Review: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

The Dead ZoneTHE DEAD ZONE tells the story of Johnny Smith rebuilding his life after four years in a coma. A lot of things changed in that time. Johnny’s mother became obsessed with the idea that God has a plan for Johnny, which put a huge strain on her marriage and affected her health. Johnny’s girlfriend moved on. And as if that wasn’t enough, his coma has unearthed a supernatural talent; when touching a person, Johnny can see their future, though not all the details – there is a ‘dead zone’ in his mind that restricts his ability to see everything clearly. Even so, this partial ‘gift’ coupled with four lost years is enough to change the trajectory of Johnny’s life forever.

Most of the novel deals with Johnny’s struggle for normalcy. He does his best to ignore his ability – but when all it takes is a gentle touch, it’s impossible. THE DEAD ZONE reads at a gentle pace, allowing King to flaunt his wonderful prose, with a real focus on character. He notches up the tension and develops a sense of inevitability with periodic shifts in perspective to Gregory Stillson, a devil-incarnate Presidential candidate, a psychopathic killer targeting young women, and a lightning rod salesman. All of these characters and their actions eventually coalesce in the THE DEAD ZONE’s most dramatic moments – with the Stillson confrontation serving as the grand finale.

Most of THE DEAD ZONE’s narrative feels organic despite the predestined conclusions seasoned readers will anticipate as new characters and elements are introduced. But it falters in its final act. The Johnny / Stillson confrontation feels manufactured and slightly tarnishes what has come before it – but not enough to ruin the overall experience. Not quite vintage King, but awfully close.

Review – Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

MercedesYou can label Stephen King’s novels with a variety of acclaim, but pulse-pounding, white-knuckle-thrill-ride has never quite seemed appropriate for his extensive body of work. The Stand, what I consider his finest novel to date, is more enthralling than exhilarating; while The Shining is more nerve-wracking (and genuinely terrifying) than adrenaline-charged. No matter the scope of King’s plots, no matter what genre his respective novels are pigeonholed in, they’re always page-turners, and always demonstrate a level of finesse that other authors can only dream of replicating. This isn’t breaking news: King is a masterful storyteller, one of the greatest to have lived, and with MR MERCEDES he has crafted my favorite crime novel of 2014, and one that deserves to labelled as a modern classic.

Crime fiction is bursting with tropes. They’re unavoidable, but they’re malleable, and the best authors mould them and make them their playthings, and use them to their narrative’s benefit. Take the protagonist of MR MERCEDES, for example: Bill Hodges, a retired ex-cop who is circling the drain. Mandatory retirement and the loss of his badge has stripped his life of purpose; he chose the job over his family, and as such, his days are now spent watching daytime television and reminiscing on the unsolved cases he left behind. The one that haunts him most involves the Mercedes Killer, who drove into a crowd at an unemployment expo, killing eight and injuring more. Through sheer luck and circumstances rather than meticulous planning, the killer vanished. The police had no viable leads, no witnesses able to identify a suspect; they were at a dead end. And then Hodges was retired, and the case lost its relevancy with the media, and then with the department.

The Mercedes Killer is a young man named Brady Hartfield, who we’re introduced to inside the first fifty pages of the novel. He intends on breaking Hodges, the man who tried to hunt him and failed miserably, and lead the old detective to suicide. He crafts a carefully worded letter to Hodges, expecting it to send him over the edge, make him place the barrel of his revolver in his mouth and squeeze the trigger. Instead, Hodges is reinvigorated by the reappearance of the Mercedes Killer, and he begins a private investigation. Infuriated, the Mercedes Killer plans another act of random terror – and so begins a cat-and-mouse chase, hero versus villain, with twists and turns along the way.

MR MERCEDES moves quickly. It’s a thriller, eloquently narrated with King’s trademark prose. There are no supernatural elements on show here; there is no dark force of nature at work. MR MERCEDES is an examination of two sides of the fence, hero and villain, and their respective motivations. Sick and twisted as Hartfield’s are, Hodges’s mentality is similarly questionable (though not to the same degree): he should hand over his information to the proper authorities, who would have a better handle on the situation, but he is blinded by the zest he feels now that he’s ingrained in another investigation. His choices have consequences, and people die because of them.

Despite clocking in at over 400 pages, not a page, paragraph or sentence is wasted in MR MERCEDES. It’s a fast read despite its enormity, and one I’m destined to return to in the years that follow; the highest praise I can bestow upon a novel. Now, bring on November, and King’s fourth novel in the space of two years: REVIVAL.

Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor_SleepTHE SHINING casts a long, dark shadow. As one of Stephen King’s most iconic works, it never struck me as a book that needed a sequel. So when news broke a couple years ago that King was in the process of penning one, I felt a knot of apprehension in my gut. There’s no doubt King is still capable of brilliant prose, and his imagination seems as fertile as ever, even if his writing process has slowed – but sometimes it’s best to leave things be, to ensure the memory of that original reading experience remains unscathed.

DOCTOR SLEEP is a very different beast to THE SHINING, and initially the shift in tone bothered me. I never found THE SHINING outright frightening; rather, it maintained an eerie atmosphere throughout its pages; it was tense, and my unease was almost palpable. DOCTOR SLEEP doesn’t attempt the same thing – or, if that was its intent, it fails (though I’m certain it wasn’t). Rather, this feels more like a lightweight version of one of King’s epics – a deeply personal journey involving Dan Torrance battling his demons as he combats an evil force targeting children for their ‘steam.’ ‘Lightweight’ has negative connotations, I know, but I don’t mean it to be divisive in this instance. It is a good thing that DOCTOR SLEEP maintains its focus instead of escalating into a sprawling epic, akin to, say, THE STAND. Dan is an interesting character, and contrary to my early doubts, seeing the man that the boy from The Overlook Hotel has grown into is fascinating. He starts the novel as an alcoholic, and we witness the moment he hits rock bottom with both disappointment and understanding. He survived the horrors of his youth to become – what? His father? Of course he has.

In DOCTOR SLEEP the horrors of The Overlook Hook are replaced as antagonists by a crew of ‘steam’ sucking demons in human-form known as The Knot. They’re effective villains, but never really compelling, and not especially memorable, which is a shame, because that they been, this novel might’ve ranked a tad closer to its predecessor. The True Knot are horrible beings – vampire-esque torture-loving anti-aging freaks – but I was never frightened of them. Worse still, in certain scenes they came across as comic-booky; exaggerated villainous diatribes spilling from their mouths.

Still, that one disappointment aside, I tore through DOCTOR SLEEP quickly and loved every moment. No, it’s not better than THE SHINING, but did any of us ever truly expect it to be? Enjoy this novel for what it is rather than loading it with your own expectations and you’re in for a treat.