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The Cell’ book review

Mark Bemenderfer | Wednesday, February 22, 2006

One of the greatest tricks an author can pull is to take something completely ordinary and twist it into a source of unimaginable horror.

Stephen King does this in his latest book, “Cell.” King realizes that today’s world is saturated in cellular technology and uses that abundance as fuel for his earth-shaking catalyst. While most King stories take place over a fairly limited radius, the events that unfold here are enough to shake the entire world and leave no individual untouched.

At the beginning of the book, artist Clay Riddell has just sold his idea for a graphic novel to Dark Horse comics. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, he walks the streets of Boston with his artwork in hand and a spring in his step. Pausing to get ice cream, he glances around and notices an abundance of people using cell phones.

Then instantly it happens. King corrupts this picturesque moment, and immediately anyone using a cell phone turns to violently attack the person standing next to them. Clay is shocked to find the world suddenly turning on itself, as mothers and daughters lose any semblance of humanity as they viciously maim each other.

Clay survives the initial barrage of insanity due more to luck than any skills. Encountering several other survivors, they begin to trek across the East Coast in search of loved ones and shelter. In an ironic twist, the characters can only safely move at night, as the cell-phone-induced zombies only move by day. Clay has an estranged wife and a son, with whom he wishes to reunite. Unfortunately, his son was in possession of a cell phone at the time of the incident, and that thought remains with Clay the extent of the novel.

Part of the effective nature of King’s books is his ability to use recognizable names in the context of his story. Familiar locations are employed, and several of the organizations, such as Dark Horse comics, are non-fictitious. The brands of cell phones and other products stem from real life, adding their own dark awareness.

Another thing for which King is known is inserting subtle, and some less-than-subtle, nods to his fans during the duration of his books. In “Cell,” the graphic novel Clay has sold is titled “Dark Wanderer.” This is a direct reference to King’s own “Dark Tower” series of books. Several other references can be found as well, so longtime King fans will find plenty to like here.

A simple description of the book would be to call it King’s “zombie book.” Like “Salem’s Lot” was his vampire novel and “Tommyknockers” was his aliens novel, “Cell” represents King’s first major foray into the realm of zombies.

King’s influences while writing this book are fairly obvious, and the first half is frenetic. Inspired by Hollywood, the first half reads in a highly visual fashion, packed with kinetic energy and a sense of overwhelming despair. It’s easy for the reader to mentally picture the events as they unfold, adding to the realism of the story.

However, the complaint that arises with “Cell” happens in the second half. Unlike most of the movies in Hollywood, King takes the story one step further by attempting to introduce an explanation for the zombies. As the story progresses, the zombies begin to evolve into a new, original creation.

While these new monsters are powerful, they lack the visceral scares that their earlier incarnations incited in the reader. The main characters, through a twist halfway through the book, also become relatively untouchable, which removes the risk factor from the book. This creates a slower, less-engaging second half.

“Cell” is King’s latest work and reflects upon his considerable expertise in the field of writing and horror. The first half is one of the most visceral, engaging stories one will find in the modern selection of horror. It’s too bad the second half couldn’t maintain the same intensity as the first. But at the very least, cell phones won’t look so innocent after a read.