I'm a massive Stephen King fan. Always have been. You could even go so far as to call me a Stephen King apologist, but at the same time I'm very upfront about his work that I don't like. I ate up his books starting at the tail end of elementary school, believe it or not, where I first picked up CUJO (6th Grade). All through Jr. High and High School I was constantly reading his stuff until I ran through his whole catalogue.
I didn't like THE TOMMYKNOCKERS at all and, strangely enough, I didn't much care for CHRISTINE, a book I was sure I was going to love. That one never connected with me. But IT, THE STAND, SALEM'S LOT, THE DARK TOWER SERIES, THE TALISMAN and his short stories are still some of my favorite things I've ever read.
So, lucky for me I talked to the good people at the publicity department of Hodder & Stoughton, who are publishing King's newest work, CELL, in the UK and they sent me a book early enough to review it before it hits next Tuesday.
The early word on the book from people I know within the publishing world was pretty great. The concept could have come off as really cheesy, so I wasn't 100% convinced, but the word being so good definitely had me jonesing to read the book.
The concept is this: A pulse is sent out over the cellular airwaves. Anyone who calls someone or picks up their cell phone and is exposed to this pulse immediately becomes insanely violent. This is very much like King's stab at a zombie story. He dedicates the book to Richard Matheson and George A. Romero, if that gives you any hint at the tone of the story.
We follow an artist named Clay Riddell. He just sold his graphic novel to Dark Horse comics on a business trip to Boston. His future is looking bright, so bright he decides to stop for an ice cream cone. There's a businesswoman at the front of the line and two teenage girls directly in front of Clay. The business woman is on her cell and the teenage girls decide to call someone, the dark-haired one listening in, ear close to her friend's ear.
At an instant, those on their cells go rigid, their eyes going blank. An instant later, they jump at those unaffected around them, tearing at them with their teeth. The dark-haired teen girl who only got a second hand dose of the pulse wanders around asking where she is and who she is, ultimately smashing her own face repeatedly into a lamp-post.
That's in the opening 5 pages to the book.
From here, our main guy, Clay, quickly gathers up a pair of normal people to join him on his journey through the chaos to his estranged wife and child, a 12 year old who has a cell phone, but doesn't often use it, in Maine. In Clay's mind his son's cell phone is a ticking time bomb.
He pairs up with a man named Tom McCourt and Alice Maxwell, a teenage girl who just barely escaped her turned-crazy mother. This is our core through the story.
The book feels very much vintage King. There are elements of THE STAND (end of the world scenario, walking through ruined cities, empty roads), THE MIST (a man trying to get back to his family) and THE TALISMAN (running into weird characters on a long walk... sorry, had to make that pun).
Our trio are classic King characters. The young girl is only a notch above the breaking point with all the gore and insanity she witnesses. She clutches an infant's shoe she finds abandoned on the ground and uses it almost as a security blanket throughout the story, a comfort always close at hand. Tom is the heart of the group, a man we come to find is gay, but that is only mentioned 4 or 5 times in all 400 or so pages of the book. His orientation does not define his character, his loyalty does. Clay is the leader, the Ben Mears of the story.
This is the best non-Dark Tower novel King has come out with since DESPERATION, although I do have a particular fondness for THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON. I do think Cell is a much more successful novel on the whole, however.
The novel isn't perfect. When King tries to explain the pulse and take that next step in exploring the people who were driven mad by the signal it gets a little... stretchy, I guess. It's a bit much to accept. However, I never felt like he was pulling any cheap cards anywhere. There's no "God saves the day" moment, like in THE STAND.
The ending is pretty average King. The build up is great and the end just kind of happens, then the story goes on for another 2 chapters. I don't mind that much, myself... I feel it's something King does even in his best novels, so it's almost like a signature in his work, but I know that for some that kind of ending is like watching their family pet get socked one in the head by a stranger. They don't tend to like it much.
I do wish the novel had continued on another couple chapters, though... the very end is abrupt and, while totally fitting and expected, left me wanting a little more closure with the (surviving) characters I had come to care for.
The intensity of the gore in the book is up there. Think of the gore in DREAMCATCHER, but set in a sort of 28 DAYS LATER type zombie story. There are gunshot wounds, stabbings, eviscerations, decapitations, mutilations, animal death, explosions... you get graphic detail on each of those. I loves it.
I'd recommend this to a current King fan, a King fan that gave up on him in the '90s or just any horror fan. I think the novel would have worked a bit better without the sort of technical progression of the "phone-crazies"... if he had kept it a little more of a survival story instead of a technology-based evolution of the crazies. But that's just how I personally wanted to see it progress.
King pulled off a book that is a quick read, gives us some memorable characters and some really great gore. There's even a reference to Charlie the Choo-Choo. You can't ask for more... at least I can't.
This story will make a helluva TV mini-series... I only hope it goes to HBO or one of the other cable channels where they won't have to tone down the violence. I'd also like to see someone fresh take a stab at King... the right director could make one great mini-series out of this one, I think.
If you other constant readers pick this one up on Tuesday, be sure to leave your thoughts below. I'm curious to what the overall reaction is going to be on this one.