So, this review has been a long time coming. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that if there’s two things I love the most in the realm of horror, those things are Stephen King and zombies. With that in mind, it’s actually pretty surprising that Stephen King’s 2006 novel Cell evaded my attention for so long. Cell is Stephen King’s love letter to the zombie apocalypse genre, filled with homages to zombie classics like Dawn of the Dead and all the prototypical tropes of the modern zombie story. Just that premise alone is enough to make Cell an essential read for anyone who has a soft spot for Stephen King and the undead, but what really makes Cell stand out is that it introduces some horrifying new twists to the zombie genre — things I’ve yet to see in any other zombie novel.
Cell is the story of Clayton Riddell, an aspiring graphic novellist, who finds himself struggling to survive after a cell-phone signal known as “The Pulse” suddenly converts most of the population into mindless “phone crazies”, who savagely attack anyone around them. After just barely living through the initial onslaught, Clayton falls in with a group of fellow survivors and begins the perilous journey from Boston to Maine to re-unite with his estranged family. Along the way, the “phone crazies” rapidly increase their numbers, and slowly begin to evolve into a much more frightening enemy, smarter and stronger than any garden variety zombie.
It’s the characters and their struggle for survival that makes Cell such an excellent read. Unlike something like The Walking Dead, there aren’t a whole lot of protagonists in Cell (the main group has only three members for the majority of the book), but in typical King fashion, they’re all extremely well written. Since there isn’t a large cast of characters, King takes the opportunity to really flesh the three main protagonists out, and I found myself becoming attached to the group relatively quickly. While a typical zombie story likes to play up the conflicts between the survivors, the protagonists in Cell go out of their way to work together and form a tight, closely-knit team, which makes the horrific situations they endure so much more tense. It’s nice to see people in a zombie apocalypse helping each other for a change — in fact, this makes the shock even worse when one of them suddenly bites the dust.
Part of the reason why I found the story so compelling is that Cell really portrays the horror of the zombie apocalypse. In most other zombie stories, the focus usually turns to humans as the main enemy, as the protagonists learn to deal with the zombies, and the zombies soon stop being scary. Stephen King makes sure this doesn’t happen in Cell. Sure, the “phone crazies” start off as pretty stereotypical zombies, and Clayton and his companions quickly get to work figuring out the “rules” of the zombie apocalypse. Then, just as the initial horror wears off, s–t really hits the fan. Throughout the novel, the “phone crazies” rapidly evolve new abilities until they become something completely alien. King’s zombies are fresh and unique, and make the genre scary again.
In terms of writing, Cell is typical contemporary Stephen King. The language is very descriptive and filled with all of King’s ordinary nuances. The dialogue is realistic and flows well. One good thing about Cell is that (at least by Stephen King’s standards) it’s a rather short novel, and is fast paced and exciting the entire way, unlike some of the thicker Stephen King books. This isn’t to say King is a bad writer — his writing is the gold standard of horror — but he does have a tendency to draw out his stories unneccesarily. This would have really hurt Cell‘s pacing, and I’m kind of glad that Cell isn’t quite as long as King’s other apocalyptic novel, The Stand.
So, long story short: I really enjoyed Cell. As a zombie fan (and as a Stephen King fan) it hit all the right notes for me. Unfortunately, it’s pretty under-appreciated as far as Stephen King books go. My local bookstore has about ten copies of Carrie and The Shining, but the only place I found Cell was on Amazon. As such, it can be a pretty expensive book, but it’s still one of the best pieces of zombie fiction I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for a book that reinvigorates the zombie apocalypse genre, you need to check it out.