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    Wednesday, February 01, 2006


    Stephen King’s latest effort is CELL. It’s written as homage in a lot of ways, and even dedicated, two of his inspirations, namely Richard Matheson and George Romero. The story itself is many things. It is a zombie story, combined with a warning about technology. Or maybe it isn’t really a warning as much as a contrivance to hook the reader. It is a story of survival and human perseverance, or stubbornness, to never let the evil, no matter how mundane or frightening, to win. It is a road movie, where the journey is actual and not just metaphorical. It is also an experiment in tension and relentless pursuit. Most of all, as many of his recent stories have been, it is a story of what makes us human and more importantly the passions that drive us to be more than we are.

    There are many shades of his previous work here. There are ghosts of THE LONGEST WALK, and most obviously THE STAND. There is an offhand reference to THE DARK TOWER series, though this book is out of that context and belies no “slippage.” The reference is in the main protagonists comic book work. I also felt tinges of THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, with the evolution take on the part of the zombies. Unfortunately none of the scenes are as powerfully eerie as the Holland Tunnel scene in THE STAND, and sometimes not as suspense filled as say an actual zombie movie, but they aren’t bad either. In many ways this is vintage 70s and 80s King with a little more humanity in it. The story is more about adults now and family. Although, he just as easily could have followed a group of kids through this if it weren’t for the fact that every kid has a cell phone these days. It definitely isn’t his best book, but seems to be along par with the little bits of fun sorbet he used to put out between each major novel. It reads like FROM A BUICK 8, but I can’t say exactly how. It’s a more minimal writing style that seems to crop up on occasion. THE CALORADO KID felt this way too.

    There are of course the little character nuances that King does so well, but which I find sometimes a bit overwhelmingly trite more and more these days. It’s a way to hook the reader by giving each character something that helps you understand what their going through. It isn’t used as much here as it has been in the past. A gnawing rat that keeps worming through his brain “biting” on occasion personifies the protagonist’s memory of his son and wife, although the rat metaphor goes away after about 200 pages. There is the young girl’s talisman of a baby’s shoe that she pours all of her emotion into so that when it goes missing, she falls apart. One of King’s weaknesses in my mind is his sometime overuse of these during a story, but that may just be me. It’s like the Pinocchio metaphor in Stephen Spielberg’s AI, where you finally just want to shout, “I get it, I’m not an idiot.” There is also the sacrificial character that he makes you like and then kills off to make you wince. I never really got to know the characters that well to really care as strongly for them as I did in say THE TALISMAN with Wolf, or the deaf kid in THE STAND. The death of this character is more just a pointed way of showing how people, even the ones still surviving, are just people, which means they’re just spiteful and cruel sometimes, and maybe not so different than the monsters are.

    He hits most of the Zombie conventions, at least at the beginning, like people trapped in a house with Zombies all around, and even the gore of them tearing people apart. He keeps the uncertainty going rather well, but it gets a bit more muddled once the Zombies begin to evolve. Since they’re not really Zombies of the b-movies, he has interesting scenes where they eat vegetables, as though to say, “See, my zombies are not your zombies. I made them up myself.” His Zombies also come out in the day and “sleep” at night. This does add a nice counterpoint so that the survivors of the PULSE must travel at night and sleep during the day. Of course in a real Zombie scenario, sleep should be more difficult to come by. Like all good Zombie movies, it ends with little resolution as to the state of the world.

    In the end we never really know where the PULSE comes from that turns those who hear it into mindless “wiped” creatures of base needs. In some ways I like this and in other ways I don’t. I think in the end, coming up with a reasonable explanation of who or what set things in motion would have been too difficult, so in that way I appreciate him not reverting to giant spiders. It did remind me though, and I needed it right now, that you don’t have to explain everything as long as the story you’re telling is really a humanistic story in the end. He does explain what it does to them, which was an idea I could accept and which I’ve discussed in ways with people before, so it isn’t too far fetched. But in the end we don’t find out what they’re final purpose is. They become an over mind yes, but to what ends? It really screams for about 150 more pages, and not all of them at the end.

    All in all I’d wait until this one hits the remainder shelves, you know there will be plenty left over. The reason I say wait for the remainder is that you can then pick it up at $5.00 and not $9.99 when it will inevitably come out in the new paperback like THE WOLVES OF CALA just did. It’s a good summer beach read but little more. I’m not sure there is really even enough classic Zombie material here to entertain the Zombie fan, but they are usually easily satisfied as long as something is eating flesh. I really think this one goes in the pile of books I’ve read recently including Michael Chriton’s PREY that are little more than movie treatments. Then again I wouldn’t buy most of the stuff that goes on in this book if it made it to the big screen. Levitating Zombies anyone?

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