Dial M for madness
Stephen King's Cell, where cellphone-users become braindead flesheaters, feasts on some mainstream anxieties.
Cell, by Stephen King, Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.
Well, it will make a great movie. A doting, divorced dad searching for his young son before it’s too late; a cat-loving gay guy with a sweet smile; a nubile teenage girl with guts, humour and a sense of sentimentality; a lonely, geeky adolescent boy who gets the techie complexities; and his kindly father-figure, the boarding-school headmaster. Add a splash of blood, a dose of mass hysteria, a sprinkling of conspiracy theories and some zombies, and the recipe for Hollywood’s next horror film needs little more than seasoning.
Of course, Stephen King’s latest novel, Cell, is a cracking read as well. It’s got the characters and the plot, it’s long enough to be satisfying while being split into bite-sized chapters for easy consumption. And while the thrill of the chase keeps you on your toes, the moral premise of the book is not exactly profound, based as it is on two well-worn prejudices of our time: cell phones damage your health, and human beings basically suck.
Despite the admonition that you can’t judge a book by its cover, I tend to find that, increasingly, you can. When the author biography on the back concludes with the statement ‘He does not own a cell phone’, you can be pretty confident that the book is not going to be a treatise on the important and exciting role of mobile communications technology in saving the planet and bringing about world peace. And when the main characters, the good guys, tell each other why they don’t use a mobile phone – ‘ They emit radiation, are you aware of this? In miniscule amounts, it’s true, but still…a source of radiation that close to one’s head…one’s brain…’ – King is making a clear play for mainstream anxieties.
What Cell sells is less horror than logical extrapolation. All those news headlines claiming ‘mobile phones fry your brain’ form the basis to an imaginative riff on how, exactly, they might fry your brain and what would happen if they did. Cell jumps right into the gap left by official prevarication on the mobile phones question: the way that the authorities persist in offering precautionary advice on mobile phone usage, despite the increasing amount of evidence suggesting that mobile phones do not harm human health; and the fact that, in any case, almost everybody’s got one.
It’s a familiar ‘what if?’ scenario – except that King replaces the ‘what if mobiles cause cancer/dizziness/nosebleeds’ with a somewhat more dramatic, ‘what if mobiles cause the world’s population to be instantaneously reduced to a crowd of brain-dead, bloodthirsty zombies with a strange taste in food and music?’. Walking through Boston one day, Clayton (Clay) Riddell, Cell’s main character, bears witness to an apocalyptic event, as mobile phone users are hit by some kind of electromagnetic pulse that makes them attack the creature nearest to them in a frenzy of violence – usually with their teeth, and involving lots of blood. The first to die, of course, are the young people, paying in blood for their generation’s fixation with communication.
From then on the plot involves Clay, along with a gradually-growing small gang of phone-free innocents, escaping death at the hands of the ‘phone-crazies’ while also trying to kill them, trying to work out what is going on, and trying to find Clay’s small son before the cell-phone gets to him first. With a little help from the teenage IT-geek, they work out that the Pulse, probably generated by terrorists, wipes people’s brains in the way a virus would wipe a computer’s hard-drive, sending humanity back to its most basic core: the ‘prime directive’ of murder. As the benevolent old headmaster puts it:
‘At bottom, you see, we are not Homo sapiens at all. Our core is madness.… What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the Earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle. And that is what the Pulse exposed five days ago.’
So, human beings suck. We are little more than computers, and our core nature is murderous insanity. That’s bad enough for Clay and his friends; but then things get complicated, by the phone-crazies regaining some humanity, like the ability to read and talk, along with some additional powers and qualities – they start flocking like birds, they stop killing the ‘normies’ and each other, and they learn to communicate by telepathy. All this makes the business of trying to wipe them out morally fraught, as well as logistically problematic:
‘His last thought before sleep took him was that maybe in the long run, the phoners would have been better.… If left alone, they might eventually have turned out to be better custodians of the Earth than the so-called normies. They certainly wouldn’t have been falling all over themselves to buy gas-guzzling SUVs, not with their levitation skills (or with their rather primitive consumer appetites, for that matter).’
‘But what choice did we have?’ continues Clay’s train of thought. Personally, I preferred the teenage girl’s rather less fashionable cri de coeur several chapters previously: ‘At least we did something!’ After all, you’d have to have a pretty dim view of humanity to take seriously the idea that our brains (or hard-drives, if you will) could be wiped clean for the better.
Not that any of it can be taken seriously, really. Cell is only a story, and its fanciful embellishments make it a rather good one. The story ends with another, implicit ‘what if?’ question: what if the solution to problems caused by new technology lies in the creative use of that very technology? Now, that’s a question on which it might be worth expending a little mental disk-space.
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