The Hero in The Dead Zone
When we think of the great many characters conjured by the imagination of Stephen King, we most likely think of Carrie White, Annie Wilkes, Jack Torrance or Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Few authors in history have known how to construct such a vast array of multidimensional villains and villainesses. As a result, what gets lost in King’s sea of personalities are his heroes — the most interesting of whom is arguably one Johnny Smith, the main man of The Dead Zone who awakens from a four-and-a-half year coma with a startling new mental capacity to see both people’s past and their future. It’s a power he doesn’t know quite how to control, and one that isn’t without its flaws.
It’s extremely difficult to write an interesting hero. King has written plenty of “good guys,” but their on-paper presence usually pales in comparison to the cock-a-doodee wackos, the mallet-wielding nut jobs and the child-eating clowns. This isn’t so uncommon though. Even in a classic good-versus-evil story like Star Wars, we may love and root for Luke Skywalker, but it’s Darth Vader who we can’t wait to see next on the screen. Good guys, for better or worse, aren’t usually as magnetic. (See: Women, for reference.) They don’t play to our darkest secrets and our innermost fears, inching us ever closer to the edge of our seats.
Good guys are just plain good.
And we know that’s good because we need more good guys.
To make a good guy interesting, you have to give him a challenge. (See: God, for reference.) In The Dead Zone, Stephen King gives Johnny Smith more than a challenge. He gives him a great tragedy.
Johnny hates his newfound power – these psychic abilities – in part because he doesn’t understand them, and in part because of the loss they represent. He dislikes the fame it has ushered through his door. He resents being looked at like a freak show. He detests what it’s done to his family, to his friends and to those he loves. For Johnny, it’s a dark thing. It’s evil what he’s able to do. It gives him headaches, leaves him scarred, and it’s a piss-poor consolation prize for having lost out on four-and-a-half years of his life. He’s angry at God, and like many a great Biblical character, he runs repeatedly from what he knows somewhere deep down inside is truly his destiny: To use his powers for good.
King tells a tale of finding our inner hero in our darkest places – our “dead zones,” if you will. This also isn’t rare. We’ve all heard the old adages that every cloud has its silver lining, you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain, and other such wisdom in which, for whatever reason, weather always seems to be disastrous.
No, if you look just below the surface, what’s most interesting about Johnny’s story is that it suggests something much deeper. It poses the question: What if the things we hate about ourselves are truly our greatest gifts?
I invite you, as I did upon reading The Dead Zone, to take the one quality you dislike the most about yourself, the one thing you wish you could change above all others, and to look it square in the eye. See it for what it truly is. Sure, it might not make you a perfect human being, but what has that imperfection led you to in your life? Would you have met the friends you have now if it weren’t for that part of you? Would you have had the experiences you’ve had that have taught you the things you know?
If you try your best to rid yourself of an imperfection, a vice, an addiction, a flaw…
If you pray to God and beg for it to be removed, but it’s still not going away…
Consider that maybe it’s because it’s not time for it to be removed. Perhaps it is leading you to your own destiny.
Johnny Smith didn’t need to do anything to become a hero.
All he needed was to accept himself, warts and all.
“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly, Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.