Yesterday I was tired, but had slept well. I didn’t get as much done as I would have preferred–I still make to-do lists thinking I have the energy I had ten years ago; what I wouldn’t give for that–but I did make an awesome chicken/white bean chili for dinner, so that’s something, isn’t it? I did work on the story a bit, cleaned a lot, and started reading Bracken MacLeod’s Stranded, which is quite wonderful so far.
As we delve more deeply into October, the month I am devoting to horror, I decided to examine another book by Stephen King today, a novel this time, and one that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention–and certainly hasn’t gotten enough attention in this particular election cycle. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and I haven’t reread it in years; I know I’ve read it more times than I can count. And yes, true confessions from my derivative self; just as I used the same framing device and structure as Christine for Sara‘s original draft, I did the same thing with Sleeping Angel in its original draft, only using The Dead Zone.
By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953. In fact, he would have been hard put to remember it by the time he graduated from grammar school. And his mother and father never knew about it at all.
They were skating on a cleared patch of Runaround Pond in Durham. The bigger boys were playing hockey with old taped sticks and using a couple of potato baskets for goals. The little kids were farting around the way little kids have done since time immemorial–their ankles bowing comically in and out, their breath puffing in the frosty twenty-degree air. At one corner of the cleared ice two rubber tires burned sootily, and a few parents sat nearby, watching their children. The age of the snowmobile was still distant and winter fun still consisted of exercising your body rather than a gasoline engine.
Johnny had walked down from his house, just over the Pownal line, with his skates hung around his shoulder. At six, he was a pretty fair skater. Not good enough to join in the big kids’ hockey games, but able to skate rings around the other first graders, who were always pinwheeling their arms for balance or sprawling on their butts.
That is one terrific opening, isn’t it? It’s the prologue; King offers us an insight into what it is to come, as young John, skating around the pond and having a good time as six year olds do, is accidentally mowed down by one of the hockey players. He is sent flying across the ice, out of control, and crash lands, hitting his head hard–which of course brings all the adults and other kids running. Before he comes to consciousness, he is muttering…about how something had taken all the charge it could take…and then he comes to…and soon is skating around again like nothing ever happened, the way kids do all the time.
Only a few days later, one of the men gathered around him is charging a car battery, which becomes overcharged and explodes. No one remains what little Johnny said, or connects the two incidents.
The book then flashes forward to John, now a college graduate and working as a high school teacher in a small town in Maine, dating another young teacher whom he thinks he might be falling in love with, and they are going to a carnival, where Johnny has a ridiculous run on a roulette wheel…and is involved in a terrible car accident after dropping Sarah off, that sends him into a coma for five years. And when he finally comes out of the coma, the world has changed dramatically–and that dormant power in his brain, that he first experienced after the fall on the ice, is back and even stronger than before.
The problem, of course, is that he has become a modern-day Cassandra–he can see the future, but no one believes him.
That story, in and of itself, is genius enough to drive a novel; the moral implications, the having to deal with trying to take action vs. doing nothing–in one instance Johnny is blamed for what happens since he foresaw it–and what kind of responsibility do you have to the world in general? The crushing burden of foresight–added to how the world changed for Johnny himself during his coma (Sarah fell in love with and married someone else; his mother, always religious, has been a zealot) and having to deal with all of that would make for an incredibly compelling story.
But King goes one step further; the book also examines not just Johnny’s life but that of the rise of Greg Stillson, a sociopath whose only true interest is money and power; how he is building a political machine–dismissed as a clown but has a “populist” message that has him rising and defying the odds to run for high office. King exposes the dark underbelly of the character; the reader knows Stillson is a monster–and then Johnny goes to one of his rallies out of curiosity–and shakes his hand.
And sees the future, a future where an insane Stillson has become president of the United States, and has his finger, literally, on the button to launch a full scale nuclear war.
The end of the world.
Does Johnny have a responsibility to stop him?
The Dead Zone is absolutely brilliant, and almost horrifyingly prescient. I am writing this from memory as I don’t want to revisit this book just yet–but I do want to read it again.
And now, back to the spice mines.