one scene in particular lent much relevance to the story as a whole.
That said, there are some very interesting moments that follow, once Johnny’s power is fully realized. There is a mystery of sorts as he assists the police in chasing after a ‘un-catchable’ rapist and strangler of women. This plotline is resolved with roughly one-third of the novel still to go, which involves Johnny stumbling upon a horrific vision of a possible future at the hands of a wicked, yet well-loved, politician on his way to the presidential seat.
As with nearly all of King’s works, there was a human element blended into the supernatural that kept me coming back; Johnny’s power is more-so a curse than a gift, and he struggles to understand why it has been entrusted to him, and for what purpose. Other authors might focus only on the power and forget that it’s a real person burdened by them, and I think it is this quality, among others, that has made King many a devoted reader. Johnny was not an amazingly original character, but he had his moments of reality, weakness, or humor that made him enjoyable enough. Also, the concept of the dead zone is an interesting one, and leads to some exciting circumstances.
This is not King’s best book, though it is far from his worst one (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is. There, I said it). I mentioned above that it felt somewhat oddly-paced, and I can’t quite pinpoint just what felt off-kilter about it compared to his other books? There is the fact that the primary villain is a politician, which makes for some rather bland political talk at times. The book also jumps focus a bit, causing one to think that the big climax of the book will be Johnny catching a murderer-rapist, but that element kinda comes and goes. Maybe other folks won’t feel any disconnect in the pace of the narrative. And for some reason, The Dead Zone continues to be listed up there with King’s earliest and best, right along withThe Shining and The Stand.
None of this is to say that I didn’t have fun with it, and I do think it’s worth a read. However, from a 2014 perspective, it feels to me a little bit like a young writer at the absolute TOP of the publishing world in 1979—also entering the heaviest of his drinking days—getting overly excited and knocking out an initially great idea without necessarily polishing all of the edges. But who am I to criticize one of the modern masters? I’m a young writer, and if I were in his position at that age with five blockbuster books behind me, maybe I would have knocked one out prematurely too.