This is the way the world ends… not with a bang, but a whimper.
— T. S. Elliot
Actually, it ends with a “pulse” — an errant cell phone signal that wipes away the user’s humanity, ‘rebooting’ their brain back to something basic… primordial… and evil. Even those within earshot of the gray matter draining signal suffer a kind of evolutionary epilepsy, reverting to a state of pure impulse and mental confusion. As the feeling consumes its host, madness takes over, and there is only one way to satisfy this cruel craving. The insanity must be met with violence, quelling the instinctual bloodlust that lay dormant inside every person’s DNA. Thus the world ends, and it’s the very people who protected and prospered upon it who are now intent on taking it down.
For Cell, his latest novel in a career of over 30 years, Stephen King has concocted one doozy of a premise. Granted, the author has been down this path before, using Armageddon as an allegory for man’s inner struggle to find meaning and morality within his otherwise superficial life (The Stand) and technology as a tool both tainted and terrifying (The Tommyknockers). Yet there is something different about this latest novel, something very post-millennial about the story it tells, and the characters contained within it. For the first time in a long while, King has given up on the horror histrionics and the hero worship. He’s decided to keep the people populating his world as real as possible, allowing their fallibility to play a part in how the yarn is eventually spun.
At the center of Cell is artist Clayton “Clay” Riddell, a man who has spent most of his life running from the responsibility of the real world. He is estranged from his wife and 12-year-old son, but he still believes that his gift will get him somewhere. We meet him on a very fateful day — October 1 — in the strides of success. He has just sold a comic idea to Dark Horse, and he finally has the funds to quit his half-assed art teaching jobs. He also now has the necessary dignity injection to stand up to his domineering doctor wife. Where once she threw his skylarking love of drawing in his face, convinced it would lead nowhere, Clay carries an expensive paperweight through the streets of Boston, ready to offer up a little metaphysical payback to the spouse when he gets home to Maine.
Unfortunately, the “pulse” has other plans. In one of the best beginnings the author has ever penned, Clay suddenly finds himself in a literal urban Hell, as one time docile citizens become mentally unhinged maniacs with mayhem and murder on their minds. He battles his way between these victims of portable communication (they come to be labeled “phone crazies”) and soon runs into the individuals who will follow him on a quest to return home. One is Tom, a quick-witted gay man with more intelligence than moxie, and Alice, a teenage girl who barely escaped the rampaging rioters bloodying up Beantown. The three form a makeshift family and head north, hoping to run into more ‘normals’ along the way.
In these passages, King creates a kind of sickening dread that only gets deeper as the novel continues. We soon begin to learn the pattern of the problem. In the daytime, the phone crazies forage for items they need for their indecipherable designs. At night, they sleep en masse, sardine-like, listening to ersatz muzak spewing from strategically placed boom boxes. As Clay, Alice and Tom make their way into New Hampshire, they run afoul of individuals both helpful and harmful. And then the dreams start — visions of a large group of phone crazies, and a thin black man in a red sweatshirt leading them…somewhere. The aura of suspense gets thicker as the group finds refuge in the Headmaster’s house of the Gaiten Academy, a private school for boys.
It is here where we meet Jordan, a one-time student who has his own, computer-based idea about what is happening. Along with elderly Headmaster Ardai who seems to be hiding more information than he’s telling, the story picks up steam, heading toward the typical King finale — except, the ending here is not like those that the author has attempted before. As in Insomnia, where a big event-like denouement is supposed to sew up all the loose ends (at least, from the malevolent point of view) King circumvents the convenient conclusion and goes for something more surprising — and a Heck of a lot more meaningful.
Indeed, the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, fatalism and inevitability makes Cell one of King’s most potent page-turners. As you read you feel the icy fingers of potential terror creeping up your spine. Yet instead of giving you the necessary relief that comes with a shock or a surprise, he just lets them lie there, providing ample opportunity for them to burrow straight down into your core. Though it is dedicated to Richard Matheson (of apocalyptic novel I Am Legend fame, among others) and George Romero (Mr. Living Dead himself) this is not a traditional zombie tale. Indeed, the recently deceased stay that way. There are no corpses crawling out of the ground looking for a meal, or decaying fiends feasting on the survivors. Like 28 Days Later, King is crafting a story of society run amok, of how chaos and confusion are as deadly and defiant as a reanimated body.
Even more interesting are the various subtexts that swim throughout the novel. This is definitely a work of post-9/11 illumination, a book bathed in the notion of Americans as refugees, under attack from sources unknown, with motives unsure. Reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg did with his magnificent take on War of the Worlds, this is a book where major bad stuff happens far off in the distance, gunshots and screams filling the air as our heroes listen, and wonder. While there is plenty of gore and gruesomeness to be found here, it’s the descriptions of Katrina-like victims crossing a bridge into the Boston suburbs, or the phone crazy throngs marching in unison along the highway that resonate the longest.
There is also a hint of the Holocaust in Cell, a notion of citizens being gathered around and placed in a kind of internment camp for their own safety (and the security of the oppressor). Our phone crazies don’t stay permanently insane, and their plans for the normal population are devious and disturbing. King handles all this material with a matter of fact fearlessness, letting his reader buy into, or reject, the reasoning behind it. The author never explains “the pulse”, never tries to give its creation to an alien race or a fundamentalist religious faction. Instead, the catalyst that creates the new end of the world is left for conjecture and speculation, a sort of symbol to what future technologies truly hold in store for us.
Suspenseful and sentimental, unbridled in its ability to disturb and disgust, Cell stands as a writer’s manifesto to the post-accident part of Stephen King’s career. It’s a work of maturity and of meaning, a novel that actually wants to comment on the state of the world and the pissed off population who seem to be living on and off it. One of the best sections comes directly after the initial pulse. As people try to escape the evil running ramshackle in Boston, they hike northward. The ‘normals’ find the highways the easiest passage, and as he walks with his group, Clay sees the whole of remaining humanity shut off from each other. They don’t want to interact. They don’t want to band together and fight. They just want to be left to their own devices. It is at this moment when our protagonist realizes that the rest of this journey will be a decidedly lonely one — not the most reassuring way to spend the endtimes.
So in essence, Elliot was right. The world does not end with a bang. According to Cell, it slowly whimpers off into the night, feeling sorry for itself and isolated from everything else. And is there anything more horrifying than that?