NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from these first batch of entries it’s that I have not read as much horror as I thought. And what I have read has been written by a lot of the same people. Which means there are likely to be plenty of repeated authors. At the moment I am trying to read several books and short stories that have been at the top of my internal to-read stack for a while. But, I’m a slow reader. So expect to see many of the same names popping up for a while. By the second half of the month I should be entering new territory.
Anybody who knows me well knows that the guy who made me want to be a writer was Stephen King. In my Haunted Mask article I stated that instead of reading books I read the backs of King novels. Those early years of discovering the general plots of his stories instead of reading them, has planted him as a master in my brain.
This idea become further solidified by his book On Writing which my Dad gave to me for Christmas. By that point I’d read some of his stuff, finished hardly any of it, but was in love with his voice. Reading about his childhood, and struggles as an aspiring writer, in that leisurely, hometown boy voice of his, worked magic. I read half the book in a single sitting – the fastest I’d read anything. By the time I put it down, I knew what I wanted to do, and had a good idea how to get started.
A year later, King being a master was no longer a firm idea, it was a full blown belief. I read The Gunslinger for the first time and felt that he had written it specifically for me. It was a slipstream of all genres with one key focus, one driving motivation – get The Man in Black. The entire Dark Tower series showed me what was possible with prose. As long as you knew how to assemble the letters in the right order, anything was possible.
Now a bit of a confession: Stephen King doesn’t scare me. Well, hardly.
Rarely does King actually write strait “horror” stories. Horror is more of a device he uses to expose the truth of his characters. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to scare the reader once in a while, because he does. He tries it a lot actually. But I’ve heard him say time and again that he doesn’t care if the scares don’t work, as long as you feel something.
That’s really the wonderment of King’s work. They are written from a deep place of caring, feeling, the place where songwriters, poets, and Bradbury write from. Sometimes it’s dark down there. Other times it’s bitter and sweet. It is never void of great emotion, however, and that is the most important element to any story.
Having said that, there were a few times he managed to get me thoroughly spooked. It wasn’t during classics like The Shining, or Salem’s Lot (well, there was a line in Salem’s Lot that tingled the spine a little). It was in a zombie book that I feel is hugely under-appreciated.
Cell came out after The Dark Tower had been completed and King was talking about retiring. He said he wouldn’t fully retire. Instead only writing when he had an idea that wouldn’t leave his head. Naturally he released two novels that year.
I got Cell the day it came out and loved it. King has two main modes of novel writing. You have the tomes big enough to build a house with, usually featuring a gigantic cast, and more subplots than a long-running soap opera. Aside from those featured in The Dark Tower, I have trouble with those books. The Stand in particular was a headache for me. I know that’s borderline sacrilege, but that epic was too much for me to handle. Trust me, I’ve tried…several times.
Then there are the comfortably consumable stories on a smaller scale, containing a small group of complicated characters that live off the page. Books like “The Dead Zone”, “Misery”, and “Pet Sematary” would fit under that heading. They’re the ones I tend to gravitate to more. While I love King’s voice, I have trouble with some of his ramblings. He works best, for me, when more restrained.
Cell fits into the latter category as well, while also being a bit more like the former.
It tells a massive story on a grand scale with a select number of characters to invest in. The opening of the book is chaos on a truly epic scale, frighteningly so. I remember reading that first section and getting short of breath. Not because it was frustrating, but because it was so huge and dramatic.
A little while later the book takes on a slower pace without losing any of its drive. Instead of grinding your teeth over the carnage brought on by an unknown pulse that turned everyone using a cell phone into a mindless zombie, you’re gripping the pages, desperate to know how these people cope.
Zombie apocalypses are nothing new. Especially today. It was pretty tired when he wrote Cell. Yet, in true King fashion, he subverts enough of it – giving the dead a single consciousness, having them migrate during the day and forcing the living to become nocturnal, their growing intelligence – to keep it fresh. And by not limiting it to a single enclosed area, or taking place all over the globe, and reigning it in to our core group, makes it easier to invest in the drama. We are seeing a pandemic like no other through the eyes of people who could easily have been our friends.
So King doesn’t scare me most of the time. Neither do zombies. Sure the initial thought of the dead rising in numbers so great that they could easily take us down, is freaky. But I think there is too much of a wish fulfillment element to zombie stories to make them scary. I’m not saying I wish to be turned into a flesh (and or brain) craving corpse. Still, how simple would life become if all you had to do was make sure you don’t get bitten? No bills to worry about. No commute. No lines at grocery stores. Think about it.
Knowing that neither King nor zombies scare me would make this book seem like it would the flesh off me. I admit to you, scare me it did. His depiction of the walking dead as this single entity, absent of all individuality, a collective consciousness, growing more and more intelligent, really freaked me out.
There is a scene where the main characters are helpless to do anything but stand and watch the march of the undead. A seemingly endless parade of zombies shambling down the street, compelled to some central location, once human beings, now nothing more than the slaves of an artificial impulse. I had to put the book down and walk away before going any further. That eeriness pervades into other scenes of real horror.
Honestly, this is the best of both worlds when it comes to King novels. (not his best overall novel) It has all the scope of his house building novels, with the intimacy of his meal sized ones. If you’re a King fan and haven’t read it, you should. Not a King fan? Cell is an excellent entry point into his work.