It’s oddly unnerving to read a novel that was intended to be politically ridiculous when it was written – well before I was even born – that is instead significantly relevant today. When Stephen King wrote ‘The Dead Zone’, I sincerely doubt he had 21st century politics in mind. But in his foolish caricature of a possibly evil politician, he created what could be any number of American politicians today. Greg Stillson, a not particularly bright (but who needs reason when you have passion!?) citizen with political ambitions, believes we can send pollution to outer space and hold those bums in Washington accountable. He has a very strong belief in God, a dubious past, and knows – unequivocally, of course – what’s best for this country. Despite some of his extreme beliefs and his lack of actual political knowledge, he has a surprisingly large number of supporters. Is this starting to sound familiar?
When ‘The Dead Zone’ came out in 1979, I suspect Stillson seemed like a parody of an appallingly bad politician. Today, it’s reality. I* consider the success of the Tea Party to be a national embarrassment and while Stillson’s character embodies all of the ideals that terrify me, I still find him to be the most fascinating character in the book. It’s worth noting that I first read this novel in the ‘90’s (when I could not legally drive, let alone vote) and again this month (as an active voter and an annoyed American) with very different reactions. What was once an absurd politician with little realistic appeal is now one of the most thought-provoking characters I’ve read in a long time. The absurd politician is actually the reason I picked this to reread at this particular time – it seemed appropriate.
‘The Dead Zone’ is the first in the collection of loosely connected Castle Rock novels. ‘Needful Things’, which – coincidentally – I also related to politics, is the last of the novels. The premise of one of Stephen King’s best novels – and it is one of his best – is simple. What if you could know the future? Is it your obligation to try and “right” it? And who decides what is right? This is the imponderable dilemma faced by Johnny Smith, an everyman science teacher whose only flaw is that he is perhaps too nice. Johnny is severely injured in a head-on collision, leaving him comatose for four years. When he wakes up, everything has changed. He’s lost his career, his health, and his girlfriend Sarah. And his psychic abilities, which have always been there, come fully into focus. Johnny can see the future. Thanks to his ability, he helps the town of Castle Rock capture a serial killer. Later, he helps save over half of a high school’s graduating class from a vicious fire. But in his most important vision, he sees that up and coming politician Greg Stillson will start a nuclear war. Is it his responsibility to stop him? Does he have a moral obligation to do so?
As is arguably true in most of Stephen King’s work, ‘The Dead Zone’ is a character driven novel. The story is compelling and surprisingly applicable to contemporary politics. Am I worried about the government starting a nuclear war? Not exactly, but I do worry about the divisive state of American politics and the ability of politicians to make decisions that are best for the country. This is explored, albeit secondarily, in the novel. How does Stillson hide his intent and ignorance? And how is he so successful? If Stillson were real, I suspect he could’ve written a runaway bestseller along the lines of ‘How to Bring the Tea Party to the White House’. This is a novel that shows what an amazing storyteller Stephen King really is. There’s no outright horror, there’s little gore, and there’s nothing scary – except reality. It’s an intricately plotted, well-written story…with a cop-out ending. 4/5, for almost being excellent.
Johnny and Sarah’s first date is homemade spaghetti and (turkey and vegetable) meatballs.
*For what it’s worth, in the interest of full disclosure, I am Greek-American (meaning I can hold citizenships for both countries).