BOOK REVIEW: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

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.

BOOK REVIEW: Desperation by Stephen King

And so, the obsession with Stephen King continues. It’s been more than a year of this now. I’ve managed to make my way through quite a few of King’s most acclaimed bibliography, based on recommendations from friends and family, but there’s a comfort in knowing that there’s plenty more out there and I won’t be running out of material by him anytime soon (I saw on his Twitter recently that there’s another book due to be published shortly. I have no idea where he gets his perpetual fuel to write from, or how he does it with such consistent brilliance, but I’m sure glad this is the case).

Upon completion of a King book, I’ll move onto a non-King related title because there’s so many titles on my bookshelf and bedside table just gathering dust and waiting for their time to shine. Yet somehow, despite my initiative to delve into a diversified pool of other authors and leave King behind, I still find myself drawn back to a title by him in between every other book. I always tell myself that I’ll “take a break” from books by King for a couple of weeks/months, on account of the fact that his books are immersive, profound (therefore requiring a sort of “recovery period”) and girthy. Basically, you’re investing your time in characters and worlds that will draw a lot from you, if you sit down with a page-turner by him, and you will be lost from the world for a considerable while.

My most recent read was a book called Desperation, a novel about a desolate town of the same name off the quiet Highway 50 and a mysterious, domineering force that draws a bunch of strangers together for the ultimate showdown between good and evil in a place more populated by tumbleweeds and dirt than living townspeople. The group is comprised of a young family, a couple dealing with the trauma of a recent miscarriage, an old alcoholic Desperation resident and washed-up, self-professed “national treasure”, Mr Jonny Marinville. There’s elements of mythology and the supernatural, in a similar style to that of Pennywise’s lore in IT, and a very epic setting for a standoff between all that is holy versus unholy in a similar style to The Stand. In terms of psychological terror, I’ve got to say, it’s up there in my top 5 for most awful antagonists in the King universe thus far. Desperation‘s (first) antagonist Collie Entragian, who stands tall at over six feet and wide like a wall, is a real nasty piece of work and rivals some of King’s cruelest characters in books like The Shining, IT and Insomnia. He seems utterly ordinary from the outset, his mannerisms and speech as common as any layman, but frequently spits out odd phrases in the language of the dead and glitches, like a machine, stumbling on his sentiments. There’s the feeling that something isn’t quite right with this guy, but also the issue of his role as a law enforcement figure, and a charming one at that. Plus there’s his strange command over an assortment of venomous and aggressive animals symbolic of death such as coyotes, rattlesnakes, buzzards, scorpions, and fiddleback spiders who are almost always bowing before him and forever in the readers’ peripherals.

I can honestly say, without a doubt, that King is one of the most consistently talented writers I have ever read. He has this uncanny ability to make even the most minor characters in his novels so rich that you find yourself wondering where they’ve gotten to or how they’re doing as you progress through a story, and his imagination is, quite frankly, unparalleled. He has the capability to introduce audiences to creatures and forces that are so frightening because they’re beyond comprehension, but he also explores the most frightening thing of all: the human condition. So many of his characters are riddled by addiction or trauma, and they’re all the more striking because they’re utterly relatable and flawed. This is the greatest horror of all!

King’s bibliography is vast and may seem impenetrable to prospective readers, but I would urge you to start with some of his smaller texts, if you’re threatened by the big books. Maybe something like Carrie? The length of his stories honestly have no bearing on the the quality of the content

As for me, I’m taking a 1-book interlude again. I’m currently reading Speak your Truth by Fearne Cotton (real pace-changer) but, as always, I’m eager to get back to the dark stuff. What’s interesting is that Desperation is said to run in parallel to another novel by King called The Regulators, penned under his pseudonym “Richard Bachman”. Of course my intention is to snap that up as soon as humanly possible, but in the meanwhile, the next on my list is Under the Dome, another solidly gargantuan read which will no doubt lead to countless hand cramps and dench forearms from holding it up to read at night. If you, dear reader, have any King recommendations or general pointers towards other authors who may be of a similar style, please do let me know!