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23 April 2014

The Dead Zone
Stephen King
Viking Press
Publication Date
August 1979


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

My review:

The book has two main characters and their stories and their live will eventually intertwine. 

One protagonist is Johnny Smith who suffers an accident whilst ice-skating as a young child, is briefly knocked unconscious but otherwise fine and nothing more comes of it. Switch forward a few years, Johnny is now a high school teacher and is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for 5 years. He slowly recovers … and he finds that he has gained the ability to foresee events by touching people. This psychic ability brings him some local fame which he does not really like and tries to shy away from it. But he realises that maybe he can also use it for the good and for example, find help catching criminals/killers. 

In an initially unrelated story, King introduces the second main character in this book: Greg Stillson. It becomes clear pretty quickly that Greg is not a very nice character, violently kicking a dog to death, in fact any minor thing seem to bring out his anger. Again, fast forward years, and he has made it to successful businessman and politician, but his anger is still present and something all together more vicious lurks within his soul. Johnny than meets Stillson at a political rally and can see with his ability that if Stillson gets elected as president, he will bring the world a nuclear war, effectively destroying the world. But is it to Johnny to stop Stillson, or can he even be stopped?

Is it ok not to love a book by your favourite author?I can't even say exactly why, but I didn't really connect with this book, though the plot is really interesting and a typical King. I think the story jumped around too much for my liking… (I'm sure King can take my slight criticism *cough cough* and I'm also sure that others felt probably different about the book. )
Interestingly, the thought about trying to change a past by changing an 'undesirable character' who might do something terrible in the future is picked up by King again in his book 11/24/63 where the main protagonist travels back in time to prevent the assassination of JF Kennedy. (I absolutely loved that book by the way!).

Published in 1979, it is an early book of King's. What I did pick out is his excellent ability to draw characters - don't they just come to life? Here is an excerpt where he describes one of Johnny's nurses who helped him with rehab after his accident:

Eileen was a small, homely woman with a whipcord body, a nimbus of gorgeous, frizzy red hair, and deep green eyes flecked with hazel. Johnny sometimes called her - with a mixture of irritation and amusements - the world's smallest Marine D.I. She had ordered and cajoled and demanded him back from a bed-fast patient who could barely hold a glass of water to a man who could walk without a cane, do three chin-ups at the time, and do a complete turn around the hospital pool in fifty-three seconds - not Olympic time, but not bad. She was unmarried and lived in a big house on Centre Street in Oldtown with four cats. She was slate-hard and she wouldn't take no for an answer.

In summary, a must for King fans of course, but tell me what you think of it. For all others, you may actually enjoy the characters and intertwined plot. It is marketed as a horror book which I don't quite understand, certainly not horror in the blood/guts type (unless you count Stillson's heinous crimes). As always, there is of course the supernatural element with Johnny's 'ability', and that's what we love King for.