The Dead Zone by Stephen King

Alright everyone, I think it’s high time I continue my quest to The Dark Tower (or, alternately, through the massive pile of books Stephen King has written). The next book on my list: The Dead Zone.

King has said in several interviews that he considers The Dead Zone his first true, legitimate novel. Carrie, he reasons, was too short; ‘Salem’s Lot drew inspiration from vampire books of the past too much; The Shining was practically autobiographical until Jack Torrance starts trying to murder his family; The Stand was an epic, not a novel; and The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (which was released after this book but I reviewed previously) was, of course, the first in a book series.
The Dead Zone, meanwhile, is a 400-page novel. I can sort of see where he’s coming from; The Dead Zone is a pretty unique concept, as unique ideas go. Its characters are neither the archetypal collection found in ‘Salem’s Lot nor an exaggerated version of his family in The Shining. Instead, they’re more real, more genuine, like those found in The Stand or The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. This makes The Dead Zone a more significant book than it’s probably given credit for. King is, after all, one of the most famous (and successful) novelists currently living and writing, and he’s said in numerous interviews and books that his characters are what drive his stories, not a story he planned out ahead of time.
However, this gives the impression that the first two books I reviewed are vastly inferior to the more recent three. This isn’t quite true, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The Dead Zone is the story of Johnny Smith (yes, that’s his name, which King actually jokes about in the book), a well-loved teacher at the local school who has psychic powers. When Johnny comes into contact with someone, he can see their future or what’s going on in their life. He can’t control this power, but it naturally has a huge effect on his life. When he touches a woman and discovers her house is burning, he tells her, which ends up on the news. When he hears about a murder and goes to the scene of the crime with the police… You get the idea. The question, ultimately, is what a person would do with that foreknowledge. If you know for a fact that you have to do something terrible to prevent something even worse from happening, would you do it? It’s these topics that King gets into in The Dead Zone, and it works out fairly well.
I say fairly well because the book feels aimless at times. The characters are consistently strong and each event leads into the next event, but sometimes the way the events lead to each other feels like it went on a tangent too long to get there. I’ve heard that this is often a problem in King’s books (which is why many are about 1000 pages long), but it didn’t cause me too much grief here because I liked the book the whole way through. There were parts I loved and parts that dragged a bit, but ultimately it was an enjoyable, medium-length read, the sort that would be great to take on a vacation.
Would I recommend The Dead Zone? Yes. It was enjoyable and intriguing (not in small part because it came out before Reagan was elected), but it’s not a masterpiece on the level of The Stand. It also came across as a suspense novel, not a horror novel (further proof that King is not as heavily focused on writing horror as people assume), in case that affects your decision to read it.
To give some perspective, here’s my list of Stephen King books I’ve read on this trip to The Dark Tower, in order from my favorite to least favorite:
1. The Stand. A masterpiece on a grand scale, and an essential companion to The Dark Tower. Read it.
2. The Shining. The sort of horror novel King is famous for. The characters are pretty much his family (if King himself went on a murderous rampage), but this almost adds to the realism of it.
3. The Dead Zone. A great standalone thriller with an equally-great cast of characters. Definitely a fun read.
4. ‘Salem’s Lot. Its characters aren’t the most exciting King has written about, but ‘Salem’s Lot is a fun take on vampires. Before they were sparkly, that is.
5. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. Alright, I’ll admit, The Dark Tower got off to a rocky start. The first book jumps from scene to scene and tends to give first-time readers whiplash in the process, which makes it hard to convince them on book two. But mark my words: the sequels to this book are going to be near the top of the list.

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