Review–Cell by Stephen King

My verdict: Don’t bother. Flat characters, ridiculous plot points, terrible resolution.

Cell is one of King’s weakest books to date. The flaws of this book are different than his usual, so I’ll give him a credit for trying something different. Usually he spends the first three-fourths of a book giving character background before getting to the main plot of the book. This one was very short for him, at only 350 pages, and the action starts right away on page 2, but the characters in Cell are surprisingly lacking in defining features. Each of them is one-dimensional and none of them felt like real people to me.

In the first section, the crap really hits the fan. One moment, the world is going on as it always does, and the protagonist is complaining about inconsiderate people with cell phones, ignoring cashiers as they buy things and talk and their phones, and whatnot. The next moment everyone who’s talking on a cell phone… changes, basically going all zombie, attacking anything in sight with their teeth. And, of course, those people who didn’t happen to be on their cell phones tend to reach for cell phone and they’re changed as well. It’s an interesting idea to create a new source of zombies besides the usual curse or virus, but his message is just too transparent. In the author bio, he even points out that he doesn’t have a cell phone. As I was reading I was often distracted imagining the origin of the story–King in a department store waiting in the checkout line behind someone chatting away on their cell phone, and King thinks “You know what? I wish that person would turn into a flesh-eating zombie! Hey, that’s an idea for a book!”

I believe that a writer should be transparent while I’m reading his story. If I think about him, then he has failed. One thing that breaks this is overwrought prose like “Malden was just one more fucked-up town in the Unicel States of America, and now that country was out of service, off the hook, so sorry, please try your call again later.” That in the middle of an otherwise ordinary paragraph. That’s not the protagonist speaking, that’s the author trying to be clever.

And, seriously, I’ve really got to wonder what King has against dogs. I’ve read most of his books, and I do not believe I’ve read a single one that had a dog in it which was not killed or seriously injured. I mean, I realize that dogs, being man’s best friend, are an easy way to pull the emotional strings, but seriously! In this book, a dog dies right on page 2, and another one’s ear gets torn off by a zombie person another page later. A bit much for me already.

I stuck with it, though, hoping it would get better. About halfway through it finally strayed from just standard zombie-ism. I’ll save more details for after the spoiler warning below. But, even after that point, there were still no multi-dimensional characters. The only explanations given for the sudden change in people (now nicknamed the Pulse) is speculation by the characters which is presented as though it’s the truth even though it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. The “resolution” of the main thread is terribly done, tacked on as though he just got bored and just ran a random plot-resolution-generator to decide how to end it. Not only that, but the plot conflict, as presented in the story, would not have been resolved by this AT ALL! More on that later.

That’s about all I can say without giving major details away, so:


Okay, so back to my complaints about the implausibility of what caused the Pulse. Along the way they meet a 12-year old prep school student named Jordan, who makes some guesses about what created the “phone-crazies” based on what he knows about computers. Theories are all well and good, but later in the book they keep expanding on these theories as though they’re the truth. He theorizes that the phones wiped the minds like an EMP wipes could wipe a hard drive. Someone even points out that brains don’t work like hard drives, which gets the response that hard drive work like brains because they’re designed after brains. Brains are not like hard drives. Yes, they store things, but that is where the similarity ends. Yet they keep on going on about how the Pulse has wiped their brains and their brains are trying to rebooting, even receiving “new programming” from the Pulse every night. Which I found really odd because no one actually seemed to be intentionally creating the Pulse. If there IS such a thing as an audible signal that can scramble your brain within the range of what a phone speaker can broadcast (and I don’t think there is) then it’s not going to happen by accident, and even if it did, there would be no “new programming” for it to impart. As the story goes on, the “phone-crazies” develop telepathy, telekinesis, and create a hive-mind all based on this “programming”. Then they start speculating that there is a “computer worm” that has infected the signal and is making the “phone-crazies” degrade, which makes no sense on so many levels, since they have no idea what the signal’s intent is, who sent it, and that it’s even vulnerable to a computer virus. The whole plot hinges on it, and it just doesn’t make any sense, nor does he really make any attempt to try to explain it.

Back to the flat characters, there are four main characters for about the first half of the book. Then one of them dies, which seemed like it was really supposed to tug on my heartstrings, but I just didn’t give a crap. Near the end, 3 new characters are introduced, then leave a page later. They come back a couple chapters later, and one of them sets in motion the plot resolution just before committing suicide to keep the “phone-crazies” from reading it in his mind. The other two have no effect on the plot, and a handful of lines between them.

What is this resolution, you ask? A bus full of explosives. I’m not kidding. Yes, they take out this worldwide newborn race of telepathic psychopathic altered humans with a single bus packed with explosives. They take out a single group of them, which may number about 8000, which is certainly a large number, but when you consider how widespread cell phone usage is across the world right now, it doesn’t accomplish a thing. But good for New England and it’s momentary respite from the zombie hordes.

But that’s not quite the end. Through the whole book Clay, the main protagonist, is looking for his son. And he finds him, but his mind has been partially wiped by a phone so that he is little more than an animal. He’s not violent, but he can’t talk, and about all he does is crap and eat. Back to the “programming” theory with the “worm”, they have theorized that the phone signal has changed, somehow, and therefore guess that it has a different “worm”. He guesses that maybe if he makes his son make a phone call again then he can infect him with the other signal and the other “worm” and then the two “worms” might balance each other out and allow the boy’s mind to “reboot” and become normal again. Even if he does become normal again, even if the hard drive theory is sound, he’s not going to have any of his memories! He’s going to be like an infant! And that’s assuming that another phone call doesn’t just make the damage worse! To me that’s like finding out that your friend has memory loss from brain damage caused by a heavy blow to the head, and to solve it you give him ANOTHER heavy blow to the head. It won’t help but it most likely will hurt. And hurt alot. And in the end we don’t even get to find out if his ridiculous plan works, because the book ends as he hands the phone to his boy.