Author: Stephen King
Review: If any writer is capable of producing the Great American Zombie Novel, it would have to be Stephen King.
In the past, King has scared us with dead cats and rabid dogs, killer clowns and killer flus, sinister government agents, homicidal Plymouths and otherworldly Buicks, schoolyard bullies and strange men in yellow raincoats. He has frightened us with things as eldritch as the Love craftian horrors of “The Mist” and as mundane as the industrial laundry press in “The Mangler.” Nor has he neglected the old monsters — familiar friends from childhood and the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He gave us vampires in Salem’s Lot, created werewolves in It and Cycle of the Werewolf, used aliens in The Tommy knockers and Dreamcatcher, and when he turned to ghosts, he produced The Shining, which ranks among the finest haunted-house stories of all time, right up there with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And now, with Cell, the zombie has shambled to the front of the queue, as might have been expected. What no one could have anticipated, however, was that the zombie would be clutching a cell phone.
King’s new novel opens with a young comic book artist named Clay Riddell strolling happily down Boylston Street in Boston, swinging his portfolio in one hand. Clay has just sold his graphic novel “Dark Wanderer” to Dark Horse Comics, and he is pretty pleased about it. He stops at a Mister Softee truck to treat himself to an ice cream in celebration, lining up behind a pair of teenage girls and a woman with a poodle. The girls are sharing a cell phone as they wait, and the woman with the poodle is talking on her own. Clay does not own a cell phone. That’s what saves him when “the pulse” comes crackling through the cell towers.
The woman closes her phone and tries to climb through the window of the Mister Softee truck to tear out the ice cream vendor’s throat. When she fails, one of the girls rips out her throat instead, while the other backs away, half-mad and muttering. The poodle is run over by a careening limo, and down the block a businessman bites the ear off a Labrador. Clay doesn’t understand what is happening, though he knows it is nothing good. We’re a little ahead of him. We know that all the cell phone users in Boston, and maybe the world, have suddenly been transformed into crazed, carnivorous zombies.
There is something wonderfully mordant about making zombies by means of a cell phone, rather than a virus or a voodoo curse.Cell is going to be especially unsettling for the traveler looking for something to read on the airplane. As he sits in the boarding area waiting for his seat to be called, he need only glance around to find a dozen zombies-in-the-making, locked into their own worlds, muttering into their mobiles. The telephone allows us to communicate with those far away; the cell phone isolates us from those around us.
The pulse also works splendidly as a plot device. One of the major problems with a good many zombie films is the lack of a second act. When the story opens, there are no zombies around. Then one or two appear and attack the living, and suddenly hordes of zombies are all over the place, surrounding the few remaining bands of the living wherever they seek shelter. One is always left wondering where they all came from and why the police and the army were not able to put them down at the beginning, when there were only a few. That’s not a problem in Cell. King creates millions of zombies in less time than it takes to fill an ice cream cone. And when all the madness breaks out, what could be more natural for the survivors than to reach for their cells to call 911 to report that the kid next door is eating his mother?
Zombies are the Rodney Dangerfield of monsterdom, the poor relation none of the other monsters wants to admit to knowing. Vampires boast of ancient lineages and dwell in magnificent (if somewhat ruined) estates. They dress elegantly and quote poetry, and while they may not drink wine, you know that if they did, it would be only the best vintages. Werewolves tend to be average joes, ordinary working stiffs who say their prayers by night until stricken by lycanthropy. Aside from a few nights when the moon is full, they’re just folks like you and me. Zombies, though? Rotting corpses, ripe and decaying, dressed in rags and covered with dirt, mindless, clumsy, slow, hideous and foul-smelling. The sheriff in Night of the Living Dead summed them up perfectly when he said, “They’re dead . . . they’re all messed up.”
The zombie of Haitian folklore, created by voodoo to do the bidding of its creator, was mindless muscle, a ragged slave having more in common with Igor than with Frankenstein. But the traditional zombie is seldom seen these days, his ecological niche having been usurped by the new-style zombie created by George A. Romero in his classic black-and-white film Night of the Living Dead(1968), which influenced a whole generation of zombie-lovers and spawned numerous sequels and imitations. Romero severed the zombie’s connection with voodoo and freed him from his slavery, sending him forth in search of human flesh. It was Romero who made the zombie a cannibal, and he has remained one ever since.
Neither species of zombie is especially formidable, if truth be told. No special equipment is needed to dispose of them: no stakes or silver bullets, just a gun (an axe will do in a pinch). A shot to the head will put your zombie down for good, and they’re so slow it’s hard to miss. Whereas one vampire can ruin the whole neighborhood, one zombie is just an excuse for target practice. Zombies are truly terrifying only in large groups. (Is there a collective noun for the living dead yet? If not, let me propose “a shamble of zombies.”)
After the pulse, King’s narrative proceeds in a straightforward manner. Clay has an estranged wife and a beloved son back in Maine, and he’s desperate to get back to them. With civilization collapsing all around him, the only way to reach them is to walk. He meets other survivors along the way and joins forces with some of them. Before long they begin to see the phrase “KASHWAK=NO-FO” scrawled on walls and doors, pointing them toward an area of rural Maine without cell phone reception . . . but is Kashwak a refuge, or a trap?
King dedicates Cell to Romero and to Richard Matheson, and it is easy to see why. While parts of the narrative evoke faint echoes of Matheson’s classic last-man-alive vampire novel I Am Legend, Romero’s influence is stronger, a fact that even King’s characters remark upon. “It’s like the . . . Night of the Living Dead,” says the cop whom Clay encounters only moments after the pulse. The reader will have already noticed that, of course, but by giving voice to that thought, the cop somehow roots this story more solidly in the real world.
The resemblance is only skin deep, however. While King’s “phoners” do evoke memories of Romero’s animate corpses, there are important differences. The phoners are not dead, for starters. And Romero’s zombies are as hungry and implacable at night as during the day, but King’s vanish mysteriously after the sun goes down. In a nice twist, night is the safest time for Clay and the other “normies.”
Also, whereas Romero’s living dead are the next best thing to mindless, the phoners grow smarter as we get deeper and deeper into the novel. They begin to herd together, to commune with one another and to develop a taste for bad rock music. Before long, we have left Romero territory entirely and entered the land of John Wyndham and The Midwich Cuckoos. The phoners are evolving into something more and less than human, joining into nests, hive minds linked together by telepathy. That’s something we have not seen before in a zombie story, and it makes the phoners considerably stranger and much more powerful . . . and yet somehow less frightening. The monster who talks to you can never be quite as scary as the one who just wants to eat you.
That said, Cell is hard to put down once you’ve picked it up. There is no shortage of harrowing scenes. The best is a sequence at an abandoned boys’ school, where King introduces us to an elderly headmaster and the last of his charges, deftly drawn characters who immediately engage our sympathy.
I only wish I could say the same of Clay. King always delivers the scares, but his best work does a great deal more. The Shining is a tragedy as well as ghost story, and at its center is Jack Torrance, who is as much a tragic hero as a monster. The Green Mile works so powerfully because we come to know every one of the all-too-human guards and prisoners in that prison. Andy Dufresne and Red of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” poor doomed Carrie White in Carrie, the four friends who go looking for a corpse in “The Body” — in all of King’s best work, the characters are as memorable as the monsters.
Not so in Cell. Early in the book, before the enormity of what has happened has quite sunk in, Clay fights off an attack with his portfolio, and is grieved and distressed when the sketches of his “Dark Wanderer” characters are damaged. It is a nice moment, and a defining one, but Clay has too few of those, and once the portfolio is left behind, he becomes more and more the standard-issue protagonist and less and less an individual.
In Danse Macabre, his landmark critical study of horror in fiction and film, King writes that horror fiction “exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it.” The finest emotion is terror, King suggests, and below it lie horror and revulsion. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion . . . and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”
Cell has plenty of gross-out moments and ascends to the level of horror more than once, but it never reaches true terror, let alone the heights achieved by King’s best work. While it is a solid, entertaining read, I’m afraid we will need to wait a bit longer for that Great American Zombie Novel.
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