The Dead Zone by Stephen King

Original Review from 2015:

Instead of his usual aspiring writer struggling to be a good man through the weight of addiction and uncontrollable emotions, in The Dead Zone, King gives us John (No Middle Name) Smith, a man whose problems stem from external rather than internal factors. Johnny is crippled by a coma that robs him of 4.5 years of his life and leaves him with a ravaged body and a curious new ability – prophecy. When Johnny touches someone, he can see pieces of their soul. Sometimes he can see their future, their intentions, their thoughts – it is different with everyone. With this new power, he is able to thwart serial killers, save lives, and even prevent a nuclear war. Johnny is a reluctant hero and the secret saviour of the world, but this is not a novel about action heroes triumphing over evil; it is a story about the pain of loss and the agony of what might have been.

King opens with a prologue about young Johnny nearly dying in a skating accident where he shows his first flashes of prophecy. When we meet him again, he is in his mid-twenties and about to go on a date with the woman he loves, Sarah Bracknell. Their relationship is still very new, but definitely going somewhere. Johnny is in love and Sarah is on the verge, but that’s as far as it gets. After Sarah gets sick – either from a bad hot dog or the effects of Johnny’s powers during a carnival roulette game – Johnny has to take her home. Then comes a decision that will hang over both Johnny and Sarah throughout the rest of the novel.. Instead of deciding to spend the night with Sarah, Johnny calls a cab and ends up in a car crash that kills the cab driver and leaves him in a coma that destroys both his parents’ finances and his mother’s sanity.

While Johnny is in his coma, his mother, who was already unstable, becomes the worst kind of religious lunatic and Sarah gets married and has a child. Part of me wails at Sarah about the loss of her and Johnny, but I can’t blame her – and neither does Johnny. There never seemed to be any reason to expect him to wake up and the only reason he stayed alive was because of his crazy mother and a doctor’s curiousity. Even his own father wished for him to die because he thought it would be better for everyone.

When Johnny does wake up, he has to confront what he has lost and what he has gained. As Cassandra of Troy can attest, prophecy is more of a burden than a gift, and Johnny suffers. Sure, he saves lives with it, but he can’t let go of the ones he couldn’t save and hates that this responsibility is his. The ultimate purpose of his visions are to stop Greg Stillson, a psychotic man who will become the worst president ever someday, but as I said earlier, this is not what this novel is really about.

The futures that Johnny sees are not fixed and when he changes them, he takes that potential future away from the world; much like his potential life with Sarah was taken from him. King underscores this loss when Sarah visits Johnny and they spend one afternoon together saying goodbye to the love they never got to live. And again, part of me was very aware that Sarah was cheating on her husband, but I could understand why.

And that - the almost but not quite - is where the real power of the book is for me. I mean, yes, it is nice to see Johnny stop a serial killer and, yes, I did feel some satisfaction when Greg Stillson, dog kicker extraordinaire, was brought down, but I can find that sort of satisfaction in any detective novel. No, the strongest part of The Dead Zone for me, is the tragedy of the loss of Johnny’s life. Not just his romantic one with Sarah, but his parents and everything else he could have been. Pre-coma Johnny is a vibrant, witty, charismatic man, but after his coma, he is like a ghost haunting his loved ones.

King’s books are never happy, but this is probably one of his saddest and one of the best.


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