Stephen King. Cell (2006, Pocket Books, ISBN 1-4165-2451-7, 448 pages, paper).
The premise of this book – that humans can become “infected” with something and be transformed into monsters or into beings with super strength or oddball powers – has been tried before. Look at the film “28 Days Later.” But here, the virus or Internet worm or what have you is spread through cell phones – but even that was tried back in 1997 by Minnesota author Edmund Contoski with the novel “The Trojan Project” (American Liberty Publishers) where a firmware telephone virus brings people under control of an evil government. Here, the “virus” sends people wild, as they simultaneously levitate and disintegrate and liquefy like victims of Ebola, or perhaps babble with Tourette’s. King is not afraid to unleash the violence and some disturbing metaphors. He also compares people to computers, suggesting that they could be “protected” from a worm like this in a manner similar to protecting computers from EMP effects with a Faraday Cage. “Save to system” is his buzzword for that. Apparently, to save themselves people have to get to an area beyond the reach of wi-fi or cell phone reception. King has some nonsense acronyms throughout, good for Jeopardy quiz questions, like “KASHWACK=NO-FO”.
The book is in a number of long chapters, themselves unnumbered and always having their own title pages. Personally, I like books to have TOC’s (a table of contents), a map (although King usually stays in New England – here, Boston and NW to New Hampshire, in October in a year that it snows early, despite global warming – make the extent of the wilderness in which artist Clay Riddell must wander after The Pulse). I think that Tolkien has the right idea with all of his Middle Earth maps and imaginary geography (good enough for a model railroad if that world had trains, which it doesn’t), and even a meaning for “To the West.”
The first section of the book is called “The Pulse”, the event that starts the “infection” of people with technology – but that word has been used for a classic horror film Pulse (Kairo) from Japan in 2001, remade by Dimension in 2006 in English). The idea that survivors need to find a safe harbor in a communications "dead zone" appears in these movies, too.
Actually, the book could be compared to King’s masterpiece, The Stand (1978, 1990), where a superflu (= avian influenza or bird flu, except manmade) destroys most of the world’s population, leaving the good people (poor Tim Cullen) to migrate to Boulder and the bad people (=Randall Flag = “The Walkin’ Dude” which one co-worker once called me, and even Trashcan Man) in Cibola (that is, Las Vegas) and try to connect along I-15. That book led to a wasteland, and in this novel it is reduced.
As for King's other books, I can recall women in the breakroom at work reading "Misery" around 1990 and screaming at the climax. (Katy Bates would do a number on James Caan, chopping off the trapped writer's feet in one scene.)
It looks like Eli Roth and Dimension Films (aka The Weinstein Company) will have this novel (Cell) on film later in 2007, with the freaks pretty much turned into zombies (or "phonies") like in “Dawn of the Dead” or even “Night of the Living Dead”(1968). The film should not be confused with New Line’s “The Cell” (2000) where a psychiatrist (Jennifer Lopez) enters the mind of a criminal.
The idea that technology changes people – as a pretext for horror – suggests a broader cultural problem. People go off on their own and compete on the global stage as citizens of the world, needing very little conventional emotional feedback from others except on their own terms. That strands a lot of other people, depending on them to support a local emotional world, filled with pampering and needed to raise children and take care of the less competitive. People are dropping out of the whole maturation process it takes to start a family, and that observation seems to drive all the concerns of writers like Maggie Gallagher on the failure of the institution of marriage.
Is that a good subject for a novel? Of course? For horror. I think so. I have my own King-like novel – with my own stamp – on my hard drive, mixed with my own spin on the cultural wars and all the issues. I hope it will make it out in the open.
This pocket version contains an excerpt from the new novella "Lisey's Story".