The Dead Zone is another one of Stephen King’s better-known novels—at least to me—probably because I remember hearing a lot about the TV series when I was younger. (It was actually more successful than I thought, running from 2002-2007! There was apparently a movie, too, with Christopher Walken.) It’s one of his older books, published in 1979, and is one of the “Castle Rock” novels, along with Needful Things, Cujo, The Dark Half, and a number of other short stories.
The prologue begins with Johnny Smith, as a young boy, getting in an accident on a frozen pond while playing with other neighborhood kids. He hits his head badly, but does not seem to suffer any adverse effects—although he does wake up with strange words on his lips: “don’t jump it no more, Chuck.” A month or so later, long after Johnny has all but forgotten about the accident, Chuck Spier, a neighbor, is terribly injured while trying to jumpstart his car.
Many years later, Johnny Smith, now a young schoolteacher, takes his sweetheart Sarah to the county fair. After a strange, unsettling encounter at the Wheel of Fortune, Johnny drops Sarah off at her apartment and makes his way home—but is severely injured in a car accident on his way, ending up in a coma for almost five years. Meanwhile, a politician named Greg Stillson is slowly rising to acclaim despite the myriad mental problems that the reader—but not the characters—are privy to.
When Johnny wakes from his coma—rather miraculously—he finds that he has suffered some irreparable brain damage. He calls the damaged part of his brain “the dead zone,” due to the fact that it seems that small details like names of objects and whatnot seem to have been stored there, and now he can’t recall them. However, he also finds that he has a terrifying new talent: by touching people and objects, he is able to tell them things about themselves and their families that, in a lot of cases, they didn’t know. Disturbed by his new skill and even more disturbed by the publicity it earns him, Johnny retreats into a reclusive lifestyle—until he shakes Greg Stillson’s hand at a rally and decides he can’t ignore the mental images he gets from that touch.
I’m a little conflicted about The Dead Zone. Like Cujo, it seems a little bit disorganized. It also seems a bit rushed, somehow. I’ve thought about it and I can’t really explain why, except that it seems that there are too many parts to the story, too many climaxes, too many ideas when King could have (and probably should have) just stuck to one or two. The tabloid reports, the sheriff asking Johnny to help him solve crimes, the Greg Stillson plot—too much jumping around. I would have liked to see either the crime-solving aspect or the Greg Stillson aspect, but using both made both of them feel rushed to me.
Other than that, though, it’s a good story and of course I’m going to recommend it because it’s Stephen King. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s still worth a read. Plus, it’s short and quick, so you really have no reason not to give it a try.by