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The Dead Zone is a novel by Stephen King published in 1979. It's about Johnny Smith, who is injured in an accident and enters a coma for nearly five years. When he emerges, he can see horrifying secrets, but he can't identify all the details of his "dead zone", an area of his brain that suffered permanent damage as the result of his accident. Much of the book plays against the historical backdrop of the 1970s. It has been suggested that the story might be based on self-proclaimed "psychic" Peter Hurkos, who received a head injury in a fall from a ladder, and afterward claimed to be able to know things about people by touching objects that belonged to them.

Plot summaryEdit

The prologue relates two unconnected episodes in the lives of the principal and subsidiary characters. In January of 1953 in Maine, a young boy named Johnny Smith is knocked cold while ice-skating. As he regains consciousness he is helped to his feet by Chuck Spier, an older boy, to whom he mumbles, "don't jump it no more". Chuck pays no mind to this, but a few months later, he is seriously injured when a car battery he's trying to jumpstart explodes. Johnny forgets this incident as time goes on. Two years later, a young Bible salesman named Greg Stillson, suffering emotional issues, kicks a dog to death outside of a farm in Iowa. As he drives away, he dreams about greater things in his life.

The story properly begins in 1970. Johnny is now a high school teacher, and dating a fellow teacher named Sarah Bracknell. A few days before Halloween, Johnny takes Sarah to a county fair, but Sarah gets ill from eating a tainted hot dog. As they leave, Johnny decides to try his luck at a Wheel of Fortune stand. A small crowd gathers around Johnny as he keeps winning. After winning a substantial amount of prize money, Johnny takes Sarah home, and decides to take a taxicab home. As he heads back to his home, the taxicab is hit by two cars that are drag racing. The cab driver is killed in the crash, and Johnny is sent flying through the windshield and into a pond by the side of the road. Johnny then blacks out. A short while later, Johnny's parents, Herb and Vera receive a phone call from the hospital, and they are informed that Johnny has gone into a coma. From here on, Vera begins to lose her sanity, and develops a religious obsession.

The next day, Sarah meets Johnny's parents in the hospital. Herb takes a liking to her, while Vera seems less welcoming. The relationship between Sarah and the Smiths begins to grow stronger, and they become friends. After a few months however, Sarah decides it is time to move on and reluctantly does so, although she does remain in contact with the Smiths. As time passes on, Vera's obsession gets stronger and stronger, and the Smiths slowly burn through their savings on Johnny's care.

In the small town of Castle Rock, Maine, a young man is contemplating killing somebody. When he was a child, his mother forced him to wear a clothespin on his penis when she caught him masturbating, and this has had an adverse effect on his mind since. He brutally rapes and murders a local waitress.

At a roadhouse called "Cathy's" in New Hampshire, a lightning rod salesman attempts to sell the owner lightning rods, the owner refuses to buy them, convinced that the odds are against lightning striking Cathy's.

Meanwhile, Sarah has fallen in love with Walt Hazlett, a graduate law student. She invites Johnny's parents to her wedding. They wish her well, and her life goes on, although Johnny never quite leaves her mind.

Greg Stillson is now the owner of an insurance and real estate brokerage in Ridgeway, New Hampshire. Flush with success—he is a natural salesman—he is becoming an influential figure in the community, and starts to consider running for mayor. An eccentric biker named Sonny Elliman falls in with Stillson and eventually becomes his security consultant and all-around dirty-deed-doer.

After nearly five years, Johnny wakes out of his coma, and is shocked to learn that it is 1975. He is also dismayed to learn that Sarah has gotten married, and has a son. As he recovers, he is sent through a series of tests, and makes the news when the public finds out about his coma. During a test, it is discovered that he has trouble visualizing certain objects (and more specifically their physical location, the where of things), because those memories were in a damaged part of his brain, called his "dead zone".

While discussing this, his neurologist, Dr. Sam Weizak, grabs Johnny's hand, casuing Johnny to go into a trance. He has a vision of Poland during the Nazi invasion. He asks Weizak about his mother, and he tells him that both his parents were killed in the Second World War. Johnny asks Sam to see the picture of his mother in his wallet. Weizak is disturbed, since Johnny had no way of knowing about the picture, but gives it to him. Johnny tells Dr. Weizak that his mother survived the German invasion and occupation, made her way to Switzerland, remarried and had more children, and ultimately to America, and now lives in Carmel, California. This turns out to be true—although of no benefit to Weizak, who feels it would be of no benefit to his mother to revive the emotional trauma of losing her husband and son.

Johnny has several other psychic glimpses during his stay in the hospital. He predicts that the eye surgery his nurse's son is going to have will be a success, and that his physical therapist's house is on fire. When both predictions turn out to be true, a small press conference is held. During the conference, Johnny is handed a necklace by a reporter, and asked if he can sense anything from it. Johnny tells the reporter that the necklace belonged to his sister, who died of a drug overdose. The reporter breaks out in tears, and passes out. Johnny then receives national attention for his newfound ability.

Vera, believing that God does not want her to take medicine for her high blood pressure, suffers a massive stroke after watching Johnny on the news. Dr. Weizak drives Johnny to another hospital to visit his mother. Shortly before she passes away, she tells Johnny that "God has a plan for him". Sarah visits Johnny in the hospital, and they have a discussion about how Sarah's been the last 5 years. As she leaves, Johnny touches her, and tells her that the wedding ring she lost during her honeymoon in Canada is really in one of her suitcases. When she gets home, she finds the ring, and decides to flush it down the toilet. Shortly thereafter, Johnny leaves the hospital, and goes to live with his father.

Stillson, now the mayor of Ridgeway, still suffers from his emotional problems. Asked to "straighten out" a friend's teenaged nephew for wearing an obscene t-shirt, he winds up setting the shirt on fire and terrorizing the youth with a broken bottle, threatening to kill him if he tells anyone about it.

While living with his father, Johnny receives constant mail from people wanting him to predict the future for them. He ignores the mail, and receives an offer to resume his teaching job. He also turns down a job working for a supermarket tabloid (The Inside View), and begins to suffer from severe headaches.

In the time that has passed since Johnny left the hospital, Greg Stillson decides to run for the House of Representatives, and begins his campaign by blackmailing a local businessman into raising funds for him.

More time passes, and Sarah visits Johnny again, introducing him to her son, Denny. Sarah lets Denny take a nap on Johnny's porch, and, Herb being absent, has sex with Johnny in the family's barn. She tells him that he was right about the ring, and after having dinner with Johnny and Herb, returns home. It is mutually understood that the encounter is a one-time event, a sort of making-up for all that might have been.

A few days later, Johnny receives a copy of the Inside View denouncing him as a phony, but this brings him relief, and he believes that he can once again live a normal life. His belief is shaken when he receives a phone call from the sheriff of Castle Rock, Maine. The sheriff, a man named George Bannerman, wants Johnny's help to solve a series of murders that have occurred in Castle Rock. Although Johnny initially refuses, he decides to help after seeing that a 9-year old girl has been raped and murdered. Johnny meets Bannerman, and travels to Castle Rock. After visiting two of the murder sites, his extra sense informs him that the killer is Frank Dodd, one of Bannerman's deputies. Johnny and Bannerman arrive at Frank's house, and discover that he has committed suicide. Hanging from his neck is a sign reading "I Confess".

Johnny once again makes the news, but now loses his teaching offer, because the school believes him to be "too controversial to be effective as a teacher". He begins to question his mother's dying words.

After losing the teaching opportunity, Johnny takes a tutoring job for a young man named Chuck Chatsworth, who has a reading disorder, and befriends his family, and his Vietnamese gardener, Ngo Phat, who is in the process of becoming a citizen. During his tutoring career, Johnny takes up an interest in politics, and becomes concerned when he watches a rally for an eccentric New Hampshire politician named Greg Stillson. Later on, Johnny meets presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, and shakes his hand. Johnny, having another clairvoyant incident, tells Carter that he is going to be president. Johnny then makes a hobby out of meeting politicians to see their futures, although he still can't take his mind off Stillson. Ngo tells him that he is going to be seeing Stillson with his citizenship class, and instead of watching a Boston Red Sox game like he had planned, Johnny finds himself at Stillson's rally. As Stillson walks through the crowd shaking hands, he shakes Johnny's hand, and Johnny suddenly has a horrific vision. He sees Stillson becoming President of the United States sometime in the future, then making an unwise decision, resulting in a massive, worldwide nuclear conflict. He then blacks out, and is investigated by the local police chief, and an FBI agent named Edgar Lancte. Lancte knows that Stillson's past isn't clean, and lets Johnny go.

As time goes on, Johnny's health starts to worsen. He contemplates how he might impede Stillson's career, and finds out that his father is going to be remarried. He attends the wedding, and asks the bride's father, an elderly World War I veteran who lost his younger son in World War II, "If you could go back in time to 1932, and kill Hitler, would you?" to which the latter responds yes. Johnny has the opportunity to pose this question to other people at other times, and receives varying responses. Eventually he concludes that the only certain way to avoid the awful future which he has seen is to assassinate Stillson.

As Johnny continues to contemplate whether or not to kill Stillson, Chuck graduates High School, and plans on attending a massive senior graduation party at a restaurant called "Cathy's". Chuck, so thankful that Johnny was able to help him learn to read, hugs Johnny at the commencement, and Johnny has another vision. He warns Chuck not to go to the party, because the facility is going to be struck by lightning and burn down. After Johnny, Chuck, and Chuck's father, Roger discover that there are in fact no lightning rods at Cathy's, they try to convince as many of the students as possible to have a party at Roger's house instead. The party goes well, until the radio announces that Cathy's had been struck by lightning and caught on fire, killing everyone inside. One of the guests accuses Johnny of starting the fire with his mind, "Like the girl in Carrie". The accusation is quickly denied, and the families of the people saved are grateful for Johnny. At this point, to avoid attention, Johnny leaves, and moves to Phoenix, Arizona to work for their public works department. Johnny receives money from Roger, as well as letters from his father and Chuck. Johnny also learns that Agent Lancte was murdered with a car bomb.

Although we do not learn this until the epilogue of the book, it is at this time he suffers a brain seizure on the job for Phoenix Public Works, and is finally convinced to see the neurologist that Dr. Weizak recommended. Johnny learns that the reason he's had such frequent headaches and blackouts, because he has a brain tumor, which has developed from his dead zone. The doctor tells him that he needs surgery if he wants to have a chance to survive. Not wanting to risk his chance at stopping Stillson, and realizing that he won't live much longer either way, Johnny refuses, and learns that he only has a few months left to live. Johnny becomes increasingly less healthy. His hair turns gray, he loses a substantial amount of weight, and his brain tumor gives him a limp. He uses the money Roger sent him to buy a rifle, and travels to Salt Lake City by Amtrak, and then onto New York City by Greyhound Bus, and finally arriving in a small New Hampshire town. After stopping in a bar for a few drinks with the bartender, the day before the rally he finds the local city hall—where Stillson's next rally will be held—and poses as a photographer to scout out a suitable sniper spot. He then meets an aspiring photographer, who tells him that he wants to take a famous picture, "like the one at Iwo Jima". The next day Johnny finds a balcony, and sets up with his rifle.

At the rally, Greg Stillson begins his speech, when Johnny decides it's now or never. He begins to fire at Stillson, but misses several times. Stillson's bodyguards open fire on him, but don't mortally wound him. Johnny has Stillson in his sight and is about to pull the trigger when Stillson grabs a young child, and holds him up as a shield. Johnny pauses, not being able to shoot, and is shot twice by the bodyguards, falling off the balcony, breaking his legs and back. Meanwhile, the young photographer Johnny met earlier gets a few pictures of Stillson using the child as a shield, and runs off. When Johnny touches Stillson again, he sees and feels nothing, and knows that the terrible future Stillson would bring around as president will never come to pass. Knowing he has prevented a war and saved countless lives, Johnny closes his eyes and passes away contently.

The epilogue consists of Sarah visiting Johnny's grave, interspersed with a series of "transcripts" of hearings by a Senate committee (chaired by real-life Maine Senator William Cohen) investigating Johnny's attempt to assassinate Stillson. Sarah has a brief moment of psychic contact with Johnny's spirit, and drives away, comforted.

Connections to other King worksEdit

  • Stephen King's first novel Carrie is mentioned as a book at one point.
  • Cujo makes specific references to The Dead Zone. The two books take place in Castle Rock. Bannerman reappears as sheriff, and is killed by Cujo. Johnny is mentioned by name several times. Frank Dodd has now become the town's bogeyman. Dodd's mother has died and house left abandoned. Dodd apparently haunts the young boy, Tad, and possibly possesses the dog, Cujo.
  • David Bright, a Bangor newspaper reporter who interviews Johnny Smith, later appears in King's The Tommyknockers, and Johnny Smith's story is mentioned in passing by a bartender talking to Ev Hillman in the same book.
  • King's fictional town of Jerusalem's Lot is mentioned at one point, which connects to the short stories "Jerusalem's Lot" and "One for the Road" from the Night Shift anthology, and 'Salem's Lot
  • Nigel, the robot in The Dark Tower, was reading The Dead Zone and found it "quite enjoyable".
  • After graduating high school, Chuck Chatsworth attends Stovington Prep, the preparatory school Jack Torrance is fired from in the King novel The Shining. Stovington is also the town where Stu Redman is held captive in The Stand.
  • The reporter for Inside View that Johnny comes into conflict with, Richard Dees, appears as the main character in the short story "The Night Flier", from the Nightmares & Dreamscapes anthology.
  • While walking with Johnny on the midway, Sarah reminisces about her childhood experiences attending the Fryeburg Fair. Both the Fryeburg Fair and another character named Sarah (Sara Tidwell) feature prominently in Bag of Bones.
  • "The Dark Tower* In the Dark Tower humans with psychic powers are called Breakers.

Published editionsEdit

AdaptationsEdit

FilmEdit

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  • The Dead Zone - In 1983, the novel was adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam into a film of the same name, starring Christopher Walken as Johnny and Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson. While changing various details, the film manages to maintain the somber tone of the novel, as Johnny's power causes him to become increasingly withdrawn and isolated.

TelevisionEdit

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  • The Dead Zone - Starring Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny, Nicole de Boer as Sarah, and Sean Patrick Flanery as a younger, cockier, more womanizing version of Greg Stillson, the television series aired on the USA Network beginning in late 2002. This version also gave Johnny and Sarah a son, born during Johnny's coma, whereas in the book Johnny and Sarah only ever kissed prior to his accident.
  • In The Simpsons TV series episode Treehouse of Horror XV, one of the segments is called The Ned Zone: here, Ned Flanders has a brain tumour surgically removed and suddenly develops the ability to 'see' the deaths of any person he touches (which always happens some time later).

External linksEdit


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