Scribner, 2006, 368 pages
On October 1st, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and Clayton Riddell, an artist from Maine, is almost bouncing up Boylston Street in Boston. He's just landed a comic book deal that might finally enable him to support his family by making art instead of teaching it. He's already picked up a gift for his long-suffering wife, and he knows just what he'll get for his boy Johnny. Why not a little treat for himself? Clay's feeling good about the future.
That changes in a hurry. The cause of the devastation is a phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse, and the delivery method is a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone. Clay and the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilization's darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage, and a human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature...and then begins to evolve.
There are one hundred and ninety-three million cell phones in the United States alone. Who doesn't have one? Stephen King's utterly gripping, gory, and fascinating novel doesn't just ask the question "Can you hear me now?" It answers it with a vengeance.
Written in 2006, Cell is already a little bit dated, like that flip-top model (which looks a lot like mine...), since all the references are to cell phone technology as of 2006. But King has never been big on plausibility in his sci-fi, and the premise of this book is a typical King science fantasy requiring complete suspension of disbelief. He takes an idea and runs with it, and who cares if all the parts make sense?
Clayton Riddell (King seemed to go through a Clayton phase) has just scored a deal that will make him financially solvent when the "pulse" happens. Everyone who picks up a cell phone gets hit with it: the signal basically reprograms their brain, turning them into mindless zombies who attack everyone around them. Pretty soon everything has gone to hell and the survivors are either cowering in their homes or fleeing down the road while the "phone people" roam the streets. Clayton hooks up with a gay man, a teenage girl, and a school headmaster and one of his students, and together this group tries to escape the zombie flocks, while Clayton plans to go in search of his wife and son. They soon figure out that the zombies are not just mindless monsters: there is some kind of intelligence guiding them. It has psychic powers, and it has plans for all the "normals."
Cell is entertaining in the usual King way: there are gross-outs, violent deaths, explosions, creepy inhuman villains, and a reality that is disturbingly off-kilter. It all reads like The Stand-lite, which is pretty much what it is, with elements of The Mist and Salem's Lot. Not one of King's more original works, but if you can't get enough of zombie apocalypses, King does everything with his own style, without the blood and the creepiness toned down to YA levels.
Verdict: A good zombie novel by one of my favorite writers, though it's far from his best and he pretty much stole most of the plot from himself. Cell reads a bit like one of King's earlier books, when he mostly wrote straight-up horror novels, so I recommend it if you are a fan of his earlier works. As a zombie novel, it's also an interesting new take on the genre, though like a lot of King fiction, you have to kind of roll your eyes and forget everything you know about how stuff actually works. Reality always takes a back seat to plot in Kingland.
Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and Lisey's Story.