May 19, 2013

Stephen King's Cell


In the 1970s, Stephen King single-handedly revitalized the moribund genre of horror fiction by using contemporary settings, small-town high schools and supermarkets instead of castles in Transylvania, and by making his protagonists “total guys” who listen to rock music, watch the Boston Celtics, and drink Budweiser, instead of mild-mannered scholars translating eldrich lore from the Assyrian. But he failed to modernize the homophobia of the genre: In The Shining (1977), the Overlook Hotel in Colorado is haunted chiefly because it was the site of unimaginable depravity during the Jazz Age. There was even sex between men! In It (1986), the monster takes on most terrifying form imaginable, a pedophile Clown; there are also two gay human monsters, a lipstick-wearing swish and a bisexual pervert who likes to watch animals die. In The Tommyknockers (1987), a lisping gay necrophiliac swish receives a gory, well-deserved punishment. In Everything’s Eventual (2002), a man who stakes out a highway rest stop in the hope of engaging in sex with other men! receives a gory, well-deserved punishment.

Contrary to the pattern, Cell (2006) contains no gay monster, human or otherwise. Tom, one of the three survivors who band together when everyone with a cell phone turns into a murderous zombie, is certainly a stereotype, a throwback to the “confirmed bachelors” of 1960s comedy: mild-mannered, soft-spoken, with long, nimble fingers and King’s usual “something of a lisp.” Yet Tom displays hidden reserves of courage, he becomes an invaluable member of the group, and straight protagonist Clay likes him – the highest praise a gay man can hope for! King even addresses the pedophilia libel by giving Tom a paternal bond with twelve-year computer geek Jordan (see, gay men aren’t all pedophiles after all).

But King is careful to make Tom’s gayness nvisible. He is identified as “gay” only twice, both times during the concluding chapters (by then, King no doubt reasoned, his homophobic readers would be too engrossed in the story to toss the book aside in disgust). Otherwise you have to parse it out through stereotypes and subtle hints. When they take refuge at Tom’s house, Clay notes the fastidious neatness and muses that it is characteristic of men whose lives “don’t necessarily include women.” When Tom plans to spend the night with a hysterical teenage girl, to comfort her, he asks, “You know I’m safe with her, right?” Clay nods; he understands that Tom actually means “I won’t try anything sexual because I’m gay.” Even though civilization has collapsed and they are facing horrifying danger, they are still unable to lower their guard and Say the Word.

See also: Two Zombie Movies with Gay Characters.