More and more often, I'm finding what is solid genre fiction in the stacks of department stores sitting besides the "regular" fiction. Stephen King's novel Cell (ISBN:0743292332) is one of those books. It clocked in at 350 pages (not bad, considering I bought it on the discount stacks for less than a paperback costs these days), and qualifies here because Cell is basically Mr. King's take on the zombie motif. While zombies may be considered a staple of horror movies these days, their start is securely in speculative fiction (i.e. old fantastical tales of the walking dead).
Anyways, let's look at the blurb that managed to make me shell out the cash for this novel:
THERE'S A REASON CELL RHYMES WITH HELL.It's a very good blurb. It tells us in no uncertain terms that Clayton is a survivor for this huge event, and then dredges up questions for the reader to ponder over. Questions that can only be answered by the reader actually reading the whole book. Or going on-line and reading one of those sites that gives away the plot details. One has to wonder if Mr. King has to generate his own blurbs, or if his publisher has someone in marketing who writes them--and if so, why don't all authors get these folks? But I digress...
On October 1, God is in His heave, 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 small (but expensive!) give 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's really no escaping this nightmare. But for Clay, an arrow points home to Maine, and as he and his fellow refugees make their harrowing journey north they begin to see crude signs confirming their direction: KASHWAK=NO-FO. A promise, perhaps. Or a threat...
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.
The plot is a SF/fantasy staple: the end of the world as we know it. Along with that, comes all the usual tropes: wandering bands of idiots, young teen girl, zombies. It's a fun plot, and would work well as a straight end-of-the-world story without the horror aspects which Stephen King has added in. And it's stories like this one (and his Gunslinger and the 2 Peter Straub collaborations) which make me think that inside of Mr. King is a genre writer screaming to get out. Unfortunately, he's been stuck into this little subset of fiction, and allowed to kind of fester there. Sure, he's producing great materials, but come on, let the man write one good, SF story! You know you want to read it.
Anyways, my digressions aside, as far as characters go, there are a handful that matter the most. The first of course is our protagonist Clayton Riddell. After him, we have his compatriots: Tom, Alice and Jordan. On the other side of things are the Flocks and of course the Raggedy Man. What is interesting the most is the fact that none of these characters are really heroic material in the classical, Hero's Journey sense. They don't really overcome the trails arrayed against them rather they just struggle to survive. Of course, that could be considered overcoming, but in traditional SF, the hero would have rid the world of all evils, and saved the world, and blah, blah... Those types of things, just don't seem to happen in a King novel though. A traditional, happy King ending is where everyone but 1 or 2 bit players are all dead.
Of course it is interesting watching the psychological hoops which Clayton, and the rest of his little gang, must jump through in order to survive. Clinging to small tokens, or not wanting to say good-bye to a beloved pet; there are any number of things which characters do in order to try and preserve their sanity. Of course, one must truly question whether or not it succeeded, but that's a whole other story.
The Flocks (i.e. the human horde from the blurb) are another story. They are fundamentally a force of nature. There doesn't seem to be any type of character arc for them, rather they are foils on which to force the protagonists to suffer their psychological traumas.
Settings are various. Sometimes we're given really well thought out descriptions which allow us to easily see what's happening, while at other times; well, it's not quite as good. For about 75% of the book, the settings are great, it's just that other quarter where I was left scratching my head, and struggling to figure out what he was trying to describe.
The theme seems to be hiding so deep that it's impenetrable. Or, there could just not be a theme, as the story is designed to be merely a good, fun read. Despite the fact that it's a post-apocalyptic story, there's nothing about the human spirit overcoming adversity. There's nothing about generosity winning over evil. Mr. King does take the time to take a swipe at evangelical Christians, by having one verbally attack the teen-aged sidekick to the protagonist. Out of all that though, if I had to pick a theme, it's the fact that nothing changes if you don't act. There are two or three times, when a character thinks, or says, something along the lines of "well at least we did something," and the story actually ends on a similar note.
All that aside, this is a well-written story. It's a fast-paced, King novel with all that that title entails. What's odd about King's writings is that his books either gravitate towards the nearly perfectly done side of things, or at the "what was that?" side of things. This novel falls more into the former category than the latter, and is one of the better novels of his that I've read recently (I just have no love for the Gunslinger series). Likewise, there's a lot going on for this novel. It's a grand concept, and it shows that King is enjoying his playing with zombies, yet for all that I enjoyed the story, the final two chapters or so leave a lot to be desired.
In the end, I've got to give it a 2.8 out of 4.