The Dead Zone
Viking / 1979 / 426 pages
A Novel Critique
The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King's quietest, most thoughtful novels. Moving away from the classic horror imagery of his earlier books and the epic scope of The Stand, King narrows his focus on the life of unwilling clairvoyant John Smith, whose very name underscores his Everyman status. Over and over, King presents Johnny as an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. A pleasant date with his girlfriend, Sarah, ends in a sustained burst of precognition at a county fair Wheel of Fortune. After collecting his winnings and seeing Sarah home, Johnny climbs in a taxi and is involved in a near-catastrophic car accident that puts him in a coma for four and a half years. When he awakes, he discovers he has emerged with the ability of second sight: through mere touch, he can see into people's pasts, presents, and futures. How Johnny interprets this ability - and how he chooses to act upon it - forms the crux of The Dead Zone.
The Wheel of Fortune is the central image of the novel, forcing Johnny and readers to confront the notions of chance and predestination. Johnny's success at the Wheel should be based on luck; by virtue of his talents, Johnny subverts the random element. Johnny's first visions after waking from his coma are of things that have happened, or things that are now happening. He assures a woman her son will recover from a risky surgery, and tells his doctor that his mother, thought dead, is still alive. He is a seer in all senses of the word. Later, he discovers that he can affect the outcome of his visions, calling into question the notion of fate. Along the same lines, King addresses the events that shaped Johnny's path - if Sarah hadn't gotten sick at the fair, if Johnny had stayed at her house, if he had been killed outright instead of surviving both the accident and the coma - without providing concrete answers. King would later extrapolate on these themes in It, Desperation, The Green Mile, Insomnia, Duma Key, and 11/22/63, weighing destiny against free will: how much say do people have in the way their lives are shaped?
Another recurring motif is that of the Jeckyll and Hyde mask Johnny wears early in the novel to playfully scare Sarah before the fair. One side appears normal while the other droops and leers. Over the course of the novel, faces hidden behind masks surface, most importantly those of serial killer Frank Dodd and psychopathic politician Greg Stillson. In both cases, Johnny utilizes his visions to save peoples' lives, even at great personal cost. Over and over, King reveals John Smith as a compassionate, relatable human character; despite the symbolic ordinariness of his name, Johnny never comes across as a symbol himself, even as his actual face contorts somewhat by the end of the novel to resemble the long-ago mask. As in so many aspects of Johnny's life, the Jeckyll/Hyde mask - along with the Wheel of Fortune - functions as foreshadowing.
The Dead Zone is not an overtly horrific novel; even though Johnny Smith's talents are supernatural and some of his visions are terrifying, The Dead Zone would be Stephen King's closest approach to mainstream literature under his own name until the early 1990s. Set against the same 1970s political climate as Roadwork, The Dead Zone is not an overtly political novel, either. Though politics, like the supernatural, play a large part in shaping the book's momentum, King never loses sight of the fact that this is the story of a man and the choices he makes. Because it focuses on Johnny's internal life as opposed to Greg Stillson's larger political landscape (other than a few scenes showing the man behind the mask), the book never feels dated, even though King references a number of real-life political figures from that era.
The Dead Zone introduces and refines a number of techniques King will continue to put to use throughout his career. King's flair for titles with multiple meanings - Misery, Rose Madder, Desperation, and Hearts In Atlantis among them - begins here: at various points, Johnny interprets the dead zone as the lost four and half years of his life, a part of his brain damaged in the accident, and portions of the future he can't see in his visions. As the book opens, we see Johnny through Sarah Bracknell's eyes before we see through his; as readers, we slowly warm to him as Sarah does, instead of being asked to identify with him at once (a technique King uses later to great effect in It). John Smith's psychic episodes recall both Carrie White's telekinesis and Danny Torrance's telepathy. As both those characters are allowed some more subtle moments with their abilities to counteract the larger, more bombastic incidents, so does Johnny Smith. At one point, he holds a baby and senses only the things a baby would sense: "Everything was very simple. There was no concept of the future in the baby's thoughts ... [a]nd no words, only strong images: warmth, dryness, the mother, the man that was himself." Much later, Johnny touches wood and senses a man from the distant past who would go on to poison his wife. It is in these small details that Johnny Smith's clairvoyant abilities and his reactions to them seem most real.
The Dead Zone was Stephen King's first #1 bestseller on both the hardcover and paperback charts. Its success spoke to both the strength of the book's narrative and King's growing reputation as a writer. Even today, The Dead Zone remains one of the best books with which to introduce a new reader to Stephen King. Its depth of character, tight plotting, and masterful balance of pace and tone make it as approachable as it is absorbing.