Cell by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I like zombies as much as the next person, but I've never understood why they're so popular, mostly because there just isn't a whole lot to actually do with them. I mean, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, all they do is walk around,moan, eat brains and turn others poor saps into more zombies. That's it. And Zombie Apocalypse stories have become so formulaic that its hard for me to get really excited about it anymore.
That being said however, I really liked this book. Sure, it follows the same basic zombie formula that we've seen a million times, but what really got me interested was the zombies themselves. Gone is the boring text-book, shuffling rotting undead type thing, and in is a creature that, by the classic definition, isn't really a zombie. King's "Phoners" are created one day when someone transmits some kind of pulse through the world's cell phones (hence the title) that turns off everything but the most basic animal instinct. They start out as you would expect, killing everything that gets in their way. But as the book progresses the Phoners' behavior gradually changes. They develop a hive mind and become a bit more human. By the end they can talk, reason, organize, all that good stuff. They even have telepathic powers and a master plan to make the normal people like them.
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A lot of people hated this book for that but, honestly, I find it a refreshing and original (as original as zombies ever get anyway) take on the concept. Some might even look at it as satire, by comparing people who are constantly on their cell phones to zombies, but I never really looked into it that deep. I liked the characters too. The main character is a struggling graphic artist named Clay who probably has the worst luck in the world, because the book starts right after he lands the business deal of his life. He and two other survivors are basically trying to get to Clay's home in Maine to find his family. This is one thing that left me confused. Why wouldn't they want to go look for their loved ones? Why follow this guy? The book uses the old mantra of "safety in numbers" and that makes sense given the context of I guess. But I always found it weird that they had nothing better to do. They meet other survivors along the way, but the majority of these are fleeting and don't really amount to much, other than showing us what the human race has become.
Another thing that kinda bugged me is that they never really learn what caused the Pulse. Oh they talk about it a lot, enough so the reader can get a picture as to what happened, but most of it is just the characters guessing, and nothing is ever actually confirmed one way or the other as to the who and why anyone would want to do this. As much as it bugs me though, its also one of the books greatest strengths too, because its create all this mystery that's understood but never really solved. But then again, solving the mystery of the pulse isn't the point of the book, it's about the characters. They're the reason you keep reading. After a while you do actually start to care about what happening to these people. I've always felt that this is one of King's greatest strengths as a storyteller. He truly understands his characters, and knows how to make us care about them. Even if not all of his plots are particularly good, his characters are believable enough to draw the reader in and make us feel what they are going through, no matter how silly or cliched the premise. And that, in my opinion, is one of the marks of a great story. And it's certainly true for Cell.
Overall, Cell isn't one of King's best, but its not his worst either. Its somewhere in between. And for my money, its probably the only book that can legitimately have the title of the "Great American zombie novel." If you have a chance, I say give it a read.
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© 2013 Will English.