First published back in January of 2006, US author Stephen King’s novel ‘Cell’ pounced on the recent resurgence in popularity for violent post-apocalyptic fiction, taking on board already well-trodden themes and reworking them into a new modern world environment. Upon its first day release, a free solid metal keyring was included with each purchase of the book.
It seemed that Clayton Riddell’s luck was finally changing for the better. He’d just landed himself a deal to do the artwork for a new graphic novel series. And so that was why he was in the heart of Boston the day the whole world went to hell. At first it just seemed like sudden outbursts of random violence. But within minutes the small isolated pockets of violence started to spread. In the streets, people were suddenly turning violently crazy – lashing out at anyone and everyone in their sights. And as the manic violence continued, so more and more of people joined in the madness. Each one of which had just used their mobile phones. Each one of which had just received ‘The Pulse’.
And so, amidst all the violent chaos that was erupting everywhere around him, Clay finds himself fleeing the madness of the congested streets along with a middle-aged man named Tom McCourt and a frightened fifteen-year-old girl named Alice Maxwell. Behind them Boston is a raging inferno of violence, bloodshed and burning buildings. Ahead of them is the relative safety of Tom’s out-of-town home.
After lying low in Tom’s suburban home for the night, the trio decide to head out to Maine in a hope of reuniting Tom with his estranged wife Sharon and their young son Johnny. That first night in Tom’s home, they learnt some important things about the blood-crazed maniacs. They witnessed the homicidal ‘phoners’ banding together, searching for food in packs. They also found out that the crazies don’t come out to play at night.
And so, with their newfound knowledge, Clayton, Tom and Alex start travelling northwards towards Maine; walking the empty streets through the hours of night to avoid any contact with those that had been exposed to ‘The Pulse’. Along their twilight travels the trio encounter others, who like them, are trying to stay alive in this hostile new world. With the sun up, they hide in the shadows, sleeping in homes and hotels before setting out again. And always they’re watching out for the crazies. Analysing what they do. Glimpsing their strange activity as if they were a whole new breed of life.
As their trek continues the trio cross over into New Hampshire where they find the ex-headmaster of Gaiten Academy Prep School, Charles Ardai, together with the twelve-year-old pupil Jordan hiding within the empty school. What Charles and Johnny both have to show Clayton and his travelling companions brings about a whole new dimension to the existence of the phone-crazies. When night falls, they show the newcomers what happens to the ‘phoners’ after dark.
When the sun sets and the darkness of nightfall arrives, all of the crazies nearby flock to the Prep School’s sports field; thousands of them cramming themselves into the confines of the field and then seemingly switching off for the night. Dead to the world during these hours of darkness, the tightly packed ‘phoners’ make a perfect target for a devastating attack. And so the five survivors plot their revenge on the hibernating enemy. A plan to annihilate the whole tightly packed field of them in one almighty explosion.
But the ‘phoners’ have their own plans. Acting as a single body, they are advancing to a single goal. And they will stop at nothing until everyone is like them. Either that, or dead...
King’s novel ‘Cell’ is far from an original or inspired piece of horror fiction. Indeed, from the outset it is clear that this was never his intention. It’s more a homage and expansion upon its predecessors than a newly dreamt up idea for post-apocalyptic fiction. And why the hell not? As such, before the tale even begins, King dedicates the novel to two of the great modern-day masters of the genre, who influenced the subgenre so dramatically that even to this day people are still using the same themes, premises and formulas – Richard Matheson and George Romero.
Matheson’s classic ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) is certainly one of the strongest influences to the novel. However there’s a hell of a lot more in there too. Think Simon Clark’s ‘Blood Crazy’ (1995) meets Laymon’s ‘One Rainy Night’ (1991), along with Jim Starlin & Daina Graziunas’ ‘Among Madmen’ (1990) and Danny Boyle’s movie ‘28 Days Later’ (2002). Indeed, only a few months following on from the publication of King’s ‘Cell’, British author David Moody released the first part to his violent-apocalypse set trilogy with ‘Hater’ (2006) which played on remarkably similar ideas.
So, with violence erupting everywhere, King utilises a somewhat standard ‘road trek across America’ scenario that pretty much ticks all the post-apocalyptic boxes without really turning up the heat in any particular way. For this quite substantial chunk of the novel, it plays out many of the same elements as with his earlier novel ‘The Stand’ (1978) as well as novels such as ‘Blood Crazy’ (1995), ‘King Blood’ (1997), as well as the majority of David Moody’s novels.
Throw in some warped ‘Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers’ (1955) cum ‘The Tommyknockers’ (1987) style of threat, along with head-scratching Simon Clark style of behaviour, and we’ve got the very basic crux of the novel. And that’s really very much the feel of the tale. It’s a patchwork of other novels. It puts together a heaped handful of already used ideas and reworks them into something slightly different, but still altogether enjoyable to follow.
King’s inclusion of the principal antagonist ‘The Raggedy Man’ has remarkable similarities to the likes of Randall Flagg in ‘The Stand’ (1978) or indeed ‘The Man With The Scarlet Eye / Friend’ from McCammon’s ‘Swan Song’ (1987). As the novel progresses, so this tightly bound but intriguing character begins to push a very dominant and purposeful presence onto the unfolding storyline. Indeed, this central focus to the ‘phoners’ works well in consolidating the threat and making the tale ultimately more directional.
But it’s really the background questions and general air of uncertainty that makes the novel work so well. Returning once again to Clark’s novels such as ‘Blood Crazy’ (1995), it’s this similar building up of the mystery behind it all, the scattering of strange actions by the phoners and then the final revelation of the (possible) reasoning behind it all that makes the novel so compelling.
Pace wise the story is reasonably consistent, with a good flow behind the unfolding storyline as well as enough twists and turns to keep the reader fully gripped. Characterisation is the usual Stephen King affair – intrinsically detailed and lovingly created characters with more personality and life than the average person on the street.
There’s much to love in the novel and there also quite a lot to feel ever-so-slightly tired of. Once again, it’s not ground-breaking and it’s certainly not original, but ‘Cell’ is still an exciting and enjoyable read with plenty of fast-paced frolics going on to keep almost every reader enthralled.
The ending is superb (in my opinion anyway). Chaotic, energetic, exciting and pumped full of the unexpected. It’s got a lot going for it, but it’s quite easy to see why the ultimate signoff by King isn’t to everyone’s taste.
The novel runs for a total of 398 pages and also includes an additional 12 page excerpt from King’s (at the time) forthcoming novel ‘Lisey’s Story’ (2006).
© DLS Reviews