There are others in King’s repertoire, however, which more readily move in a direction other than what one might describe as classic Edgar Allen Poe-style horror. One notable example would be The Stand (1978), a sweeping apocalyptic tale of good versus evil set in a post-plague America, complete with a climactic confrontation between demon-figure and saint apostle, with good eventually emerging victorious. Although The Stand certainly incorporates elements of what many might describe as good old-fashioned horror imagery and plot developments, ultimately it is a novel which at its core is almost biblical in deeper message and meaning, with individual characters that tread a path of redemption from their less-than-moral previous lives.
King’s 2006 apocalyptic science-fiction novel Cell is another case in point. While it arguably fits the above description, it is spiced throughout with elements of zombie fiction, passages that are almost graphic novel in nature, as well as a smattering of old-school descriptive horror and violence.
Nominally a novel about the end of the world (which is how, by the way, it came to find its way into my collection), Cell follows the story of a New England artist struggling to reunite with his young son after a mysterious signal — known in the novel as “the Pulse” — broadcast over the global cell phone network turns the majority of his fellow humans into mindless vicious killers.
I should note that I am most definitely not a King authority, and have perused only a relative handful of his works, which besides the above mentioned includes The Tommyknockers (1987), Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993), and Dreamcatcher (2001). True fans of King would probably describe that as a rather sad bibliography for a reviewer to base his observations upon, but I’m hardly afraid of a little healthy criticism — so fire away if need be. Those familiar with my semi-regular book reviews in The Last Word should already be aware that I rarely hold back myself. Don’t worry — I can take it.
That being said, Cell isn’t what I would describe as a good outing from King. Although it is often described by other reviewers as a worthy successor to The Stand, I didn’t find it to be that, exactly. Far from it, to be truthful. While The Stand is a snapshot of a post-apocalyptic America almost epic in scope and scale (which might explain why it hasn’t graced the Hollywood screen as an adaptation like other King novels, except in TV mini-series format), Cell is microcosmic, and almost claustrophobically tied to a small area of New England, with a cast of characters that in comparison to some of King’s other novels seems minuscule. Even worse, most characters in the novel, with the exception of a small handful, are dry, one-sided, and without much depth. Many a good premise for a story often falls victim to this flaw, and Cell is no exception. Many authors — even authors of King’s notable success and enterprise — still sometimes seem to forget this important aspect of good fiction.
Unfortunately for the reader, Cell could have been much better. It is my observation that King is a masterfully brilliant storyteller, with an imagination to match. His shortcoming in my mind is that he isn’t always the best writer, if that makes any sense to readers. I suspect his copy editors are loath to trod upon cutting swaths of his manuscripts, or suggesting revisions, considering the towering reputation King still enjoys in the publishing world. Not to mention the fact his novels will probably sell in vast numbers anyway. The 1990 expanded and unabridged version of The Stand, for example, which replaces almost 1,000 pages of copy that was cut from the original version, holds very little to entice anyone but the most hardcore fans of the novel. The original version — despite whatever protestations King himself might make — is a far more readable version of the novel.
Still, there are things that are quintessentially King about Cell, and which make me hold it in higher esteem that I would have otherwise. There are few authors I come across that have a finger more firmly placed on the pulse of American pop culture than Stephen King, which is part of the charm of reading his novels. There are always references which are spliced into all of his novels that seem to have been naturally incorporated, even nonchalant, though they were probably most definitely calculated. And King’s sense of humour, sometimes so obvious as to seem trite, at other times buried deep in meaning, is well-written and classically executed.
There was even a curious pop culture addition to the novel which makes it somewhat unique. While writing the novel, a role in the story was offered to the winner of a charity auction sponsored by eBay, with King’s blessing. In 2005 a Ft. Lauderdale woman, Pam Alexander, paid over $25,000 to have her brother’s name “Ray Huizenga” incorporated into the novel as a minor character. And the digital world collides with the publishing world.
There is no denying that the idea behind Cell is clever in the extreme, even horrifying, and the opening chapters are a mysterious and terrifying description of a destruction of a city, and a small group’s escape from the violence. After that, however, Cell unfortunately drifts into a bizarre premise, culminating in a lacklustre climax, and coupled to a frustrating ending.
It is interesting to note that King reportedly has a personal aversion to cellphones, and doesn’t own one. An aversion, I’m happy to note, I myself share.
Still, if King’s Cell turns out to be prophetic and we happen to be two lonely survivors in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, if he happens to stumble across this review I’m not sure he’ll go out of his way to open his door for me.
Well, if you want to make an omelette you’ve got to break a few eggs.