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Book Review: Cell by Stephen King

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"The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 pm., eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1. The term was a misnomer, of course, but within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane. The name hardly mattered, in any case. What mattered was the effect."

This is how Stephen King's post-apocalyptic, techno-phobe novel Cell begins. An intriguing opening statement by King as he's ever written (well, maybe a bit less intriguing than the opening of It). King has always waived in and out of, up and down and back again over the different areas of horror fiction.

Cell is very much a modern tale, condemning technology in King's own clever, almost underhanded way by cloaking it in an apocalyptic storyline. It starts with The Pulse, what we come to learn is a sort of signal sent through and into the ears of anyone using a cellphone (presumably, although we're never outright told, in the entire world). Don't worry, if you're like King and don't use/own a cell-phone (or perhaps are too old to know how to work one) then you should be fine.

But, as King correctly asserts, most people are barely away from their hand-held communication devices. And so the majority are turned into crazed, babbling… well, I don't want to call them zombies, but what else is there? It's the same problem we all had with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.

Both the leader of our journey of survival and the provider of King's thoughts on life — in as many aspects as you'd hope from intelligent writing — is Clayton Riddell, a comic.. ahem, graphic novel, artist making his way down Boylston Street in Boston. Suddenly he notices an ice-cream truck, and before long all goes to hell. Remember, always be wary of one of those innocent looking vehicles in one of these stories.

More than half of Cell is about Clayton and the people he teams up with making their way from place to place, town to town, and almost everything that you could care about knowing you can be damn assured King lets you know about before we move on to the next location.

Joining Clayton (or Clay, as we get to affectionately know him as) are sometimes typical, sometimes unique but almost always interesting characters, including the likeable Tom, a mild mannered man (that is until someone spouting crazy religious talk or threatening his little group comes along) and the sweet 15-year-old Alice. Most of the less action-orientated stuff happens with this trio of identifiable characters in the first third or so of the story, but it's when we reach good 'ol Gayton Academy and meet up with "the Head" and 12-year-old whiz kid Jordan that things truly pick up steam.

What's important is how King makes us feel and for these characters,  and we genuinely care what becomes of them. Characters are not introduced as fodder for these crazed attackers, but if and when new characters come along before you know it — even it's only just a few chapters later — we suddenly fret if they find themselves in any sort of danger.

But the brilliance of Cell is how King manages to mix exploration of humanity with a powerful and engaging apocalyptic story. Those hungry for King's more macabre, even horrible, descriptions are all there. These zombies — or, as King calls them, "Phone Crazies" and later "Phoners" — are more like humans than the ones found in either George A. Romero (whom the book is dedicated to) or Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. To begin with they still speak, but only in babbling form. Just about the time of Gayton Academy and when a couple more survival companions come into the picture, the revelation of the advancement of these Phoners is revealed, and it brings a deeper layer to the proceedings. What could have been over-the-top nonsense instead becomes over-the-top and fascinating. The areas King gets into are both satisfying — often in their lack of description as much as in their abundance of description — and shocking.

Cell occasionally lapses into generic sentimentality, mostly when getting into the pasts of the key characters such as Alice and her mother, and the pivotal fact that Clay has a son who may or may not be a Phoner (his son, Johnny, owned a cell phone but may not have had it on him when The Pulse occurred). And after the film's semi-climactic "set piece," there's an odd rushing of the story, almost as if King realized he was under a word count limit and had to hurry the story up to get it over and done with.

Not to give anything away, but King's decision to leave it open-ended (at least with regards to the character of Clay and his personal/psychological journey, as much as his physical one) may anger some people who have stuck with the book in hope of a tied-up sort of redemption. Personally, I liked that I was left to make my own mind up. If you like that to, what you decide actually happened beyond the last printed word will depend on whether you're a cynic or an optimist. To throw in an unrelated piece of fiction as a comparison, it's almost like the famous ending of The Sopranos – at first disappointing, but mull it over, and it borders on genius.

Cell represents a refreshing, grizzly, creepy and often powerful exploration of the nature of humanity, what happens to a society when the rules have been stripped away and it's every man, woman and child — whether they're aware of it or not — for themselves. As always, King is unmatched in his description of things ranging from the out of the ordinary (for example, a muscled young man frantically stabbing car aerials into the air) to the mundane. The 355 page novel is nowhere near Stephen King's best — can he ever top classics like The Shining and Misery, and would fans admit so even if he did? — but it's a thoroughly engrossing and satisfying read.

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