When Stephen King completed his Dark Tower series in 2004, fans rejoiced and worried. King had been saying for years that he was planning to retire after finishing the saga. It would be a fitting way to go out; many consider the fantasy series King's magnum opus. Even the announcement that King had agreed to write a book for a new mystery imprint, Hard Case Crime (October's The Colorado Kid), didn't completely reassure fans after all, a hardboiled noir isn't exactly familiar King territory. Still, it was hard to believe that King, an uncommonly driven and imaginative writer, could put away his pen forever.
Diehard fans breathed a sigh of relief this summer, when the Internet was suddenly buzzing with news: far from retiring, King was writing a new book, Cell, to be published on January 24. It was to be a return to his roots, a classic horror tale starring zombies created by cell phone signals gone bad. As in much of King's work, this somewhat fantastical setup is balanced with a realistic setting and average Joe characters, making readers wonder, in spite of themselves, whether it could really happen. Cell opens on a sunny October afternoon in Boston Common, where Clayton Riddell has decided to celebrate the sale of his graphic novel by purchasing an ice-cream cone. Standing in line in front of him are three iPod-carrying teens; behind him, a businesswoman on her cell phone. Nothing could be more normal until the businesswoman hangs up her phone and lunges for the ice-cream seller's throat. Later, it becomes known that a strange signal was sent through every operating cell phone on that October day, turning anyone who happened to be making a call at that time into a murderous zombie. No one knows how or why the pulse happened, but those who remain unaffected (and uneaten) join together to take a stand against the monsters. Buzz for Cell got louder in August, when King gave readers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He joined with several other authors (including Amy Tan, Lemony Snicket and Nora Roberts) in auctioning off character names to benefit the First Amendment Project, a nonprofit group that supports free speech. The winner could have a name of their choice used in Cell. In the auction description, King said the character can be male or female, but a buyer who wants to die must in this case be female. In any case, I'll require a physical description of the auction winner, including any nickname (can be made up, I don't give a rip). The bidding started at $9.99, but it didn't stay there long as King fans fought for the chance to appear in Cell. The eventual winner was Florida resident Pam Alexander, who gave her brother Ray Huizenga a $25,100 birthday gift. It's definitely extravagant but it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and he's worth it, Alexander told MSNBC. A Nebraska man lost out to Alexander, even though he'd been willing to take out a loan on his house for a chance at immortality, as he put it. Nowadays, the idea of Stephen King retiring seems laughable. In December, he announced a partnership with Marvel Comics to produce a line of comic books based on the Dark Tower series. The first volume will be available in April. The books will be illustrated by Jae Lee, an Eiser award-winning artist, and they will chronicle the younger years of Roland, the Gunslinger. The Dark Tower books finish up a lot of business from the other books, King says on his website. It's possible these graphic prequels will do likewise. As always, there are a couple of upcoming movie and TV versions of King's works on the way as well. Though adaptations of his novels range from the classic (Carrie, The Shining) to the abysmal (Thinner), hope springs eternal in Hollywood: legendary horror director George Romero has just signed on for the film version of From a Buick 8. TNT is casting a miniseries featuring King stories from the 1993 collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes; William H. Macy and William Hurt will star. Through it all, King continues his column for Entertainment Weekly. If, as his website claims, the force of [his] invention has slowed down a lot over the years, there's still more than enough of it to satisfy fans.