My horrible, horrible memory is both a blessing and a curse. I read this book a little over 10 years ago, when I was a freshman in High School. I am just now revisiting it, and I didn’t remember a single thing, not even the character names. I don’t want you to take this to mean that this book is mediocre and thus forgettable, because it’s not; I’m lucky if I remember where I park my car in the morning, much less the plot of a book I read more than a decade ago in a haze of hormones and in the grip of a book-a-day reading habit. Fortunately, I really appreciated being able to read this as if for the first time, even if it reflects poorly on my mental retention.
So, I’m having difficulties recalling a book read over a decade ago, and it’s not exactly a tragedy. I remember plenty of other things from that time, like meeting my husband (yes, I’m one of those people that married their high school sweetheart, so sue me) and transitioning from private school to public, and other adolescent events. In other words, I remember the important things. However many gaps I seem to feel from that time, it is nothing to what it must be like to sleep through 4 ½ years of your life, which is just what happens to John Smith in The Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King’s earlier forays into the realm of science fiction-based horror, adding to the list that includes Carrie, Firestarter, The Stand (though this one balances precariously between sci-fi and religious fantasy),"The Mist," and Under the Dome. A skating accident at the age of seven awakens a seemingly dormant portion of John Smith’s brain and he makes an accurate prediction of the future, of which no one takes any notice at the time. There are no more major manifestations of this ability, except for little things like John’s knack for finding lost things and picking numbers in a carnival game. But when a much more serious accident puts him in a coma for almost half a decade, things start to get a bit more serious.
In 1970, John Smith was a charming but average guy; a successful high school teacher with a nice apartment, a beautiful girlfriend, a loving family and a bright future. Not long out of college, he was interested in the politics of his age, especially the atrocities of Vietnam and the presidency of Tricky Dick. Four-and-a-half years later, John is an invalid with a chunk of his life missing, a mother spiraling into religion-fueled insanity, and a girlfriend who is now someone else’s wife. John doesn’t even recognize the type of pen the doctors are using when he wakes up. Well, what’s so terrifying or horrible about that? Plenty, and that’s without the added complication of John’s new “talent.”
It seems that the brain damage he sustained while flying out of a cab windshield has further disabled a portion of his brain, a section he calls the “dead zone,” and in compensation, his brain has further enhanced the region he used briefly to glimpse the future as a child. Now, when John touches certain people and objects, he experiences “flashes” of knowledge he should have no way of knowing, both of the past and the future. Not only this, but he has no control over his reactions, frequently speaking his discoveries aloud, and scaring the living hell out of people around him. Of course, this ability does not go unnoticed, and John finds himself a very reluctant celebrity, when all he wants is a little normality in his now painful and bizarre existence, but “normal” isn’t in the cards for John, as later events prove quite thoroughly. A murder investigation, a freak fire and some startling political upheavals carry the plot into thriller territory after John leaves the hospital, and I won’t ruin it for anyone.
I am reluctant to call this book “horror,” but there is something undeniably frightening about it all the same. While a book like It or Christine relies on supernatural chills, in the back of my mind is always the secure knowledge that homicidal, shape-shifting clowns and haunted cars are fun, spooky nonsense. But the human brain is unexplored territory; when you get right down to it, we understand maybe 1/100th of how or why it actually works in the ways that it does. Who can say if John Smith’s ability is really outside the realm of reality, and the idea that such a burden could rest on someone’s shoulders is just plain scary. Simply in the context of this story, what if someone else, someone not as fundamentally good as John, had been given the ability to see into the future and shape events accordingly? This is the human element that makes me love Stephen King. I’m not a horror fan in general, I don’t seek out gore or ghosts, but his stories are only ever nominally about these things. The horror almost always springs from human nature (and this is an observation you will generally see in all of my reviews of King’s work, so sorry to repeat myself). The “villain” of this story, if it really has one, is a person just like John is a person, and it is their actions that shape the plot and make the story tip over the line from speculative fiction into horror territory, though I don’t think it is ever completely established as one or the other. Of course, the idea of being inundated with uncontrollable knowledge that separates you from other people is similarly frightening; humans are social creatures, and many of us fear the kind of isolation that this would cause. To be treated like a leper because of a quirk of the human brain is (I believe) a basic fear, even though it may be one that is rarely articulated.
I think King’s unusual (for him) focus on political and social events is telling in this story. There are frequent references to current events and political candidates, which gives John’s time lapse a feeling of unsettled reality, and also sets up much of the plot in the latter half of the novel. But politics can be an effective tool in horror, which comes right back to the terrifying potential of human nature. And, somehow, King manages to use his references to establish his tale in a decidedly real timeline while simultaneously managing to avoid the pitfall of making the story seem dated. John’s sad story unfolds in a specific time and place, full of recognizable names and events, but King uses his references just sparingly enough to maintain the delicate balance of fact and fiction. In other words, there are no significant references to bands or pop culture or other trends that have caused a few of his later works to suffer the indignity of being isolated in time.
There are some truly tragic and poignant moments in this story, especially those parts of the story that focus on John’s relationship with his former love and the debilitating physical repercussions of sleeping for 4 ½ years. Having been a Stephen King fan for over ten years, I think The Dead Zone is often overshadowed by his more iconic, “traditional” horror stories, but in reality I think it ranks among his absolute best. The human element is very, very strong in this book, and there are none of the throw-away characters that often populate his larger, more sprawling works. Perhaps the end is a little weak or abrupt, but overall, The Dead Zone is a fantastic and surprisingly touching story.