Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Dead Zone By Stephen King

The Dead Zone
By Stephen King
Copyright 1979

With the publication of The Dead Zone in 1979, Stephen King created a venue which would serve as a backdrop for several of his books and short stories. Castle Rock, Maine was the setting for The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Body from Different Seasons, The Dark Half, and The Sun Dog from Four Past Midnight. Needful Things was billed as the last Castle Rock book although it would be the setting for one more short story – It Grows on You in Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

The stories aren’t serialized and share loose connections at best. The sheriffs Bannerman and Pangborn are the most frequent recurring characters. Unlike ‘Salem’s Lot, the town is not a character, just a setting.

I’ve moved on from reading the Dark Tower and have started The Castle Rock series.

The Dead Zone opens with a prologue informing the reader that, despite the fact that he could not remember it, Johnny Smith suffered a head injury in his youth, colliding with another kid who was playing hockey on a frozen pond.

In the other half of the prologue, we meet a door to door Bible salesman working the Nebraska countryside, moving from farm to farm. While stopped at a farm where the owner was not home, he kicks their dog to death. His name is Greg Stillson and the young man on the move is sure great things lie in store for him as he drives off, dead dog miles behind him.

There are a few plot lines that run parallel in the story and meet at various points through the story. The opening chapter is set in 1970. We meet Johnny Smith, teacher and as mild mannered as his vanilla name implies, and his girlfriend, Sarah Bracknell. The two high school teachers are headed to a carnival and Sarah is anticipating this will be the first time Johnny spends the night instead of just dropping her off at her apartment.

They get to the carnival and enjoy themselves thoroughly. On their way out, Johnny spots a roulette wheel. He smells burnt rubber and develops a throbbing in his head and suddenly is drawn to play. He cleans the carnie out by guessing the right number. Johnny makes more than $500 in about fifteen minutes.

Sarah’s plans for a romantic evening are thwarted when she started throwing up a bad hot dog while watching Johnny play the wheel. He leaves her at her apartment and catches a cab home. On the way home, the cab is hit head on by kids drag racing. The cabbie is killed instantly, as are the kids. Johnny has been gravely injured with massive head trauma.

He is transported to the hospital. Emergency surgery saves his life, but he’s in a deep coma. The damage is so bad, the neurologist tells Johnny’s stricken parents and a dazed Sarah, that it is unlikely that Johnnie will ever awaken.

The world moves on. . . .

The Vietnam War ends.

Spiro Agnew resigns. Nixon resigns. Gerald Ford becomes president

Johnny’s mother falls into fanatical and fantastic religion, believing that flying saucers are going to transport Christ’s true believers to a star in Orion where Heaven is located.

Johnny’s dad gets older prematurely dealing with his wife’s mania and his son’s deteriorating physical condition. He wishes his son would just die.

Sarah Bracknell moves on, finds a young and politically upward bound attorney, falls in love, and marries him.

A serial killer starts work in Castle Rock, killing ladies from 17 to 70, strangling them with their own stockings.

Greg Stillson becomes mayor of a New Hampshire town and sets his sights on a congressional seat.

A man crisscrosses New Hampshire, selling lighting rods. His stops by a bar named Cathy’s in Castle Rock and tries to make a sale over a couple beers with the barkeep. The barkeep insists that he already has lightning rods, when in fact he does not.

And Johnny Smith wakes up from his coma after missing more than four years of his life.

His brain is damaged and he loses words and images in what he calls “the Dead Zone” of his brain, but he also develops telepathy and precognitive ability.

He first displays it when he grasps his physical therapist’s hand and immediately senses that her house is on fire. Then he is able to tell his neurologist that his mother actually survived the blitzkrieg of Warsaw after they were separated. Soon the media picks up on his ability and he becomes a reluctant celebrity.

He is finally discharged from the hospital and sent home to live with his father, now a widower since Johnny’s mom died from hypertension. Strangers from all parts of the country send Johnny little items for him to fondle and reveal their secrets. Find lost loved ones, reveal deep secrets, and even assistance in choosing lottery numbers. He is miserable and bored, hating the attention and missing Sarah who moved on while his world stayed still.

Sarah stops in to visit Johnnie. She is terribly conflicted, feeling guilt for having abandoned Johnny and moved on, for falling in love with someone else and for leaving him behind. As they part company, he grasps her hand to tell her where it was she lost her wedding ring while she and her husband honeymooned. It was stuck in the luggage. Sarah returns home and finds her long lost wedding ring. She flushes it without telling her husband and tries to forget what she knows is true about Johnnie and his abilities.

She visits again, enticing Johnny to invite her to his father’s place when her husband is away on business and she is visiting friends nearby. There, she tries to make peace with the past by making love to Johnnie, telling him that this one act must make up for the night they lost that tragic night and a lifetime of lost love.

Johnny receives a call from his old principal who invites him to come back to teaching at the high school when he’s physically ready. Johnny is thrilled at the opportunity to get back to utilizing his old skills at pedagogy. He also receives a call from Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman. Bannerman needs Johnnie’s new skills to help him. Johnny reluctantly agrees to meet with him.

There is another murder in Castle Rock. This time, it’s a 14 year old girl walking between the library and the school. The public pressure is on and Bannerman is desperate.

The meet and Johnnie agrees to try to discern some clues from a cigarette pack found at the scene. He then insists on visiting the crime scene. Upon arriving at the location of the latest murder, Johnny is able to discern that the rapist and murder always wore a raincoat so none of his victims could scratch him. He staggers to a nearby earlier crime scene that leads Bannerman to his suspect, who commits suicide just as Bannerman confronts him.

Johnny once again becomes the focus of national media attention. That high profile costs him his teaching gig and he moves on to tutoring the son of a textile magnate who has a reading disability and needs help desperately. Johnny moves into the guest house on the family’s estate and begins work.

While tutoring, he develops a fascination with politics and the 1976 election. He meets Jimmy Carter and knows instantly that he will win a close election over Gerald Ford. He also follows closely a New Hampshire independent named Greg Stillson, running for Congress.

Greg Stillson has come a long way from being a door to door Bible salesman. He’s now a successful insurance agent and mayor of a middle class New Hampshire city with a tough on crime philosophy. Greg also recruits outlaws to serve as his personal security. He runs an unorthodox campaign with wild policy pronouncements (We’ll blast the pollution into outer space), to unorthodox festival bordering on maniacal campaign rallies. Greg Stillson is a cult of personality and he is the favorite to win in the New Hampshire third congressional district.

Johnny decides to attend a Stillson rally and see the carnival of American politics for himself. He gets to the rally and fights hard against the compulsion to grab Stillson’s hand. Finally, he loses the battle and Stillson grabs his hand. Both are galvanized.

Johnny has visions of an older and grayer Greg Stillson taking the oath of office for the presidency. He then sees visions of a world on the brink of world war, with Greg Stillson leading the charge to Armageddon.

Johnny is stunned by what he’s just learned. He has just shaken hands with the man who will end civilization on earth. He ponders what his responsibilities are as custodian of this knowledge and what, if anything, he should do about it.

His tutoring job is going very well with his charge dramatically improving his reading and writing skills. He will now graduate on time with his class and, after a short stint in prep school will go to college.

The young man’s father hosts a party the night before graduation for friends and their parents. While there, Johnny learns that there is going to be a tragic fire at Cathy’s restaurant where most of the kids plan to go after graduation the next night. Johnny pleads with the father and the children not to go. Johnny’s pupil believes him and insists that his dad host a party instead and invite everyone to the house instead of allowing them to go to Kathy’s. Some kids accept, but many opt to stay with their original plans.

Events unfold just as Johnnie predicted. Lightning struck Cathy’s restaurant and sets the place ablaze. Kids rush for the exits and are stuck at the exits, trying to squeeze out when smoke and fire overtakes them. More than 40 kids died.

After the fire, Johnny opts to disappear.

Here, King dramatically alters his narrative style. No longer are we privy to Johnny Smith’s thoughts. In a detached style, King walks us through Johnny’s growing obsession with Greg Stillson and his campaign. He goes to a gun store and buys a sniper rifle and ammunition. People notice that he has a badly bloodshot eye.

He is living in Phoenix and working on a road crew, having disappeared from the world after the new, unwanted fame that came from the prediction of the disaster at Kathy’s. His former student’s father tracks him down and offers him a large sum of money (King never reveals the amount). Johnnie keeps refusing. Finally, after the man has sent several checks, Johnnie takes the money to fund what he has come to believe is sad duty to perform for history.

He writes several letters, to his father, to Sarah, to his neurologist, explaining what he is doing and why he is doing it. He mails them and then heads north for New Hampshire where he prepares to save the world.

He sneaks into a hall where Stillson is preparing to address a crowd. He waits with his rifle for his target to appear. Finally, Greg Stillson arrives and Johnny takes his shot and misses. He fires again and misses again. After he takes a third shot, Stillson’s body guards fire back and shoot Johnny. Mortally wounded, he fires one more shot. Just as he dies, he sees Greg Stillson grab a kid and use him for a shield. A photographer takes a picture of Stillson’s cowardly act.

In the epilogue, we read Johnny’s letters. We learn that he had developed a brain tumor. He insists to his father to never believe that the tumor had caused him to act. His mother’s parting words to him were that God had a special purpose for him and he should not act as Jonah, but act as God’s instrument. He was saving humanity from Greg Stillson.

There were also Senate hearings chaired by newly minted Maine Senator William Cohen. Here, we learn that Johnny’s tumor was operable, but that he refused the operation. His final days on the road crew were full of blackouts caused by the tumor. People testified to his how ill he looked in his final days.

The book ends with Sarah approaching his grave and weeping for all that had happened.

The Dead Zone was Stephen King’s first departure from horror. There are psychic elements to the story, but no true horror that was found in his earlier works.

The story of Johnny Smith is a tragedy. The story didn’t have a hero at the end. Jonnny Smith just wanted the life he lost to tragic circumstances. But every time he got a shot at resuming life, the curse of his new ability doomed him. Of all King’s works, this one is the most tragic.

Many King fans rank this as one of his best. I rank it as one of his second tier works with books like The Talisman and Eyes of the Dragon.

It’s an entertaining and engaging story with several plots evolving at once. The plots were simple and drawn together simply. A more mature King could have woven a lot more complexity into the story and made it better. But at this early stage of his career, horror was what he wrote best. His first deviation from the horror formula was not bad. He would later show the world with works such as Different Seasons that, as he matured, he was quite capable of writing outside the genre. But with The Dead Zone, he’s venturing forth for the first time, and a lack of maturity shows.

We will meet Sheriff George Bannerman again in King’s next Castle Rock installment, Cujo.

A movie starring Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen was made in 1983. The story is changed dramatically toward the end to give the ending greater drama. It’s a slightly above average adaptation of a slightly above average King work.

There was also a television series based loosely on the novel entitled Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and starred Anthony Michael Hall. I never watched the series. Fans give it 7.3 stars on IMDB, so it must not be too bad. It ran for six seasons, from 2002 to 2007 on the USA network.

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