Cell is Stephen King’s first horror novel since he completed his epic Dark Tower series. In the middle of writing the last two books in the series he was asked what he’d be writing about next and his response had been something to the effect of: “I’m never writing another book again!” That’s what happens when you ask a guy about writing when he’s drowning in thousands of pages and hundreds of thousands of words. But now some years and much needed rest and recovery later, Cell takes technology and cell phones to a whole new level: zombies!
With the opening line, “The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 p.m., eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1,” the reader is immediately dragged into the thrall of the book, which is unusual since King usually takes up to fifty pages to get started with his books. “The Pulse” is an electromagnetic signal sent through cell phones, so anyone using their phone at that point is immediately affected, the result being their mind is completely wiped. What’s left? Our primitive, primordial thoughts and reactions, which are little to none; the result: zombies!
Clayton Riddell has just landed his first huge lucrative comic book deal and is ready to return home to Kent Pond in Maine to his wife — who is drifting away from him — and his son to tell them everything is going to be okay, but then the pulse hits and pandemonium erupts: zombies!
Clay has only one goal in mind: to get to his wife, and more importantly his son and make sure he’s alive and well. He consoles himself with the terror of knowing his son has a shiny red cellphone, though the last time Clay saw it, it was under his son’s bed, forgotten; then again with everything that’s happened, his son might have chosen to keep his cell phone handy. With the help of a middle-aged man and a fifteen year old girl, they make their slow journey north through New Hampshire and on to Maine. Somehow the reader is supposed to just take it for granted that the other two have little interest in going anywhere else except to see Clay’s wife and son. They soon discover that the zombies are very human in one way: they sleep at night and for some reason like easy listening music while they are in this “resting state,” which involves packing together like sardines in a big arena or gym and just lying there, eyes open, doing nothing. Strange zombies!
As the novel progresses, through a process of elimination, it is discovered that the zombies are telepathic, working on a “hive mind” system, and also possess some psychic power that allows the “phonies” to talk through “normies” using their mouths. It is also revealed that there is a protected reserve in Maine called Kashwak where there is no cellphone reception (KASHWAK=NO-FO), and therefore a place of refuge for the normies. It is there the group is headed (other members are added), destroying “flocks” of phonies along the way, and are in fact pulled there with the psychic power of the phonies, who’s spokesperson is a zombie they call the Raggedy Man. As Clay discovers that his wife and son are already near Kashwak, they all head there, knowing that the reserve will be the final showdown between the normies and the phonies. The question is whether humanity will triumph, or whether homo sapiens sapiens will be reduced to zombies!
As Cell gets into full swing, I was hoping for something a little more epic, though I kind of figured this wouldn’t happen since the book was only 350 pages, I knew it couldn’t get too “big.” Nevertheless, I would have liked a little more depth to it. My biggest complaint with cataclysm stories is that they tend to focus on such a small scale. I know opening this up nationally or internationally would make the book three times the size, but I at least want to get an inkling of whether this is just happening in New England or whether the entire world has been affected. My other complaint, which is a common one with some of King’s books, is I like explanations for how and why things happen. It is hinted that The Pulse might be a form of attack by terrorists, but that’s as far as King goes to explaining why all this is happening. But this is a King novel and I certainly enjoyed it for his first big post-Dark Tower endeavor, and we mustn’t forget, following in the vein of George Romero, this is ultimately a book about zombies!
P.S. Favorite dead body description of the book: “He looked at a headless woman, a legless man, at something so torn open it had become a flesh canoe filled with blood.” All I can say is: zombies!
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Originally written on January 29th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.