Thursday, July 12, 2012

the last book I read

Cell by Stephen King.

Clayton Riddell is a graphic artist, and he's in a pretty good mood, because he's just been to a meeting with a publisher in Boston who's interested in picking up some of his work. He can't wait to tell his wife and son the good news, but that'll probably have to wait till he's back at his hotel, since he doesn't own a mobile phone (I'm going to use the American coinage "cellphone" hereafter, just to fit in with the book's usage, and indeed title). He never gets the chance to make that call, however, since at 3:03pm that afternoon the pivotal event known as The Pulse happens, everyone who's using a cellphone at the time (or at any time afterwards) turns into a slavering feral beast and civilisation as we know it disintegrates in the blink of an eye.

Clay isn't the only person left unscathed, fortunately, and the few people left with un-fried brains band together and decide to head out of the city. Clay's little group comprises himself, Tom McCourt, who he met on the street immediately after The Pulse hit, and Alice, a teenage girl they rescued while temporarily holed up in Clay's hotel. They retreat to Tom's house in the outer suburbs while they try to come to terms with what has happened and work out what to do next. It turns out Clay knows what he wants to do next - head north into Maine to try to find his wife and son and check whether or not they've been zapped into a state of mindless savagery, and if they haven't whether they've been able to avoid being eaten by those who have.

So the group sets off again, making sure to avoid the groups of roving imbeciles wandering about. It soon becomes clear that their roving about is starting to settle into a pattern, though, mainly involving mass migrations during the day and inactivity at night, so the group travels mainly at night. When they hole up for a few days in an abandoned school it becomes clear that the behaviour of the "phoners" is developing some alarming aspects - firstly they seem to have taken to flocking together and roosting at night like birds, and secondly they seem to be able to communicate with each other telepathically. Joined by the School's headmaster and the one remaining unaffected pupil, Jordan, Clay's group hatch a scheme to wipe out their particular group of phoners, who have taken to doing their mass roosting activity on the school sports field. They achieve this in a quite lidderally explosive manner, by parking a couple of propane tankers from a nearby gas station in the middle of the field and blowing them up.

Unfortunately it turns out that the phoners' telepathic capabilities have become more powerful than the group can possibly imagine, and the great disturbance in the force occasioned by the fiery immolation of a couple of thousand people prompts a reaction from the phoners - firstly the public torture and execution of various "normies" yanked out of various houses nearby, and secondly a visitation in the group's dreams from a mysterious stranger (who they take to calling the Raggedy Man) and vague premonitions of being the subject of some kind of mock-trial and ritual execution. Via further telepathic communication the Raggedy Man makes it clear that Clay's group are expected to head off on the road again to a place called Kashwak, where (it soon becomes clear) other groups of "normies" are being herded as well. Since the Headmaster isn't up to the journey he is further "persuaded" to take himself out of the game by committing messy suicide.

So Clay's group heads off again, and it soon becomes clear that they are being telepathically watched over and protected so that they can be saved for the ceremonial fate that awaits them at Kashwak. Two young hooligans who attack them on the road (killing Alice in the process) are telepathically induced into a messy murder/suicide combo as an example to others. So they remain unscathed as they make a quick detour to Clay's family home to discover - unsurprisingly - that the wife and son have moved on, and that they've probably been drawn to Kashwak like everyone else. Any idea that this (since it's a cellphone "dead zone") might be a sort of "normie" reservation where they will be allowed to live in peace is revealed to be a fantasy as it turns out people are being herded into tents as they arrive and exposed to a mobile phone signal that zaps them into the same state as everyone else.

Clay's group arrives at Kashwak (in a school bus they've picked up on the road, and with three new companions in tow, who have also engineered a phoner massacre and are similarly untouchable) and meets the Raggedy Man, who locks them in a barn overnight in preparation for the special fate he has in store for them the next day. Jordan is small enough to wriggle out of a window, though, and while the phoners are doing their nocturnal roosting activities he manages to drive the bus into their midst, at which point Clay blows up the large consignment of dynamite put there by their new travelling companion Ray, who had wired it up earlier, told Clay about it and then shot himself so that he couldn't give the game away telepathically.

So the gruesome public execution has been averted, the Raggedy Man is dead, and the group heads off north again. But what of the remaining phoners? Well, Jordan has a theory that the Pulse is gradually being degraded by some sort of worm/virus thingy, since the recently zapped people seem to retain more of their human characteristics and don't do the zombified flocking behaviour as well as the original zappees. He also has a theory that for these people a second zap might cancel out the first by inducing some sort of brain reboot, restoring the affected person to normal. Encouraged by this, Clay sets off again to find his son (the wife having been caught up in the bus explosion) and, when he eventually does find him, try this radical cure on him. The book ends with Clay and Johnny holed up in a motel, with Clay holding a cellphone to the boy's ear.

I used to hungrily hoover up every new Stephen King paperback as soon as it came out, after having read The Shining when I was about thirteen and deciding that it was the GREATEST THING EVER. I stopped doing that after the triple whammy of The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half and Needful Things convinced me that he might have jumped the shark a bit. Since then the only one I've read was the fairly bog-standard haunted-house story Bag Of Bones from 1998. So it's been a few years since I've read a Stephen King book, and like all of them (even the ropey ones) this grips like an intensely grippy thing, perhaps a rabid boa constrictor or a giant pair of pliers. It's easy to be snobby about this sort of thing, but the ability to keep the reader up till 4am desperate to know what happens next is a rare and cherishable gift.

That said, and while Cell certainly delivers on the grippiness front, this isn't up to the standard of his earlier stuff for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are apparent from the knowing dedication at the front of the book: to George A Romero (director of the Night Of The Living Dead films) and Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend). Cell owes a big debt to both of these, from the zombified state of the first phoners to the more philosophical stuff prompted by their later incarnation as a hive mind. The delivery of the mind-erasing bug via electronic means has some echoes of the virus from Snow Crash as well, and there's some similarly weird large-scale flocking and roosting activity in King's own 1989 novel The Dark Half, though that was featuring actual birds. It's uncomfortably close to some of the themes covered by King's classic 1978 novel The Stand in places as well, from the small wandering group of survivors of a catastrophe to the shared dreams haunted by some beckoning demonic figure, though the Raggedy Man is a pale shadow of The Stand's Randall Flagg, and the climactic public execution of the "normies" (again, echoing The Stand) is escaped with hilarious ease by the simple means of waiting till everyone goes to sleep and then setting fire to them and scarpering. The details of what caused The Pulse and why are never really explored, either, and the notion that someone exposed to the decaying worm-ridden Pulse signal can be cured by re-exposing them to the same signal skirts perilously close to the cartoon trope of curing someone of the effects of a blow on the head by hitting them again.

I suppose the Romero dedication in particular signals that this is intended to be a big, goofy, tub-of-popcorn sort of book rather than aspiring to the cerebral end of King's output. You can see that from the way it starts; while King's longer books feature leisurely build-ups allowing us to get to know the central characters before it all kicks off, Cell has people biting each other in the neck by about page 3, at which point we've barely met Clay, let alone started to care about him.

I would say your prime King period runs from The Shining in 1977 through The Stand and The Dead Zone and up to 1980's Firestarter, which I think is the single best thing he's ever written. You really should read all of those.

One little aside: the novel's opening action occurs on the edge of Boston Common, which immediately set off the Woo Hoo I've Been There alarm - here's a picture of my friends Jonny, Graham, Matt, Alex, Matt and Dominic on Boston Common in late summer 1994 while we were over there for Matt's (the one on the right) wedding. Fortunately cellphones hadn't been invented so we were able to enjoy a leisurely afternoon eating ice-cream and throwing a football about without getting attacked by drooling zombies.


Andy said...

Like you, I hoovered up all the early stuff, but I stopped after "Dark Half"

I'm surprised I got that far after reading "Tommyknockers" and becoming increasingly incensed at the lack of dedication or apology to Clifford D. Simak for stealing the plot of "The Big Front Yard".

Apparently, King was so high at the time that he didn't notice. The bastard.

electrichalibut said...

The Wikipedia page cites the Simak story (which I haven't read) as well as HP Lovecraft's The Colour Out Of Space (which I have) and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, though if we're talking 1950s films it seems to me to have more in common with The Thing From Outer Space. It also mentions Quatermass And The Pit, though I haven't seen that either.

The homicidal Coke vending machine definitely seems to fall into the category of Things That Seem Like A Really Cool Idea When You're Pissed, though.

electrichalibut said...

And by The Thing From Outer Space I do of course mean The Thing From Another World. Although that other world was in a very real sense in outer space.