In The Stand, Stephen King basically wrote the book on contemporary post-apocalyptic settings. However, one of the few things that 1000+ page novel missed was zombies. King corrects that omission in Cell, a novel in which cell phones turn users into zombies.
Unlike in The Stand, King wastes no time assembling his heroes. Clayton Riddell, who is, of course, from Maine, writes graphic novels. Clay barely has a moment to enjoy his first big break in publishing before the world is ending after the “pulse.” Amidst the ruin, Clay meets Tom McCourt and Alice Maxwell, and they flee Boston together.
Their quest is to survive and to save Clay’s wife and child. It takes them north until they finally reach a prep school — a way station where Clay and his companions will regroup and figure out how to proceed. Of course, there’s no permanent shelter at the prep school. In some respects, Cell’s construction is too obvious.
What may be more surprising than Cell’s often predictable plot is that King never wrote about zombies before 2006. He clearly enjoys it. Then again, perhaps this is why he decided to wait until after he had nominally retired to write this novel. Cell is at times indulgent.
In fact, the book is more a riff on cell phones than a horror story. The title refers not only to cell phones, the device that spreads the zombie sickness, but also to the zombies themselves, who share a hive mind. One of my favorite satirical moments may be when our heroes spot a flock of people — zombies — passively downloading information about how to act and behave from the sky. The zombies may download information from the sky, but it seems that the heroes are downloading information from the author, particularly the way that they are guided to a final confrontation with King’s zombies. Although the climax of the novel didn’t work for me, I found the final scene redemptive.
Fortunately, none of that stops Cell from being an enjoyable Stephen King entry. It may not be his best novel or even an “essential Stephen King” novel. Having said that, readers looking for a fast paced, biting social commentary would do well to try Stephen King’s Cell.