(The Dead Zone)
Man, The Dead Zone is such a good book.
I’d kind of forgotten. I’ve read it before, at least once and probably more. But not in years. So I remembered it, but it’s from the same time period as some of the big, long, better known King novels – think The Shining and The Stand, and it’s also buried under a huge catalog of more recent work. It’s not that it’s a forgettable novel – I think that for most other authors, it would be a standout – it’s just that in King’s rather large library, it is in a place that’s liable to get overlooked.
People were talking a lot about The Dead Zone when Trump was elected and during his presidency, due to some of the parallels between Trump and Greg Stillson. I didn’t reread it at the time, and I remember thinking that the parallels were overblown. Evil politicians are nothing new in fiction – or reality, for that matter – so I don’t think you can just call an author prescient because he wrote about one.
I still think that’s true, but on re-read, I think I was wrong about the strength of the parallels here. There are things I didn’t remember – the violence at Greg Stillson’s rallies, the way that he hired bodyguards that ordinary politicos wouldn’t have hired (and those people were responsible for various violent incidents) the way that people who presumably were considering their options in good faith looked at him as a joke, but as one that might send a message if they elected the joke. Reminded me a little of the people bragging that they “memed a president into existence” the day after Trump was elected.
It’s not like the parallels are so strong that we could accuse King of having precognition. But it is a bit spooky. Of course, if King were actually a psychic, he’d have foreseen the real-life Greg Stillson character actually making it all the way to the White House instead of being interrupted by a guy with a gun who forced him to show himself for the coward he was. Trump showed us who he was and won anyway, which is honestly more disturbing than what Stephen King wrote, because it says more about us than him. And also, you know, we’ve actually had to live through it.
But of course, you don’t even get to the Greg Stillson thing until after the main character, Johnny Smith, first uses his psychic powers to catch the Castle Rock Strangler. Given the importance of Castle Rock in the canon, perhaps I didn’t remember the Greg Stillson figure as vividly because my mind mainly stuck on the capture of Frank Dodd.
I’m interested in whether Greg Stillson’s outing or Frank Dodd’s capture was meant to be the point of the book. Or both of them? We get some POV passages from both of them. It could almost be two different books – The Adventures of Johnny Smith, Accidental Psychic. There’s a whole narrative in being asked to find the Castle Rock Strangler, and a related, but different narrative in becoming sort of a politician-watcher, shaking hands, discovering Greg Stillson’s future, and figuring out what to do about it. The sections of the book probably aren’t long enough to be books themselves, but they could be built out easily enough.
I’m musing on it, because capturing Frank Dodd certainly isn’t the climax of the book – even though it reads like a climax of a book – but neither do I think it’s meant to just be instructive in the way that Johnny Smith’s psychic talents work. For one thing, we don’t need the instruction, we’ve got it by then. We’ve got it before Johnny gets out of the hospital. For another thing, Castle Rock is clearly important to King, based on its prevalence in the canon. I don’t think we’re meant to see it as just another example on the way to the main event. It really is like two different stories – about the same man, like an original and a sequel – wrapped into one book. It’s pretty interesting.
The Dead Zone spawned two adaptations. One is a 1983 film starring Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen. I think I’ve seen it, but not since I was a kid. I might have to hunt it up and watch again – I don’t really remember enough to have an opinion on it, though the names Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen make me think it would probably be worth watching. The other is a 2002 TV series that I know nothing about, other than its existence. Of all the Stephen King works to turn into a TV series, why this one? Strikes me as an odd choice.
This is the first Castle Rock book, so it’s important for that alone. It also continues King’s exploration of psi powers, something that he seems to have spent a lot of time thinking about. It’s also important to note that, as in Carrie, the character with the psi powers is not the monster here. (Although at least one interpretation of the text is that the powers drove Johnny crazy, that the Greg Stillson thing was overblown/not real, and that Johnny’s attack on him was a sort of mental breakdown. I don’t think we’re meant to think that, I think we’re meant to believe Johnny. But I also think the text could be interpreted that way.)
And the monsters, scary as they are in different ways, are just humans. Frank Dodd is a serial killer and Greg Stillson is a dangerous politician. You’ll probably find this in the horror section at the bookstore, but it could just as easily – maybe more easily – be classified as a crime novel or political thriller. What makes it horror? Johnny’s powers? That’s not horrifying. A character being psychic does not automatically fall under the heading of horror – hardboiled cops in crime novels often have “hunches” or “6th senses” that are basically low-level ESP. This is more jumped up, but I don’t think it qualifies as horror or even truly supernatural, since it’s given a scientific (or pseudoscientific, at least) explanation. The fact that King wrote it? It just goes to show you how easily he got pigeonholed. King is great at writing dialogue and compelling characters. He’s interested in psychic powers. And he does wrote some monsters. But I feel like if someone were to actually count, we’d find at least as many, if not more, human monsters in his works than inhuman ones. Heck, in the books that have both, sometimes the human monsters are still scarier.
I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong with being “just” a horror novelist, or that it’s really a “just” kind of thing, for that matter – I certainly haven’t written a horror novel, so I’m not about to demean someone who can. But I also think it’s a mistake to categorize King as just a horror novelist, either. There have always been other elements to his works, and I think it’s more instructive to look at them as works that cover a range of genres. Horror, crime, and fantasy come to mind first, but I don’t think those are even all.