DEAR STEPHEN KING: PLEASE REWRITE THE ENDING OF “THE DEAD ZONE” AND SAVE US FROM THIS HORROR STORY*
Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 24" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1962, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
I can’t explain my affinity for The Dead Zone over the seemingly hundreds of other Stephen King novels I’ve read. I loved the movie too. Fun story. In it, Christopher Walkin plays school teacher Johnny Smith who is rendered comatose in an auto accident after heading home from his fiancé’s place on a rainy night. When he awakens from the coma five years later, he possesses an array of psychic powers, including precognition about people he physically touches or who touch him. As it turns out, his powers allow him to take steps to change, and hopefully improve, the futures he sees.
King published The Dead Zone the same year Apocalypse Now was released, 1979 (Apocalypse Now is a contemporized retelling of another relevantly named novel, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). The King novel’s movie adaptation came out a few years later in 1983. With Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors fresh in the consciousness of a post-Vietnam America still in the middle of the Cold War, King’s ethos and cause/effect resonated with his audience. That the evil and cowardice displayed by King’s fictional candidate ends the candidate’s political career made perfect sense back then. Nostalgic. MAGA.
Unfortunately for Johnny Smith, his fiancé Sarah Bracknell, played by Brooke Adams, moves on after Smith’s accident and uncertain future. Years later Smith encounters her again and agrees to campaign with her in support of third-party senate candidate Greg Stillson, played by Martin Sheen who, in a memorable performance, played Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a veteran United States Army special operations officer a few years before in Apocalypse Now.
During a campaign event, Smith shakes the candidate’s hand and foresees that Stillson will eventually become POTUS. It isn’t a pleasant vision. Via his supernatural prescience, Smith learns that as President, Stillson will unilaterally — and unnecessarily — initiate a nuclear first-strike against Russia, introducing the world to nuclear holocaust. Apocalypse Soon.
Having seen that horrific future, Smith consults a confidant, questioning whether someone with pre-knowledge of Hitler’s genocide would be morally justified in pre-empting the Holocaust by taking him out. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. So Walkin’s Smith secrets himself with a rifle at a campaign event where Stillson will soon appear. Ignorant of Smith’s plan, Sarah Bracknell attends the event with her young son and sits near the front. Stillson appears and Smith takes aim, fires and misses the candidate. Sheen’s Stillson grabs Bracknell’s son and holds him up as a shield against more bullets. A news photographer snaps a picture of the spectacle and steals away with the negative.
In the novel’s closing pages Stillson approaches and touches Smith who, having been shot by security personnel, lies dying. This allows Smith to see a changed future. He sees that Stillson’s evil and cowardice, exposed in a front-page photo in a national newspaper of him shielding himself behind a child against gunfire, will end his political career. Later Stillson will take his own life. MAGA.
These days, an image of Trump surrounding his cowardly self with small children as a shield from enemy fire would not even register on his long list of shameful and morally bankrupt malfeasance. His base and Trump TV would find it endearing, worth promoting, evidence of how much he loves to surround himself with small children (no doubt, the NRA [National Russia Association] would highlight the importance of arming everyone, especially toddlers, as a really smart way to reduce gun violence, while the anti-choice movement would proclaim the vital need to protect Trump via infant and toddler carnage because his pro-life stance will save thousands more children than his protection costs).
Please, Mr. King, update The Dead Zone with a new ending (admittedly, one that would have been well beyond the literary pale at the original ending’s writing): a POTUS with Trump’s absence of character and presence of moral bankruptcy, a fascist wannabe who embodies a malfeasance sufficiently extreme finally to shame congress from their current betrayal of their Oaths of Office. Save us from this horror story.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to lastamendment.com
**My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed nearly 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in lastamendment.com are hers.