I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was, quite frankly, too young to be reading Stephen King. It all started with a copy of The Shining that my father had brought home from the department store he managed. He used to carry in boxes of books of paperbacks without front covers (torn off to send back to the publishers for credit), and I’d often wade through the selection hoping to find some light Sci-Fi, or maybe a young adventure book. When I came upon The Shining, I was drawn in almost immediately, and, after many a late night reading session, I chose the book as the subject for an impromptu report. Shortly thereafter, my parents received a rather stern warning from my fifth grade teacher, informing them that she was a bit concerned with the possible effect this sort of adult material would have on such an impressionable young mind.
So I killed her. I didn’t have a choice.
I kid, of course. I didn’t kill her. I didn’t have to. My parents were simply happy that I was reading anything at all, regardless of the content. To be honest, I don’t think they really had a clue as to what happened in these sorts of books, anyway. My father read westerns almost exclusively, and my mother read the obituaries (still does, although, at her age, she does it with an entirely different level of morbid fascination). In their minds, horror was the stuff of ghosts, goblins, and things that went bump in the night, which, at its most primal level, it actually is. However, my favorites- guys like King, Koontz, Straub, and Barker- dressed it up in all shades of nastiness, vulgarity, and blood-sweet-blood, and, at their best, brought the surreal nature of the genre home in an all-too-real fashion. In my mind, no one has done this better than Stephen King because, with the exception of the woefully inconsistent Dean Koontz, no one has been nearly as prolific. However, like any great artist with an enormous output, King has had his share of less than inspired moments, and his latest, the technophobic zombie tale Cell, is sadly one of them.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, as a single phone call emits a pulse that turns cell phone users into gibberish-spewing, bloodthirsty “Phone Crazies”; living zombies that think with a hive mind, move in well-coordinated flocks, and hibernate en masse when the sun goes down. Meanwhile, “normies” like Clay Riddell, a comic book artist who was making his first professional sale on the same afternoon the shit hit the fan, are forced to live by night, foraging for food and supplies while the Phone Crazies sleep, desperate to get to a place well outside of the coverage area of your nationwide calling plan. For Clay, however, the real journey is home to his son, Johnny, and his estranged wife, and Tom and Alice, Clay’s loyal traveling companions, are just as determined to get him there. But as the Crazies start acting…well…less crazy, and the powerful collective consciousness of these beings hints at abilities well beyond our heroes comprehension, they find themselves resorting to acts they’d never thought themselves capable of; acts that not only infuriate the Phone Crazies, but alienate them from their fellow survivors, and leave them all alone in this brave new world.
Cell is essentially a short story stretched out to novel length. This isn’t to say that the book is a slow read-quite the contrary; this is such lightweight stuff that even the most sluggish of readers should be able to put it away in under a week’s time, and King’s always enchanting prose makes for compulsory reading. However, there’s just not a lot of plot here, and, what little there is seems to have been cobbled together from bits of George Romero, bits of Japanese horror, and a heaping portion of King’s own work; most notably, The Stand. As a matter of fact, Cell feels like a hastily cobbled together retread of that epic tome, overhauled and fine-tuned for the information age, but with nary a hint of the urgency and thematic weight that made The Stand such a heady and vital read.
I was also really thrown off by the dialogue here (usually one of the strongest elements of a King story), which felt clumsy and unnatural, weighed down by labored (and oftentimes jarringly inappropriate) jokes, senseless rants, and pointless political musings. Some of the things the characters say here sound so artificially injected into the proceedings that it borders on comedic, and actually serves to lessen our investment in them and their circumstances.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I had some fun with Cell, but I’d be a hopeless fanboy if I didn’t also admit that it’s a seriously flawed work. It’s a shame because the book really opens strong, and the first fifty or so pages are such raw, unbridled, truly classic King. However, when the momentum shifts, the book putters along toward an abrupt anti-climax that left me wanting for more (but for all of the wrong reasons). I think that this would have made for a great two hundred page novella, as that word limit would have forced King to trim a lot of the excess fat that keeps the book from being the rapid fire dynamo that the author intended. Still, for Stephen King fans desperate for a fix from the master of gross-out horror, Cell certainly delivers its share of wonderfully descriptive carnage, and, while not nearly amongst his best work, will still offer a few nights worth of light horror entertainment.