We'll start with the basic story. A young teacher named Johnny Smith is "gifted," through a car accident that leaves him comatose for nearly five years, with a strange precognitive/telepathic ability. And here's the catch, evidence of King's genius if ever I've seen it: He has to be touching a person or object for the power to work. King takes this startlingly simple (and original) idea, and weaves it into the most complex, and intriguing, tapestry of his career.
King does a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- with this novel. Take the prologue, which so expertly sets mood, and tone, and character -- Johnny shows early flashes of his power, while the villain of the piece, Greg Stillson, kicks a dog to death in a dooryard outside Ames, Iowa. King literally takes you from one extreme to the other here, does so brilliantly, and continues to do so for the rest of the novel, as Johnny and Stillson are set on their inexorable collision course. But the novel is much more than that, as well. It's the story of Johnny and Sarah, who might've been his wife if not for intervening circumstances; it's the story of Johnny and his parents, Herb and Vera, a loving couple who find separate ways of dealing with Johnny's misfortune; it is the story of Johnny and the Chatsworths, a rich New England family whose son Johnny tutors ... and it is the story of Johnny and one Frank Dodd, a character as frightening as any King has created.
All the way through, of course, this is Johnny's story -- and in John Smith, King has outdone himself. Johnny, in just about every way you'd care to imagine, represents us, the average person -- the name alone is a dead giveaway. (Some have said the symbolism of the name is crude -- absolutely not! King has always gone for the larger symbols along with more subtle ones.) His reactions are our reactions -- never made more clear than during the press conference at the hospital, where he looks on in abject horror at what his own power has done to a reporter there. It's a tense moment, in a novel full of them.
King deals in many levels of symbolism in The Dead Zone, symbols of fate, fortune, and God's will (the three being interchangeable in King's Calvinistic view); fortune wheels, omens, Vera's obsession with the more hysterical and relevatory aspects of Christianity (she could've stepped out of a Flannery O'Connor story), the seller of lightning rods (used, much as Bradbury used him, as a harbnger of doom), the mythical resonances of Cassandra and the abiguity of the Delphic Oracle, the Biblical references to Jonah as Johnny runs from himself, his power, and finally from fate and God -- again, interchangeable from King's point of view. There is also the brilliant use of the Jekyll/Hyde mask, one of the most elegant pieces of symbolism in the novel.
But let me get back to the Calvinist attitude here -- which I've mentioned a couple of times, and by which I don't mean conservative and/or repressed. Instead I refer to the Calvinist notion that everything that happens, even things like "luck" and "fortune," is predetermined, willed by God. And though we as human beings have free will to defy or not defy our fates, the fact remains (as Mother Abigail pointed out in The Stand) that this is what God wants from us. That's the statement at the heart of The Dead Zone; it is what John Smith, King's reluctant hero (another powerful myth-figure) miust face at last, in what is one of King's most powerful novels. It is a cornerstone of an King library, and should definitely be in yours right now. Think of it as -- Fate.
The protagonist is as simple as the name he is given--Johnny Smith--and early in the novel the reader discovers that he has the ability to see into the future somewhat. A bit later on, Johnny gets in a severe car accident and stays in a coma for four and a half years. When he awakens, the world has changed completely. Vietnam is no longer the central issue of America, Richard Nixon has been impeached, and a young hotshot named Greg Stillson is attempting to run for the Presidency in 1980, the latter incident being a major subplot which will culminate in a shocking conclusion.
Also giving the novel its depthness is the love story regarding Johnny and his sweetheart prior to the accident, but who is married upon his awakening--the woman he loved more than anyone, a woman named Sarah Bracknell.
There is also an intriguing subplot dealing with a serial killer as well as one regarding the trials and tribulations of an academically struggling football player in high school.
All in all, this novel is gripping from start to finish, and its effect resonates long after it has been read. There is a big moral issue to contemplate throughout the novel--how should Johnny Smith use his powers? Johnny himself posed the question: "If you could go back in time and had the chance to kill Hitler, would you do it?"
This is my favorite Stephen King novel, and I anticipate reading it again sometime and knowing I'll have to wipe the beginnings of tears from the corner of my eye--the ending is very powerful, you see...