Following a four and a half year coma, Johnny Smith awakens to psychic powers that allow him to see the future. As he predicts events over time, Johnny struggles with the responsibilities that go hand in hand with these new abilities. Should he prevent inevitable tragedies? If so, how can he persuade skeptics to believe him? And what happens when Johnny’s path crosses that of a rising politician who threatens the future of mankind?
The Dead Zone is a book you’ll probably find in the horror section with the rest of King’s work. But I’d argue that following several novels published in King’s scary 70s, this is his first foray into heavy drama. Sure there are some sci-fi elements, maybe a little fantasy and a bit of a thriller thrown in there, but King is deep into character study here. The novel’s protagonist, Johnny Smith, is an intensely tragic character. Seemingly everything that happens to Johnny is completely out of his control and you can’t help but feel for the incredibly difficult choices he has to make.
When not focusing on Johnny, the novel shifts to bible salesman-cum-politician Greg Stillson. Running as an independent, Stillson rises from small-town mayor to the house of representatives with his sights ultimately set on the nation’s highest office. Nearly thirty years prior to the rise of Donald Trump, King shows a man who excels through petty attacks, cheap political populism and a whole lot of smoke and mirrors. It’s almost eerie how similar he is to the current US leader. I had heard about this prior to picking up the book, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for unsettling comparisons.
As you can guess – and without spoiling anything – the two do eventually cross paths. The flash of the future Johnny receives upon shaking Stillson’s hand is particularly frightening and rocks Johnny to his core. King asks the hypothetical question – “if you travel back to 1932 and are given the opportunity to kill Hitler, do you do it?” Can he trust his own vision of the future? Is he prepared to deal with the moral consequences of assassinating someone who has yet to commit a crime? Given what Hitler goes on to do, it’s a no-brainer. But is Johnny prepared to deal with the consequences to himself and to his family? Johnny is in a no-win scenario and the pressure he’s under passes on to the reader. At least it did for me, anyway.
In my opinion, The Dead Zone is one of King’s all-time greats. It’s an emotional read that touches on guilt, love, mortality and obligation. At well over five hundred pages, I’d still call this a brisk read. It was one I couldn’t put down through the last hundred pages and at this point, it’s definitely in my top five King stories.