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Cell by Stephen King
Review by John Berlyne
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0340921447
Date: 27 February, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

At the top of the tree of successful writers sits Stephen King. His is an unparalleled career in the history of modern fiction, one spanning decades, genres, media and generations. So many of King's peers have either gone out of fashion, run out of ideas or just died, but King has kept on working and kept on being published. Not all of his work has been consistently excellent, but he'd be the first to admit that - his honesty as a writer is one of his most inspirational and enduring traits - but his consummate master craftsmanship as a writer is not open to question, and his latest novel Cell shows that the master has not lost his touch.

Cell is a story built around a reasonably simple and linear idea - imagine if somehow, a signal was sent through all the mobile telephones in the world, a signal that turned anyone who heard it immediately into an insane violent crazy person...what happens next?

King sets about providing and answer to this question and he does so in his inimitable style. The opening scene of Cell is superb - King depicts the centre of Boston tranquilly going about it's business - a normal day. As his protagonist Clayton Riddell strolls through the city, King conveys to us that this man is happy - he's a graphic artist who's just made his first big sale and he's on cloud nine. But even as we're told this, there is anticipation building, for we know that King is going to sucker punch us any moment. This sense of building literary expectation produces a delicious sense of dread in the reader and even though we know, we just know it's coming, the chaos of "The Pulse" explodes onto the page and into our brains with astonishing and horrifying impact.

When "The Pulse" hits, everyone in the middle of a call becomes homicidal and those who witness this first wave of violence immediately reach for their own cell phones to report it, thus they too join the "phone crazies". Only those without cells or those quick enough to latch on to the cause of the chaos, escape the effects, and with so many cell phones around, it is the "phone crazies" who are in the majority.

Thus Cell is an end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it novel. Poor Clay gets no chance to revel in his success - it's his bad, bad luck that his big break comes to him on the very day that the world ends. His story then is one of survival and his motivation is to try and somehow make it back home to his son. He picks up companions along the way, and the story tells of their tribulations and their discoveries. There are many of both.

Cell is interesting particularly given where it comes in the King canon. Having recently finished the monumental Dark Tower sequence (see these links for my reviews of The Wolves of the Calla, The Song of Susanna and The Dark Tower), it's interesting that King is still writing about wanderers passing through a broken landscape and about characters who journey towards their goal driven solely by their dogged persistence and obsession. These, it seems are favourite themes of his, but in each exploration and outing he offers much to his readers.

What shines through Cell very brightly indeed is King's masterful technique as writer. He stretches his linear idea the whole length of his novel but it never palls and I never lost interest. Instead, he kept me turning each page, later and later into the night, desperate to know what happens next. The overall construction of Cell, though short for a King novel, is neat and exemplary and King is as capable as ever he was of depicting scenes of uncanny grisliness. He draws with amazing clarity, pictures in your mind that you hope never to see in reality - such is his artistry, this painter with words.

Cell predictably and understandably has a massive, high profile marketing drive behind it and given its subject is matter unsurprisingly making full use of modern day technology in its promotion. For further information be sure to check out the author's own web site . Elsewhere you can investigate the audiobook , iTunes and MP3 versions, visit the book's official website and listen to a podcast of King talking about how Cell came about - this last is well worth a visit.

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