April 2006

Ned Vizzini

fiction

Cell by Stephen King

The apocalypse used to be so much simpler. There were nukes, and someday they would go off and leave all of us eating cold Spaghetti-Os. Barring that, there was the reliable Angry God. 

But now we have an embarrassment of riches -- terrorism, global warming, bird flu -- so many that we can keep a few like SARS and asteroids in reserve. With such a wealth choices, we have made the apocalypse a personal statement, buying into Left Behind if we prefer a Republican end time, An Inconvenient Truth if we prefer a Democratic one, and the Mayan 2012 doomsday prophecy if we want to be indie (http://survive2012.com/). With his ear, as always, carefully attuned to the freakouts of the American public, Stephen King steps into this fray with Cell, offering an end of the world for those who are godless and causeless, who think we’re all doomed: the SUV drivers, the non-Christians, even the Mayan calendar experts. 

King’s end of the world, like all decent ones, comes with a sign. Parasitic, mysterious, and shaped like a handheld weapon, the cell phone has been worming its way into our lives for a decade; on page six of Cell it strikes. A burst of microwave energy begins pulsing through the American cell phone networks (and this book is strictly American -- no mention of Europe, no questions as to whether phones are safe in Japan) to wipe clean the minds of everyone jabbering about their Netflix queue, resulting in a nation of bloodthirsty zombies out to kill our non-cellular everyman hero, Clay. 

King owes 90% of this plot to George Romero (and dedicates the book to him, as if to defray legal action), but his zombie “phoners” are not the living dead per se; they can die; and when they kill, they do not create new phoners. Instead they spread their cause by panic -- as people see them in action, biting a dog, for instance (a nod to journalism by King on page seven), they reach for theircell phones to report it, and then, bam -- one more zombie. If you see something, you’d better not say something. 

Protagonist Clay, a young King stand-in living in Maine as an art teacher who has just gotten his first big break in the comic book world, and who has yet to purchase a cell phone, is acquainting himself with worldly success when he suddenly finds the need to defend against psychotic police, women, and children who can definitely hear him now. Clay teams up with a mild-mannered gay man and a lost teenage girl to travel north from Boston, all the way back to his home, where he hopes that his young son has had the good sense to keep off the phone. 

From its bravura opening, Cell settles into a plodding journey through post-Cingular America, where homeless people have the upper hand, suburban homes are defended with shotguns, and night time is the right time for moving around -- the zombie phoners are only active in the day, in another of King’s attempts to distinguish them from run-of-the-mill zombies. 

The phoners begin to evolve, first developing a taste for supermarket soft rock, then electing a leader of sorts (King puts the zombie king in a “Harvard” sweatshirt), and then sleeping in collective piles, forming some facsimile of the society they destroyed. By the time Clay gets to Lake Kashwakamak, ME, which the non-cell-phone using “normies” have invested with some kind of safeness, he has seen as much hell in his fellow men as he has in the reprogrammed monsters running the northeast. 

Cell is not a hopeful book. King does not follow any of the movie rules that may be brought in for the adaptation. Children die. The government never shows up. Clay and his associates contemplate suicide. The hope that Clay will reach his son Johnny-Gee and find him uncorrupted by phones gets beaten out of the reader over 350 pages. 

This is less a horror novel than one of extreme pessimism. Whatever cell phones are a stand-in for, and to King’s credit he picked a device that could stand-in for anything -- the hand-held detonator that sets off the explosion in Kashmir causing World War III, the hand-held steering wheel bringing our climate to a state of collapse -- it is here, now, and it can bite us at any time. The apocalypse takes away a lot of responsibility, and our fascination with it is in part due to our desire to escape through it; once the bombs go off, we won’t have to pay our cell phone bills anymore. King is here to remind us that when we pick an apocalypse, we had better take seriously what we’re talking about.

Cell by Stephen King
Scribner
ISBN: 0743292332
384 Pages