It’s becoming a very bad trend that I start each blog post with an apology that they are coming in later and later, but I’m the kind of person that freely gives out apologies at the rate I would eat an entire tube of Jaffa Cakes (and I’m talking about the kind they sell at Christmas that have about four tubes inside to make out majestic Jaffa Cake stick the height of a 12-year-old) so I’ll do it again, knowing it is getting old – sorry, it (may not) happen again! Life and a period of procrastination has just swung on by but hopefully it is only briefly passing and only seems to crop up when I’ve discovered something new to watch so I’m apologising in advance for when House of Cards comes back on Netflix and the only thing live on this blog is the tumbleweed rolling by. Grovelling apology over!
So I actually finished The Dead Zone a while back and this struck such a mournful note with me. Never have I felt, I don’t think, such sympathy for the main character of a King novel before, despite the fact that the many that I have come across previously have suffered a great deal more than poor Johnny Smith. I think that this strikes me due to the fact King’s characters that have suffered more largely do so in the realm of the great big bad antagonist that usually overwhelms and drives the many other King horrors. The effect of that results in the other King heroes struggling in the supernatural binds King would set up with a slow-burn flourish and their losses are a result of that fight, therefore the extremity of their suffering (in this sense, I’m considering Louis Creed’s mounting losses in Pet Sematary largely of his own making and only influenced by the supernatural entities working as plot force) are somewhat othered if I can be allowed to use that annoying literary term that is usually in reference to foreign or supernatural themes. It makes the previous grievances not less shocking or striking a lesser impact in each of the respective novels but harder to contemplate in reality.
Here, however, Johnny Smith’s loss is given so much more pathos and poignancy because it doesn’t occur in the realm of supernatural horrors, but in a fairly normal incident which can be a horribly real event. To summarize the miserable events in the opening chapters of the novel, Johnny is a teacher dating a fellow colleague, Sarah who he takes on a date to the fair. It is at the fair that he decides to take up some betting on the Wheel of Fortune and gets into a disturbing trance wherein he seems able to know the exact bet for each turn of the wheel and wins a great deal of money. After taking an ill Sarah home, he takes a taxi back to his place but then a terrible collision on the road with another car takes place and Johnny goes into a coma which he remains in for the next five years. On waking up, he discovers that his once girlfriend whom he had a potential future with has now married and has a child, his mother has gone from devout Christian to following a disturbing, cult-like brand of Christianity and he has the power to touch people and know their futures.
The wonderful thing about this book is that the power Johnny has gained never gives the kind of superhero omnipotence you may come to expect once a cool power is introduced in a plot. It also, more importantly, doesn’t give him the solution to his problems and that is what makes Johnny such a tragic figure. There is no solution. He wakes up to realising he has lost five years of his life, the potential future he’s only known gone, and lives in a world he has to constantly catch up with with crippling, painful injuries that he suffers through. The power he gains only becomes another painful set-back, another inflicted obstacle in his life he has never asked for.
It might be a surprise here that I’ve only been discussing the tragic events of the main protagonist and not yet mentioned the antagonist and there is a reason for that. Surprisingly for a King novel, there isn’t really a terrible, evil figure that the protagonist has to battle it out with and with good reason, this may be the first King novel I’ve read so far that the main struggle highlighted is the protagonist’s external, emotional issues he tries to overcome and ‘bad guys’ Johnny encounters provide the moments where he comes close to the self-sacrificing hero using his powers for the greater good. There are two antagonists that both showcase the potential for what good Johnny’s power can offer and the pitfalls it can ensue in doing so: the Castle Rock murderer and Greg Stillson. The reader is exposed to more of the latter through a series of vignettes and he is essentially a mix of Donald Trump and Frank Underwood only he never actually succeeds in becoming President. He’s the stand-in for the Man in Black, the ultimate bad guy who must be stopped. You can take a guess how that all works out and I’ll give you a hint: the world doesn’t end. I’m starting to think it would be good fun if King just wrote a book and subverted all reader expectations and the bad guy wins, the world ends, the end, mwa ha ha.
If it sounds like I’m being flippant, it’s mainly because the whole need to save the world isn’t really the point or driving force behind The Dead Zone, nor is it about what can be achieved with a psychic power. For the most part, this is a novel that focuses on Johnny, on how likable he is, on how he earns for peace and a place for himself in a world he can’t recognize. This is probably one of my favourite King books so far, maybe just behind the wonderful 11/22/63 because it tries to be more than a depiction of horror or the supernatural, it hinges between psychological thriller and crime genre with a sprinkling of dealing with loss and overcoming painful challenges in life. It was a lovely, sad read and yes, I did get a little something in my eye at one or two points.
Next up is The Green Mile so I think I may have to expect a slight trend here getting weepy over a King book. I already know the ending – bloody WatchMojo of all things spoiled it for me – but I’ve known the endings of a lot of the other King books I’ve read and that hasn’t affected my enjoyment for them. It’s a short book so hopefully I should get a review sooner than this one!