Cell (Stephen King)
In this 2006 novel, world-famous author Stephen King tackles the subject of cell phone technology. His concern isn’t the government surveillance programs that were only beginning at that time, or the vague notion that cell phone use can cause certain types of cancer. Instead, King has set his sights on what he believes to be an essential truth regarding Americans and their cell phones: people are so absorbed by the electronic world in the palm of their hand that they become like zombies to the rest of the world. To that end, he envisions a scenario where every cell phone in the world emits a tone that wipes the slate on its user, turning them into literal zombies and kick starting a hellish apocalypse where those who missed the emission through luck (damaged phone) or principle (not owning a cellular device, like King himself) are in the minority against a horde of unthinking fiends. Can the book deliver on its theme and present a quality action story without coming across as the cantankerous musings of a grumpy old guy?
The book starts off with a bang, as we get an inside view on the destruction of Boston at the hands of the phone zombies. Caught in the middle of this mess is Clayton Riddell, a graphic artist in town to pitch his latest work to a publishing company. After barely surviving the opening onslaught, Clayton links up with fellow survivors Tom and Alice and tries to make his way to his home in Maine to verify the safety of his family. To do that though, he has to survive the collapse of one of America’s most celebrated cities, a demolition King expertly captures. Explosions, zombie hordes, and massive swarms of refugees litter the first hundred pages of the book, dropping us right into the action with an epic apocalyptic scenario that is every bit the equal of the one seen in the opening act of The Stand, although in this case the scope is far less broad. In fact, this book has a very narrow lens, focusing only on the events surrounding our one group of survivors and the various rumors they experience. We are left in the dark about a great number of things- the extent of the devastation, the origin, organized responses, safe areas, etc. and it actually works well because it makes the reader feel as confused and out of the loop as Clayton and friends.
The middle of the book drags on quite a bit. We meet a new group of survivors that team up with Clayton and the rest, and the major revelation is that the zombies are actually evolving over time. Lots of discussion about what this means, and plenty of chilling examples, but it feels like a letdown after the explosiveness of the opening act. By comparison this is a far more muted portion of the book, featuring a few good character moments but ultimately lingering just a little bit too long before a phenomenal climax.
As with most of Stephen King’s novels, this book ends with a bogus cliffhanger ending that could either be relatively positive or completely negative, depending on what you want to happen. There’s not a lot of closure for anything- Clayton, his friends, the outbreak, the future of the world- and because of this it feels even more unsatisfying to get this kind of an ending. It’s not just one plot point that doesn’t get wrapped up, it’s pretty much all of them.
Despite being somewhat weak in the middle and end, there are enough positive elements in both segments to redeem the overall lack of quality. Watching the zombies evolve is fairly interesting, as are the questions this causes the group members to pose, and the conclusion features a daring, explosive breakout sequence that is the highlight of the latter half of the book.
Our cast of characters is the kind of collection of everyday men and women that King is accustomed to using. Desperate survivors drawing strength from within in the face of pure evil, all while giving their own interpretations of events and responding in their own ways. Clayton’s profession lends itself to some interesting skills and filters for the zombie apocalypse, and his driving motivation to see his wife and child calls to mind protagonists in other King stories such as the Mist and Pet Sematary. He’s not an exceptionally deep or memorable character, but he’s a great cipher for this story and a solid enough lead.
Since the focus is almost exclusively on our protagonist, the rest of the group gets short changed a little bit. There isn’t the kind of in-depth character development that King has done so well over the years, although teenaged heroine Alice does impress during her time in the book. Everyone else is, while likeable and convincing enough, not fleshed out to be worth mentioning. There’s a good amount of variety in the group demographics, however.
King gives this book his usual treatment in the prose department. Expect lots of pop culture references (a nod to Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics was especially notable after the events of the past two weeks) and vivid descriptions of Boston itself. The zombies are shown to be utterly primitive, but also possessing supernatural qualities that feel right at home in this kind of novel. Both sides of the creatures are well portrayed- the mystery of the zombie’s gift contrasted with their disgusting habit of soiling themselves and cannibalizing one another makes for a very compelling, layered foe for our protagonists.
It’s a little weaker than typical Stephen King works, but there’s a lot to like here, particularly in the first act. If you’ve already read his classic works and are hungry for a less symbolic, more compact version of something like the Stand, Cell should be just the right frequency for you.