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Picking the Bones

The Dead Zone (1979)

by David Carroll

First Appeared in SKIN#2.7

The Dead Zone was written in conjunction with Firestarter after the period of draining caused by The Stand. And while the two are similar in their study of paranormal powers, they are otherwise quite different. In fact, The Dead Zone is quite different from most of King's work. Its use of politics is to an extent similar to that of some of the Bachman books, but otherwise, it is The Stand itself that comes closest. The Dead Zone is certainly not an epic fantasy, but is almost surprisingly large in scale, its few players and their battles encompassing both a decade and, yes, the end of the world.

It does some other things as well, most amusingly it contains King's first explicit reference to his own work ('just like in that book Carrie'), and notably it somehow manages to fit in his only real entry in the Serial Killer genre. Indeed if this book has had any real influence, it is within that subplot -- the presentation of Frank Dodd's particular illness prefaces an explosion of such explicit work in the Eighties, capped by the work of Thomas Harris.

When John Smith uncovers the identity of the murderer, Sheriff George Bannerman cannot believe it, almost violently repudiating the claim that his deputy is the sex offender who almost killed Bannerman's own daughter. In the context of the rest of the book, the association is obvious. John Smith woke up from a four year coma, and cannot believe the extent of the changes of the world. Suddenly the revered world of American politics doesn't make any sense any more, Watergate and the Vietnam War have taken their toll, and the President of the United States has resigned his office. The feeling amongst the people is of alienation and betrayal. The Jekyll/Hyde mask is exposed, and perhaps nothing can be the same again.

If that is the background of the book, the action takes place on a different arena. Stephen King doesn't present any political solutions to the dilemma. Greg Stillson has some good ideas, such as the community service for junkies, but his policies are for the main ridiculous. He promises to send all the world's pollution into outer space, and provide hot dogs for all Americans. It doesn't make sense -- which is the point. Alienation and betrayal. But even so, I suggest that the book has other concerns. It is not about Jekyll and Hyde (only a mask), it is about the dead zone.

In David Cronenberg's 1983 cinematic version, The dead zone is redefined to be the possibility that Johnny Smith can change the future. It's a nice pat explanation that fits in well with a movie that spends so much time trying to get through its manifold events that it has no room for anything else -- like mood or character or sense. Even the wonderful Christopher Walken can't save this one (though his coat collars almost do). In the book the concept is much vaguer, never really defined, and yet is obviously important enough to take the title. It is the blank spots in Johnny's mind that cause him trouble with various concepts (street, road and highway designations, the press is told). By the end of the novel it has manifested into a brain tumour, a little area of uncontrolled and malignant growth. But, interestingly enough, Johnny isn't the only one with such blank spots. When Greg Stillson kicks a dog to death, he experiences much the same thing. We are also told about Chuck Chatsworth, who has a mental block inhibiting his ability to read. Johnny manages to show Chuck how to bypass this block, and at the same time realises the use such techniques might be for himself. Does he succeed in the end? I don't know.

Johnny Smith can see the future, and Greg Stillson has a similar talent, or at least one that allows him to recognise his own destiny. But what is the source of this knowledge? Johnny's mother said it was a gift from God (like Frank's mother, she knew), but she also believed God would come down in a flying saucer, and lived under the South Pole. And yet, she was right. Johnny had been set a task and, once he recognised it, he carried it out (and it succeeded perfectly, if not exactly to plan). So who set the task? Or was it all just a big game of chance, a wheel of fortune in the sky?

The specifics don't make sense, none of them do. Even little details like the colour of eyes (three people in the book are explicitly said to have unnaturally green eyes, usually a symbol of power, which none possessed), or the bystanders who prevent the seller of lightning rods from making a crucial sale (can Ray Bradbury copyright an occupation, I wonder?). And yet it all works out. John makes the hero's voyage, like Larry Underwood he must give all. Greg Stillson is another Randall Flagg figure, stupid and cunning and crazy. And John's mother is Mother Abigail, except that she is insane.

And of course there is the matter of free will. Did John bypass the dead zone, and was he, as Dr Weizak suggests, quite sane?

The book poses the questions, and doesn't necessarily answer them, which is much the best, I suspect. Despite its apparent diversions into odd corners, such as the Frank Dodd subplot, The Dead Zone is a very tight and well-controlled novel, one that works on all levels to deliver the goods. Its mix of politics and religion and intimate detail make it hard to classify, except possibly in the highly recommended basket.


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