Meet Johnny Smith. A young man whose streak of luck ends dramatically in a major car crash. Followed by blackness. A long, long time in cold limbo.
If any of King’s novels exemplifies his skill at portraying the concerns of his generation, it’s The Dead Zone. Although it contains a horrific subplot about a serial killer, it isn’t strictly a horror novel. It’s the story of an unassuming high school teacher, an Everyman, who suffers a gap in time–like a Rip Van Winkle who blacks out during the years 1970-75–and thus becomes acutely conscious of the way that American society is rapidly changing. He wakes up as well with a gap in his brain, the “dead zone” of the title. The zone gives him crippling headaches, but also grants him second sight, a talent he doesn’t want and is reluctant to use. The crux of the novel concerns whether he will use that talent to alter the course of history.
The Dead Zone is a tight, well-crafted book. When asked in 1983 which of his novels so far was “the best,” Stephen King answered, “The one that I think works the best is The Dead Zone. It’s the one that [has] the most story.” –Fiona Webster
I’ve always had sort of weird feelings about The Dead Zone. It is a fantastic novel, yet it has never rated among my personal King favorites. Maybe it’s because I envision the story taking place in a cold, harsh world, devoid of color and light. This really isn’t a horror novel at all, so there are really no thrills and chills to be found until the few exhilarating moments that make up the climax of this pretty depressing story. The Dead Zone is one of King’s most accessible novels, however, and it exemplifies so many of this great author’s strengths. First and foremost, the man knows how to tell a story – no one does it better, in my opinion. King’s magic gift for characterization is also on display here, as John Smith, a thoroughly “Everyman” protagonist comes across as quite real and exceedingly human; he’s a truly ordinary man placed in the most extraordinary of conditions. King truly does the character right in the form of a truly masterful conclusion, as well.
If you could go back in time to 1932 and meet Adolf Hitler, would you kill him? That’s the question that ultimately comes to consume Johnny’s mind as this story nears its end. Would you sacrifice yourself for the lives of so many other people, virtually all of them strangers?
Because things like this you can only say once. And you either get it wrong or right, it’s the end either way, because it’s too hard to ever try to say again.
John Smith is just an ordinary fellow; he’s got a job he enjoys, he’s fallen in love with a good woman, and he’s as happy as he’s ever been. Then The Accident happens, and Johnny wakes up to learn that his world will never be the same. He’s been in a coma for well over four years, and he faces a painful road to recovery both mentally and physically. His girl has married someone else, his mother has gone off the deep end of religious zeal, he faces painful, scarring surgeries in the brutal months ahead, and he really struggles to find a reason for living in such a harsh new world. He has gained something from the awful experience, however, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. At times, he can see the future just by touching a person or an object. It’s a frightening power, one that alienates him even further from those around him. When word gets out, he finds himself deluged with pleas for help from people all over the country. All he wants is to live an ordinary life again, but his psychic powers make this impossible. His mother believes God has special plans for Johnny, and in the end he thinks she may be right. He alone, as things turn out, can save his country and maybe the entire world from devastating future destruction wrought by a madman.
Smith is one of King’s most sympathetic characters. He’s one of us, really, and we suffer along with him as he starts life anew. His physical problems are horrendous, but they pale in comparison to his emotional loss. He’s lost his girl, yet he can’t even blame her for thinking he would never recover and thus starting her life anew in someone else’s arms. He doesn’t know what to think or do about this strange power he has developed; it scares people, and it scares him – yet he knows it allows him to do some good things for people. He also knows he can’t run away from it. The problem is that no one really believes his predictions until they have proven themselves to be accurate. That is why he has to make the most heroic, most gut-wrenching decision of his life completely on his own.
John Smith is a fabulous character, and The Dead Zone is a truly masterful modern novel. While some of the subtext of the story is rooted in the 1970s, this really is a book for all seasons. It will never make my list of King’s top five novels, but it’s one of the most compelling stories you’ll ever read.