Here’s a controversial opinion: I think Cell is a better book than it gets credit for.
Oh, sure, I think the actual cell phone thing aged terribly. Had probably aged terribly by the time the book was published, even.
But you have to think about how quickly cell phone technology spread. I’m in my early 40s. The first telephones I used were the rotary dial variety. I think I just barely missed the party line era of home telephones. And now, I’m attached at the hip — or hand — with a smartphone that has more computing power than we used to send a man to the moon the first time, and the children of mine who are still at home have zero memory of having home phones of any variety. That’s a huge swing in technology in what’s really just a few decades. I can remember when nobody had cell phones, or at least nobody a normal, average person would see in their day-to-day life. I remember when a few wealthier people had cells. Mostly they were status symbols. They were also horribly big and heavy. I remember when they started to be affordable to the general public, and lots of people had one — nominally “for emergencies”, but really they were kind of faddish — they were certainly not the necessities they would become. I think that’s where Stephen King is in the writing of this book. I’m not positive that’s where the country was, or would be when the book came out — remember, too, that King is of a generation that largely would have been slower to adopt this technology, that probably wouldn’t have participated in crazes over flip phones, comically tiny cell phones, cell phones that held a large amount of music, cell phones with catchy model names. I also remember smartphones becoming a thing, how quickly the shift was from wanting a cell phone to wanting a smartphone, and how quickly that moved to needing a smartphone. This book was released in 2006, the first iPhone was released in 2007. After that, the already fast proliferation of mobile telephone technology increased at warp speed.
So, probably most people were over cell-phone-phobia by the time this book even got published. But maybe they were still a little faddish, probably there were larger groups of people suspicious about the technology still. (I mean, you can still find those groups today, but they’re smaller and fringier than they probably would have been in ‘06.) The technology evolved and spread among the population so fast right after the book’s publication that the story wouldn’t have had a lot of time to grab people before it started looking hopelessly out of touch. So no, I don’t think the cell phones as a zombie catalyst aspect of this book holds up at all. It looks hilariously outdated now and would have to some people on its first day at the bookstore. I think that’s why people remember it as a bad book, and I can’t blame them for that.
But if we take a moment to separate the cell phone angle from the actual story, I think we might see that there’s more here than the book gets credit for. I think we might notice that — well, this is a Stephen King story. And he knows how to write a story.
I know it’s called Cell. And I know it’s a pulse through cell phones that is the catalyst for the events of the story. But it could have been televisions. Or radios. Or Bluetooth headphones. Or a loudspeaker. It’s probably going to be at least somewhat technophobic no matter how you do it, but the cell phones really aren’t the most important part as themselves — they represent an overreliance on technology generally, and cell phones are actually a pretty good symbol for society’s overreliance on technology, but it’s not that important that it be them. You can take issue with technophobia in general, but that is a valid way to approach dystopia or horror.
But the resultant zombies are pretty interesting regardless of how they came to be. I’m not usually a big fan of zombie stories in general, honestly, but King is something of an exception. I like the short story “Home Delivery”, which features zombies that come about in the more traditional way — rising from the dead. I think I like the conversion of normal living people into zombies even a bit better, if only because it makes more sense that they’d be a threat when they’re not, you know, rotting away because they’re dead. The group’s flocking behavior, the introduction of the Raggedy Man, and their apparent sense of purpose that begins to grow after the initial pulse only serves to make them more interesting than the usual batch of brain-munchers.
As per usual, a few important characters find each other and form a core group (a ka-tet, even, if it please ya) that must travel together for a while. I am realizing as I go along that this is such an extremely common part of the King formula that it should be boring, but he does it in different ways, and not always with the same character archetypes, and that makes it stay fresh enough that I didn’t even really realize this was such a thing until doing this chronological re-read, with little or no non-King content in-between to break it up. These are perhaps not his most memorable or interesting group of characters, but they’re engaging enough to make you want to follow their stories.
A fun fact you may not know is that the chance to be a named character in this book was auctioned off for the benefit of a charity, The First Amendment Project. The winner gifted her brother with the actual character role, which is how Ray Huizenga came to be a character — a limited but very important role.
There was a movie made from this book. I haven’t heard good things about it — although I don’t hear much good about the book, either, so maybe that doesn’t mean anything. This is never going to be my favorite of King’s work, and it’s probably not most people’s favorites. There’s no doubt that the cell phone angle combined with the year it came out is at least part of the problem — like I said, definitely aged badly — but it’s also just not up to the level of thematically similar stories like The Stand or The Mist. That doesn’t make it bad, though — or if it does, bad Stephen King is still usually better than a lot of other books you could grab. It is also bleaker than those books (well, bleaker than The Stand, anyway — The Mist is cliffhanger-y in a similar way and the movie takes the end into seriously dark territory) which I think bears thinking about because Stephen King as Stephen King isn’t usually bleak (unlike, say, Stephen King as Richard Bachman). Dark, sure, but usually, there’s underlying hope and optimism with King. This has… less of that. It’s worth thinking about why. Maybe because technology of some sort — oh, probably not cell phones, but some technology — really probably is going to have devastating consequences on the world. I mean, if anything does, technology is going to be involved. A Randall Flagg or Crimson King probably won’t be. So maybe there’s some real-life horror feeling in here.