Looking Back At… The Dead Zone

Looking Back At…

The Dead Zone

Stephen King The Dead Zone


The Dead Zone was published in 1979, the sixth of Stephen King’s books to appear under his own name.  It is one of the earliest of his that I read, loving it as much as I did everything he wrote during that early period.

It’s somewhat odd, coming back to it at this remove.  For one thing, I would now be infinitely more familiar with David Cronenberg’s quite brilliant and utterly moving film adaptation – it is textbook in how to actually improve on source material with some superb cinematic shorthand — ; and for another I had forgotten how very episodic and strangely ‘bitty’ the novel is.

And yet it remains a wonderful work of fiction and with one of the most sympathetic and likeable protagonists you could find.

Very briefly, Johnny Smith (and you have to give King credit for having the balls to run with a name like that!) awakes from a five-year coma to discover that life has left him behind, especially in his girlfriend Sarah, who is now a married mum; and just to put the dog’s bollox on it he also has the gift/curse of being able to see the future.

Shaking a Politician’s Hand Can Give You Sleepless Nights

During a handshake with politician Greg Stillson he learns that on taking the American Presidency good old Greg will usher in, presumably by nuclear war, the Armageddon.

Although the book’s prologue links both of these characters in their youth in 1953 it is remarkable how few scenes are devoted to Stillson.  Most of the bulk of the novel is spent with the minutia of Johnny’s life as he recovers – very slowly –- from his accident and comes to terms with the implications of his talent.

I loved rereading this and can’t emphasise how much I really cared for this truly tragic figure.  As to Stillson, he is on the surface what I would consider a breath of fresh air in a politician, comptemptuous of those ‘big boys’ in Washington; and with his trademark hard hat he is ready to go through them like shit through rice paper.  A regular man-o’the-people, in fact – except that we know that he is in reality barely holding in check a a near-demonic nature.

And because of the way some sequences are written – not too complimentary of politicians in general, put it that way – it is a bit on the weird side to be reading this in the American election year.  In fact, anyone simply dismissing Donald Trump as a buffoon might find themselves putting  down The Dead Zone and looking at him again.

I mentioned that Cronenberg’s film adaptation is that rare thing – superior to the book in certain key scenes; and one of them is in Johnny’s vision of a devastated future world.

In the novel he simply sees…well, devastation and the symbol of a tiger running across an empty landscape.  It’s all a bit on the vague side, to be honest.  In the film, however, there is a stunning scene (and one of the best in the movie) where Stillson (Martin Sheen) triumphantly gets his way in unleashing nuclear horror on the world.  In an absolutely chilling moment he appears to the waiting press group in his pyjamas and robe to announce:  “The missiles are flying.  Halleluiah; halleluiah.”

And that is just one instant where the film is better, indeed causing Stephen King himself – who, let’s be honest, has often had to watch totally shit adaptations of his work – to compliment Cronenberg and screen writer Jeffrey Boam.  That screenplay also has the heartbreaking line from Johnny to Sarah:  “It just wasn’t in the cards for us.”  Gets me every time, but completely missing from the book.

And best of all is Christopher Walken’s purely mesmeric performance as Johnny.  He inhabits this role and – played in the days before he became a parody of himself – it right up there with his great, great performances in The Deer Hunter, King of New York and Heaven’s Gate.  It’s his voice I hear when I’m reading Johnny’s lines.

On the other hand, the Wheel of Fortune motif, so good in the novel, is entirely absent from the film.  And yet the fairground scene – which, as filmed, is really poor overall – is left in, despite now being redundant.

This was the first of King’s works to feature the small town of Castle Rock, where Johnny tracks down a serial killer and introduces the character of Sherriff Bannerman.  It’s an intriguing subplot that makes a small novel on its own. (Incidentally, King was now working away with some enthusiasm on his fictional Maine topography:  the town of Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned; and obviously someone had written about a telekinetic girl called Carrie, as a book of that name is mentioned.)

A very enjoyable return visit with Johnny and the interesting supporting cast, it must be said.  But when I closed the book and smilingly thought that perhaps some clairvoyant should touch Donald Trump’s hand – you know, just to see what he has in store — that smile vanished pretty fast.

Because I would be far more concerned about what the frightening, rotten and corrupt Clinton Clan have ready for us, than anything The Donald might come up with.



Author Stephen King










Author: Charley Brady

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