In Stephen King's latest gory tome, the technophobic, "Cell," the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a ring tone.
And before you can say, "Can you hear me now?" Boston — and presumably the rest of the world — has fallen into chaos as anyone who was on their cell phone at the fateful moment or called for help when things fell apart has become a savagely insane beast.
The story focuses on Clay Riddell, a Maine comic book artist who is in Boston to make a lucrative publishing deal when hell breaks loose. Luckily for Clay, he hates cell phones, and is unaffected when "the Pulse" hits. He and another nonviolent bystander, a gay man named Tom, fight their way to Clay's hotel, saving 15-year-old Alice from death along the way. After a terrifying night, the trio decide to get out of the burning city.
Although thousands of abandoned vehicles are there for the taking, they make their way afoot as the roads are too clogged to drive. The roads are filled with other small clumps of sane refugees who make little effort to communicate with one another. The notion that the survivors would not seek strength or comfort in numbers is only the first of King's strange and counterintuitive premises.
Mostly, however, so far so good. End-of-the-world scenarios are a staple of science fiction and horror from Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." (filmed as "The Last Man on Earth" and "The "Omega Man), John Wyndham's "The Day of the Triffids," George Romero's oft-copied "Night of the Living Dead." and King's own, "The Stand." King's opening is strong, and his hook taps into something many consider an irritating intrusion in everyday life.
But the book falls apart as quickly as civilization, as King brings the action to a dead stop for about 200 pages while he addresses his other pet peeves — besides cell phones — and brings horrible death on most who violate them.
Shortly after crossing the Mystic River bridge and watching the city burn, Alice is approached by a religious fanatic. Dressed in traditional Muslim garb, the man begins ranting that the Great Satan is getting what it deserves, and Alice, rather than "let these men lead you away to fornicate in the open doorway of Hell itself," should repent and follow him.
Tom snarls, "Were you one of the people who celebrated after 9-11?"
"You should have heeded the warning of that day!" the Wahhabist mullah shrieks back. "Now you are reaping the whirlwind you deserve, and you must not take this tender virgin down the road of whoredom like the society which lies in ashes behind us!"
Finally, Clay has enough, and pops the mullah in the jaw, knocking him out.
Are you shocked that a well-known liberal like Stephen King would write such a politically incorrect scene — much less that a mainstream publisher would print it?
Well, don't give up your assumptions just yet. The world hasn't changed that much — unfortunately.
No, while civilization burns and half the population is running around tearing at each other's jugulars with their teeth, King takes a break from the action to rant about — and our heroes take the time to knock out — the Church Lady, who is "terrorizing" their young charge.
A woman wearing a "car coat" and "cat-eye glasses," with a "beauty shop perm" waves her Bible at Alice and proceeds to rant about the Book of Revelations, maggots in the burst belly of the beast and Wormwood — and that whole fornicating in the open gates of hell thing.
Tom confronts her with the ultimate proof of her fanaticism, declaring, "you and your self-righteous holy-rolling sisters marched on the family planning centers." before hitting her with this closing shot of King wish-fulfillment, "The lions are out of their cages, and you may find that they will eat the mouthy Christians, first."
Meanwhile the trio has one other politically correct boogeyman to worry about — a neighbor whose guns they covet, who has NRA and "of course" Bush-Cheney bumper stickers on his car – the only person in the book for whom there is not one ounce pity shown is the Church Lady. She is a purely malevolent force — her "lunacy" is by choice, unlike the poor souls with a calling plan – and punching her out clearly has therapeutic efficacy for King.
And don't kid yourself, when King uses the word "terrorizing" to describe her actions, it's a statement, not a coincidence. It's hard to imagine Scribner would allow such bigotry to be directed at any other portion of society in pages rolling of their presses; but if they did you can bet that reviews would at the very least take note of it — or it might even cause a riot or two around the world.
The reviews are mostly favorable, despite the sluggish pace, the repetitive nature of King's satirical jabs – it's funny that the zombies gather around Lawrence Welk and Debbie Boone music at night, but King repeats it like a 3-year-old who has just learned to tell his first joke – and the absolute refusal to deliver an emotional payoff.
The Associated Press reviewer of "Cell" called the book "mature," while others just celebrate King's return to gory, horrific form. Not one expresses any degree of discomfort with the Church Lady scene, as they undoubtedly would had it been along the lines of my rewrite above.
King has had positive Christian characters and themes in his work in the past, but often falls back on hoary cliches when it comes to the orthodox religious. King's "Desperation," whose hero is an evangelical Christian boy who can literally hear his answers to prayer, and "The Green Mile," an imaginative, if sometimes ham-handed, take on a Christ figure, were published nearly simultaneously in 1996 . Many claim "The Shawshank Redemption" has a similar figure; but the warden in that story is about as insulting a caricature as the Bible thumper in "Cell." And then there's the demented priest in "Carrie."
The idea that American survivors of a disaster would be fractured, rather united, would become loners instead of forming new communities, would be counterintuitive even if we did not have the experience of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.
Absurdly, while our heroes covet the weapons they assume must be stashed in the home of the NRA-supporting neighbor, they are afraid to knock on his door to seek protection. The assumption is that anyone of that mentality would shoot first and ask questions later — though no one else seems to have any problem distinguishing between the "phoners" and the unaffected.
Even less likely is King's notion that faith would play little or no role in the wake of such events. Americans experienced a near revival in church attendance in the months after the Twin Towers attacks.
Since his 1992 back-to-back heavy-handed treatises on spouse abuse, "Gerald's Game" and "Delores Claiborne," set him up as a feminist hero, King has evolved into a partisan crashing bore. It's not that pop fiction writers shouldn't comment on society. King's classic, "The Shining," for instance, is a moving metaphor for alcoholism and moral choices — but doesn't make readers feel like they've been forcibly enrolled in a 12-step program.
King's main competition in his genre, Dean Koontz, has been known to over-pontificate, himself. But Koontz's targets — from post-modernist professors who claim there is no such thing as right and wrong to Freudian shrinks who offer excuses for evil behavior, and broader points about the modern culture of death — speak to larger issues than mere partisanship. I would be surprised to see Dean Koontz stoop to placing a John Kerry sticker on the car of one of his villains.
King is clearly one of those liberals who walks around wondering just how so many Americans could "blindly" follow an idiot like George W. Bush and the mind-numbed robots of the phoners — who eventually form a telepathically controlled cult — adopt an awful lot of King's pet peeves into their behavior. King's ruminations in "Cell" would make for an interesting examination of liberal alienation if it were about 200 pages shorter. However — to end on a cliché in a book that is rife with them — life is too short.
Once upon a time, Stephen King, the young wunderkind author of "The Shining" and "Salem's Lot" cost me sleep. Now, this tired old hack with his monotonous partisan rants induces it.