Thursday, April 24, 2008

Messages in Stephen King's: Cell

After my last newsletter emailed out, a number of readers brought up the Stephen King novel Cell. I expected this because I had vaguely made reference to it in the newsletter. And if this seems a bit cryptic, that is intentional. Those who have read the newsletter most likely now the reference. It is also thematic with this post.

So why post about a cryptic topic in a newsletter that some people have not read? Because, in Stephen King's novel Cell, cryptic messages drive the story. And it is Cell and the cryptic messages that I thought I'd discuss. So this isn't so much of a review as it is pondering the elements of the novel.

For those unfamiliar with Cell, I will say that I believe it is a very good book - many people differ about the ending. And King clearly takes, and twists the modern image of the zombie in the novel. I tend to call them "cell phone zombies." I think most of us have seen these creatures.

Perhaps the most obvious sub-textual message in the novel comes from the title: Cell. In a post 9/11 world, most everyone in the U.S. has become familiar with term as both a "phone" and a "terrorist group." And the paperback cover differs from the original hardcover release. (The image here is from the paperback). So the connection is made all the stronger through the artwork. In fact, something else missing from the hardcover artwork is the fiery city in the distance.

To avoid giving away too much, in case someone hasn't read the book, I'll skip through it. The novel opens with an event that transforms the majority U.S. citizens into something like zombies (an perhaps most of the world). Society fails, government and commerce collapses, and the characters are thrown into a post-apocalyptic setting. The main protagonist, Clayton Riddell begins his journey to locate his family. A band of survivors follow along. The trip is dangerous because the "zombies" travel during the day, and in groups (cells?). They are vicious and mindless, killing everyone they encounter.

While moving from one city to another, Clayton and his companions start finding cryptic messages leading them up the East Coast. These cryptic messages are really what I'm here to babble about. Not only are there cryptic messages within the story, but something interesting occurs in the book's physical layout. There are certain words that are in large, bold print, and different fonts that stand out. The first two pages have SMALL TREASURES scattered about the text. So if one were to open the book, these words would attract the eye. Others include Panasonic, Swedish Steel, Atlantic Avenue Inn, Boston's Finest Address, Clump, American Defender. The list goes on, and is lengthy, and clearly intentional. However, I've no idea what is intended by this. Of course, in a novel where a man named "Riddell" (sometimes mispronounced in the book as "Riddle") is finding cryptic messages, such words beg to be read as cryptic messages. Connect this with an ending many people feel is incomplete, and one could speculate on the topic endlessly. Perhaps another ending is hidden in a cryptic message?

Because I don't want to give away much about the novel, I'll leave it at that, letting everyone on her or his own. If you've not read it, I'd urge you to read it. It might have been cast as a "zombie novel," which some readers view as "mindless entertainment," but it is neither. King explores human nature and human needs in a modern world, and brings contemporary society to a halt by taking away the technology we use to keep the world running. For many people, the most horrifyingly element in the novel is that humans are forced to speak face-to-face (those in the zombie cells seem to have another method of communication). Such a slow, archaic means of communication is something of a dying art - maybe it is already undead in nature (so says the fellow typing on his blog on the Internet).


Charles Gramlich said...

I thought this was one of the best King has done in a long time. I really enjoyed it.

Jeff Edwards said...

I found another comment on the web regarding the typography:

"[B]randnames -- our former gods, our mojo and talismans -- are represented throughout in special fonts, in a world destroyed forever and in which they have absolutely no meaning left."

William Jones said...

Charles - It is a clever book, and the writing is strong - even if the narrative interrupts itself often. :)

Jeff - Thanks for the link. It seems that part of it was cut off in the posting process. For those interested, I'd suggest going to:

Then do a search for "Cell."

What stated there and what you quoted (same thing) are standard for apocalyptic novels. In such fiction, the writer takes what "makes the world work" and places it in a world where it no longer has meaning. For instance, the job of "air traffic controller" is less important in a world without airplanes.

And perhaps that was all King was up to - highlighting things that were lost to us. The names of hotels and streets seem less important in that context. "Panasonic" is an easy connection. "Small Treasures," which is the name of a store in the the novel, that one doesn't seem to work as well. I guess what I'm saying is that explanation does seem to fit, but it either falls short, or King falls short, forgetting the other things that are "brandnames" in the novel.

However, if we go with that, I'm curious as to why he did it? Readers tend to understand that when the world is destroyed so are economies, businesses, social order, etc. Let me try an example.

I'll fabricate a line from a apocalyptic novel:

I'm a nightclub singer. I play Vegas.


I'm a nightclub singer. I play VEGAS.

I'd think, and I might be far in the wrong, that most readers would respond to the first sentence, saying "There is no more Vegas." And maybe, there is no more need for nightclub singers. Does placing caps on VEGAS make the a stronger connection? Or does that show a disdain for the reader? - as in that the reader will never figure out this stuff so I'll highlight it.

To think of how many words have been spilled over a bold word here or there in a text. :)

Jeff Edwards said...

William, you wrote, "Readers tend to understand that when the world is destroyed so are economies, businesses, social order, etc."

Think about when we temporarily lose electricity. Haven't you ever walked through your house and absently flipped a light switch out of habit as you entered a room, expecting the lights to go on? I know I have. Is it because the situation is "temporary" that we don't fully grasp the fact that the power is out? Or is there something in us that cannot accept the loss of something we have basically had all of our lives?

Also, I am reminded of the excellent film CHILDREN OF MEN. Even though humanity is dying, and the military and the police are barely maintaining any sense of order, people still go to work and stop off for a coffee.


William Jones said...

Jeff - Those are good examples. I do flip on the light switches, and I also turn off everything in the house to prevent increasing the drain (making it all the more necessary for me to walk around flipping switches).

But I do wonder if readers of survival fiction forget these things. I can see the characters in the novels forgetting them (and Children of Men would make a great Film Vault). I suppose I'm looking at it from the point of view of a reader of many such novels. Those who occasionally read them might not be as jaded.

Regarding King's "bold" use. He also does it with the letter "B," and yet doesn't do it with "The Twilight Zone" television series. So it seems that something more than just the loss of social icons is being focused upon. Of course, I want to cling to my theory of the character's name "Riddell" or "Riddle." Yet, I've not gone through the book trying to decode secret messages. :)

Jeff Edwards said...

William, your post reminded me of one of the things I liked best about Matheson's I AM LEGEND (the book, NOT the movies!): The matter-of-fact descriptions of how Neville checks his boarded-up windows, generator, water tank, and the hothouse where he grows garlic. This kind of specific detail is not always presented in survival novels, and really enhanced Matheson's book.