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King’s zombie nation

Yes dear reader, when Stephen King’s dread armies of the mindless begin their apocalyptic trudge through the devastated towns of New England, they march to the sweet trills of Debbie Boone. As they tread their way around the bodies of their murdered victims, or as they gather by the thousands each night in football stadiums and parking lots, they hum to the electronic whine of countless battery-powered tape decks (all eerily playing the same song).

Sometimes, they move rhythmically to the Burt Bacharach version of “The Girl from Ipanima,” Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” or Bette Midler’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” According to Stephen King, killer zombies love pop!

But, wait! I’m getting ahead of myself. What happened on an October morning in Boston that split the world into two warring camps: the normies and the phonies? Well, the title of King’s latest horror fest, Cell, suggests the catalyst. Cell phones! Yes, in an instant, millions of unsuspecting people (but mostly teen-agers) are converted by a deadly cell phone message (called “the Pulse”) into raging beasts who fall on their innocent neighbors. (We never learn who sent the message.) As soon as they respond to the merry tinkle from one of those ubiquitous gadgets, their brains are destroyed – erased like the memory banks of a computer. The only thing that remains is a primal imperative – blood rage. Cute teeny boppers and sweet blue-haired grandmothers suddenly batten and feed like tigers. Planes crash, buses wreck and the sedate, civilized environs of Boston Common becomes a battlefield filled with stampeding, crazed, half-naked phonies, carnage and mangled bodies. Run! Run! Aiiiiieeeeeeeeee!

Clayton (Clay) Riddell, King’s protagonist, a young graphic artist from Kent Pond, Maine, has just signed a contract with a prestigious publisher (Dark Horse Comics) and, flushed with success, is on his way to call his estranged wife and son (Johnny) when all hell breaks loose. In the ensuing slaughter, Clay takes refuge in a hotel lobby with a traumatized teen-age girl (Alice) and a middle-aged, reserved gentleman named Tom. Agreeing that it is time to get out of town, this trio begins a horrendous odyssey from Boston to Maine where Clay hopes to be reunited with his family.

As they travel, Clay, Tom and Alice become an efficient night squad of killers, slaughtering hundreds of phonies as they sleep. Unfortunately, due to the strange telepathic force that emanates from the Pulse, everyone, including (normies) begins to shun Clay and his friends. Communicating through dreams, the Pulse brands them as outcasts. Then, if things weren’t bad enough, Clay learns that his wife has become a phonie and his son is among a herd of captured normies.

Eventually, Clay and his cohorts encounter “The Raggedy Man,” a surreal creature that is neither flesh nor spirit but a kind of astral projection of the Pulse. Clad in a torn Harvard sweatshirt “hoodie” and smelling like “strong cheese left to bake in a hot room,” Raggedy Man controls his mindless legions by telepathy. Walking on the highways, the “phonies” move like flocks of migrating birds – always north. Their ultimate destination is a gigantic casino where Clay (and his dwindling allies) will face the Raggedy Man’s justice. As the march continues, Clay discovers that the phonies’ taste in music is improving. Mancini and Debbie Boone give way to Pacabel, Telemann and Vivaldi, suggesting that the phonie’s “flock mentality” (or taste) is improving! Regardless, Clay and his associates continue to slaughter them with gusto as they sleep. (dynamite, gasoline and propane are the methods of choice.)

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King fans may find that the journey to the Maine casino is reminiscent of the epic trek from Maine to Las Vegas in The Stand. In essence, the stakes are the same – Good and Evil in an ultimate conflict. However, as good as King’s talents are — especially for mounting suspense and stomach-churning horror — Cell falls short of classics like The Stand and The Shining. In addition, King’s use of computer jargon becomes excessive (the phonies can “reboot” and the Pulse contains “a worm.”)

Still, Cell will make a hell of a movie! It is obvious that King thinks so, too. Cell is dedicated to two masters of horror, George Romero and Richard Matheson. Romero created the “Living Dead” films. However, the reason that King honors Richard Matheson with a dedication may carry a hidden message. Matheson wrote the classic I Am Legend, a horror tale in which the “hero” battles an invasion of vampires only to discover that he is destroying a superior, benevolent race that has evolved into the new (non-violent) inhabitants of the Earth. In a strange reversal of roles, Matheson’s “hero” eventually becomes evil — a terrifying being fit only to live in legends and tales of demons.

Now, that does change the way that you view those marching phonies that are humming Pacabel’s Canon!

Cell by Stephen King. Scribners, 2006.
$26.95 — 355 pages.

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