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Can You Hear Me Now?

Stephen King
Scribner, 2006
Rating: 3.8

Posted: March 20, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

In his extraordinarily fertile period in the 1970s and '80s, Stephen King was at his best when extrapolating his horror stories from the inherent conflict of familiar totems and experiences, from isolation (The Shining) to man's best friend (Cujo) to fanaticism (Misery). And nowhere was this talent for striking at us through the everyday more evident (or more effective) than in his takes on that age-old standby of science fiction themes: man vs. machine.

To be sure, some of these stories (like Christine, a grim visualization of our obsession with cars) were more substantive than others (think the cars-come-alive short story "Trucks," which was spun into the movie Maximum Overdrive). But even stories like "The Mangler" (from Night Shift), about a haunted, killer ironing-and-folding machine, capably played on our fears of being displaced, rendered obsolete or, yes, being killed by our own technology.

There's a similar undercurrent buzzing through Cell, King's latest novel, about a wide-scale societal meltdown delivered via cell phone. Thanks to a signal that comes to be known as "The Pulse," one afternoon everyone speaking on (or within hearing distance of) a cell phone suddenly becomes a mindless, primal and deadly creature, like the murderous zombies of George Romero (to whom, along with Richard Matheson, Cell is dedicated).

Even before our protagonist, graphic novelist Clayton Riddell, surmises that it must be the work of terrorists, Cell establishes itself as a timely, topical horror story, tapping into the amusement, bemusement and revulsion some of us feel toward those who have turned their lives over to these gadgets, and who see them as a license to check out of their immediate surroundings and treat those around them with what once would have been seen as inexcusable rudeness. (This is ingeniously heightened later on, when the "phone-crazies" evolve into a sort of hive consciousness.)

But for all its evocations of our post-9/11 fears of terrorist attacks and distrust of others -- not to mention its not-very-subtle condemnation of cell phone abusers -- Cell soon begins losing its signal, becoming a more familiar Stephen King zombie story, one that will feel more than a little familiar to anyone who's sat through last year's Spielberg/Cruise War of the Worlds popcorn flick. From Boston, where he's just signed a now-meaningless contract that would have made him a very comfortable full-time graphic novelist, Clay strikes out for his home in Maine (naturally; this is a Stephen King novel) with two fellow bystanders, a gay man and a charming, resilient adolescent girl.

The three undertake a perilous odyssey to find Clay's young son -- who owned a cell phone and therefore may have become one of the crazies -- and as they meet up with allies and learn more about the evolving nature of the phone zombies, the more Cell becomes a standard adventure tale. It's an often thrilling and entertaining adventure story, enlivened though it is by King's instinctual command of the gory and the macabre.

As John Sandford notes in his introduction to the new paperback version of his book Shadow Prey -- and as the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta proves -- it's difficult to pull off a thriller and serious social commentary at the same time. Of course, there's no guarantee that King even sought to make any kind of statement.

But Cell pushes our buttons -- those wired to our unease about the encroachment of terror and technology, our fear that instead of bringing us closer together, they've thrown up walls between us -- so skillfully, we can't help but be disappointed that its titular device -- both lifesaver and nuisance -- is ultimately little more than a topical hook on which to hang an admittedly suspenseful and enjoyable B-movie tale. Even as we compulsively push forward, we find ourselves wishing that Cell went just a little bit further -- that it spoke more directly to our increasingly insular age.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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