Saturday, June 02, 2012

Stephen King: The Dead Zone (1979)

It's a real novel. It's very complex. There's an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels. I never ask a book to do any more than that.
Stephen King

After the grand scope and apocalyptic fury of The Stand, Stephen King offers a more muted novel of an Everyman (with the suitably bland name of John Smith) tormented by a gift of precognition that intensifies after a near-fatal accident and emergence from a coma.

The Dead Zone continues some of The Stand's philosophical themes and ideas about government and politics; it also explores issues of fate, destiny, choice (and non-choice), asking how much control do we truly have in shaping our own lives.

The novel spans the entire decade of the Seventies. In late October 1970, while taking a cab home from a date with girlfriend and fellow Cleaves Mills High School teacher Sarah Bracknell, Johnny Smith is seriously injured in a head-on collision and is in a coma. Johnny is not expected to survive, but he eventually wakes up – in May 1975. During the intervening years, Sarah has married and Johnny's mother, Vera, has slipped into a mania of religious fundamentalism, convinced God has a plan for her only son. And America has undergone seismic changes politically.

The head injury from the accident has deepened Johnny's precognition. As a child, he would sometimes know what song was coming up next on the radio. Now, by simply being in physical contact with someone or holding one of their possessions, such as a photograph, Johnny can sometimes recall events from their past and future. Johnny feels cursed with this ability – in the aftermath of something he predicted coming to pass, people look at him with a mixture of fear and dread – and he detests the celebrity it brings him after he helps solve a murder case.

The Dead Zone's other main character is Greg Stillson, a young, travelling salesman who we first see kicking a dog to death on an Iowa farm. The sadistic Stillson believes he's destined for great things, and years later, he decides to go into politics. Thanks to intimidation and outright violence behind the scenes, Stillson – "as crazy as a rat in a drainpipe" – rises through the New Hampshire political landscape, and is now running for the House of Representatives.

His highly choreographed America Now rallies are presented as farcical political theater, but, sadly, they bear more than a few touches of reality thirty years later. Stillson wears a yellow hard hat, yells populist slogans, and throws hot dogs into the crowd. The rallies draw people of all ages.

Roger Chatsworth: "He's a clown, so what? Maybe people need a little comic relief from time to time. ... They want to thumb their noses at a political establishment that doesn't seem to solve anything."

Johnny: "So the answer is to elect a loony?"
King portrays our political process as, in the words of Douglas E. Winter (author of Stephen King: The Art Of Darkness), "conspiratorial totalitarianism", where candidates for high office are decided not by the exercise of free choice, but "by factors as diverse as video images . . . media access and dirty tricks, untimely remarks . . . In such a system [the individual] becomes an observer, and choice seems a meaningless myth".

While everyone (including his opponents) writes Stillson off as comic relief, Johnny feels – even before the two men shake hands at a rally in New Hampshire – that he is potentially very dangerous. Johnny becomes obsessed with Stillson, filling notebooks with Stillson's history, news clippings, and his own observations. He begins to have a recurring nightmare – a replay of their handshake and the scenes of "utter desolation" that raced through his mind.

The sudden blackness. The feeling of being in a tunnel filled with the glare of the onrushing headlight, a headlight bolted to some black engine of doom. The old man with the humble, frightened eyes administering an unthinkable oath of office. ... The only clear image in these dream-replays came near the end: the screams of the dying, the smell of the dead. And a single tiger padding through miles of twisted metal, fused glass, and scorched earth.
Johnny becomes convinced that Stillson must be stopped – even if it means assassinating him – and he feels pulled towards this decision, unable to stop himself, drawn by fate.

If this talent was a gift from God, then God was a dangerous lunatic who ought to be stopped. If God wanted Greg Stillson dead, why hadn't he sent him down the birth canal with the umbilical cord wrapped around his throat? Or strangled him on a piece of meat? Or electrocuted him while he was changing the radio station? Drowned him in the ole swimming hole? Why did God have to have Johnny Smith to do his dirty work? It wasn't his responsibility to save the world. That was for the psychos and only psychos would presume to try it.
Winter, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness:
The Dead Zone is a novel about the 1970s, and the isolation and alienation experienced by Smith find ready equation to that of people maturing in the early 1970s. Smith is besieged with an elusive sense of loss, an ennui beyond the simple explanation of his five missing years. he has lost more than just time; he has lost his youth, and with it, his idealism. That the women he loved has married another man and that his mother has died are but elements of that loss. . . .

In both Carrie and The Dead Zone, King provides apt commentary on American myth-making. Both Carrie White and Johnny Smith are subjected to the post hoc rationalizations of a disbelieving civilization, whose single-minded obsession with a "suitable explanation" of events obscures reality in favour of a palatable myth.
Burton Hatlen, a professor at University of Maine at Orono, from an interview in Jonathan P. Davis's Stephen King's America:
I told him once that I thought The Dead Zone was an autobiographical novel, and he looked at me with considerable anger – he didn't like that statement. I still think it's true in that it seems to me that this sense of this person who's kind of cursed with this power parallels his situation. . . . [I]n The Dead Zone, the writer is this person who has this gift that he can't really control, and that makes him a figure that other people are just obsessed about. That's the story of his life, isn't it? That's why I think it's autobiographical, and you could go from that to Misery and The Dark Half.
More from Hatlen:
When he published The Stand, he said to me, "This is my last effort to really make it as a serious writer. If the critics will take this one seriously, then that's the kind of writer I'll be." This is all paraphrased, not exact, but I said to him, "If they don't take it seriously, what kind of writer will you be?" He said, "I'll be a trash writer." The critics didn't take it seriously . . . there weren't any reviews in The New York Times Book Review or things like this. It sold well, but it was not treated as a contribution to American literature when it was first published. He was very disappointed by that. What came out of that disappointment was Firestarter and The Dead Zone. He said to me at the time, "If I were Graham Greene, I'd call these entertainments." He was really kind of thinking of himself at the time as a writer who might write serious novels and also kind of trashy, best-seller types to make money.
Hatlen's comment makes a little more sense if The Dead Zone is considered the pivotal book, assuming that King's comments were serious. King himself says that The Dead Zone was "the first real novel" he ever wrote. And at that point, it was his most mature work, by far. Beyond the political theme, The Dead Zone is also a bittersweet, wistful tale of a couple (Johnny and Sarah) who were clearly meant to be together before fate intervened.

It seems as though our lives are governed by these little "chance" events. If most people look back at the way they met their wives, for example, it all seems random. You know, you could have spent five minutes to get your shoes shined or walked in another direction on a particular day and you'd be married to somebody different . … The book tries to convey the idea that maybe chance isn't entirely chance. If you look closely at some of the images, symbols and events in the book … it appears to be coincidence. But if you draw back and take a longer view, maybe there's a pattern to it all.
I like the idea that Johnny's ambivalence about his second sight is a metaphor for King trying to work out his feelings about his success. In interviews, King has admitted to having many questions about his fame – Why did it happen? Would it suddenly disappear? How will it affect his writing? His uneasiness about his celebrity was one reason why he published some of his early novels under the Richard Bachman name. In some ways, those books were an experiment, to see if his success (or something close to it) could be replicated.

Next: Firestarter.


laura k said...

I wish this post didn't include the image of a dog being beaten to death. It makes it difficult for me to think about anything else.

Isn't it interesting to see "By the author of..." on a Stephen King novel??

allan said...

Reading Ray Bradbury's obit today, I wonder if TDZ's lightning rod salesman is a tip of the hat to "Something Wicked This Way Comes"?

laura k said...

Good catch.

OracleofDefy said...

Laura, I agree, cruelty to animals is one of the symptoms that manifests early on for Cluster B Personality Disorder, such as a Conduct Disorder, often diagnosed prior to age 18. Laura, these individuals often wreak havoc on society as they grow order becuase they truly may have no remorse for their acts of violence and hate and are often diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, and that perhaps only when court-ordered mental health intervention is deemed appropriate. Like you, it is one image I could do without imagining. Thanks, James.