Clay found himself thinking of science fiction novels he’d read as a teenager…. In more than a few of them, the world ended. And then the heroes built it back up again. Not without struggles and setbacks, but… they built it back up again. He couldn’t remember anywhere the heroes just stood around in a bedroom looking at a radio…
Feeling like a traitor to something larger than he could understand, he picked up Tom’s ghetto blaster, put it back in the closet, and closed the door. (King, Cell, 131-2)
These are not the actions of a hero. They are instead – King would have us believe – the actions of “a young man of no particular importance to history” (1): a point made explicitly, on the very first page of Cell: his unnerving, 2006 technological horror. The rationality behind Clay – and many other horror protagonists’ – stunning mediocrity, Aristotle might suggest, lies within the nature of fear itself; while “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear [is evoked when witnessing] the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Aristotle, Poetics). Essentially, the more accessible the character and setting, the more susceptible the reader becomes to subconscious mimicry of the protagonist’s emotions. King, a master storyteller and critic of horror fiction, is astutely aware of this phenomenon. In his Danse Macabre, King describes horror as “an emotion that one grapples with… alone…[,] a combat waged in the secret recesses of the heart” (15); the key to instilling fear in a reader, he suggests, is attaining personal relevancy: “horror does not horrify unless the reader or viewer has been personally touched” (Danse, 15). “Good” (54) horror fiction is capable of drawing the reader into a state of emulated reality, where the fragility of their own existence is exposed in an echo of the protagonist’s sufferings. “Great” (Danse, 54) horror, then, succeeds in expanding upon this base of raw empathy, employing innovative thematic objects with which the reader has never, previously, had to deal: “scar[ing] people with the unknown” (71). These objects, however, cannot stray into myth (54) but must remain as figures of “near reality” (54); the author must balance the “charm of novelty” with “the semblance of truth” (Coleridge, 97) – a step too far in the direction of fantasy, King suggests, will prompt the reader to emotionally detach themselves, “heaving a sigh of relief” (Danse, 71) as they do so.
It seems, then, that the act of successfully injecting newness into a genre while maintaining the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge, 97) is the “prime directive” (Cell, 206) of effective writing; Stephen King, in his novel Cell, attests to the applicability of this theory. Through his faithful representation of modern society and his repeated allusions to contemporary fiction, King transports the reader into an alternate reality of surprising verisimilitude; having temporarily gained the reader’s faith in his projection, he infuses his world with ideas that, while entirely unique to King, play close enough to existing tropes as to be easily accessible – keeping, intact, the reader’s trust while “scar[ing them] shitless” (Danse, 229).
In 1981 Stephen King released Cujo: a novel concerning the exploits of a rabid Saint Bernard. With over 700 Million household dogs as his allies – a tenth of which reside in America – King struck a blow to the heart of the American family: what hope is left in a world where man must flee his own best friend? As the world develops, however, so must the mirror world of King’s fiction and in an age of “computer nerds” and “googolplex[es]” (204) man, it seems, has found a new best friend: the cell phone. With its incredible prevalence in contemporary society, the cell phone provides the perfect device for King’s latest onslaught against the American sense of security; be it “teenage girls in lowrider jeans” or “women in power suits,” nobody in contemporary society “leave[s] home without their cell phone” (Cell, 5).
Set primarily in the New England states, Stephen King’s Cell, takes place in a world surprisingly similar to our own; despite having taken minimal “geographical liberties” (Cell, Acknowledgments on 450), King presents a detailed replica of American society, lulling the reader with his descriptive factuality and dedicated contemporaneity. The reader trusts that King’s fictional world is a clone of his/her own and allows themself to become situated, complacently, within it. This tacit acceptance of King’s reality is fortified by his adroit use of allusion to contemporary genre-items.
As the novel begins the reader is introduced to Clayton Riddell: “a young man seeking to commemorate” (Cell, 3) having just “sold his first graphic novel – and its sequel, both for an amazing amount of money” (5). By presenting his protagonist as a creator of fiction King affects the reader’s urge to view Clay, himself, as a fictional character; within the first ten pages of his novel, King has introduced uncertainty within the reader: what is and is not fiction? Throughout the novel King’s characters make reference to contemporary works of apocalyptic fiction, at one point likening their situation to a scene from George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (137). By having his characters liken their own predicament to “a horra movie” (312), King raises his story above the conventional realm of fiction. This may be better explained, in terms of classical logic, by the law of non-contradiction; this law states that two contradictory statements may not, at the same time, be true. In order for two things to be compared they must be separate entities: If A is like B, A cannot be B. Therefore, if Clay’s life is similar to a work of fiction it, logically, cannot be a work of fiction; this contradiction leaves the reader with only one possible conclusion: Clay’s struggles must be real – within, of course, the confines of suspended disbelief. By introducing a fictional realm within his own fictional realm, King elevates his primary story to a state of heightened realism which, in combination with his already accessible narrative objects, serves to suppress the reader’s scepticism.
Having, hopefully, assured his readers of their imperative, realistic involvement, King now must fulfil his obligation as a horror-novelist and proceed to “scare the crap out of them” (Danse, 72). As king states in his Danse Macabre, the best way to do this is to “open the door and show the audience… something unusual… in a very real way;” they, then, have no choice but to “react with horror” (71-2). Zombie related apocalypse-fiction is “unusual” by nature and, for the most part, strives to find a root in reality – whether it be it caused a virus, a disease, a biological attack; unfortunately this is no longer sufficient, in itself, to elicit fear. In recent years, the horror genre has become saturated with zombie fiction; said profusion has enabled contemporary society to identify, within the genre, certain archetypical narrative objects: the unusual has become usual. Thus, any work of zombie fiction that employs, too brazenly, the aforementioned tropes risks placing the reader “in a boring situation” (Danse, 113) – losing their interest and shattering their state of suspended disbelief. In order to be effective then, King suggests, the reader must be “allowed to view these archetypes” (54) in a new light, from a new perspective, though still not exceeding the boundaries of “near reality” (54). King, in his novel Cell, applies this modification process to two of zombie-fictions most venerated archetypes: the scientific explanation and zombies’ lack of reasoned thought.
The efficacy of a horror plot depends heavily on the plausibility of its likely occurrence; any scenario expected to induce a fearful response must be scientifically conceivable, if not authentic. Horror fiction writers – more specifically those that deal with zombie narratives – have, for the most part, looked exclusively to the natural sciences for substantiation; biology, certainly, is almost impossible to ignore, as zombies are inherently post-humans, transformed, non-negotiably, in some form of biological process. Most writers, however, in search of authentication, don’t feel the need to stray beyond this: the safety net of Biology – if even to dip a toe into chemistry; King, on the other hand, has vaulted clean over the entire landmass of natural science and landed with an obnoxious splash in a sea of bio-cybernetic computer-science.
“The pulse began at 3:03Pm, eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1st” (Cell, 1) and, within an hour, “Boylston Street” in Boston looks like a scene from “Night of the Living Dead” (30). Clay – a character assumedly well versed in apocalyptic fiction – remains, like the reader, ignorant to the cause of the mayhem; he is unable to draw conclusions from his vast knowledge of biology-based literature because this scenario has never been written: this is new. It is not until Clay meets Jordan, a self-professed “computer geek” (204) of age 12, that he – along with the reader – becomes privy to the scientific explanation. The human brain, Jordan explains, is like an “organic computer” (287) composed of entangled “organic circuitry” (204), “hard drives” (204) with infinite amounts of storage; when the pulse hit, those who had been using a cell phone, had their “brains wiped” (205), all but “a single line of code that cannot be stripped,” “the Prime Directive”: “Madness” (206). If this weren’t scary enough, King also informs us that the pulse, “in addition to stripping people’s brains…, also kicked something on:.. a mutative trigger” (209) that allows the “phone-crazies” (186) access to the “ninety-eight percent of dormant” (209) brain tissue that humans are unable to employ. This incredible acquisition of latent ability allows the zombies to access “psionic abilities like telekinesis and levitation” (Cell, 244) – a far cry from your average zombie. By using computer technology as a framework for zombie fiction King achieves two important things: (1) he injects originality into otherwise dead tropes, providing the reader with an entirely new mental obstacle – instilling fear; (2) he makes the scenario easily accessible to a computer-literate audience, enhancing realism and facilitating the suspension of disbelief.
A third, slightly different, advantage King gleans from his foray into computer science is freedom; having launched boldly into new territory, he enjoys the privilege of solitude. Without fear of comparative fiction, King can deviate more effectively from zombie archetypes rooted in Biology; he can, to a degree, begin to manipulate and manufacture the governing principles of his own new sub-genre.
Customarily, zombies have always been drooling, flesh-eating, sub-humans whose cognitive faculties are reduced to what Jung might call, “blood consciousness” (Cell, 206); filled with rage they become “the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle” (Cell, 206), with no hope for development or rational improvement. As an overworked trope the reader sees this and responds: “’I can deal with that’ (Danse, 71), at least they’re not ‘levitating telepaths with Tourette’s syndrome’ (Cell, 377) who can telekinetically force my suicide ‘in fourteen different languages’ (265). That would be terrifying!” In King’s novel, the “phone-crazies” (186) begin much like the stereotypical zombie: biting at peoples necks with a “convulsive snarl” (9), sending “enormous jets of blood” (10) streaming from the “chewed open carotid artery” (11) – “unless they feel rage they feel nothing” (376). After the initial chapters, however, their behaviour begins to change. Having had their brains wiped, they begin a form of modified “upload cycle” (287); “they get smarter… because they think together” (158), they migrate systematically to eat and, shortly thereafter, gain the ability to communicate telepathically (195). Having rooted their transformation in computer science, King allows his zombies the ability to progress, to develop, to evolve; this concept is not only new but unequivocally alarming. Slowly but surely “the phone-crazies” become “the phone-people” (287); “they stop killing each other, but continue to kill…normals”(197). Though, they never quite attain ‘civilized’ status –primarily due to their inability to “take baths” (388) – the telepaths surpass human cognitive ability and “if left alone, [King concludes,]… might even have turned out to be better custodians of the earth” (439) than humans. By portraying the “crazies” (164) as evolutionary beings with distinct cognitive processes, King’s deviates substantially from the genre’s preconceived norms; this deviation, however, falls within the boundaries of his bio-cybernetic near-reality and, as such, provides fear-provoking innovation without jeopardising his readers’ delicate belief.
King, as a master of his genre, handles deftly both the real and the counterfeit, combining the two in an intricately woven, and unnervingly inventive, mirror of reality; his ability to coax the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief allows King the opportunity to not only frighten, but truly horrify. His vivid, yet astoundingly accurate, representation of contemporary society is entirely accessible and allows him to introduce genre-breaking narrative objects. Lulled by King’s decidedly average characters, the reader is forced, subconsciously, to replicate their emotions, existing, for a moment, in a “terrifying… world just beyond the threshold of this one” (Danse, 25).
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Web Atomic and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 13 Sept. 2007. Web. 4 Nov. 2008. ‹http://classics.mit.edu/›.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Project Gutenberg Online Book Library. 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2011. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6081>
King, Stephen. Cell. New York: Pocket Star Books, 2006. Text.
Danse Macabre. New York: Gallery Books, 2010. Text.