Cell Out

Growing up if there was one writer whose new releases I waited for with practically rabid anticipation, it was Stephen King. Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” might be my favorite book, and one that I read even before I’d heard of anything by King, but subsequent Adams tales that I consumed such as “Shardik” and “The Plague Dogs” just weren’t all that.

King, however, could do no wrong. After reading “The Shining” at 14 years old I was hooked. I followed that up with his terror epic “The Stand” (that teased from the back cover with “Soon to be a major motion picture directed by George A. Romero!” which any King/Romero fan knows never happened and the world is less because of it) and to this day get shivers just thinking about the scene where the one-hit-wonder singer/songwriter Larry Underwood has to creep his way through the hell that was the pitchblack car- and corpse-filled Lincoln tunnel in an attempt to escape an apocalyptic virus-ravaged New York. Scaaaaary.

I drove through “Salem’s Lot” reveled in his “Dead Zone” and inhaled his “Nightshift” collection of short stories. In fact, I had re-read them so much that I would have my mom and friends open the volume at random and read a sentence any sentence — even a fragment — and I would immediately blurt out the title of whatever story it was from.

“Firestarter.” “Cujo.” “Christine.” “Pet Sematary.” Whenever a new one popped up I knocked it down without delay all the way through and beyond high school. If I had to pinpoint the work where my wonder started to wane it would probably be “The Talisman” that he co-wrote with Peter Straub. For the first time I got the sense that King was mailing it in. His next book was “It” and I dutifully bought it and started through it, but it was no longer with that “where ya gonna take me this time Stevie!?” wonderment. And in a strange way it was my future ex-wife who was responsible for me kicking my King habit. See, we were living in the same Van Nuys apartment building. Me in a little single and her in a two-bedroom, and after it was decided we should live together I started hauling my stuff down the stairs from my place, across the courtyard and past the pool and up the stairs to her place. On one of those trips I was carrying a stack of books with “It” on top and a mis-step by the pool sent it straight into the shallow end. Though I hurried to fish it out the damage was done and I wasn’t heartbroken or engaged enough to replace it.

After that, other than occasionally wandering through some of his novella/short story collections (which contain some of his best writing: “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”), I’d pretty much jumped off the King train.

I’m not sure why I decided to get back onboard after all this time with his current paperback bestseller “Cell,” but I’m really sorry and pissed off that I did. “Cell” is another apocalyptic tale along the lines of “The Stand” but it pales and shrivels in comparison. This time, the global killer comes in the form of some never explained “pulse” sent through mobile phones that separates humanity into good and evil factions… in this case the “normies” (those who didn’t have cell phones and thus weren’t zapped by the pulse) and the “phoners” (who did and were zapped). As a result of this zapping the phoners are basically reduced to homicidal maniacs who kill and destroy everything they can. The normies are reduced to avoiding the phoners while trying to subsist in this unexplained fresh hell.

Without going too much further in depth, suffice it to say the phoners gradually lose most of their psycho-killer instincts and develop communes along with telepathic and mind-control skills while the small band of normies the novel centers around make their way up into New Hampshire trying to survive and figure out what the hell’s going on… along the way incuring mass phoner wrath and outcast status among other normies by blowing up a huge “flock” of the freaks with propane trucks.

Talk about phoning it in, that’s exactly what King did with this thing. Sure, I know that every writer progresses and evolves in their career and in no way was I expecting “Cell” — despite its obvious similarities — to be another “The Stand.” But I did expect it to be more than just what may have been an interesting kernel of a concept bloated out into 450 pages of listless unimaginative and cardboard-charactered wordpuke.

The back cover blazes with a blurb by the Chicago Tribune who called it “A marvel… You’re utterly at the mercy of a master storyteller.” Really? Maybe if the Tribster that reviewed it had inserted “former” before “master” I’d agree. Because that’s what I was utterly at the mercy of: my memory of when King was a nightmare maker and as such I diligently trudged through this tedious tale very much like King’s normies trudged upstate through the decimated wasteland. Just as they were galled and shocked and ultimately hopeless at what their world has become, so was I at what King’s work has become.

It used to be that good or bad a book I read was forever. These last few years the ones I’ve not cared to keep have gone to the library. This one’s going into the recycle bin.