Cell by King, Stephen, 2006

Cell by King, Stephen - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Ive mentioned to you fine people before that Stephen King was once my cup of tea, but no longer is. Back in the day he put out a series of high quality horror and science fiction novels, one right after the other. When I was young, books like The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Gunslinger, Salems' Lot, Night Shift, The Bauchman Books, and a few others really hit the mark. But starting with The Tommyknockers, and getting progressively worse up until today, King's novels just fail to deliver anything I want to read. I muddled through all but the last Dark Tower novel based pretty much solely on the strength of the original book (and didn't even bother cracking the last one, I was so disgusted at that point). It truly sucked. Since Gerald's Game came out, I don't even pick up the books to look at any more. Well, I am happy to announce that may be changing in the near future. Last week I picked up a copy of Cell based on one internet review I read in the days before. This is King as good as he ever was, without too much of the self-indulgence and haphazard plotting that has been the norm in his works for so long. Cell gets a strong three out of five stars.

Right away King plunges you into the action in this book. The premise is a little stupid, and its never really explained, but one day all cell phones on Earth start broadcasting a signal that has the effect of wiping all but the animal instincts from the minds of those who use them. People become feral creatures immediately, and begin biting, scratching, punching and killing everyone around them. Since the "Pulse" does not stop, those who panic and pick up their cell phones to call for help are immediately affected too. The action starts in Boston, and within one day the city is burning, planes are falling out of the sky, and huge portions of humanity are dead in the streets, having been killed in some pretty horrific ways. The book tells the story, at first, of a group of three survivors, none of whom had a cell phone on their persons on the day of the Pulse. King brings them together pretty quickly, and really wastes no time with the action. Meanwhile, the victims of the pulse are wrecking havoc. They are for all practical purposes zombies, much more akin the the plague victims in 28 Days Later than the mindless automatons in the Dead series of movies. But here is where King makes something new. As soon as a day after the pulse the victims start to behave in different ways. For example, they flock to places like stadiums and fields for sleeping at night. They begin hoarding boom boxes so that the flocks can listen to light rock while they slumber. They eventually begin to exhibit strange abilities, such as telekinesis, and they start to read the minds of the survivors.

All of this seems to be an unexpected side effect of the Pulse, which the characters seem to decide was caused by a terrorist. The notion is that since all the higher social pathways in the brains of the victims have been destroyed, their brains started rewiring in new ways. King gives the old argument that we humans only use 10% of our brains, and builds on this to show what can happen when forced devolution basically brings us back to square one. The victims accessed different parts of their brains that gave them abilities described above, parts of their brains denied to humanity by virtue of the social choices we had made as a species. Access to these portions of the brain also turn them into a hive organism. Essentially they had one shared brain with lots of non-sentient individual elements wandering about. Eventually the victims started acting more like Romero's creatures, only without the twisted desire to eat human flesh. Pretty quickly they begin to develop into a singular organism that actually starts herding the "Normies" to the region of Maine with no cell coverage.

Kings characters in this book are all drafted pretty well. The main character wants noting more than to get up to his hometown in Maine to see if his soon-to-be-ex-wife and son are OK, but understands that he has to move with the pack of normal humans or he will die. As the small group moves through the New England countryside they discover the flocks and kill one with some explosives from a dynamite shed. That night they discover that the flocks are evolving intelligence, as they are all visited in their dreams by the avatar of the flocks who pronounces them insane, and shows them that once they get to Maine, they will be executed for their crimes. As they move through the countryside at night, the avatar of the flocks visits other humans and warns them to leave them alone. I found that at once to be a little too convenient, and an interesting element of the story.

King really does a good job with his theme in this book. The largest one seems to be that underneath the thin veneer of society we all have by virtue of evolution and upbringing, we are some pretty violent animals. As a matter of fact, King seems be saying that it was not even intelligence that brought us to the top of the evolutionary heap. Rather, we are the craziest sons-of-bitches in the jungle, and we will do or kill anything to maintain our position. I kind of like that thought.

As to matters of writing, King also drew intelligent, believable characters with real motivations, and never, but once or twice, went off on silly tangents that seem to dot his later books like pox. For example, I mentioned above that the "Phonies" listen to light rock at night when sleeping. In one passage of the book, King notes that the changed phonies not only need to hear this kind of music, but are actually transmitters of it themselves, and if one listens closely, you can hear Kenny G coming from the open mouths of sleeping phonies. Kind of strange if you ask me, but whatever! There was no explanation at all for this.

Finally, King seems to have linked this book to his Dark Tower sequence, even though prior to this book's publishing I thought he was done with all that claptrap. For example, our main character is a graphic artist who on the day of the Pulse had just sold the rights to a graphic novel he wrote called The Dark Wanderer, which his wife described as "an apocalyptic cowboy story." I note that King himself, who actually inserted himself as a main character in the last two Dark Tower novels, has just sold the comic book rights to the Dark Tower series. Furthermore, there is a kid's book in this novel about Charlie the Choo-Choo, which if I recall correctly was the book Jake Chambers bought in the alternate New York City and which provided riddles for Blane the Mono in the deteriorated City of Lud in the third or fourth Dark Tower novel.

I think even the greatest Stephen King detractors out there will like this book, as long as they were fans in the beginning. This book was written like the first in a series, and I predict that there will be more. If you were a big SK fan in the day, I strongly recommend that you pick this book up and give it a try. You will relive your childhood enjoyment of his earlier works, especially Salems' Lot and The Stand, which share common elements and themes (apocalypse and hunting and destruction of the changed humans) with this work.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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