Stephen King,
(Scribner, 2006)

Now this is more like it! Just when I had given Stephen King up for a lost cause, after he churned out three bloated behemoths in a row, full of overdone baloney (the last three books in The Dark Tower series), plus several other clunkers like Dreamcatcher, Bag of Bones and From a Buick Eight, he shows he's still got it after all.

In Cell, King brings us a tight, fast-paced horror story on the order of his earlier books such as Salem's Lot and, my all-time favorite, Pet Sematary. Cell, alas, isn't as good as Pet Sematary, but it's still a very good read. So what if the book's premise is a tad off the wall? Isn't every good horror story based on a somewhat wacky premise? I haven't heard of any real vampires gallivanting about in southern Maine recently or dead cats coming back to ghoulish life after being interred in a haunted burying ground, so who's to cavil at a few (or a lot of) crazed zombies screwing up the works? Not this reader, and not a lot of readers who enjoy a good horror novel.

Unlike most of King's other books, in which he builds the horror up slowly and insidiously until we're caught almost unaware, things in Cell get off to a bang-up start almost at the very beginning of the book -- on page 6, in fact. It's the first of October, a beautiful early fall afternoon in Boston, and cartoonist Clayton Riddell is celebrating the signing of a contract for his animated novel that will let him and his family live in some degree of comfort. At a little after 3 o'clock, something goes haywire. A pulse (the only word that can describe whatever happened) has just gone through the airwaves and anyone with a cell phone to his or her ear instantly has all their circuits wiped. People start doing very odd things indeed, attacking other people at random, chomping through necks, ripping off ears and noses and generally acting like a bunch of zombies gone berserk. As a matter of fact, they really are zombies gone berserk. The pulse has wiped out whatever has made them human, robbing them of speech, intellect and feeling, leaving them with only the most rudimentary instinct of primal rage. God help anybody who gets in their way.

Clay and a few other people, who mercifully weren't on their cell phones and who are left with their faculties more or less intact, band together to survive what looks very much like apocalypse right now. Some of them will make it, and some of them won't. Because Cell isn't a replay of Night of the Living Dead; these zombies may have had their circuits blown, but they're not living dead; they're like hard drives that have been reprogrammed to turn them into something stronger and more dangerous than they had ever been when they were human. They're learning to communicate by telepathy, and they're developing an unsettling ability to use this telepathy to compel normal people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, such as jamming a pen into their brain through their eye. They're learning to use parts of their brains that had been dormant when they were people. They've even learned to levitate. Things get curioser and curioser.

Clayton and his band decide they have to do some of these phoners (as King terms the zombies) in before they are done in themselves, but after one attempt at mass zombiecide goes disastrously wrong, they find the tables being turned and the hunters become the hunted. They flee to southern Maine, following some mysterious hand-painted signs that say KASHWAK=NO-FO. Are they headed for a refuge or, as Clay's friend Tom suspects, are they being herded into a killing ground? Nobody knows; life has been re-written and none of the rules exist any more. But they all yearn for a safe haven, and Clay, more than anything else, wants to find out the fate of his son, Johnny -- who, a few months earlier, had received a cell phone as a present on his 12th birthday.

King has been hit-and-miss with characterization through his career as a novelist, but in Cell he gives us a group of people who grab and hold our interest. We care about them and what becomes of them. We feel Tom's pain as he has to abandon his beloved cat to her fate while he heads north for safety; we empathize with Alice, only 15 and stranded in a world that has suddenly turned into a vast House of Horrors, and even more for Jordan, a computer nerd of Johnny's own age who, more than any of them, understands just what makes these phoners tick. And most of all, we agonize along with Clay at Johnny's still unknown fate -- what shape will he be in, if and when Clay ever finds him?

Cell drags a bit in spots and the writing isn't King at his very best, but in this book he has returned to what he does best -- giving us a straight-up, no-nonsense horror yarn with no holds barred. He doesn't tiptoe around the horror as he so irritatingly did in From a Buick Eight; he dives right into it and drags us right along with him. Cell shows that the master of horror is still the master. It is, after all, what King does better than anyone else.

by Judy Lind*
25 March 2006

* (who does not, never did,
& never will own a cell phone!)

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