Pocket Star – 2006
Mass Market Paperback: 480 pages
Review by Nickolas Cook
Well, I’ve got to admit I never saw a cyberpunk horror novel coming from the King of Horror, but that’s exactly what we have in Cell. But relax: you won’t have to wade through tons of science lectures and inconceivable concepts to get into the novel. After all, this is Stephen King we’re talking about here, right? He knows better than any other American fiction writer how to make his writing as broadly accessible as possible. He is writing for the masses. Not Star Trek fans.
In Cell you’ll find nods to both Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and George Romero’s zombie apocalypse world, but it becomes more an apocalypse as filtered through the likes of J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg as the new flesh comes to the fore, a flesh ruled by an ultimately unexplained hive collective mentality.
This is an ‘end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it’ scenario that is nowhere near as expansive or complex as King’s classic The Stand – much to the disappointment of many of his fans, by the way. To some, this is going to seem like a cheat of a read, because it’s pretty narrow in its coverage of the end of the world. I won’t try to speak for King, but it’s obvious to me as a reader he’s got some serious issues with the modern world and wants us to know his general discomfort and disappointment with the seeming fall of mankind at the feet of the ever growing technogod/religion of hot wires and circuits – the school of more, faster, and now is better. One gets the sense that King sort of feels we get what we deserve in Cell.
It’s peopled with the typical cast of King characters: graphic artist Clayton Riddell, elderly Tom McCourt, and fifteen year old hope for the future Alice Maxwell. They band together to find a way out of town after what is labeled ‘The Pulse’ has turned anyone with a cell phone into a raving maniac killer. Along the way they meet other survivors and discover the ‘zombies’ or ‘phoners’ are beginning to flock like animals to certain places at certain times, as if they’re being guided by some outside force.
Well, I won’t give away much more of the story because if you haven’t read it, anything beyond this is going to spoil the experience.
I will add a few other observations about Cell, however.
The first being that, to me, it seems King’s concept of how people would naturally turn to one another in such an extreme scenario has changed. Drastically. This ain’t Stu Redman and Frannie Walsh we’re talking here, folks. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe Cell is more realistic than The Stand in that way. It’s a hell of a depressing thought, though.
Another thing: Cell comes to take on another meaning as the survivors form their own cells and begin to find ways to eradicate the ‘phoners.’ Turning the terrorists angle on its head? Again, King owes a debt to Matheson for this concept first used in I Am Legend.
And one last observation: Cell ultimately feels like an incomplete story. There is no true denouement, no true ending, in fact. And, again, maybe this is because King’s sense of modern man is that this is probably how it would really turn out applies here as well.