The Dead Zone by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Johnny Smith is one bad-luck bastard.
He starts off well enough as a nice guy with a talent for teaching and is in the early stages of what looks to be a very promising relationship with Sarah. However, a car accident leaves Johnny in a coma which nobody thinks he’ll recover from. Miraculously, he wakes up 4 years later, but he finds that Sarah has married someone else, his mother has turned into a religious lunatic, he’s got a long and painful rehab to endure, and he faces a mountain of debt from his hospital bills. Oh, and he now has psychic ability to learn details about a person by touching them or personal objects as well as sometimes seeing their futures. This might seem like a gift, but as Johnny quickly learns it’s really a curse that eventually puts him on a collision course with a dangerous politician named Greg Stillson.
I’ve always thought this was one of King’s better books but hadn’t read it for years. A new audio version with James Franco narrating and doing a pretty good job of it got me motivated, and I’m pleased to find that it mostly lives up to my memory of it.
The elephant in the room on this one is that even thought it was published in 1979 the Stillson plot is about a populist demagogue who manages to rise in politics despite being a crazy and corrupt piece of shit just because he has talent for making rubes think that he’s a maverick who tells it like it is even as they willfully ignore the obvious warning signs. So it’d be easy to say that King is a prophet these days. Yeah, he hit the mark with that one, but on the other hand there’s plenty of writers who have done stories about shady politicians.
What I found more interesting here is what King did with Johnny’s mother, Vera. She starts out as someone with strong fundamental religious beliefs, but Johnny’s accident sends her over the high side and into the realm where she starts believing tabloid stories about Jesus living underground at the South Pole. She’s completely immune to facts and logic, and she’d rather rely on prayer than medication to handle her high blood pressure.
It’s fascinating to read a character like this in the ‘70s setting where tabloids and poorly printed tracts are how Vera gets her crackpot theories, and how even then she uses them to create her own view of the world because reality doesn’t suit her. Fast forward to the 21st century where some people pick their news web sites based on how it conforms to what they want to believe as they spread rumors on Facebook about child sex rings in the basement of pizza restaurants that don’t even have a basement, and you realize that King had tapped into something that was on the rise even then.
Leaving aside the eerie similarities to America today, what sets this apart from his other novels is the way that King focused on John Smith and made his story a genuine tragedy. Johnny just wanting to try and resume some kind of normal life, but unable to stop himself from using his power to help people and put himself in a media spotlight is incredibly compelling.
Uncle Stevie takes his sweet time with this so that it comes across as more a slow burn, and it’s not really a horror novel although it can be creepy at times. You can see where the bigger plot involving Johnny and Stillson is headed for a good long while although King still makes the journey there worth the trip, and Johnny is one of his characters who haunts me the most.
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