‘My daughter,’ Bannerman agreed softly. ‘I think she passed within forty feet of that …
that animal. You know what that makes me feel like?’
‘I can guess,’ Johnny said.
‘No, I don’t think you can. It makes me feel like I almost stepped into an empty elevator
shaft. Like I passed up the mushrooms at dinner and someone else died of toadstool
poisoning. And it makes me feel dirty. It makes me feel filthy. I guess maybe it also
explains why I finally called you. I’d do anything right now to nail this guy. Anything at
A little while ago, I was telling someone how Stephen King writes more than *just horror.* You know, one of my usual rants. In the foreground of that conversation, I am all the more happy I chose to read The Dead Zone. Published in 1979, it is one of his older books and has that experimental style. I don’t know how I missed it for so long.
The Dead Zone is about a man named Johnny Smith, who once gets in a life-altering car accident. Johnny is a man who is shown to have possessed a strong sense of intuition since his childhood. But is after he wakes up from a nearly five-year-long coma, that his intuition has blown into a full-fledged clairvoyance. Johnny has sustained unusual brain injuries that may be the cause of his psychic ability. He can sense the past, the future and worm out people’s secrets. But there are some things that he can never reach – and these he says lie in a damaged part of his brain which he calls ‘the dead zone.’ With the help of his ageing father, Herb and his doctor, Sam Weizak, the book follows Johnny as he attempts to lead a normal life in spite of his new extra-normality. Life, however, has other plans for him.
Meet Greg Stillson. An aggressive obnoxious salesman-turned-businessman who nurtures an ambition to one day run for President. Avoiding straight answers, making ludicrous promises, loud gestures – these are some of Stillson’s specialties. His rallies are led by gangs of bikers for an audience of mindless fanatics. His is a nearly farcical exterior that helps hide the beast underneath. Greg Stillson is a dangerous man masquerading as a joker. The true extent of his breed of terror is revealed to Johnny Smith when he shakes hands with Stillson, and gets a dreadful vision. The Dead Zone is very much about the politics of its time – yet it couldn’t be any more relevant in today’s world. In fact, look what Stephen King tweeted earlier this year, “Populist demagogues like He Who Must Not Be Named aren’t a new thing; see THE DEAD ZONE, published 37 years ago.”
King does not let you take the driver’s seat in this story. You cannot guess what will happen, I don’t think you are supposed to. The Dead Zone is as unpredictable and meandering as real life. It is at once a murder mystery, a horror story, a family saga, a political thriller, a psychological drama and a blossoming love story. It is all of these and none of these. Its characters are its lifeline, not its plot. At its core, it is simply the story of a man dealing with what life throws his way and trying to make the best out of it. A good man who has been dealt a bad hand. It is a story of redemption and forgiveness, it is a story that makes you love its simplicity, until it goes and shocks the hell out of you.
“The same chipped angels year after year, and the same tinsel star on top; the tough surviving platoon of what had once been an entire battalion of glass balls. And when you looked at the ornaments you remembered that there had once been a mother in the place to direct the tree-trimming operation, always ready and willing to piss you off by saying ‘a little higher’ or ‘a little lower’ or ‘I think you’ve got too much tinsel on that left side, dear.’
You looked at the ornaments and remembered that just the two of you had been around to put them up this year, just the two of you because your mother went crazy and then she died, but the fragile Christmas tree ornaments were still here, still hanging around to decorate another tree taken from the small back woodlot.
Sure, that’s right, God’s a real prince. God’s a real sport. He’s such a sport that he fixed up a funny comic-opera world where a bunch of glass Christmas tree globes could outlive you. Neat world, and a really first-class God in charge of it.”
I mentioned an experimental style before… The book has a strange narrative flow. An unreliable narrator we don’t know we have until the story begins to sound like an unfinished puzzle. We have letters and newspaper clippings and a chunk of story shoved into a mind-blowing epilogue. Surprises, surprises, so many of them. His writing breaks all the norms and so well, it makes you wonder why there are any rules at all. Recently I saw an interview with Stephen King where he said something to the effect that he doesn’t want people to read his books for their language, or their message or whatever. What he wants is to just reach out and grab his reader. He did, here. He always has.
(Let this be part of R.I.P XI which pulled me back to horror after a far-too-long hiatus.)