The Cell and the temptations of Van Helsing

Just finished this Stephen King story from a couple of years ago. It was moderately entertaining, and I liked the cell phone = zombies premise, but it felt awfully thin for an entire novel. I think he could comfortably have eliminated the less interesting secondary characters, and cut out huge sections where not very much happens, and had a killer novella.

Also, it has one device that bugs me : the character who offers a theory about what’s going on, and then his theory is treated as correct by the other characters and more or less by the events of the novel itself, even though this character (I’ll call him the Van Helsing*) has absolutely no reason to know anything whatsoever about it. This bugged me in The Cell because a large part of what kept me interested in reading was the “what’s really going on?” question. And I didn’t get a satisfactory answer to that.

The whole question of how you tell readers what’s going on is really important in fantastical fiction, but there are no easy answers for how to do it. Too little information can leave them unsatisfied and confused, but too much information is often worse. A lot of fantastical premises only work if you don’t examine them too closely. And then there’s the Van Helsing problem.

Van Helsings are extremely tempting, because they make the explication process soooo eaaaasy. But they can be an authorial crutch. And, if you give them too much power, they can make your world seem artificial — after all, how much about what’s going on does any one person in real life know?

*In case you have not read Dracula, you will understand this reference if you go read it now. Except it’s kind of a long book. So I will explain: in Dracula, Van Helsing is extremely pedantic on the subject of vampires as well as other things. He is the primary source for what the other characters in the novel think they know about vampires, and I think there’s considerable evidence that he’s off his nut, so everything he says has to be evaluated in light of that. Also, he speaks pedantically about things he believes but can’t possibly know: the state of the vampire soul, for example. Dracula is a much more interesting novel if you assume that there are areas where Van Helsing doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but it’s his nature to keep talking anyway.

However, the usual interpretation of Dracula — the one that informs most of the movies — is that Van Helsing knows exactly what he’s talking about. So, I call the character who Explains it All to You the Van Helsing.


  1. The matter of exposition is, for me, what makes Asimov’s work great. He spent little enough energy cultivating a resonant prose style, or painting detailed characters — but he built exposition effortlessly into his central philosophical themes.

    And he did so entirely unlike Heinlein, who usually succumbed to a Van Helsing (it is a great term) to elucidate not just matters obscure to the plot, but also the philosophical & thematic underpinnings of The Way the World Works. The trouble with which approach is that for a character to be always right, she must be an infallible moral judge — in effect a deity. Batman, to cite another example, may not have any physical superpowers, but his perfect ability to understand the right thing to do constitutes a moral superpower. It’s terrifying to think of what such a character would actually be like; I’ve only seen it adequately explored in The Book of the Short Sun.

    Asimov, by contrast, used exposition as a form of epistemology. His characters draw their ideas variously from their upbringing, their reading, their received wisdom, their imagination, their research, even thin air — and then debate. Means of knowledge, and their respective benefits & risks, are openly contrasted throughout his writing. Seldom does a theory of What’s Going On last more than about fifty pages before it’s debunked by new evidence, and the debate resumes.

    …I don’t seem to be able to connect my paragraphs into anything coherent this morning, so I’ll end there. Not sure where I was going, actually. Someday I want to write an essay on that Batman thing, though.

    1. Author

      A lot of fiction cheats on the Batman question — the hero knows the “right thing to do” because, well, the author implants the knowledge in his head using godlike authorial powers.

      They’re hoping you won’t notice it’s cheating.

  2. That was one of the (many) things that annoyed me about The Happening. In the beginning of the film they made a point about how sometimes things happen and there’s no real explanation for them, then the one solitary theory that’s put forth during the movie turns out to be the correct one. Not exactly what you’re referencing, but similar.

    1. Author

      Actually, that example sounds exactly like what I’m talking about.

      Contrast the movie Tremors which I think handled it well: the characters engage in a little speculation about where the big monster might have come from, then they all conclude that they can’t possibly know, and the important question is how to kill it.

  3. Here are my two cents on the thing, even if they are Euro cents.

    Perhaps instead of a straightforward Van Helsing, instead have the character state something about what’s going on in a way that you would want to take it with a few pinches of salt. I remember in the Northern Lights/Golden Compass book by Philip Pullman where one character explains what’s going on in the North, but she does so in a way that’s half truth, half myth. It’s also worked out that it boils down to as much.

    On the oher hand, having one character explain everything is boring. A better way (particularly in mysteries), is to have one character drop a vital clue or two and that gives the heroes to work out what’s going on.

    Another point about Fantasy is one common theme is that there is one specific way to stop the Big Bad involving a magic sword/MaGuffin. Outfighting the Big Bad by battering them to death isn’t the best option and Death by A Thousand Cuts does not a fantasy epic or an enjoyable yarn make.

    And speaking of the Batman question, one problem I had with the Harry Potter series is that after having a childhood and adolescence that is so harsh and brutal and magical powers to boot, Harry is more honest and selfless then any of the other characters. Considering that his relatives raised him in a way that makes you wonder whether they’ve even heard of the Human Rights concept and a Hogwarts career from which a Misery Memoir could be squeezed out of, he should be logically a complete and utter sociopath with no regard for others whatsoever. This is also in contrast with Voldemort and Snape, two antagonists who weren’t nice and had very nasty childhoods.

    1. Author

      Hey, Euros are worth, what, a dollar fifty these days? So your two cents are nearly four.

      Not that the Potter books are masterpieces of psychological insight, but I do think one of the overarching themes was a comparison/contrast between Harry and Voldemort, and one of those points of contrast was the different way they responded to abusive childhoods. It seems plausible to me that an abused child could turn out either way — more empathetic than usual, or less empathetic than usual.

      The One Way to Kill the Monster thing works in Lord of the Rings, but I think it’s ruined more fantasies than it’s saved. Of course, the One Way thing applies to other genres as well — One Way to solve the mystery, One Way to win the girl.

      1. I must have forgotten to mention that seeing as there’s only one way to beat the Monster, then you need a character to explain how to do it. And that’s where the Van Helsing comes in. Otherwise the characters might as well be bumbling along stabbing hopelessly and getting nowhere. I guess it’s an unecessary plot device for an unecessary end.

        That’s not to say that Van Helsings are necessarily bad. Perhaps the reverse is the way to go. Consider the first Dune book, where the mentat Hawat explains to the main villian the reasons for the previous events in the novel, and at the same time explaining the main philosophies of the book. I suppose it’s the way you do it rather then not.

        I have to admit that the Potter books are one of those things I love to hate and pick holes at, particularly the fifth and seventh books. But I find it hard to believe that Harry turned out the way he did based on how he grew up.

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