Riding With The King: The Dead Zone By Stephen King (1979)

The Dead Zone book In the past few years, I’ve developed a new respect for Stephen King and his body of work. When I was a kid I read The Shining and part of It, but soon moved on to other authors. Lately, though, I’ve found myself on the hunt for King’s books wherever I can find them which has resulted in a pretty substantial number of them hiding out under my side of the bed in unkempt to-read piles. Even though I’m partway through about four books at the moment, I decided to start something new when our boy Jack was born 7 weeks early. After looking under the bed for a while, I came out with The Dead Zone and just dove right in without knowing much about the story.

King’s fifth novel, Dead Zone follows the misadventures of Johnny Smith, a young man in a budding relationship with a woman named Sarah who gets in a car accident that puts him in a coma for four and a half years. Once he wakes up, Johnny finds that he has a strange power that allows him to experience a person’s past, present or future with a single touch. While much of the book is spent with Johnny dealing with these new abilities and trying to help out when and where he can (even if that results in media scrutiny and more public attention than he’d like) the actual thrust of the book comes in the last quarter when Johnny touches the book’s other main character Greg Stillson and discovers that he will be responsible for some kind of terrible, potentially apocalyptic disaster after getting elected president in the not too distant future. How Johnny deals with that eventually seals his fate.

The great trick of this book that I only realized towards the end is that King took an assassin who claims to have some kind of extra-sensory skills and put the reader on his side. King puts you so much in Johnny’s corner that you come to think of him as the hero of the book, which he is, but to many people on the outside, he was a looney tune nut case who tried to kill a low level politician in a very public place. We just happen to know that his powers were real and we’re involved in all the scenes of him doing good works for people that of course we’re on his side. It reminded me of that great line about villains where they never think they’re doing anything bad because they have good intentions.

Since we’re already on Johnny’s side, that leaves Stillson in the villain role and, let’s be honest, he doesn’t really fit in the above description. You get the impression that he knows he’s bad and just doesn’t care. He wants to grab for power and will do whatever it takes — from enlisting bikers for protection to threatening the press — to hold on to it. He’s a ruthless snake that reminded me a lot of “Big Jim” Rennie, the bad guy from Under The Dome. These are the kind of villains that actually scare me because they can and do exist in the real world. People who crave power often shouldn’t have it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to get it and wield it however they can, usually in a weapon-like manner. Stillson’s as ruthless as they come and steamrolls over just about everyone while putting on whatever exterior he needs to to keep on rolling.

My only real problem with the book is that Johnny’s powers aren’t very well defined. This is part of my longtime superhero fandom, but it seems like King plays a bit fast and loose with exactly what Johnny can do. I get that this adds to the mystery of what’s going on with him, but it seemed a little too loose. He touches a photo of someone from WWII and knows her entire history leading up to the present. He touches a woman and knows her house is on fire. He touches a kid and knows that the restaurant he and his friends want to go to will catch on fire. That’s a whole lot of power that doesn’t seem very consistent, especially the first one. Still, this isn’t a story about powers, it’s about a person with powers and how they respond to them.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I even felt some chills during the last time we see Sarah even though I don’t believe in such things. I think I reacted that way because of the tragic romance between Johnny and Sarah. Had one thing in life changed, they would have probably been together, gotten married and lived a love-filled life. Sure, they would have had their problems, like everyone, but the accident separated the two and eventually pushed Sarah into the arms of another man who she married and had kids with. The scene where Sarah and her son come and visit Johnny and his dad really hit me because, as King points out, this was basically a day where they all got to experience what could have been. Still, it wasn’t built to last and they all went on with their own lives and that’s how the world works.

If you’re curious to read my reviews of other King books (aside from The Shining and Under The Dome, linked above) check out my thoughts on  Misery and  The Running Man.

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