Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Did Stephen King 'Phone It In" With His Latest Novel, Cell? One Fan's Humble Opinion

And now, a review of Stephen King's new novel, Cell:

is Stephen King on horror novel auto-pilot. Cell is self-parody. This is not King's triumphant return to full throttle horror, as some fan-boys have said. This is King writing a first draft, chucking it in a FedEx pouch the instant 'The End" appeared on his computer screen, and then putting it right the hell out of his head so he can start work cranking out his next book. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I worship the guy, but this is one book he should have kept in a drawer.

Cell is the story of a graphic novelist named Clay who's in Boston selling his first graphic novel. He's in line at an ice-cream truck (which happens all the time, right?) when the girl and the woman in front of him answer their cell phones at the same time. The "people" calling aren't actually people at all, but rather a zombie-making "pulse" of unknown origin simultaneously sent out to all cell phones and turning anyone who answers into a frickin' lunatic. The first 50 pages of Cell are not only readable, they're actually pretty good. This would have made a great short story or novella. Has the feel of King's apocalyptic classics like "The Mist" and The Stand. These opening scenes that take place in a world where nothing is known, nothing is certain, and anything could kill you, is shot through with what feels like the genuine panic of impending apocalypse. For 50 pages, Cell manages to be frenetic and even scary.

But with the other 300 pages, however, King's laid out for himself the thankless task of explaining what happens to graphic-novelist Clay and his ever-changing band of New England-area survivors. It didn't take 300 pages for me to figure out that I didn't really care what happened to them. Anyway, those who didn't have cell phones and weren't affected by 'the pulse', are having to survive against a ravening (and much larger) contingent of zombies (or "phoners") who, at least at first, will tear any living they see limb from limb. Each successive plot twist becomes more unbelievable than the last. In order to anchor the rising level of gory goofiness in something that at least has the feel of reality, King has his heroes meet up with a barely-teenage computer nerd named Jordan who essentially intuits what's going on behind the scenes with the rapidly evolving "flocks" of "phoners". There's really no way for this kid to know what's going on, no matter how good King says he is with computers, and yet he does know it, and proceeds to recite paragraph upon paragraph of clunky exposition. Every baffling, completely unsupported-by-the-evidence thing he says, turns out, of course, to be true. It's a slog to get through.

Cell's a little like eating at Waffle House. It goes down fast and easy, but after you're done, you feel oogy, kinda guilty, and worse for the experience. And then, to make sure everyone leaves with a bad taste in their mouth, King goes down the well-trod slacker route he travelled in Desperation, The Shining, and The Stand, and has his heroes emerge victorious by setting off a well-placed, well-timed, giant explosion. King is no stranger to deus ex machina, but he kills us with it here. It's an appropriately lazy climax for this lazy, lazy book. I'm under no illusions any of you Inanity-readers were for one second considering picking this thing up and reading it, but on the off-chance you were, stop it.

King can be a very good writer. Anyone who's read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption knows this. Same goes for Misery, Pet Sematary, The Shining, or even The Tommyknockers. Cell represents a shift for King. No, not from good writing to bad, but from horror to a more "literary" kind of fiction in the vein of his New Yorker fiction. His last non-Dark Tower "horror" novel was called From a Buick Eight -- his second "possessed car" novel. It was not a horror novel, but rather a somber mystery story with an ending that featured both sci-fi and "weird" fiction elements. The book wasn't bad (nor was it particularly good), but it wasn't horror either. I think what Cell represents, (for all of you still reading this post), is the official end of King's involvement with horror novels. He's moved on. After finishing the sub-par Cell, it becomes very clear why: his heart's just not in it anymore. All right, that's it. More tomorrow.

[Note: His next book, due out this November, is called Lisey's Story. It is not in any way a horror novel.]


blankfist said...

Isn't the whole zombie story thing kind of stale? Dunno. But, one thing's for sure, Waffle House is some good eatin'! Fa shizzle!

Glad to see you let Harwell talk you into writing a post about King's new novel. Man, I hate harwell. Him and his stinking beady eyes. They stink, I tell you. Smell liked boiled bologna and feet.

harwell said...

Weird, because my eyes actually DO feel like they probably stink right now. I guess that's what happens when you fall asleep on the bus. Your eyes stink.

At any rate, thanks Crane for the review. I probably never would've read the book but I like hearing your take on all things King related. It lets me feel informed without doing any of the work involved, which is pretty much how I would like the rest of my life to become. If you could get to work on that in your next post, I'd appreciate it.


Stephen King said...

To Brian, my #1 fan...

I thought you'd enjoy this early piece I just re-discovered in a dusty drawer.

**M-O-O-N, That Spells Buttworms**

by Stephen King, age 11

Buttworms is a very serious condition that affects 2 out of 5 Americans at some point in life.

Buttworms is an intestinal infection caused by tiny parasitic worms measuring about 1/2 inch in length. Other names for a buttworm infection are seatworm infection, enterobiasis, or the old burn ass.

Sometimes these worms can actually be seen in the area around a person's rectum, mostly at night. They may have the appearance of light-colored threads on the move. It's usually not a bad idea to have a "point man" standing by with a flashlight, ready to shine it up your rectum if you experience nocturnal itching. This won't accomplish much, but at least someone will get a glimpse of the little buggers, and positive identification is the first step to recovery.

The itching is usually worse at night because it is caused by buttworms migrating to the area around the rectum to lay their eggs. When a person scratches the itchy area, buttworm eggs collect under the fingernails, which are then passed orally after the person handles food. Thus, the whole cycle begins anew. I can't emphasize enough how important it is not to scratch, no matter how bad the itch is.

Craig Moorhead said...

I think it just finally happened: Stephen King accidentally wrote a book in his sleep and it got published.

Yeah, he's done enough for horror. He can stop now.

nathan said...

Craig that is a FANTASTIC picture.

Crane. The thing is, I'm not surprised at all that Cell sucks. King hasn't written a book in...hell....at least more than 5 years that is worth a damn. It's a tough choice I think. Stop using drugs and write shitty books, or use lots of drugs, write good stuff and and die early. I am not sure he's written something I've enjoyed since he got clean.
That being said, I don't think he should be done. I think he should keep pumping out shit like a machine and laugh all the way to his over stuffed safe-deposit box.
("hahaha. I don't even remember what this one is about!!! ahahahahahah another 20 mil! YEAH)

Now..Crane I know you didn't like it...but the question is, do you own it in hardcover (and/or 1st edition?)

blankfist said...

Of course he does. He's Crane. But I don't imagine he paid for it, though. Get a job.

JudgeHolden said...

Yeah Craig, awesome picture. All Sabotaged out. And I think you may be right. He's found a way to write not only all day during his waking hours, but all night when he's asleep. At times, it kind of felt like that. If publishers really put books like Cell out into the marketplace from first-time writers, I'd be a published writer by now because I wouldn't have to spend a lot of time re-writing my own novel to make it, you know, suck less. King will come back, though. He'll write something that's of inarguable quality and I can wax poetic about his gifts as a writer. He's going to come back with something really good, I know it.

And the answer is yes, I own a first edition of Cell. I, unlike you, am an undiscriminating reader of Stephen King. It doesn't have to be good for me to buy it and read it, so long as he wrote it. I am a true Constant Reader, sucker though that may make me. But seriously, that first 50 pages is worth a read. Just ignore the other 300, that's all.

JudgeHolden said...

Oh I was writing that post when Heath posted up his bi-weekly Crane-dis. Good one, Heath.

blankfist said...

Bi-weekly? Whatever. More like bi-daily!

blankfist said...

BTW, anyone else watch Lost tonight?

Harwell said...

I'm tellin' all of y'all it's CRAIGOTAGE!!!

Awesome picture. You sort of look like Crumb, too.

Didn't see LOST last night Heaf, but it's on the TiVo. Maybe this afternoon. So g'head and spoil it for me, because I'm sure that's what you're waiting for. Douche.

blankfist said...

simmer down boiling water. I just wanted to know if anyone else had seen it, because it was good. This season has been lackluster, so when a good episode comes on it makes me all gooooooey inside.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Stephen King even wrote The Cell.

I read that book after reading quite a few SK books in a row, from his earliest (Salem's Lot, The Stand) to later ones like Bag of Bones. Quite a few , actually...And while I am not a fan of SK , I HAVE read enough of his works to get a 'feel' for his writing style , tropes, etc.

SK did NOT write The Cell...Who did , I don't know. Did he write part of it and farm the rest out ? Did his son write the book, and SK let him publish it under his name? No clue, but my amateur textual analysis says whoever wrote The Cell, it was NOT the same person who wrote The Shining or From a Buick 8.

I no longer own the book as I hated it so much I sold it at a rummage sale for a quarter, so I cannot list every single thing that makes me think SK is not the actual author.But here's one thing I thought was off:

SK has always (from Carrie on) wrote about people of roughly his age and level of economic success. His protagonists have become richer and older as he's become richer and older. And suddenly he's writing from the perspective of a struggling 25 year old artist? And his characters have never before burst into tears every 5 pages or so, but that's one thing that irritated me about this book.

It just doesn't 'read' like SK...It reads what a minimally talented writer told to parody SK would come out with.

Brian Crane said...

Interesting thoughts, Anonymous. I've never considered the idea that King himself might have had a book of his ghost-written. You do mention a few things that differentiate this book from his others, but it's not enough for me to think he had someone else do it. King writes and writes and then writes some more. No motive for him to have someone else step in -- King's not lazy and he has not even a passing acquaintance with writer's block. So it's him. It's just not his best.

Thanks for chiming in. Maybe I should start posting some more entries in this thing.