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Cell: A Novel: Thoughts

Cell: A Novel by Stephen King is a few things: a zombie novel, a post-apocalyptic adventure novel, and a bloodbath.

In the first few pages, ‘The Pulse’ happens.  Anyone one a cell phone at the time becomes a raving lunatic.  They aren’t zombies per se, but as close to zombies as the infected are in 28 Days Later. It’s also more complicated than that in the special way that only Stephen King can make it.

The ‘zombies’ or ‘phone-crazies’ go on a rampage and turn our neat little world inside out.  We follow Clay, a comic artist, who is on a business trip away from his family at the time of the event.  What follows is the story of a man in a post-apocalyptic zombie world just trying to get back home to see his son and estranged wife.

King’s writing was good.  The pace kept up throughout the novel.  I paid particular attention to his descriptions, because they are one of his strengths and my weaknesses.  This was a bit of a poor choice on my part, as King describes in vivid detail as people rip each other’s throats out with their teeth and have their heads blown off.  The violence is shocking, but not ill placed.  He doesn’t dwell on any one act of violence, either.  It’s just there are so many acts.

I liked the way he intertwined his characters in this novel.  Two or three people, ‘normies’ meet by happenstance and journey together.  They start out barely knowing each other, but their actions, as much as their words, quickly demonstrate their growing care for each other.  There are some quite tender scenes between the main characters.

Another thing I took away from this novel is how King ends chapters with cliff hangers.  He brings us almost to the climax of a scene, and then ends the chapter.  He mentioned in On Writing that he pays particular attention to when his wife stops reading his novels.  He looks at those sections and examines why it is so easy for her to put the book down and walk away.  I think most of us use chapter breaks as natural ‘walk away’ points, and he tries to make that as hard as possible.

Formatting-wise, his chapters vary greatly in length.  Some chapters are but a page long, while others are twenty or more.  This fits with his idea that paragraphs and the like are ‘as long as they need to be’.  I think I have a tendency to want everything uniform, but I will try to follow this example.

Later in the story he talks a bit about the cause of the Pulse, but he only ever does this through dialog.  Characters guess about what has happened.  The narrator, though partially omniscient, doesn’t let us in on the cause, which adds to the feeling of uncertainty and prevents King from inventing a bunch of technobabble. (Here is a good Wired article on how Ronald Moore avoided technobabble in Battlestar Galactica).  Though I plan on writing mostly fantasy, I plan on taking this to heart as well.  People don’t need to know the intricacies of how magic or tech work.  That is rarely the story.  The story is how people interact with magic or tech, and how it affects their lives.

King has two main story lines by the end of the novel.  One of them, the zombie threat, reaches a level of resolve.  It isn’t complete, but it is complete enough.  The other, Clay finding his family, is left, intentionally, without resolution.  King gives us the choice to determine how that plays out.  I appreciate that he resolved the ‘bigger’ plot of the book.  I think it helps us swallow the cliffhanger ending.  If neither plot had any resolution, I would be very disappointed.  Instead, I am fairly pleased with the ending.

I’m already about 20% of the way through my next book: A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham.

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