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Stephen King's novels are known for
being psychological, generally in the horror or suspense genre. Cell is no exception. The book starts out dramatically with its
main character Clay standing in line for an ice cream from an ice cream truck
on an early October afternoon in downtown Boston. A woman in a power suit and two teenage girls are in front of
him, all three of them talking on cell phones.
Suddenly the woman grabs for the ice cream vendor, who jumps back out of
her reach. One of the girls grabs hold
of the woman and bites out her throat, causing blood to shoot out
everywhere. Around them, in the park,
there is pandemonium. Cars are
crashing, people are killing each other, and there are huge explosions coming
from the airport north of them.
Soon it becomes obvious that all
the people who had been talking on cell phones have become murderously
mad. They have lost ordinary language,
only making strange grunting noises or uttering indecipherable words. Whenever they see another person, they try
to kill them. They show no rationality
or thought. They are driven by pure
rage. In the early stages of the novel,
King exploits the most animal caricature of madness to instill alarm in his
The story is narrated in the third
person, but it follows Clay all the way through, and the narrator knows Clay's
every thought and feeling. Clay is a
graphic artist, with great drawing abilities and a visual sensitivity that
helps him take in details that other people might miss. He is in his late twenties, and recently
separated from his wife. They have a
boy, Johnny, who is twelve years old.
Johnny and Clay's wife are back in Maine, and Clay wants to get back to
them both. Indeed, Johnny is Clay's
main reason for continuing as he faces some terrible experiences.
Clay meets up with two other
people; a gay man, Tom, and a fifteen-year-old girl, Alice. They start their journey together, walking
from Boston to Maine. It is an
incredible trip, during which they meet many other characters and go through
many unsettling adventures. The
"phone-crazies" group together and take over the daytime, leaving the
normal people to travel at night. The
story takes on some supernatural elements, but leaves most of the bizarre
phenomena unexplained. The heart of the novel remains in the relationships
formed between Clay, Tom and Alice, and their reactions to the end of
civilization as they knew it. We care
about these characters and fear for their safety. Tom's sexual orientation is incidental to the plot, so it is not
a big issue, but King brings it in well.
He does not make Tom a martyr or victim, nor effeminate. Like Clay and Alice, Tom is defined by his
humanity rather than any particular features.
While the three main characters speculate that terrorists may have
caused the cell phone "pulse," they do not spend much time worrying
about what is not in their control.
Their major interest is just in surviving and helping those they love.
King writes with his usual
workmanlike vivid efficiency. He
mentions, through his characters, most of the recent films about zombies that
have recently gripped the popular imagination, and thus archly shows how much
he has carefully planned that this zombie novel should be different from
them. His writing is strong, combining
genuine empathy for the suffering of Clay, Tom and Alice with moments of
strange humor as they strive to cope with their bizarre situation, occasionally
giving a knowing cultural wink to the reader.
The unabridged audiobook is read
well by Campbell Scott in about 13 hours.
Scott's resonant voice adds a tone of seriousness that helps keep the
reader's attention -- it would be all too easy to emphasize the silliness of
the story with a more showy reading.
His performance keeps the different characters very distinct, and builds
on King's convincing dialog to make them three-dimensional. One small problem is that occasionally there
are sentences recorded at a different time that have clearly been edited in to
the recording -- these sections sound different and Scott reads them with a
more deadpan style. But these do not
significantly detract from the listening experience.
Thanks to Marysusan Noll for helpful discussion of Cell.
© 2006 Christian Perring. All
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.