Ever since 1976, when the film version of Carrie lifted his first novel from relative obscurity to public acclaim and sales approaching four million copies, Stephen King has been acknowledged as America’s foremost “horror” writer. Each of his succeeding novels (Salem’s Lot, 1975; The Shining, 1977; The Stand, 1978; and The Dead Zone), as well as his one collection of short stories (Night Shift, 1978), have been best-sellers. By the end of 1979, approximately ten million copies of King’s books had been published; it is expected that that number will double in 1980. With perhaps only slight exaggeration, the New American Library promotion department calls him “the best-selling author in the world in 1980.”
However, all of this does not guarantee King status as an important writer; quite the opposite is true: no popular genre writer, the critical assumption goes, especially one so flagrantly successful in the commercial markets, can at the same time be a serious artist. While the critical establishment may, after some time, give reluctant posthumous credit to the occasional Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or periodically allow a Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury to escape the “category” ghettos, it is harder for a successful horror writer to be so honored than for that proverbial camel to pass through the needle’s eye. Hence, the reaction of many critics to The Dead Zone is curious: they thoroughly enjoy it; they praise its plotting and characterization; they come to the brink of calling it an important work; and then, remembering who they are and what they are dealing with, they pull back and downgrade the novel as merely a popular work, an entertainment.
However, The Dead Zone is a first-rate serious work, as are all of King’s other novels. King has found in the horror and science fiction genres the vehicles through which he can present his insightful, disturbing vision of modern America. His novels no more resemble those in the current flood of second-rate neo-Gothic trash than the fiction of Ernest Hemingway can be likened to the cruder hard-boiled pulp writers of the 1930’s. A further irony is that, despite the horror story label, only one of King’s novels, Salem’s Lot, is a traditional story of supernatural terror. The others deal with themes and elements more commonly associated with science fiction—telekinesis (Carrie), ESP (The Shining and The Dead Zone), and almost-the-end-of-the-world scenarios (The Stand).
Yet the fact that King has never been categorized as a science fiction writer is not surprising. In mood, tone, atmosphere, and emphasis, he is worlds apart from all but a few science fiction authors (such as, perhaps, Tom Disch, J. G. Ballard, and Harlan Ellison in some of his works). Similar to all writers of real merit, King stakes out his own distinct territory. He uses the genres; he is not bound by them. The paranormal or supernatural aspects in his novels dramatize and intensify conflicts that are already present in the characters and situations. At the center of his works are potent dramas of human crises, provocative analyses of contemporary American society and culture, and a dark, troubling vision of man’s place in the modern world.
Hence, the holocaust provoked by Carrie White’s telekinetic powers is not a spectacle of gratuitous violence but the inevitable explosion of social, sexual, and religious tensions latent in small-town America; it can be compared to the riot scene that ends Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. The mass vampirism in Salem’s Lot is a concrete manifestation of the underlying corruption which pervades that isolated, ingrown, puritanical New England region. The supernatural presences that are inadvertently evoked by Danny Torrance’s ESP in The Shining are images of evils endemic to our times. The Stand offers us a surrealistic allegory of good and evil in the modern world, and the unwanted gift of clairvoyance simply forces the hero of The Dead Zone to confront the problems of personal obligation, moral responsibility, and violence in this dangerous, difficult era.
Johnny Smith has his first ESP experience following a fall on the ice at the age of five, but the talent remains more or less latent until one night seventeen years later when he takes his girl friend, Sarah Bracknell, to the county fair and wins more than five hundred dollars spinning the Wheel-of-Fortune. His extraordinary good luck immediately turns bad; after leaving Sarah at her home, Johnny is almost killed in a traffic accident. He languishes in a coma for five years, and upon reviving discovers that...