Tuesday, November 14th, 2006 Horrorthon Posts

I’m not sure what kind of Horrorthon post this is—whether it’s a review or just a normal post like we do when it’s not October—but I just read Stephen King’s Cell and I wanted to talk about it and see if any of you fine gentlemen had read it.

As far as Horrorthon’s recent posts, what’s especially germaine about Cell is that King openly acknowledges a rather large debt to George A. Romero, whose “Dead” movies are clearly the major influence here. King has a habit of sheepishly admitting his source material by having the characters talk about it (like, say, the group in ‘Salem’s Lot comparing the English teacher dude to “Van Helsing”) and in Cell we have quite a few references to Dawn of the Dead and once nice reference to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which Cell also resembles quite strongly (in a very good way).

Obviously I have nothing but good things to say about Spielberg’s brilliant and terrifying ode to H. G. Wells, which seems to become more of a masterpiece every time I watch it or think about it. (I recommend the essay in The New York Review of Books on Spielberg; I’ll find the link later, if I feel like it.) But I want to also add that I just watched Night of the Living Dead (which I’d seen, long ago, a couple of times) and then Dawn of the Dead, which is stunning, brilliant, unique, amazing. I had never seen if before and I’m just astonished at how good it is, and the wonderful way it incorporates all the best elements of 1970s cinema. It’s so good that I have to re-orient my thinking about horror fiction and horror movies in general, and, of course, that’s where Cell comes in, because if anyone’s going to use George A. Romero to re-orient their thinking about horror fiction, why not have it be Stephen King?

Spielberg, King, Romero, H.G. Wells: these authors and many others are all dancing around a central idea which is clearly a vital armature of horror: that which has been called “apocalyptic fiction” or “dystopian fiction” (although the first term is more accurate: “dystopian” sci-fi tends to drift in the direction of, “Okay, it’s after a big nuclear war” etc. etc. and we all immediately fall asleep because the only remaining cultural value of that train of thought might be Charlton Heston kneeling in the sand, bellowing).

I have an essay by J. G. Ballard (British sci-fi author; wrote the semiautobiographical Empire of the Sun) (more Spielberg) about apocalyptic fiction, wherein he presents an essentially Freudian or Jungian analysis about dreams and destruction and the point at which the infant learns to tell the difference between itself and the rest of the universe: Ballard argues that sci-fi writers blow up the Earth or whatever because they tap into an impulse that precedes this development—a pre-Coopernican tantrum that brings down cities in flame, if you will. I prefer to think that the point of it all isn’t tantrums but adult people; the strength of Dawn of the Dead and War of the Worlds (Spielberg or Wells) and The Stand and Cell is the examination of the human soul, pushed past all conventional modes of psychic endurance into a rarefied atmosphere of hyper-intensified emotion and meaning. If it’s all gone, then what’s left? Characters in apocalyptic fiction are our surrogates or proxies, answering these questions for us so that, when we awaken into reality and look out the window at the un-interrupted, normal fabric of reality, it looks a little different, hopefully in an enlightening way.

There’s another appealing level of meaning here in that the protagonist of Cell is an author of graphic novels—and this isn’t just an amusing character detail: it’s actually quite vital to the plot.

Anyway, Cell is probably the best King I’ve read in a long, long time (certainly better than any of his “grumpy old jerks in Maine and the troubled writer who’s getting on in years but remembers Vietnam” efforts). I haven’t read the last three Dark Tower volumes, although that’s really an entirely different brand of vodka (as Danny Ocean would say). It’s great to read a King novel in which he’s dishing up the blood and gore and violence and fear without apologizing for it or trying to win the Booker Prize again (although he deserved it). It’s great to read a King novel that doesn’t completely fall apart two thirds of the way through—one for which he clearly sat down beforehand and figured out what the hell he was trying to do. The beginning of Cell may be a bit rusty, and I wasn’t too hopeful going in (especially since I believe almost all of Everything’s Eventual to be re-fried garbage) but boy, does he get his mojo working along the way.

Have any of you gentlemen read this book? I’d love to go into more detail about it. (And, by the way, DON’T GIVE AWAY THE ENDING OF DAWN OF THE DEAD because I decided to put off watching the final, undoubtably shocking and incredible 35 minutes of the movie in order to read Cell, which was probably a good idea. You can’t double-dip this stuff; it doesn’t work.)

I’ll leave you with the excellent frontispiece epigraphs from Cell, which are vintage King:

The id will not stand for a delay in gratification. It always feels the tension of the unfulfilled urge.

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.

Can you hear me now?