I always get wound up on word of a new Stephen King novel, and he seldom disappoints. When the US Snail showed up with my copy of his latest, Cell, I was ready for the usual routine: Tear open the box, sit down with the book, get up when I finish. And that’s exactly what I did.
So I read Cell in one sitting — but not, unfortunately, because King held me spellbound. Instead, I just felt a gnawing desire to be done with this book so I could move on to something worthwhile. I didn’t get my fix. For a King addict, Cell is methadone, not the real smack. I hate to even write something like this. It feels, well, treasonous. I did okay through King’s early slump when he was fighting his own demons, because The Tommyknockers, whatever else it may have been, was real King. Cell reminds me of those “in the tradition of” novels that never live up to the tradition.
The hook may be the best I’ve seen for a horror story in many moons: A cell phone “virus” turns its victims first into raving maniacs and then into hive-mind zombies. The idea isn’t implausible: We live in an age when record companies are sued because “backmasking” and “subliminal messages” allegedly provided the starting gun for Little Johnny’s murder spree. I hoped for — and from King, expected — a yarn that would confirm my aversion to the damn new-fangled things.
What I got, instead, was something along the lines of The Stand, Lite: Societal breakdown in minutes instead of weeks, cardboard cutout caricatures instead of characters whose struggles grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Others have characterized Cell as starting with a bang and never letting up. I felt like it was a false start and the runners never really moved down the track.
The characters are stock King:
Clay, the art teacher/cartoonist who’s in Boston (signing his first big-time book contract) when the world goes to hell in a handbasket. The novel’s story line is centered on his attempt to get back to Maine and rescue his son and estranged wife.
Tom, the sort-of-sidekick whom Clay rescues early on, and whose sole function in the story seems to be that of Token Gay Man in a Novel. I could forgive King if he had either treated this character badly (making him campy and stereotypical), or developed some sort of interesting sidebar storyline (a relationship, or hell, even a few sentences’ worth of romantic tension). But if Clay is two-dimensional, Tom is just sort of … there … with barely form and entirely sans function.
Alice, the whacked-out adolescent who stumbled across Clay and Tom after her cell-phone-talking mother tried to bite her face off. Naturally, Alice has the guts and hidden reserves of character which pull the party along. Sort of like a character in a Stephen King novel, only this writer couldn’t carry off the Stephen King impression convincingly.
Jordan, the prep school student with The Theory of How This All Happened.
And, of course, the villain, such as he is: The Raggedy Man, personification of the zombified hordes. If Cell is The Stand, Lite (and it is), The Raggedy Man is Randall Flagg, Lite — right down to appearing in shared dreams, herding his audience toward a particular location, apparently moving from place to place at will, and crucifying those who defy him. Like the rest of them, though, The Raggedy Man just doesn’t quite carry it off. He doesn’t scare me.
The only character who really engages me at all is The Head (of the prep school from whence Jordan is rescued). He’s stock, too — the old man facing death and determined to do the right thing on the way down — but he’s well-done stock.
The storyline is familiar King territory: The Quest. Clay proceeds from Boston toward Maine, picking up companions as he travels toward final resolution at the center of everything important. Nothing wrong with the plot — King has used it, convincingly and with the feel of utter truth, many times (The Stand, “The Body” (basis for the film Stand By Me), the Dark Tower saga). It’s just that in Cell, the sense of urgency and inevitability never develops.
Stephen King is his own man (and, IMHO, one of the greatest writers America has produced, “literary” versus “popular” snobbery notwithstanding). He doesn’t owe me anything — he’s already given me hour upon hour of toe-curling terror. He doesn’t owe his readers anything, either, after delivering them the modern world’s largest single-author library of Really Good Books. And presumably he doesn’t need the money.
So why a stinker like Cell, when he’s been producing (in putative retirement, even) some of his best work, stuff like From a Buick 8 and Everything’s Eventual and the climax of the Dark Tower cycle? I don’t know. I just hope it’s not the beginning of a trend.