Correction to This Article
Reviewer George R.R. Martin is the author of numerous fantasy novels, including the series "A Song of Ice and Fire."
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Can You Hear Me Now?

Neither species of zombie is especially formidable, if truth be told. No special equipment is needed to dispose of them: no stakes or silver bullets, just a gun (an axe will do in a pinch). A shot to the head will put your zombie down for good, and they're so slow it's hard to miss. Whereas one vampire can ruin the whole neighborhood, one zombie is just an excuse for target practice. Zombies are truly terrifying only in large groups. (Is there a collective noun for the living dead yet? If not, let me propose "a shamble of zombies.")

After the pulse, King's narrative proceeds in a straightforward manner. Clay has an estranged wife and a beloved son back in Maine, and he's desperate to get back to them. With civilization collapsing all around him, the only way to reach them is to walk. He meets other survivors along the way and joins forces with some of them. Before long they begin to see the phrase "KASHWAK=NO-FO" scrawled on walls and doors, pointing them toward an area of rural Maine without cell phone reception . . . but is Kashwak a refuge, or a trap?

King dedicates Cell to Romero and to Richard Matheson, and it is easy to see why. While parts of the narrative evoke faint echoes of Matheson's classic last-man-alive vampire novel I Am Legend , Romero's influence is stronger, a fact that even King's characters remark upon. "It's like the . . . 'Night of the Living Dead,' " says the cop whom Clay encounters only moments after the pulse. The reader will have already noticed that, of course, but by giving voice to that thought, the cop somehow roots this story more solidly in the real world.

The resemblance is only skin deep, however. While King's "phoners" do evoke memories of Romero's animate corpses, there are important differences. The phoners are not dead, for starters. And Romero's zombies are as hungry and implacable at night as during the day, but King's vanish mysteriously after the sun goes down. In a nice twist, night is the safest time for Clay and the other "normies."

Also, whereas Romero's living dead are the next best thing to mindless, the phoners grow smarter as we get deeper and deeper into the novel. They begin to herd together, to commune with one another and to develop a taste for bad rock music. Before long, we have left Romero territory entirely and entered the land of John Wyndham and The Midwich Cuckoos . The phoners are evolving into something more and less than human, joining into nests, hive minds linked together by telepathy. That's something we have not seen before in a zombie story, and it makes the phoners considerably stranger and much more powerful . . . and yet somehow less frightening. The monster who talks to you can never be quite as scary as the one who just wants to eat you.

That said, Cell is hard to put down once you've picked it up. There is no shortage of harrowing scenes. The best is a sequence at an abandoned boys' school, where King introduces us to an elderly headmaster and the last of his charges, deftly drawn characters who immediately engage our sympathy.

I only wish I could say the same of Clay. King always delivers the scares, but his best work does a great deal more. The Shining is a tragedy as well as ghost story, and at its center is Jack Torrance, who is as much a tragic hero as a monster. The Green Mile works so powerfully because we come to know every one of the all-too-human guards and prisoners in that prison. Andy Dufresne and Red of "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," poor doomed Carrie White in Carrie , the four friends who go looking for a corpse in "The Body" -- in all of King's best work, the characters are as memorable as the monsters.

Not so in Cell . Early in the book, before the enormity of what has happened has quite sunk in, Clay fights off an attack with his portfolio, and is grieved and distressed when the sketches of his "Dark Wanderer" characters are damaged. It is a nice moment, and a defining one, but Clay has too few of those, and once the portfolio is left behind, he becomes more and more the standard-issue protagonist and less and less an individual.

In Danse Macabre , his landmark critical study of horror in fiction and film, King writes that horror fiction "exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it." The finest emotion is terror, King suggests, and below it lie horror and revulsion. "I recognize terror as the finest emotion . . . and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out."

Cell has plenty of gross-out moments and ascends to the level of horror more than once, but it never reaches true terror, let alone the heights achieved by King's best work. While it is a solid, entertaining read, I'm afraid we will need to wait a bit longer for that Great American Zombie Novel. ยท

George R.R. Martin is the author of numerous fantasy novels, among them "Illumination" and "The Binder's Road."


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