The Dead Zone by Stephen King (1979) 467 p.

Stephen King is an author I like, but a wildly uneven one – some of his books are awful, while some of his books are among the best I’ve ever read. He’s not really high on my priority list, but I’m not averse to reading his stuff when it comes up, and I picked up an old paperback of The Dead Zone for 50p at a library sale.

One of his earlier books (always a good sign with King), The Dead Zone is enlivened by how much it doesn’t stick to a predictable formula, and it’s really one of those books you want to read knowing nothing about it. Although apparently it was adapted into a Cronenberg film starring Christopher Walken in the 1980s, and a relatively long-running TV series in the 2000s, so maybe it’s more well-known than I thought. I’d only heard of it (and knew the ultimate direction it went in) because I’ve been keeping up with James Smythe’s long-running Re-reading Stephen King series at the Guardian, but I think I would have liked it better if I went in blind, knowing nothing about what happened – not even the first act. So if you haven’t heard of The Dead Zone and you’ve enjoyed anything else King has ever written, stop reading this now and keep an eye out for it. It’s one of his better books and well worth your time.

If you still want to know more, suffice to say that it follows the life of Johnny Smith, a young man with a latent psychic sense and an ability to predict what lies in the past, present and future of certain people. A life-altering accident heightens this ability like never before, and Johnny must suddenly decide what to do with it – and how to cope with the way people now treat him. Some of the best parts of The Dead Zone are in the unexpected flashes Johnny gets of other people’s lives when he touches their belongings; as he pushes coats aside on a rack at a restaurant and knows that a man there is slowly going mad, or when he handles a 100-year-old photograph and learns that its subject, a man long dead, poisoned his wife. Johnny’s psychic ability is a curse as much as a gift, but King does a good job of making Johnny an affable character and never letting his misgivings and misery seem too self-pitying.

Stephen King is noted as a horror novelist, but I’ve never personally found that to be a good description of his work, which ranges across the whole gamut of speculative fiction: he has time travel novels, apocalyptic novels, fantasy novels and more. The Dead Zone feels more like a suspense thriller than anything, combining the fantasy aspect of Johnny’s sixth sense with a story of serial killers, FBI agents and something much darker. It’s a little slow to get going, but it ends up being a great read – not as good as something like The Stand, The Mist or The Long Walk, but definitely one of King’s better novels.