Cell represents a change in direction for Stephen King, preeminent American writer of horror fiction. Throughout his prodigious writing career, King has generally followed the traditional model of beginning his story in a state of normality, giving readers a chance to know the characters before the horror is introduced. For example, while a sense of dread is being developed, the first overt act of violence in Needful Things (1991) does not occur until page 274. At the opening of Cell, the main character, Clay Riddell, has just signed a deal to publish his first graphic novel; however, before he even has the chance to begin celebrating, or indeed even to tell his estranged wife, Sharon, the news, he is caught up in a sudden, senseless, massive wave of violence spreading throughout Boston. Standing in line at an ice cream vendor’s stand, Clay by chance notices that the people who have become killers, turning upon others with vicious savagery, had been using cell phones at that moment. Those without cell phones, or who were not using them at the time, remain unaffected.
King’s use of cell phones as the mechanism to reduce the vast majority of Americans (the characters assume a worst-case worldwide scenario) to mindless zombies offers the opportunity for observation and commentary about the near-ubiquity of cell phones and society’s infatuation with and dependence on them. Rather than develop this richly fertile ground for satire, though, King opts for a serious horror novel that pays homage to the two people to whom it is dedicated: Richard Matheson, whose novel I Am Legend (1954) depicts one man’s struggle against a vampire apocalypse, and George Romero, whose films display in gory yet intelligent detail a gradual takeover of the world by flesh-eating ghouls, horror laced with social satire, from Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) to Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005). Actually, King’s novel is closer to Romero’s The Crazies (1973) in that the infected people act like zombies but are still alive, or Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later (2002), wherein a scientifically engineered “rage virus” causes murderously violent behavior in living people on a scale similar to that in King’s novel.
One of Clay’s first acts as he navigates the hellish Boston streets is to save the life of Tom McCourt, a middle-aged gay man. Small, neat in appearance and keen in intellect, Tom is close enough to society’s expectation of his character (even down to his pet cat Rafe) while just skirting stereotypes. He is significant in that he is one of the rare gay men or lesbians ever depicted by King, especially as a main character. If King occasionally seems to be straining too hard to present Tom in a positive light, perhaps he can be forgiven for reacting to accusations of homophobia he discussed in On Writing (2000) and which genuinely seemed to hurt himas he pointed out in that book, it was generally the dialogue of homophobic characters to which readers objected, not his presentation of gay characters. As early in King’s career as The Stand (1978), lesbian character Dayna Jurgens was presented in a small but very positive, admirable role. The problem is not that King presents gay characters badly but that he rarely depicts them at all, a failing he attempts to remedylargely successfullyin Cell.
The next member of the group gathering around Clay is fifteen-year-old Alice Maxwell, orphaned by the sudden deaths of her parents and very nearly a victim of the initial violence herself. Alice is at first extremely vulnerable (holding onto a miniature sneaker as if it were a talisman); she has a charming quality about her that puts the other characters more at ease, but she is also tough and willing to fight. She says:I want to wipe them out. . . . The ones on the soccer field, I want to wipe them out. . . . I don’t want...
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