Man vs Bookshelf

Man vs Bookshelf: The Dead Zone

This entry is part 96 of 104 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

This will be the section of the blog where I say something about my life before I dive into talking about how I’m not going to talk about Stephen King and then the review.

Would feel weird to go straight into the review, though I almost did.

Problem is, I’ve got nothing new to say about my life. Like last week I’m moving on well with this challenge. Like last week I’ve split Stephen King books with works by J.K. Rowling and Darren Shan.

I got married, a few weeks back, did I ever mention that? Obviously, you know I’m going to be a dad.

Oh, and the first James Perry novels are now available as paperbacks and you should definitely get those.

Actually, get the ebooks, the royalties are better. I’ll put the links below, not that any of you will click them.

  1. The Black Sheep’s Shadow | |
  2. All Your Secrets | |

And now we’ll move on to those boring review bits I mentioned earlier.

Stephen King

Usual disclaimer. Nothing new to say here. See my previous King blogs below:

  1. Lisey’s Story
  2. The Dark Tower Series
  3. The Bachman Books
  4. Carrie
  5. ‘Salem’s Lot
  6. The Shining
  7. The Stand

And, if that’s done, we can move on to the review.

The Dead Zone

Ask a hundred people to name three Stephen King novels. Likelihood is the majority of them will name at least two of King’s first four – Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand. A lot of them will name three. Some might even name all four because people are dicks and can’t follow simple instructions.

They (those first four novels) were certainly the ones I’d heard of before I started reading King. Plus other heavy hitters like IT and Cujo.

But people rarely talk about books like The Dead Zone, which came right after The Stand and Firestarter which came right after that and right before Cujo. I think it’s because of this I assumed they were going to be, well, not very good.

Before this challenge, I’d never read them. Now, I’ve read The Dead Zone and as I write I’m about 65% of the way through Firestarter.

And you know what, I love them?

In fact, I think I’d go so far as to say I prefer The Dead Zone to Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Stand. It’s right up there with Lisey’s Story, which I adored.

I’ve not finished FIrestarter, and won’t talk about it too much until the next blog, but that’s right up there as well, that much I can divulge.


The Dead Zone is the story of a man, John Smith, who has had slight premonitory powers since a very young age.

Then, after a date at a fairground in his twenties and a run of good luck on a Wheel of Fortune brought on by his premonitions, he is involved in a car accident that puts him in a coma for five years.

Upon waking up, everything has changed. The girl he loved is married to another man and has a child, his mother has drifted into religious mania, and his powers of premonition have grown startlingly.

Now, when John Smith touches another person or item, he gets a glimpse into their future, present or past. Early on, he realises his physical therapist’s house is on fire, learns the presumed dead mother of his doctor is still alive and predicts a nurse’s son is going to come through surgery he is due to have.

Fast becoming something of a national sensation the story charts Johnny as he grows older and struggles to deal with his powers, moving from eschewing them completely to helping to solve a murder to, finally, becoming obsessed with stopping a rising politician whom he shakes hands with, only to learn said politician, Greg Stillson, is going to become president and start World War Three.

The Plot Thing

I know I’ve discussed this with every King book, but it’s as true with The Dead Zone as ever it was, even if King calls this one of his most naturally plotted books.

The blurb runs like this:

Waking up from a five-year coma after a car accident, former schoolteacher Johnny Smith discovers that he can see people’s futures and pasts when he touches them.

Many consider his talen a gift but Johnny feels cursed. His fiancee has met someone else and people are clamouring for him to solve their problems.

When Johnn has a disturbing vision after he shakes the hand of an ambitious and amoral politician, he must decide if he should take drastic action to change the future.

From this you would probably assume A) that Johnny has a fiancee before his car accident (he doesn’t) and B) that the main thrust of the plot will be Johnny deciding to take on the evil politician than trying to do so.

If this was almost any other author, that probably would be the case, but this is King and, thus, Johnny doesn’t meet Greg Stilson the politician until over 80% of the way through the book (though the reader has met him several times prior to this and Johnny has been aware of him).

In fact, as usual, there is little plot here. The Dead Zone reads more like a collection of short stories. First the story of Johnny at the fair with his date. Then of his recovery from his accident, then of how he gets involved with and solves a serial killer case then how he becomes the tutor for a bright kid looking to go to University, then, finally, the story of how Johnny goes up against Greg Stillson.

And why does King do it like this? It’s because he’s not writing a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, in which characters feature, he’s writing a character study. In this case…

The Study of Johnny Smith

The thing about people is their stories do not follow an easy course of beginning, middle and end. There are lots of beginnings, lots of middles and lots of ends in between the obvious ones.

King captures the truth of that. Even after the five-year coma jump, this story takes place over another five years, and through that time King relies not on standard plot but on the development of Smith.

King loves to watch his characters change, usually for the worse, usually because of some uncontrollable condition. Whether that’s internal like Carrie’s telekinesis or Johnny’s ability or the external like the disease in The Stand or the Hotel in The Shining.

It is a common King story with Johnny. His ability changes him from a kind, carefree, easy to smile, school teacher, to a shadow of a man who, having lost the girl he loves and his mother, is left only with the guilt of all those people he couldn’t save, rather than the joy of those he did. A man who has cut himself from society and cares for nothing but his final mission – stopping the evil politician – something he is determined to achieve, even at the ultimate cost.

As you’d expect from a King story, this change is beautifully handled. There is no rushing, no cutting corners. We are there every step of Johnny’s journey and he is such a compelling, interesting character you cannot help but like him, which makes it all the harder as his life falls apart.

The Others

As usual, it is the transformation of King’s central character that makes this book so powerful, so affecting, so compulsively readable.

But, also, as usual, King does not focus solely on our lead, Johnny. As always he uses multiple characters to tell the story from multiple angles and, in the moments of high action, to ramp the tension up and up until explosion.

Characters like Sarah, the girl Johnny fell in love with, Johnny’s father and crooked politician Greg Stillson get plenty of page time, as we see their stories develop in line with Johnny’s.

These characters are used to particular effect when Johnny Smith is in a coma. We watch the world move on without him, knowing all along the effect it’s going to have when he wakes, which makes it all the more impactful when he does, alone, confused, and not knowing how much he has missed.

But beyond these semi-regular characters are those that are much more infrequent. The man who strangles a girl in a bandstand and the salesman who tries – and fails – to sell lightning rods to a diner owner.

On their own, these little cameos make little sense. At the time, they bare little relevance to the story but, as always, King has a plan, and these little sections come into focus later in the story, when they become relevant to Johnny.

This adds to the reader’s understanding of the story, and provides a nice if unusual effect.


I’d have to say this was possibly my favourite King novel, and at this point, I’ve read at least twenty of them.

It’s a tragedy, and I didn’t come away from it feeling happy as such, but sometimes the stories that make you the saddest are the most powerful, and this certainly was a powerful tale.

The Dead Zone was King’s fifth book, and of the first five, it is probably the least favourite. But it deserves more. It deserves to be loved.

And I certainly love it.

Next Time

Next time we move on to a book I have almost finished, and that I am enjoying almost as much as The Dead Zone.

It’s Stephen King’s Firestarter.

See you then.

Series Navigation<< Man vs Bookshelf: The StandMan vs Bookshelf: Firestarter >>
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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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