Sunday, July 22, 2007
Cell, by Stephen King
My initial expectation regarding Cell was that the novel would be a simple horror / thriller having something to do with cell phones. Perhaps the bad guy would use a cell phone to terrorize. Perhaps there is some way a cell phone would play a large role in the story. Cell is nothing like what I expected. Cell is a post apocalyptic novel where the use of cell phones played a major role in causing the apocalypse. Rather than playing a continuing role in the shaping of the novel, once the event called "The Pulse" occurred, the issue of cell phones is essentially done. At this point Cell is a story of human survival.
With the post apocalyptic setting, Cell is reminiscent of The Stand (which I have not read, but I know the basics of), but in a more modern setting and with a very modern cause. The dedication before the novel is to George Romero, which should tell us something about what is about to come. Romero is a master of the zombie horror movie and Cell brings us a new version of Zombie Horror. Victims of the Pulse are turned into little more than mindless zombies. The victims make guttural sounds, speaking gibberish and mindlessly attacking not with weapons, but with their own teeth. The idea of zombies coming out only at night has been flipped, because the zombies only come out during the day which is just one more shift the survivors have to adapt to in their hopes of staying alive.
After the first section or two, when Clay Riddell and several other survivors begin moving north out of Boston to Maine, Cell loses something. Clay still deals with the immediacy of the horror of what happened, but the horror is at a distance. There is grotesquery and gore, but mostly, until the Ragged Man makes an appearance, the threat seems minimized. The victims have been turned into virtual zombies and are easy to avoid. Things change and the events are horrific, but it is almost as if for the middle section of the novel the characters have been let off the hook. Then, near the end King ratchets the horror and the fear back up again. But, much of the novel has a feel of dispirited wandering, much along the lines of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (only with much more dialogue and clear storytelling than McCarthy employs). The Road may be a superior literary novel, but they cover much of the same ground with the band of travelers trying to find a safe haven in their world, both hoping and fearing to find more survivors. The Road is a post apocalyptic in a more literary tradition (though still very much SF), Cell feels like an homage to the film work of George Romero. This is not a bad thing, just something to note. Just another way to tell a story.
Back to that middle section of the novel. Our protagonists are moving ever more northward, with the occasional stop at a prep school or in various houses and motels, but for a period of time, perhaps a hundred pages, the story has stalled. I am thinking of the prep school section, which is odd because there is a good deal of story and set up occurring here, and some action, and some very important dreams. But in what is essentially a road novel, when the characters stop moving for several days the story stops too because we know that until Clay gets to his hometown in Maine nothing can possibly be resolved. The stop at the prep school is vital for the story Stephen King is telling, but this same section and the beginning of the next is the largest drain on the story. The prep school section begins strongly enough, but again, once the characters stop moving...
Overall, Cell is unlikely to be one of the memorable Stephen King novels. I can see a film adaptation in the story, which will extend the novel's longevity, but despite being almost the perfect sort of Post-9/11 horror novel, it is not the masterwork of horror that it could have been and which King is very much capable of. Still an enjoyable read, in whatever twisted sense that means for a novel of this sort, and there is no lingering disappointment in King’s storytelling, and it can be a frightening work of fiction at times (that first moment at the stadium, the first moments after the Pulse?), but Cell also stalls at times.
The Bottom Line: The premise is chilling and I look at my cell phone with a "what if" on my lips, but Cell fails to fully satisfy or perhaps fully realize its potential. After the Pulse, Cell is just another road / zombie story with some interesting theories interspersed throughout. Still, as with most Stephen King novels, Cell is entertaining throughout.