Cell represents a change in direction for Stephen King, preeminent American writer of horror fiction. Throughout his prodigious writing career, King has generally followed the traditional model of beginning his story in a state of normality, giving readers a chance to know the characters before the horror is introduced. For example, while a sense of dread is being developed, the first overt act of violence in Needful Things (1991) does not occur until page 274. At the opening of Cell, the main character, Clay Riddell, has just signed a deal to publish his first graphic novel; however, before he even has the chance to begin celebrating, or indeed even to tell his estranged wife, Sharon, the news, he is caught up in a sudden, senseless, massive wave of violence spreading throughout Boston. Standing in line at an ice cream vendor’s stand, Clay by chance notices that the people who have become killers, turning upon others with vicious savagery, had been using cell phones at that moment. Those without cell phones, or who were not using them at the time, remain unaffected.
King’s use of cell phones as the mechanism to reduce the vast majority of Americans (the characters assume a worst-case worldwide scenario) to mindless zombies offers the opportunity for observation and commentary about the near-ubiquity of cell phones and society’s infatuation with and dependence on them. Rather than develop this richly fertile ground for satire, though, King opts for a serious horror novel that pays homage to the two people to whom it is dedicated: Richard Matheson, whose novel I Am Legend (1954) depicts one man’s struggle against a vampire apocalypse, and George Romero, whose films display in gory yet intelligent detail a gradual takeover of the world by flesh-eating ghouls, horror laced with social satire, from Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) to Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005). Actually, King’s novel is closer to Romero’s The Crazies (1973) in that the infected people act like zombies but are still alive, or Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later (2002), wherein a scientifically engineered “rage virus” causes murderously violent behavior in living people on a scale similar to that in King’s novel.
One of Clay’s first acts as he navigates the hellish Boston streets is to save the life of Tom McCourt, a middle-aged gay man. Small, neat in appearance and keen in intellect, Tom is close enough to society’s expectation of his character (even down to his pet cat Rafe) while just skirting stereotypes. He is significant in that he is one of the rare gay men or lesbians ever depicted by King, especially as a main character. If King occasionally seems to be straining too hard to present Tom in a positive light, perhaps he can be forgiven for reacting to accusations of homophobia he discussed in On Writing (2000) and which genuinely seemed to hurt himas he pointed out in that book, it was generally the dialogue of homophobic characters to which readers objected, not his presentation of gay characters. As early in King’s career as The Stand (1978), lesbian character Dayna Jurgens was presented in a small but very positive, admirable role. The problem is not that King presents gay characters badly but that he rarely depicts them at all, a failing he attempts to remedylargely successfullyin Cell.
The next member of the group gathering around Clay is fifteen-year-old Alice Maxwell, orphaned by the sudden deaths of her parents and very nearly a victim of the initial violence herself. Alice is at first extremely vulnerable (holding onto a miniature sneaker as if it were a talisman); she has a charming quality about her that puts the other characters more at ease, but she is also tough and willing to fight. She says:I want to wipe them out. . . . The ones on the soccer field, I want to wipe them out. . . . I don’t want...
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Cell by Stephen King is a thriller about, of all things, mobile phones. It was an excellent read and one I would recommend.
This story asks the reader to believe, firstly, that a message can be sent through cell (or mobile) phones, causing those hearing it to either murder someone or commit suicide; secondly that after that initial response the people would then start to function as one organism. Quite farfetched? I’m not so sure.
The book tells the story of Clayton Riddell, who King describes as “a young man of no particular importance to history.” Clay is on his way back to his hotel after securing the sale of his graphic novels when people start to behave strangely. A woman is attacked by a teenager. Another teenager runs repeatedly into a lamppost. An ice-cream van is deliberately rammed by another vehicle. Clay finds that not only must he defend himself but others too. He is joined by Tom McCourt, “a short man with thinning dark hair, a tiny dark moustache and gold rimmed spectacles,” as he tries to make sense of what is happening. Quite quickly they realise that all those affected had been using their mobiles moments before. Could phones be the root cause of this phenomenon? Deciding they must be, and feeling very lucky neither had their phones on them, Clay and Tom make their way back to Clay’s hotel after being given the advice to get off the streets. Here they encounter the third member or their group: Alice Maxwell, a young girl that Clay and Tom save when she is attacked by a maniac.
The group decide to head north, firstly to Tom’s house then to Kent Pond to see if there is any sign of Clay’s ex-wife and young son. On their way they discover that the “phone-crazies,” who don’t travel at night but during the day, seem to be heading in the same direction. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story but, suffice to say, things don’t exactly go to plan.
Can you imagine if the thing that all of us depend on so heavily turned against us? King’s explanation of how it could be done is really plausible, if you accept certain basic premises. Firstly, you have to believe that we as humans are all the same and the only thing that separates us is our intelligence; and secondly, that part of our brain, the part we don’t use, have psionic powers (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.). King writes:
Man has come to dominate the planet thanks to two essential traits. One is intelligence. The other has been the absolute willingness to kill anyone and anything that gets in his way.
What would happen if somehow man’s intelligence was removed? Would the desire to kill be all that is left? King raises an interesting question. What would you do to survive? Could you kill? How quickly would law and order fail? I don’t know. King gives an insight into what might happen. I hope we never have to find out.
Stephen King manages to create well-rounded, likeable characters, who I found myself actually caring about. Will Clay find his son? Will Tom’s cat be alright? King writes with an easy-to-read style that feels natural. It isn’t forced, as if trying to impress with language that normal people never use. There’s description but only when needed and not reams and reams of it. We all know what a park and a road look like; we don’t need three paragraphs describing it. King treats the reader as intelligent. Although the story is only set over a few days, it does not feel rushed. It has normality to it, even though the situation is abnormal. There is some swearing in the book, but it does not feel gratuitous. The blood, gore and violence are well handled and, again, feel as if King is not trying to shock, just say it as it is.
They heard the crack of the old man’s breaking neck even through the glass. His long white hair flew. His spectacles disappeared into what Clay thought were beets. His body spasmed once, then went limp.
King doesn’t need to go into more detail; the reader can imagine this for themselves. Also there is no sex getting in the way of a good story. Good writers don’t need to rely on explicit sex scenes to sell books.
Cell is well worth the read and I would recommend this book.
Cassidy grew up in Thanet and lives here with her family.