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Press 1 if you've become a zombie

Cell A Novel Stephen King Scribner: 368 pp., $26.95

January 24, 2006|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

I'VE always thought of Stephen King as the Steven Spielberg of literature. Like Spielberg, King started out in the early 1970s and quickly became his own cottage industry, while often being overlooked or chided by the critical establishment. Even more, both men share what might be called a grass-roots vision, an instinct for the small scenes, the minor details, out of which transformative bits of drama can arise.

In Spielberg's work, the most affecting moments are the quietest: kids calling each other names around a suburban dinner table, a boy shouting for his lost dog mere seconds before the explosive cataclysm of a shark attack. King, too, is a master of this sort of nuance, developing his horror stories from the most commonplace circumstances and characters -- a car crash on a snowy road, a caretaker at an old hotel, a burned-out writer grieving for his dead wife in the solitude of a Maine lakeside lodge.

King's new novel "Cell" operates out of just such an aesthetic, spinning an apocalyptic fantasy from quotidian events. Beginning with a simple yet terrifying supposition -- what would happen if all the cellphones suddenly emitted a signal that turned their users into homicidal zombies? -- the book posits a nightmare landscape made more horrible by its proximity to the world we know.

For Clay, the novel's cell-less protagonist, things unravel in an instant; one second he is at the edge of Boston Common, waiting to buy a Mister Softee ice cream, and the next he is running for his life down Boylston Street, having just watched an adolescent girl use her teeth to tear out a woman's throat.

"There was time to wonder if he'd gone insane," King writes, "and was hallucinating all this in a madhouse somewhere. Juniper Hill in Augusta, maybe, between Thorazine shots." Before long, though, Clay understands that reality is the madhouse, and that "this is how we act. This is how it goes when the bottom drops out. When there are no cameras turning, no buildings burning, no Anderson Cooper saying, 'Now back to the CNN studios in Atlanta.' This is how it goes when Homeland Security's been canceled due to lack of sanity."

The notion that some rogue electronic impulse ("the Pulse," King calls it) could, in essence, eradicate everything is the definition of high concept: It almost cries out to be filmed. Yet as is often the case with King, there's more at work here than such a narrow pop culture gloss. Among "Cell's" epigraphs is one by Konrad Lorenz -- "Human aggression is instinctual. Humans have not evolved any ritualized aggression-inhibiting mechanisms to ensure the survival of the species. For this reason man is considered a very dangerous animal" -- and throughout the book, King returns to the question of what happens when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

"At bottom," a former prep school headmaster tells Clay in the middle of the novel, "we are not Homo sapiens at all. Our core is madness. The prime directive is murder. What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous [creatures] in the jungle. And that is what the Pulse exposed five days ago."

This is hardly a new idea for King; his most effective fiction deals less with supernatural horrors than the bleakness of the soul. "Cell," then, is just one more installment in the author's career-long inquiry into humanity's dark side, the viciousness and violence that, as much as anything, appear to make us who we are.

The trouble with "Cell," however, is that for all King means to explore these treacherous and fundamental instincts, he fails to create a world in which we can settle, or characters about whom we truly care. It's an issue from the earliest pages of the novel, which plunge us directly into the narrative without offering a chance to come to grips with where we are. Unlike "The Green Mile" or "Misery" -- each of which unfolds at a more measured pace, allowing for reflection, introspection -- "Cell" doesn't yield enough access to Clay's inner thoughts, his cogitations, the workings of his mind. Even his desire to find his 12-year-old son Johnny, at home in Maine when the Pulse hits, feels by the numbers, less a matter of organic intensity than a convention of the form.

Clay makes noise about how he loves the boy. And he expresses similar emotions toward his friends Tom, Alice and Jordan, fellow survivors with whom he travels, at night when the "phoners" cluster in some strange collective alpha state, north out of a devastated Massachusetts. Yet because things happen here so fast (the entire book takes place over a couple of weeks), his feelings are never fleshed out, leaving "Cell" rushed, more an extended treatment than a fully realized work.

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