Reviewer George R.R. Martin is the author of numerous fantasy novels, including the series "A Song of Ice and Fire."
Can You Hear Me Now?
By Stephen King
Scribner. 355 pp. $26.95
If any writer is capable of producing the Great American Zombie Novel, it would have to be Stephen King.
In the past, King has scared us with dead cats and rabid dogs, killer clowns and killer flus, sinister government agents, homicidal Plymouths and otherworldly Buicks, schoolyard bullies and strange men in yellow raincoats. He has frightened us with things as eldritch as the Lovecraftian horrors of "The Mist" and as mundane as the industrial laundry press in "The Mangler." Nor has he neglected the old monsters -- familiar friends from childhood and the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He gave us vampires in Salem's Lot , created werewolves in It and Cycle of the Werewolf , used aliens in The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher , and when he turned to ghosts, he produced The Shining , which ranks among the finest haunted-house stories of all time, right up there with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House . And now, with Cell , the zombie has shambled to the front of the queue, as might have been expected. What no one could have anticipated, however, was that the zombie would be clutching a cell phone.
King's new novel opens with a young comic book artist named Clay Riddell strolling happily down Boylston Street in Boston, swinging his portfolio in one hand. Clay has just sold his graphic novel "Dark Wanderer" to Dark Horse Comics, and he is pretty pleased about it. He stops at a Mister Softee truck to treat himself to an ice cream in celebration, lining up behind a pair of teenage girls and a woman with a poodle. The girls are sharing a cell phone as they wait, and the woman with the poodle is talking on her own. Clay does not own a cell phone. That's what saves him when "the pulse" comes crackling through the cell towers.
The woman closes her phone and tries to climb through the window of the Mister Softee truck to tear out the ice cream vendor's throat. When she fails, one of the girls rips out her throat instead, while the other backs away, half-mad and muttering. The poodle is run over by a careening limo, and down the block a businessman bites the ear off a Labrador. Clay doesn't understand what is happening, though he knows it is nothing good. We're a little ahead of him. We know that all the cell phone users in Boston, and maybe the world, have suddenly been transformed into crazed, carnivorous zombies.
There is something wonderfully mordant about making zombies by means of a cell phone, rather than a virus or a voodoo curse. Cell is going to be especially unsettling for the traveler looking for something to read on the airplane. As he sits in the boarding area waiting for his seat to be called, he need only glance around to find a dozen zombies-in-the-making, locked into their own worlds, muttering into their mobiles. The telephone allows us to communicate with those far away; the cell phone isolates us from those around us.
The pulse also works splendidly as a plot device. One of the major problems with a good many zombie films is the lack of a second act. When the story opens, there are no zombies around. Then one or two appear and attack the living, and suddenly hordes of zombies are all over the place, surrounding the few remaining bands of the living wherever they seek shelter. One is always left wondering where they all came from and why the police and the army were not able to put them down at the beginning, when there were only a few. That's not a problem in Cell . King creates millions of zombies in less time than it takes to fill an ice cream cone. And when all the madness breaks out, what could be more natural for the survivors than to reach for their cells to call 911 to report that the kid next door is eating his mother?
Zombies are the Rodney Dangerfield of monsterdom, the poor relation none of the other monsters wants to admit to knowing. Vampires boast of ancient lineages and dwell in magnificent (if somewhat ruined) estates. They dress elegantly and quote poetry, and while they may not drink wine, you know that if they did, it would be only the best vintages. Werewolves tend to be average joes, ordinary working stiffs who say their prayers by night until stricken by lycanthropy. Aside from a few nights when the moon is full, they're just folks like you and me. Zombies, though? Rotting corpses, ripe and decaying, dressed in rags and covered with dirt, mindless, clumsy, slow, hideous and foul-smelling. The sheriff in "Night of the Living Dead" summed them up perfectly when he said, "They're dead . . . they're all messed up."
The zombie of Haitian folklore, created by voodoo to do the bidding of its creator, was mindless muscle, a ragged slave having more in common with Igor than with Frankenstein. But the traditional zombie is seldom seen these days, his ecological niche having been usurped by the new-style zombie created by George A. Romero in his classic black-and-white film "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), which influenced a whole generation of zombie-lovers and spawned numerous sequels and imitations. Romero severed the zombie's connection with voodoo and freed him from his slavery, sending him forth in search of human flesh. It was Romero who made the zombie a cannibal, and he has remained one ever since.