Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: Cell by Stephen King

Synopsis: Graphic artist Clay Riddell was in the heart of Boston on that brilliant autumn afternoon when hell was unleashed before his eyes. Without warning, carnage and chaos reigned. Ordinary people fell victim to the basest, most animalistic destruction.

And the apocalypse began with the ring of a cell phone...

My Thoughts: Even though I've just spent a year researching and writing about zombies I actually don't read much zombie fiction. Much of the stuff I've read, or glimpsed into, has been appalling. Don't get me wrong, there is some great horror fiction out there involving zombies, but there is also a lot of trash, and it always seems to be the trash that finds its way across my path.

Cellisn't really a zombie novel. At first it seems like it may be. Within minutes of the "pulse" (more on that in a moment) people seemed to have lost their minds and developed a thirst for human blood/flesh and a desire to rip limbs from the nearest person. Several characters unaffected by the pulse exclaim that the others are like the zombies they've seen in films, but as time passes it becomes clear that these aren't reanimated corpses hungry for human flesh. They're something different, more complex and not nearly as dangerous. Well, they're dangerous, but not in the same way that zombies are. To make my life a little easier I'm going to continue to refer to them as zombies or pulse infecteds.

The central character is Clay, a graphic novel illustrator visiting Boston to try and sell his graphic novel. As the novel begins he's making his way back to his hotel, hoping the good news on his sale will be the catalyst needed to convince his estranged wife that he's not a failure and that their marriage stands a chance of survival. As he stops for ice-cream things start to fall apart. He notices a man attacking a dog, some loud bangs and screams from further away, and the business woman in front of him drop her phone and start freaking out. Within seconds hell is unleashed and the world as we know it will never be the same again.

Along with the zombie-like people attacking anyone unfortunate enough to get in their path, there seems to be a rush of people trying to end their lives. People jump from buildings, crash cars and even crash planes into buildings. Clay recognises similarities to the chaos that reigned in the aftermath of 9/11 and assumes that it's a terrorist attack of some kind. He's probably right on the money, but we'll never truly know for sure. What we do know is what the characters learn as the book continues. A pulse of some kind spread across the country (and presumably the world) and affected anyone using a mobile phone for a phone conversation. Without giving away too many of the details which you should learn for yourself as you read, the pulse appears to work almost like a computer virus, completely eliminating regular brain function and reactivating it in a more primitive and incomplete sense. During the first moments of the attack Clay finds himself joined by Tom, a man whose life was saved by his cat when the cat knocked his phone of a table that morning and broke it. And as the two men make their way back to Clay's hotel they save Alice, a 15 year old also visiting Boston, who just saw her mother turned into one of "them".

The three of them form a band of "normies" who strike north to try to make it back to Clay's home town to rescue his wife and 12 year son. So begins the post-apocalyptic road trip that King is so fantastic at writing, and so begins the unravelling of a story that had me captivated from the first page. The band of three make their way through deserted towns, occasionally passing by other survivors, sticking to travelling at night when the zombies are "asleep". The group grows larger when they happen across a school and meet Jordan, a 12 year old computer wizz and Charles Ardai, the acting headmaster of the school. It's here that the story starts to progress from a survival novel into a more action driven novel, and then begins to parallel one of my favourite books, I Am Legend.

I've heard a few people make comparisons between Cell and The Stand, and while there are definite similarities, at the core they are completely different books. The real connections are between Cell and I Am Legend, on the surface very different, but fundamentally the same. The heart of this novel is about the similarities and disparities between the survivors and those affected by the pulse. I don't want to give away any spoilers about the lasting results of the pulse, but like I said earlier, they only appear to be zombies at first. After that they change, and as the majority of people left (it's never established if the pulse affected everyone worldwide or just Americans) the question is raised whether they're the "freaks" and the "monsters" or are the few survivors, the ones who wish harm on the zombie pulse victims and are in the minority, the true monsters? This, essentially, is the driving force in I Am Legend as Robert Neville finds himself the only human being left not infected, and proves to be the most interesting aspect of both the novels.

Technology plays an integral role in this book. It is the tool utilised by the nameless/faceless terrorists (if it was terrorists) to destroy modern society, but just as technology ruled our lives before the pulse it informs our lives afterwards as well. Though the "normies" are forced to live in a world devoid of electricity, mobile phones (lest you wish to be turned), transport and computers, the zombies are markedly similar to the technology that destroyed them. Again, I'm not sure what else I can say without spoiling the revelations of the story, but just as their brains were wiped and rebooted there are other parallels drawn through the story. To help establish these similarities King uses the young character Jordan to bridge the gap between technology and the techno-illiterates that have survived the pulse. This is where my one complaint comes in. Though I really loved the character of Jordan, he's vulnerable and innocent and becomes the son and younger brother of the other survivors in the group, his role as an expositionary device was a little too obvious for me. Even if he were a complete computer genius, his ability to understand the organic technological aspects of the zombies and explain these similarities, as well as how the pulse would have worked, were a little too detailed and unlikely for me. He is the bridge between the two groups, understanding how things work on both sides, but I just don't feel like he thought or talked like a 12 year old when technology comes up. He will be scared and vulnerable and talking in teen slang one minute, and the next it sounds like he should be helming Microsoft. Basically, while he was a charming and loveable character, his position as a literary device stuck out like a sore thumb and occasionally distracted from the story.

This is one of those books that can incite hours of discussion about the condition of the zombies, the role of technology and the comparison between it and other books (namely The Stand and I Am Legend). It's an adventurous, compassionate and thought-proving tale of a post-apocalypse brought about by our own dependence, and a father's journey to find his son. A really great read, one of the best Stephen King novels I've read this year.

5 out of 5 mind destroying phone calls.


  1. I found this book to be very entertaining if a little rushed in the end. Certainly one I would recommend to fans of King's works but also the zombie genre. I agree with the comparison to I am legend.

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