Monday, January 30, 2012

Constant Reading Project: In the ZONE

Another one bites the dust. I wrapped up the 402 pages of The Dead Zone in about three days.

The novel has a number of things going for it, not the least of which is a compelling lead character. Johnny Smith is a classic tragic hero. he has ups and downs (mostly downs), victories and defeats. At the end of the day, he dies as all tragic heroes do.

The book's other major strength is its dual climaxes. The book ramps up as Johnny helps Castle County Sheriff George Bannerman solve a serial killer case. (We'll see more of Bannerman and Castle Rock soon.) This could easily have been split in two, or could have been a novella if King had cut out the early scenes of Greg Stillson, the book's ultimate villain.

Strong lead, a formidable villain, well-drawn secondary characters, and two climaxes for the price of one. What more could you want?

How about the irony of a book that focuses on someone who can see snatches of the future being a portent of things to come in the author's work? Bannerman's dog days will come two books from now in Cujo. Castle Rock will show up a few more times before being destroyed in Needful Things. 

The Dead Zone, while horrifying in its implications about the rightness of political assassinations, could be considered King's first published foray into a more mainstream literature. It's scary, for sure, but it's a breakthrough from the type of horror King was getting pigeonholed into during his first decade of publishing. At the same time, it's never a departure from King's personal style. We know it's King throughout. It's undeniable.

And it's not perfect. There's a moment late in the novel when Johnny saves a bunch of high schoolers from a fire. A one-liner character screams that Johnny started the fire "just like in that book Carrie." Yes, King and his works were becoming household names. The truth is that the moment, as much as I hate it, would have felt more realistic if the girl had said "just like in that movie Carrie," because everyone know high schoolers don't read. This reference means that the events of Carrie are fictional (or considered fiction, at the least) and not in the same literary universe as The Dead Zone. King gets self-referential to greater effect in the latter books of The Dark Tower series. His pseudonym Richard Bachman, compares the situation in Thinnner to a Stephen King novel. Perhaps he did it then to throw off those suspecting him of being Bachman. Doing it in The Dead Zone just feels too early to get so full of oneself as to use your own work as a point of reference.

I believe King learned from this. Later references to other novels maintain their acceptance as reality. In Bag of Bones, Michael Noonan talks to Ralph Roberts from Insomnia and mentions the suicide of Thad Beaumont, the hero of The Dark Half. These things exist in the same universe and doesn;t throw the reader off as much.

OK, done with the griping. Next up is Firestarter, which means I'll have plenty of griping to do then.

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