Stephen King,
The Dead Zone
(Viking, 1979)

The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King's best novels, a tale rich in every way. It's well-told, with excellent characters, loaded with symbolism and shocking events (oftentimes both) and full of the plainspoken yet lyrical prose that is King at his best. There is little in King's long and excellent list of titles that can surpass this novel.

We'll start with the basic story. A young teacher named Johnny Smith is "gifted," through a car accident that leaves him comatose for nearly five years, with a strange precognitive/telepathic ability. And here's the catch, evidence of King's genius if ever I've seen it: He has to be touching a person or object for the power to work. King takes this startlingly simple (and original) idea, and weaves it into the most complex, and intriguing, tapestry of his career.

King does a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- with this novel. Take the prologue, which so expertly sets mood, and tone, and character -- Johnny shows early flashes of his power, while the villain of the piece, Greg Stillson, kicks a dog to death in a dooryard outside Ames, Iowa. King literally takes you from one extreme to the other here, brilliantly, and continues to do so for the rest of the novel, as Johnny and Stillson are set on their inexorable collision course.

But the novel is much more than that, as well. It's the story of Johnny and Sarah, who might've been his wife if not for intervening circumstances; it's the story of Johnny and his parents, Herb and Vera, a loving couple who find separate ways of dealing with Johnny's misfortune; it is the story of Johnny and the Chatsworths, a rich New England family whose son Johnny tutors ... and it is the story of Johnny and one Frank Dodd, a character as frightening as any King has created.

All the way through, of course, this is Johnny's story -- and in John Smith, King has outdone himself. Johnny, in just about every way you'd care to imagine, represents us, the average person -- the name alone is a dead giveaway. (Some have said the symbolism of the name is crude -- absolutely not! King has always gone for the larger symbols along with more subtle ones.) His reactions are our reactions -- never made more clear than during the press conference at the hospital, where he looks on in abject horror at what his own power has done to a reporter there. It's a tense moment, in a novel full of them.

King deals in many levels of symbolism in The Dead Zone, symbols of fate, fortune and God's will (the three being interchangeable in King's Calvinistic view); fortune wheels, omens, Vera's obsession with the more hysterical and revelatory aspects of Christianity (she could've stepped out of a Flannery O'Connor story), the seller of lightning rods (used, much as Bradbury used him, as a harbinger of doom), the mythical resonances of Cassandra and the abiguity of the Delphic Oracle, the Biblical references to Jonah as Johnny runs from himself, his power and finally from fate and God -- again, interchangeable from King's point of view. There is also the brilliant use of the Jekyll/Hyde mask, one of the most elegant pieces of symbolism in the novel.

But let me get back to the Calvinist attitude here -- which I've mentioned a couple of times, and by which I don't mean conservative and/or repressed. Instead I refer to the Calvinist notion that everything that happens, even things like "luck" and "fortune," is predetermined, willed by God. And though we as human beings have free will to defy or not defy our fates, the fact remains (as Mother Abigail pointed out in The Stand) that this is what God wants from us. That's the statement at the heart of The Dead Zone; it is what John Smith, King's reluctant hero (another powerful myth-figure) must face at last, in what is one of King's most powerful novels.

It is a cornerstone of a King library, and should definitely be in yours right now. Think of it as -- Fate.

book review by
Jay Whelan

16 October 2010

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