Book Review: Cell

Posted by Peter Hall - June 23rd 2006 @ 2:20 pm

Written by Stephen King, 2006


Leave it to Stephen King to not only find a way to bring some originality back to zombies, but to also make cell phones threatening past those silly brain tumors.

King’s severely pessimistic tale opens on the day of the apocalypse and ends a few weeks later, giving the reader a very complete view of life – or lack of – during the end of the world.  However, unlike the stories of Richard Matheson and George Romero, the two men whom King’s novel is dedicated to, Cell doesn’t concern the dead coming back to life and taking over the world.  Instead, the King takes a novel approach to the niche genre with his creation of ‘the Pulse’, a plot device which really is brilliant in its simplicity.

‘The Pulse’ hits in the early afternoon of October 1st and turns anyone who sends or receives a cell phone call into a blood thirsty rage.  The opening scene, which introduces the reader to the Bostonian gang of travelers who serve as our proxy for the apocalypse, is written with incredible urgency and the unfolding of the first minutes of catastrophic carnage is horror perfection.  Men biting the ears off of dogs.  Children ripping the throats out of women.  Cars crashing left and right.  Planes attempting to land on city streets.  Suicides.  Police officers executing people with little hesitation.

The pacing of this brutal opener is pulled off miraculously and carries well into the story, however it would be a lie to say that any other section of the novel matches the insanity of the first few chapters.  This could hardly be faulted to King’s writing – you can’t drag the intensity of a heart attack on for 10 days – but it still holds that the length of the slow burn of the last half is felt.  Then again, this is me complaining that a book’s opening was actually too perfect, while the rest of the book is only ‘pretty damn good’.

The initial survivors – Clay, Tom and Alice; three perfect strangers – head slowly north in a War of the Worlds reunion search for Clay’s ex-wife/child.  Typical of King fashion, they’re a mixed crowd of characters who all compliment each other and they’re given a nice host of interaction with the dying world and the zombies phone crazies which makes for some terrific scenes.  Their observations of the evolving crazies, who start behaving less and less like zombies and more and more like a collective unconscious, are worked out with ease and believability, even when the logic behind some of it is a little absurd.

The latter half of the story is not at all typical of the novel’s zombie influences, but could rather be viewed as another one-up on zombie evolution.  The developments the zombies phone crazies go through is actually kind of jarring because of how radical it is.  This isn’t the slow evolution from the mindless bodies of Night of the Living Dead to the primitive motor/communication skills of Land of the Dead‘s undead – which took 4 films to show.  It all happens pretty quickly by zombie standards and can be a little out there to accept, but once you decide to just buy into the oddness of it all, it’s a very enjoyable story.

It’s written with a lot of violence and a lot of anger, which are two ingredients all good horror should have.  It may use technology as a means of destruction, and the social commentary may be there, but King doesn’t have some kind of anti-cell phone agenda, which greatly helps the enjoyment of the novel.  The main characters work together well as a group and do receive some emotional investment, but you could hardly call any of them truly dynamic on their own.  The phone crazies are a very, very unique and interesting set of antagonists, especially their ‘leader’, The Raggedy Man, which makes for some genuinely heartfelt conflict between the two groups.

I’m intentionally trying to be vague as to what kind of developments the phone crazies go through, or who the Raggedy Man is, or what kind of horrific stuff happens to the group on their trek up the east coast, because it really is a great discovery to read through without knowing the specifics of King’s imagination.

Cell won’t change your life or anything, but it is a one-of-a-kind and is definitely worth checking out before Eli Roth comes along and twists the story, which is very local in its scope, into a global scale.  It does a lot of cool, new things with zombies and will even, in its opening moments, make reaching for your cell phone a little less desirable.

comments are closed
  1. June 23rd, 2006 | 6:16 pm | #1

    definitely worth checking out before Eli Roth comes along and twists the story

    s/twists/totally ruins

    Haven’t given much thought to King in a long, long time. This looks tempting though. I find it very hard to pass up zombies, unless they’re returning.

  2. June 25th, 2006 | 12:01 am | #2

    Yeah, you should check it out if you get the chance. It surprised me with its opening ferocity and held me interested throughout, even as it becomes pretty spacey…

    I’m interested to see Roth take on a much bigger project than anything he has done, but what he’s stated as his plans for Cell pretty much remove everything that makes it work so well. He just wants to show global bloodshed, where as the source material is just localized pain and suffering. Plus, really, the bloodshed is fairly spread out past the opening, which I don’t think is Roth’s type of game.

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