King, Stephen. The Dead Zone [Viking, 1979]
After reading my second Stephen King book in a month, I think I know why he’s popular. It’s not the horror thing, or at least, not only. Rather, it’s the way he uses horror as a device to tell coming-of-age stories, and to take a nostalgic yet sanguine look at the zeitgeists of yesterday. The Dead Zone does all these things, and does them very well. Yet for some reason, I just didn’t love it. Liked it, surely. But love? Not quite.
This is the story of John Smith, he of the awesomely bland name. John has an accident as a kid, which does something weird to him but (just as weirdly) no one seems to remember the accident—even his parents. Then he goes to a carnival, wins a boatload of cash playing roulette and gets into a car accident that puts him in a coma no one figures he’ll ever come out of. Years pass—his girlfriend marries; his Dad tries to move on (but can’t). Then, five years later, he wakes! With psychic powers!
I won’t reveal anymore, but suffice to say the book is both about Johnny’s attempt to cope with a changed world and about dark things happening in that world—criminal and political. The Dead Zone is definitely thought provoking, which explains why it’s always near the top of the “best of” lists compiled by King’s fans and admirers. If you like your King, and you like your King political, this is a good one for you. It also might be a good one for a non-horror person to start with, given that the horror elements are subtle and more creepy than scary. There’s depth to the characters and a lot more to enjoy too.
So why didn’t I love it? I don’t know—as much as I liked the general mood and feel of The Dead Zone, I also found it pulled its punches. The political story could have been more than it was and the criminal story, well, it just sort of ends. The whole book, in fact, has a sort of melancholic listlessness to it. Now, I appreciate that the slow pace is a big part of the book’s charm, but that languid feel ultimately makes The Dead Zone more mood piece than pageturner. Is that a bad thing? I guess my answer is that it is and it isn’t.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for the being so atmospheric.
Penalties: -1 for pacing issues; -1 for not quite developing the political story as much as I wanted.
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."
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