The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Steven King's "Cell" (2006)

11) Steven King’s CELL (2006)


My first book review here, and unfortunately I have to dive into a bit of racial commentary.

First, understand that King is one of my favorite popular authors.  I’ve heard it said that you could learn everything you ever wanted to know about writing by reading the Bible, Shakespeare, and Steven King.  Not a bad idea.

I’ve met him, and like him, and think he is the great storyteller of the 20th Century (note that I didn’t say “best writer” although I believe him to be exceptional).  He is also very limited in his social perspective, racially.  He has intimate knowledge of small-town New England society, and goes through that specific door into the universal.  One unfortunate by-product  of this is that he sees those of other races as being truly “Other” and can deal with them mostly as Magical Negroes ( I remember no Asian characters at all, in any of his work!)

He is a fine enough writer, seeing deeply enough into the human condition, that in a book like “The Green Mile” the metaphorical character of John Coffey, the doomed black man with a gift of healing, truly operated in a mythic sense, while remaining grounded in a very human dilemma.  Filmed versions of his work miss his subtlety: I absolutely loath the filmed version of “Green Mile”, where the director had no conscious awareness of how it would feel to be black, and watch a film’s only black character demeaned and executed so that white characters could achieve enlightenment.  And he lacked the unconscious artistry to raise the film above some kind of racial passion play suggesting that all the world exists so that whites might stand upon it and be closer to God.  It is a loathsome document, viewed from that perspective.

Well, “Cell” has none of those ambitions.  It is a simple tale of civilization falling apart after a mysterious cell phone signal drives tens of millions of people crazy.  Lots of nice zombie action, and some genuine fear generated.  A throwback to old-fashion King, and great fun.

But there was something that I had to ignore.  King describes many, many characters as they flee from Boston.  All are white.  He goes out of his way at one point to SAY that everyone in the crowd of refugees is white.

And the one Black character in the entire book is the voice of insanity and evil.  The voice of the destroying force. 

King is arguably the most popular novelist in the world.  His subconscious knows EXACTLY what it is doing.  He knows that the images of a leering, deteriorating black man (wearing a “Harvard” T-shirt, by the way.  I’m not sure I want to speculate on that) will tap into unconscious fear and loathing.  Why?  Because HE feels uncomfortable with the image, at a deep and presumably unconscious level.  He is tapping into hundreds of years of guilt, pain and fear.  Into a million years of Neuroanthropological fact: our senses do not function well in the night.  Our distant ancestors feared the darkness.  Africans are a living symbol of this ancient, very real fear.  Darkness represents the unknown, the dangerous, the evil, the perverted and animalistic.  Represents the end of civilization, life and hope.

These symbols lie deep, deep in the collective human consciousness, and predate “racism.”  They are one of the support struts that have made racism so terribly difficult to root out.  And King goes right for the throat.

The book is not offensive.  It is, in fact, quite entertaining.  But it is also worthy of a Sambo Alert.  If you enjoy King’s early work—and I do—you’ll probably give “Cell” a strong “B.”
By the way:
"Miami Vice," predictably, is not doing well at the box office.  Of course, this has nothing at all to do with Jamie Foxx's love scene.  It never does.


SillyBastard said...


You prove to the world once again... that an educated man, a well written man, can still be a bigot. I will say a prayer for the hate that lives in your heart.

"SAMBO ALERT" thats a good one...

King's intimate knowledge of small-town NE society is from what we all learned growing up in a 99.06% white environment. You got it right stupid... my town... .04% non-white.

I could not write about things that I dont know about. The story came from his twisted horror-infused heart. You write books... you know... it flows from inside... the difference between his book and your blog is you write as angry beaten-down man... looking to spew hate. He just wrote an enjoyable book.

If you want to make sure that your race is in print... read Jet Magazine.

Dumb ass

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