Adored by his parents, Vera and Herb Smith, The Dead Zone’s tragic hero Johnny Smith is an only child bearing an unremarkable name and an unremarkable life, for all extents and purposes. This is until one day at the ice rink when Johnny has an accident which leads to a brief stint of unconsciousness. He picks himself up, slightly disoriented, and makes his way home to his parents as though nothing has happened with only a small bump on his head to show for the accident. The event is altogether forgotten, however, it leaves its mark on Johnny by irrevocably changing his brain and bestowing the young boy with an uncanny ability of precognition and clairvoyance through touch.
Later on in life, Johnny appears to have a flair for teaching and is well-liked by his students at a high school in Cleaves Mills, as well as his peers. In particular, his sense of humour wins over the affections of Sarah Bracknell, a fellow teacher, and the two go out on a date to the fair. That evening, Johnny is caught up in an almost-fatal car crash and ends up comatose for five years. When he wakes up, he learns his girlfriend Sarah has moved on and married another man, his mother has descended into religious hysteria and the world as he last knew it has completely and utterly changed. Oh, and he has also unlocked a more powerful iteration of his pre-coma abilities.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Johnny encounters a great many helpless folk who want his omniscient eye to offer answers to their questions about where missing relatives have disappeared to and how the deceased are coping in the afterlife, but he also crosses paths with another more ominous type of folk. The type of folk who harbour the deepest, darkest secrets and are up to dastardly deeds… There also comes a package deal with the local/national media, who hone in like vultures as the rumours spread of a coma victim with extraordinary abilities.
Like many of King’s novels, there are recurring tropes and the scope for crossover with the worldbuilding of his other titles. For instance, within The Dead Zone, the fictitious town Castle Rock is alluded to as the home of serial murderer Frank Dodd, though this town is also referenced in Pet Sematary, Doctor Sleep and The Stand. Also, one of the marginal characters drops a cheeky metatextual reference to the novel Carrie when confronting Johnny’s Mystic Meg abilities. There are additionally parallels to be drawn with King’s later work of Under the Dome, whose antagonist Rennie Jr is plagued by crippling headaches, the result of an undiagnosed and particularly aggressive brain tumour.
That being said, aside from the small similarities, The Dead Zone’s story is still an original concept from King which focuses on the isolating effects of trauma. From the moment Johnny wakes up from his coma, he’s out of place in the reality of a world that moved on in his absence. His existence is disjointed from that of his loved ones and, despite the companionship offered by new friendly faces such as Dr Sam Weizak and Robert/Chuck Chatsworth, Johnny is overwhelmingly alone.
I think The Dead Zone is a signature King offering with a slightly supernatural story, grounded by very human experiences like loss and loneliness. There’s no weird creatures or ghouls to titillate readers, just Johnny Smith’s unlikely survivor’s tale- I would argue that he is on par with the likes of other tortured protagonists such as Jack Torrance of The Shining, with them both being tragic heroes seeking redemption throughout the narrative arc. All in all, I thought The Dead Zone was generally a great read, but must admit that I found the pacing of the second half to be a little slower than the first and had to work a little to persist through a patch where not much was happening. I think die-hard King fans will nestle into the book and consider it an easy, satisfying read.