The Dead Zone features “a real estate conman” whose clownish populism masks a ruthless and unhinged demagogue destined for the White House. Was Stephen King’s novel too optimistic?

“He’s a clown, so what? Maybe people need a little comic relief from time to time … So people want a giggle or two. Even more, they want to thumb their noses at a political establishment that doesn’t seem able to solve anything. Stillson’s harmless.” – Stephen King, The Dead Zone, 1979.

This article contains spoilers for The Dead Zone, and the 1983 film adaptation of the same name. While it’s probably fair game to reveal plot points from works forty years old, I would urge you to watch the film. It stars Christopher Walken, and is directed by David Cronenberg. It’s really good. And the book is better.

Seriously. Go support your local bookshop and buy a copy of The Dead Zone. The New York Times likened the novel to “a particularly compelling movie”, and The Guardian retrospectively characterised the book a “literary novel about rehabilitation and loss”.

With spoiler alerts behind us: The Dead Zone tells the story of Johnny Smith, a New England teacher who awakens from a coma almost five years after a car crash, discovering he possesses clairvoyant and precognitive powers which are triggered by touch. Johnny struggles to rebuild his life, grieving for lost love and lost years, while trying desperately to avoid the notoriety of a gift revealed at every turn to be a curse.

Meanwhile, a serial killer preys on Castle Rock, Maine, and with six women and girls murdered, the town sheriff is desperate enough to think about drafting in a psychic. Across the state line in New Hampshire, a charismatic joke candidate is charming, blackmailing, and bullying his way toward Pennsylvania Avenue.

Greg Stillson is a hard-hatted showman whose jingoistic populism and catch-phrases strike a chord with a disaffected public, and his “throw the bums out” slogan presages by over three decades “drain the swamp”.  

When Johnny Smith shakes Stillson’s hand, he glimpses a vision of the future in which President Stillson’s hand pushes the nuclear button.  

In the movie, Stillson is played by Martin Sheen, a really nice man whose non-nuclear hand I once shook. Mind you, most Irish people have met Martin Sheen at some point. One of our own, et cetera, et cetera. The same year Sheen played Stillson, insane and unstoppable, he also played John F Kennedy, charismatic and driven, in the acclaimed TV miniseries Kennedy.

Sheen would later play President Josiah Edward (Jed, but never Jedward) Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s turn-of-the-millennium The West Wing. Depending on your politics, the avuncular, folksy, and fiercely intellectual Bartlet was either the Platonic personification of the best ideals of progressive democratic (Democratic) American leadership, or the cloying manifestation of the worst excesses of patronising liberal elitism which not only helped the rise of Donald Trump, but also served to make it arguably necessary.

Martin Sheen might lack the physical bulk Stillson has in the novel, but he is terrifying and magnetic as a bright-eyed psychopath whose plain-spoken man-of-the-people schtick is lapped up by a disgruntled public anxious to shake things up.  

(In the book, the “dead zone” of the title is the section of Johnny’s brain damaged by the crash, and it leaves him unable to visualise place names and addresses in his visions, as he tries desperately to change the future. In the film, the dead zone is similarly a blank spot, but an uncertainty caused by Johnny’s own ability to change the future. Either way, King’s point is clear: the future is not set in stone, even if changing it will exact a terrible price.)

Despite the earlier spoiler warnings, I won’t ruin entirely The Dead Zone. Suffice to say that at a climactic moment, the demagogue Stillson is destroyed as a political force, his true nature exposed. Stillson is finished once the American public comes to realise the utter monster he is. America is saved, and with it, the world.

At the time of writing in what we consider real life, the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, has just been released from Walter Reed medical centre, having fallen ill hours after declaring “The end of the pandemic is in sight”, and is quarantining with coronavirus, a disease he has admitted to downplaying since the pandemic began.

Trump, previously most famous for pretending on television to be a successful businessman – and don’t his tax returns expose that lie – once marvelled that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support. He was joking, probably, but, three-and-a-half years into perhaps only his first term, he has consistently held a solid 42%-43% support rate.

Trump may not have shot anyone, but through his malevolent incompetence in handling Covid-19, he has had a direct hand in the deaths of 210,000 Americans. And still his support holds.

Unlike Greg Stillson, though, Donald Trump has never hidden who he is.

He has mocked the disabled, bragged about serially molesting women, demeaned America’s dead soldiers as “suckers” and “losers”, and he has dog-whistled QAnon racists, repeatedly refusing to condemn the far right, and becoming the de facto leader of US white supremacists. Now, less than a month from the November 3 presidential election, Trump is doing everything in his power to undermine America’s faith in democracy.

His Christian Evangelical enablers twist themselves into pretzel-knots pretending they believe the thrice-married porn-star-bedding Trump (Stormy Daniels calls that “the worst 90 seconds of my life”) is God’s imperfect vessel, but the truth is that as long as he appoints anti-abortion judges, they don’t care what he does, or that he holds them in utter disdain.

Last week, Trump bullied, bellowed, and blathered his way through the shitshow that was the first of the presidential debates. He lied incessantly, refusing to respect pre-agreed debate rules, while steamrollering moderator Chris Wallace. Democrat candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden quipped “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown”, asking “Will you shut up, man?

The lowest points in the debacle came when Trump refused to commit to accepting an electoral defeat, and refused too to condemn white supremacists, offering instead a shout-out to the Proud Boys, an FBI-classified extremist group. (Typically, Trump later pretended he didn’t know who they were.)

America stands at a crossroads of history, with Trump trailing in the polls and now (presumably) White House-bound. While it remains to be seen whether the rest of the US can change the future, Trump’s base still adores him.

If 2020 has become an endless chapter from an uncharacteristically dull Stephen King novel, the depressing difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense, and even horror stories have to offer some prospect of redemption, some glimmer of hope.

In Stephen King’s brilliant writing, the monster can ultimately be beaten, and in the end decent folks usually know right from wrong.

In the real world, Donald Trump is a monster who has exposed, exploited and exacerbated America’s divisions. And 43% of Americans seem perfectly happy with that.