Book Review – Cell [Stephen King, 2006]

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Stephen King’s Cell is – in my opinion – the sort of book that becomes a bit more relevant with each passing year. The story’s post-apocalyptic world is nothing new (even coming from King himself) and the ‘journey’ format starring a group of survivors heading out into a new world full of danger has been done before by the same writer (see The Stand for one example) but the fact that mobile phones are the cause of doom and destruction? Well, that part seems more and more plausible with each passing year.

We do after all, live in a world where so many rely on their phone for so much. People are glued to them on buses, trains and even in social gatherings where they are supposed to be communicating with real people (remember those?). Drivers would rather risk crashing on the road if it means checking their messages or Facebook updates whilst crawling in traffic and there is of course, an app for everything.

So Cell’s concept of a brain-scrambling virus sent out across mobile networks to phones worldwide and wiping any trace of civilisation from their owner’s minds doesn’t seem so far-fetched as a form of cyber terrorism that could hit most of the world’s population in one fell swoop. The book doesn’t focus on who was responsible for this attack or where they orchestrated it from because that isn’t the point. Instead, Cell takes the reader on a journey with a group of survivors who are thrown together in the wake of this catastrophe because they were either fortunate enough to not have their phone with them or because they didn’t own one in the first place.

There is the typical rich yet unbloated detail that you’d expect to find in a Stephen King book, especially with regards to the primal, unfeeling violence that those affected by the cellular virus (known as ‘The Pulse’) dish out in the immediate aftermath. It all seems quite real and a fair image of what might actually happen should such an event hit a technology-reliant Western society in the real world. As with any Stephen King book, no punches are pulled when it comes to the description of the violence and gore and this helps make the situation feel even more vivid.

Once the initial impact of The Pulse has had time to ruin the world, Cell then focuses on the characters and how their mental state responds to suddenly being thrust into a world of madness and survival. The main character is an everyman up-and-coming artist named Clayton Riddell who just wants to get home and find his young son, hoping that he hasn’t switched his phone on and that he still lives. He soon meets with other survivors who have their own stories and they set out to get away from the city, work out what is happening and to try and find safety.

I really enjoyed Cell the first time I read it and re-reading it today in 2018, it was just as good. The characters are very likeable and relatable as ordinary, everyday people. The mental journey and character development that they go through also feels believable and you – the reader – do feel as if you are on this journey with them (albeit in the safer confines of the real world!) and the book becomes a page-turner like most of Stephen King’s output. I also really enjoyed the detail and descriptions of the violence and the state of the ruined world, all of which hit me as believable.

If I have any criticisms of Cell then they would be the inconclusive ending (which kind of leaves the reader to decide on what ultimately happens) and the fact that some new friends are introduced during the latter stages of the book yet there isn’t really the time to explore their characters and get to like them as anything other than a late-game support cast. I found that I was only there to see what happened to Clay and his original companions, not the new additions to the group.

Overall though, Cell is a great book and one of the better ones in Stephen King’s ‘modern’ lineup. I do tend to prefer the older, more horror/supernatural-orientated books but Cell still manages to feel a little like those past glories while also having the other foot planted in a more current era.

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