Making Castle Rock Great Again: My Review of The Dead Zone

As I have stated before, one of Stephen King’s strengths as a writer is that he writes about “real life”, and is able to write about it very well.

Stephen King

And this is a good thing for a few reasons.

For one, it makes the stories more believable.  The Shining is a good example of this.  We may know the book for the scary hotel and the lecherous ghost in a certain famous room, but much of the book centers around the Torrance family and their problems, which include financial issues, abuse and substance abuse.  These are all topics we are familiar with, so when the familiar is juxtaposed with the supernatural, it makes the supernatural that much more believable.

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In other words, seeing Jack’s struggles with addiction and his need to provide for his family adds an element of credibility, and suddenly we can believe that an old hotel is really haunted by angry ghosts that want to use you as a human battery of sorts, because you really do have those psychic abilities.

(Ok, maybe a stretch on the psychic abilities part.  But, still you never know.)

King also creates great characters.  These characters also add to the story, allowing one to emphasize with the horrible situations they are put in.

In fact, King has the ability to create a sympathetic “good guy” and a great bad guy.  Both of these are essential to any good story.

Actually, bad guys are unfortunately a part of real life…

MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 10: Presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures after Carly Fiorina says she met with Russian President Putin at a one on one meeting, during the Republican Presidential Debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theatre November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fourth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top eight candidates, and another for four other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Coincidentally (or maybe not), one of King’s most iconic bad guys is, in fact, a politician.

Again, real life can actually be much scarier than a clown in the sewers or a haunted hotel.

In case you were wondering, the character I am talking about is Greg Stillson, from the book The Dead Zone, which also happens to be one of my favorite King novels (and movies!)

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With it being an election year that has proved to be horror show that scares even motherfuckers like Stephen King, there was only one thing to do.

That’s right:  a read and review of The Dead Zone!  Makes perfect sense!

So join me, if you will, on my recap and dissection of The Dead Zone…hope you don’t scare easily!

Oh, as always:

Homer spoiler


Synopsis

The prologue of the book features two people.  One is a young boy by the name of Johnny Smith.  Johnny suffers a head injury as a child due to an ice-skating accident.  This accident is not serious, but it does briefly render Johnny with precognitive abilities.  However, these abilities soon become dormant, and the rest of Johnny’s childhood is normal.

The other person is a man named Greg Stillson.  In the beginning of the book, Stillson is a young man who does door-to-door sales, but aspires for something better for himself.  However, there is something not quite right about Stillson, as he is shown to be a cruel man.  On one of his stops, Stillson kicks a dog to death out of anger, and proceeds to cover the act up so that he will not be caught.

Several years later, Johnny has graduated from college and secured a job as a teacher.  He is also dating a young woman named Sarah Bracknell.  One fall night, Johnny and Sarah attend a fair.  Johnny wins big in one of the gambling games and plans to consummate his relationship with Sarah.  However, Sarah becomes ill, and Johnny takes a cab back to his apartment.

Tragedy strikes on the cab ride back to Johnny’s apartment:  the cab collides with another vehicle.  The driver of the cab is killed, along with the passengers in the other vehicle.  Johnny survives the accident, but suffers from severe brain damage and falls into a coma.

For nearly five years, Johnny remains in the coma.  His parents, Herb and Vera Smith, are grief-stricken.  However, Herb is able to cope with the accident a little better than Vera, who succumbs to a sort of religious mania, and begins to subscribe to beliefs that can only be described as “fringe science.”  Sarah is also grief-stricken, but falls in love with a man named Walt Hazlett and has a son by him.

While Johnny is in the coma, a killer that becomes known as the Castle Rock begins to terrorize the town of Castle Rock.  Several women are murdered, but the murders go unsolved.

One day, Johnny awakens from his coma.  His mobility is limited, and he lacks control over certain bodily functions, but he is coherent and remembers his name, his parents, etc.  Johnny is also devastated to find out that Sarah has re-married, but holds no ill will against her.

Almost as soon as he awakens from his coma, Johnny begins to manifest precognitive abilities.  When Sarah visits him in the hospital, he is able to touch her and tell her where she lost her wedding ring.  He is also able to touch one of his doctors, Dr. Weizak, and determine that Weizak’s mother did not die in the Holocaust, after all, and is living in California.  Both of premonitions are subsequently verified, and bring attention to Johnny.

Johnny continues with his physical therapy and rehabilitation, even though it is painful for him.  One day, he touches his physical therapist, and has a premonition that the woman’s house has caught on fire.  Luckily, the fire department catches the fire on time, and no serious damage is done to the woman’s house.  However, this incident continues to bring more unwanted attention upon Johnny, in the form of curious reporters.

Shortly after the incident with his physical therapist, Johnny is hounded by news reporters who are curious about his abilities.  With Dr. Weizak at his side, Johnny attempts to answer some of their questions.  When he touches one reporter, Johnny is able to obtain some information about the reporter’s deceased sister, and there is no explanation as to how Johnny could have obtained this information.  The reporter becomes angry and calls Johnny a charlatan, even though the information is not false.

However, Johnny is distracted from the reporters when he finds out that his mother is in the hospital, as she has suffered a stroke.  Vera passes away shortly after Johnny’s arrival at the hospital, and Johnny and his father are devastated.

While Johnny is recovering from his accident, Greg Still becomes the mayor of a small town in New Hampshire and is on a rise to power.  However, his methods of keeping order in his city are unorthodox, to say the least, and some question his legitimacy.

After the death of his mother, Johnny moves back into his childhood home with his father.  Shortly after he moves back home, Johnny is approached by a man named Richard Dees.  Richard Dees works for a tabloid magazine called The Inside View, and offers Johnny a job at the magazine that promises to be quite lucrative.  Johnny becomes angry, and chases the reporter off his property, threatening to hurt Dees if he ever returns.

Sarah visits Johnny a few days after the incident with Richard Dees.  Even though she is happily married to Walt, Sarah consummates her relationship with Johnny, reminding Johnny on what he has missed.  Sarah then leaves, and she and Johnny agree not to contact each other again.

The weeks and months pass by, and Johnny struggles to return to a normal life.  An article accusing him to be a charlatan is published in The Inside View, in retribution for his refusal to work for the tabloid.  However, Johnny ignores the article, and the publicity surrounding him begins to die off.

One day, Johnny receives a call from Sheriff George Banner in regards to the Castle Rock Strangler murders.  Sheriff Bannerman requests Johnny help in solving the case, as the case has remained unsolved for several years and quite a few women have fallen victim to the murderer.  Initially, Johnny refuses to help, as he feels that he is being mocked.

However, when Johnny watches a news report on the murders, he changes his mind and agrees to meet with Sheriff Banner.  He meets with Sheriff Bannerman in a local diner, and finds out that the latest victim of The Castle Rock Strangler was a nine year old girl.  Johnny heads back to the police station with Bannerman, so that he can touch something that may have belonged to the killer, and hopefully get some information on the murderer.

When Johnny touches the cigarette carton that may have belonged to the murderer, he does not get any information.  However, Johnny heads to the site where the murder occurred, in the hopes that he will be able to obtain some information from the area.  And Johnny is successful in making this visit, and reveals the murderer to be Frank Dodd, who is actually one of Sheriff Bannerman’s deputies.  When Johnny makes this revelation, Sheriff Bannerman is angered, but agrees to at least investigate the possibility that Frank was involved in these murders.

The sheriff and Johnny then head to Frank’s house to confront him in regards to the murders.  When they arrive, they find that Frank has somehow figured out that he has been caught, and has committed suicide by slitting his throat with a razor.  He has also written “I confess” on his bedroom mirror in red lipstick.

After The Castle Rock Strangler has been caught, Johnny’s life has been turned upside down.  He is hounded by the press, and loses a teaching contract that he had previously secured.

The years pass, and Johnny eventually moves to a nearby town and obtains a job tutoring a high school boy named Chuck.  Johnny is quite good at his job, and helps Chuck overcome his difficulties with reading.

Greg Stillson continues to gain popularity as a politician, and runs for a seat in The House of Representatives.  Johnny is somewhat skeptical of Stillson, but does not pay him much mind, as he continues to try to live a normal life.

One afternoon, Johnny attends a rally to hear Greg Stillson speak.  Johnny is able to shake Stillson’s hand, and has one of his premonitions:  he sees Stillson being elected president and wreaking havoc on the United States and the rest of the world.  This frightens Johnny badly, causing him to faint.  When he awakens, he is questioned by the police, but released, as they cannot charge him with a crime.

Johnny continues to work with Chuck, and to live his life.  However, Greg Stillson is never far from his mind, and Johnny decides that something needs to be done about him, although he does not like the idea of killing, even a psychopath like Stillson.  Johnny begins to keep obsessive notes on Stillson, and wonders just what he can do.

One night, Chuck gives Johnny a hug, thanking him for his help.  Johnny has another premonition.  He sees the restaurant that is hosting a graduation party that Chuck is planning on attending get struck by lightening, killing several students.  One of these students may be Chuck.  Johnny convinces Chuck not to attend the party, and Chuck agrees, hosting a party of his own at his parent’s house.  Later that night, Johnny hears a radio broadcast that there has been a fire at that restaurant, and that 75 people were killed in the fire, which was caused by a lightening strike.

After the incident at the restaurant, Johnny flees New England and heads to Florida.  He is determined to stop Stillson at any cost, and purchases a gun.  He then heads back north, in the hopes of catching Stillson at a town hall meeting in Jackson, New Hampshire.

At the meeting, Johnny fires his gun at Stillson.  In order to defend himself, Stillson grabs an infant and uses the boy as a human shield.  A nearby reporter takes a picture of Stillson’s act of cowardice.  In the meantime, Johnny is shot by Stillson’s bodyguards and dies almost instantly, but knows that even though he was unable to shoot Stillson, he has still completed his mission.

Once the picture of Greg Stillson’s act of cowardice is brought to the public’s attention, his political career is killed, and the world is safe from the nuclear war that otherwise would have occurred.  It is also discovered that Johnny Smith was suffering from a brain tumor and had only months to live.  His letters to his father and Sarah indicate that he was of clear mind in his decision to stop Stillson.

Sarah visits Johnny’s grave, and feels distressed.  However, she feels a ghostly, gentle hand on her cheek, and knows that Johnny is not truly gone.


My Thoughts

The Dead Zone.  Many know Stephen King as the guy who writes scary stories.  And they would not be wrong, some of King’s material can scare someone right into a change of pants.

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But then, you have the underrated gem otherwise known as The Dead Zone.  In other words, the other Stephen King.  And people often forget that King does indeed have another side.  And this side is not the one that can scare you into a change of pants.

No, one of the things that the other Stephen King is good at is feelsies.

Yes, the guy that can (literally) scare the crap out of you can also reduce you to tears, and not the kind of tears brought on by a certain homicidal clown or by a creepy woman who has taken up resident in the bathtub in a certain famous (or is it infamous?) room in a haunted hotel.

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No, these are the kind of tears that you shed for the human condition, which is actually one of the most fucked up conditions of all time.

And The Dead Zone is a constant reminder of this, even from the very beginning.  Tragedy does not wait to strike in The Dead Zone.

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Rather, it rears its ugly head right away, as Johnny falls into the coma right away.  When Johnny falls into a coma, his life is forever changed.  He was a young man with a bright future with the woman he loved.  However, the accident changes everything for Johnny.  He is no longer the young man with a bright future, the young man who made being a high school teacher look effortless, the young man who had a beautiful girlfriend who he planned to marry.  He is now a vegetable, and even his father prays for death for him, so that he can receive some form of mercy.

The lives of Johnny’s loved ones are irrevocably changed as well.  His parents have effectively experienced the death of their only child.  To witness your only child suffer like that…it’s no wonder that Vera basically went insane, and Johnny’s father prayed for his death, so that he would not have to witness his only child suffering.  Who could blame them?

And there was another victim to tragedy:  Sarah Bracknell.  It is true that Sarah was not married to Johnny, or even engaged to him.  Sarah’s tragedy was the future that never came to be:  her marrying Johnny, building a life with him, possibly even having children together.  However, the accident robbed Sarah of that, and made her live with “the what if” for the rest of her life.

The tragedy continues, even when Johnny awakens from his coma.  “The world has moved on” (in the words of another famous King character.)  Johnny has missed out on almost five years of his life.  Not only does Johnny not know who the president of the United States is, he has missed out so many other things, like his career and his family.  And perhaps the saddest part is that Sarah has moved on and married another, so he has also lost the love of his life, along with the five years he will never get back.

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Stephen King often writes about ordinary people placed into extraordinary situations.  The Stand, It, The Shining and even the Dark Tower series are all examples of this.  And The Dead Zone is, as well.

Nick

At first glance, the ability to predict the future may seem like a good thing.  After all, knowing that something terrible with happen gives us a chance to prevent it, and preventing something terrible from happening is always a good thing, right?

More like nope, at least in The Dead Zone.  Johnny’s abilities make him a pariah.  They frighten other people, because most people fear what they don’t understand.  Often, Johnny’s knowledge brings some unwelcome revelations.  Sheriff Bannerman punched Johnny for accusing Frank Dodd of being the Castle Rock strangler.  Bannerman literally needed to have the evidence in front of his face before he would even entertain the notion.  And even then, he wasn’t convinced.  Bannerman was only fully convinced when he got a written confession from Dodd, and by then it was too late for Dodd to face justice.

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Johnny’s abilities also put him in a moral predicament.  He knows that a nuclear war will ensue if Greg Stillson becomes president.  But is there any way to prevent this from happening, without resorting to actions which make Stillson such an awful person (as Stillson has shown he is not above murder, by killing law enforcement officials who possibly would have put a stop to his political career)?  However, unlike Stillson, Johnny is not someone who can so easily resort to murder.  Johnny struggles hugely with his decision, and often (rightfully) curses his “gift”, which has caused so much turmoil in his life.

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Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?

Throughout my re-read of The Dead Zone, I wondered this.  A lot, actually.

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And I think we all know what I am referencing…

Although I will also take a dig at Her Nibs here, just to show I am not just picking on The One Who Won’t Be Named.

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In all seriousness, the resemblances to our current political climate is just unreal.  That’s the only word I can think of to describe it.

King’s description of Stillson’s antics at his rallies is so strikingly similar to Donald Trump’s antics.  In one scene, Stillson crawls across the stage like a dog.  In another scene, Still promises “free hot dogs for all.”  I am sure that if I actually watched some Donald Trump rallies (while we are on the subject of being scared into a change of pants), I would find footage of The Donald crawling across the stage like a dog.  Probably barking too.

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And don’t even get me started on the subjects of hot dogs, since Mr. Trump has so generously let us known that his…ummm…man parts are fully functioning and of proper size.  Actually, if you never want to eat hot dogs ever again after reading this paragraph, I won’t hold it against you!

But, let’s get serious again.  Stillson founded his platform on hate, just like Mr. Trump.  Donald Trump has been repeatedly promising us that wall that Mexico will so magnanimously fund.  Stillson also had a hatred of the “outsiders”, promising his constituents that he would eradicate them.  Both Trump and Stillson attracted a certain type of voter:  white, lower middle class, ignorant and convinced that their problems were causes by “the outsiders” (Muslims, an African America president with a “foreign” name, any “foreigners”, etc), and not by a system that is inherently unfair to anyone who is not rich, like Stillson and Trump.  So both men were able to take the rising fear experienced by their supporters, and got the results that they wanted:  supporters who are frightened, and because they are frightened, are actually zealots as opposed to supporters.

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When reading this book, I was also struck by the description of the violence at Stillson’s rallies.  One woman had a miscarriage. People broke bones and suffered other injuries.

Like I said, art sometimes imitates life.  And I may be insufferable in regards to the jokes I have been making about Trump and Stillson lately.  But then King throws in a detail, like the fact that a woman suffered a miscarriage due to the violence at one of Stillson’s rallies.  I can also watch footage of violence at Trump rallies, as there has plenty.  And I can’t joke any more, since I am reminded of the horrible problem we have in this country, where these types of incidents are accepted.  Footage like this is much, much scarier than anything that has ever come out of the mind of Stephen King.

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Johnny Smith prevented Greg Stillson from starting a nuclear war.  This is a scenario that would be all too plausible if Donald Trump was to be elected the leader of the free world.  When someone uses fear as his/her campaign platform and actually gets elected, what else can we expect?  The campaign was not based on rationality, so why would any decisions, especially the important ones, be based on rationality?  In other words, campaigns based on hate and fear do not end well, and will probably end in disaster.

BOCA RATON, FL - MARCH 13: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during his campaign rally at the Sunset Cove Amphitheater on March 13, 2016 in Boca Raton, Florida. Mr. Trump continues to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In school, I remember reading Animal Farm.  1984 also may have been required reading.  However, The Dead Zone was not required reading.  And that was a damn shame.  Perhaps, if this book was required reading in high school, “Making America great again” would not be a political platform in 2016.

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Well, that’s it for The Dead Zone.  Join me next month for the review and dissection of another Castle Rock tale, The Dark Half.  And there will be a bonus recap and review, as the final installment of The Mr. Mercedes trilogy, End of Watch, will be released next month.

Tune in next month…same bat time, same bat channel!

batman and robin


Connections:

Just for fun, here are some of the connections to King’s other work that I found in The Dead Zone:

The Dead Zone takes place in the town of Castle Rock.  Castle Rock is the setting for several other King stories, including Needful Things, The Body, Cujo and The Dark Half.

Needful things 3

-Sheriff George Bannerman also makes an appearance in the novella The Body (part of the collection Different Seasons), and in the book Cujo.

Cujo

-The events from the book Carrie are referenced.

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-Beverly Marsh mentions the Castle Rock Strangler in the book It.

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-Richard Dees, the writer from the tabloid The Inside View, is also a character in the short story The Night Flier, which is part of the collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

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Eddie makes mention of the tabloid The Inside View in the novel The Wolves of the Calla.

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