Written by Stephen King
Published by Scribner
This is probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. I am, without a doubt, a HUGE Stephen King fan. At the age of 7 I wanted to be a veterinarian and liked to read Nancy Drew. And then I read Pet Sematary quite by accident, decided I wanted to be a writer, and became a die-hard horror fan.
So it is with great enthusiasm that I greet every new King release. And then to find out it’s going to be a zombie story? Color me stoked! The story begins with our main character, Clay Riddell, having just come from a meeting where he’s successfully sold his first two graphic novels. Clay’s feeling pretty good, strolling down the street near Boston Commons with a present for his estranged wife. He’s going to get his young son a gift too, so why not himself? He stops at a Mr. Softee truck to get a cone. That’s when it happens. Some sort of pulse (in fact, that’s what it’s referred to as in the book… The Pulse) is sent out over the cell lines, and anyone who takes or makes a call goes rather quickly and completely crazy.
You are thrown right smack into the thick of the story. This is great because there’s no waiting… this rollercoaster starts right away. But it also leaves you a bit numb, which echoes the shock Clay is feeling. You really get to connect with his character right away; you’re really gripped. I was nearly short of breath with the feeling of anticipation while Clay observes the nearly immediate chaos, meets Tom McCourt, and makes his way back to his hotel. Up to this point, you barely have a moment to blink. It’s a really fantastic introduction.
Once Clay and his new friend are semi-safely ensconced within the Atlantic Avenue Inn with the desk clerk Mr. Ricardi and a young woman named Alice Maxwell, the story slows. Here is where our little band begins to speculate about what’s happened and then sets off on a journey to Kent Pond, Maine (minus Mr. Ricardi), where Clay’s family lives. The trip from the Atlantic Avenue Inn to Tom’s house and then on towards Maine DOES feel reminiscent of The Stand; in fact there are a couple of those moments, but really it’s small things that most likely only a rabid fan like myself would notice. Turns of phrase, or slightly similar physical descriptions or dispositions. The story itself bears little resemblance to that hefty tome.
Tom’s character is intelligent and very mild mannered and not at all the type of guy you’d think would survive such an apocalyptic event. But Alice was really my favorite character. She’s young, only fifteen, and one of the few young people to survive (unsurprising considering how prolific cell phone use is among teens). She’s strong and comes across as beautiful and smart. While traveling through New England, they meet up and stay briefly with a young boy of 12 or so named Jordan and Charles Ardai, an elderly man who was the Head of Gaiten Academy, the school Jordan attended.
“The Head,” as they all refer to Ardai, is a great character who is, in Jordan’s words, “very old-school”. Jordan’s tech savvy young mind is a great asset to the group, and during their stay at Gaiten we learn much about the “phoners”. This section was, for me, the most disturbing. The ideas King presents are utterly chilling and so damnably logical it’s terrifying. Here is the King I love so dearly. Once they get on the road again, it loses a bit of that edge to my disappointment.
I can’t go into any more detail without ruining things for those of you that do choose to read it. The writing is tight and very visual. I could easily see this making a very good film. King has tamed some of his more verbose tendencies, keeping Cell at a trim 350 pages, which should please some people who’ve complained about King’s bloated book length in the past (you know who you are… ). Personally, I missed some of his lush verbiage as that’s one of my favorite things about his writing style.
The story is solid with just enough science to back everything up and make it plausible. The main characters are all good, but none stand out more than Alice. Normally, Mr. King provides many characters who are vivid enough to walk off the page; this time, though they are all interesting people, Alice is the only one who felt flesh and blood to me. If I could, I would like to make a bizarre analogy: Reading this story was, to me, much like being suspended above a vat of acid.
We begin by being dunked completely, submerged, and then pulled out abruptly. For the rest of the book, we are occasionally dipped back in both a lot and a little, until the very end… at which point, the vat is carefully removed. The reader is left with a feeling of relief that is extremely fleeting… because you realize you’re still dangling. That is, the ending might be somewhat disappointing or aggravating to some people. It reminded me very much of the ending to his earlier short story “The Long Walk”, which is to say that it was both immensely satisfying and terribly annoying.
Overall, I would not recommend this to someone looking for a knock-down, drag-out zombie gorefest. The dedication of the book is “For Richard Matheson and George Romero” and like Romero’s Dead films, Cell is more about society than the zombies. Of all the Dead flicks, I would say it has the most in common, at its heart, with Land of the Dead. Though they are very different, there are several parallels that would make me think it was an influence. For die-hard King fans, this book will not be a let down, and I think that for true fans of the zombie sub-genre it will be satisfying as well. Though not by far my favorite Stephen King book, it is good and somewhat reminiscent of some of his older, Bachman-like style.
I was very torn when I first finished the book and didn’t know at all what I was going to write in this review. But in retrospect, while choosing my words, I actually like it better now and believe that talking about it with someone who’s read it (which I’ve been unable to do) will increase my appreciation even more. So hurry up and go read it so I have someone to discuss it with!
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