Monday, October 15, 2012

Stephen King: The Dead Zone (1979)

This, too, is less horror novel than meditation on questions of character, it turns out.  Not that it doesn't have its creepy moments - the evocation of a seedy county-fair midway at closing time is, well, just like I remember it from childhood. 

But really what this book is, is a fictional working-out of every high-school kid's favorite alternate-universe scenario or ethical poser:  if you could go back in time to one of Hitler's rallies, knowing what you know now, would you or could you kill him? 

Okay, okay, just because you had heated debates about this over the cafeteria tables at lunch time in 9th grade with the kid in the Iron Maiden t-shirt doesn't mean it's not a serious question, right?  And I think part of King's value is how he, at least in the few things I've read, manages to engage serious questions that every ninth-grader can relate to.  Like, lots of people write good genre fiction that appeals to the masses.  Some people write good genre fiction that appeals to the masses, that also has some kind of hidden intellectual thing going on to appeal to eggheads.  How many people write good genre fiction that appeals to the masses, that also has some kind of hidden intellectual thing going on that also appeals to the masses?  King doesn't (at least in the few things I've read) talk down to his mass readership:  he talks up to them.  He assumes that they, like eggheads, can and will respond to a well-told story that also makes ya think.

And feel.  Because, yeah, the real horror in this, if there's horror, is not in the things Johnny sees, but in the responsibilities they give him.  It's a story in which we're asked, essentially, to root for and to pity a political assassin.  A guy who knows what history is going to say about him, and who cares a lot about that, but who feels like he has to do it anyway.  What's key is how King tips the scales in Johnny's favor (if that's the word).  King could have kept it ambiguous - a lot of writers would have challenged us to trust Johnny's word, to decide for ourselves whether or not he's right.  But we know the objective truth about the things Johnny knows subjectively, and we know he's right.  In other words, King is choosing to locate the suspense, and thus the horror, not in the question of whether or not Johnny's visions are real, but in what he's going to do about them.  The moral question. 



Jo said...

You know, a lot of reviewers and academics (when it comes to books, at least) I read tend to either dismiss mass market stuff out of hand or treat it in various condescending or patronizing ways. But you rarely, if ever, seem to do that. You give everything a chance to be taken seriously and I appreciate that.

Matt said...

It's funny, I hadn't really thought of the Dead Zone in that way. My memory of the book is a very grim parable about having your free will stripped from you one clairvoyant flash at a time. (I think the ending is very characteristically King -- it's bleak and very terminal, but it goes out of its way to NOT deliver a final unnecessary kick in the face to a character we've come to feel sympathy for. King is too nice to his readership for that.)

Another recent book of King's, "11/22/63," is (I understand, haven't read it) also about high-profile assassination and foreknowledge, and I can think of a couple of other "prophecy plots" where the protagonists are forced to act in a way that seems amoral for the good of others (sometimes alone, sometimes not). Now that you mention it, I can see that he does often use this as a source of suspense, and thus horror.