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Cell is that Stephen King book and movie that everyone forgets is a Stephen King book and movie.  It might be because when you think of Stephen King you don’t usually think of zombies, and when I think of Cell I don’t necessarily think of zombies either.  Whether or not Cell is really part of the zombie horror genre, I leave that up to you the reader to decide.  

Cell – A Book

Clayton Riddell is an unassuming graphic artist who’s on his way home from Boston after landing the deal of a lifetime to publish his own graphic novel.  Unfortunately for him, this is the day that “The Pulse” happens.  The Pulse is an entirely phone based event where anyone who’s on their phone at around 3 in the afternoon on October 1st sometime in the mid-2000s gets their mind wiped causing them to suddenly and violently go crazy.  Mass murder and mass panic ensues.  As hysteria reins and people try to call for help more get hit by the Pulse and the Apocalypse begins.  

Clay, who’s cell phoneless, avoids the Pulse, but from his vantage point on a random Boston street corner, things go downhill fast as “phone crazies” attack and kill people all around him.  During the initial chaos Clay manages to save a gay guy named Tom McCourt, who joins him for the rest of the book for lack of anything better to do.  Eventually they also pick up a traumatized 14 year old girl named Alice.

Fleeing Boston as it burns, our mains become refugees in the cell phone Apocalypse.  Clay’s main objective is trying to get home to his wife and son Johnny G (they must have been really big fans of Kenny G is all I can think), Tom really wants to check on his cat, and Alice is mostly just coming along with them since she had to kill the only family she had apparently.  They meet other “normies”, none Pulse affected people, along the road, and it is a very long road.  There might be more walking in this book than in the whole ten seasons of The Walking Dead combined.

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The phone crazies aren’t your typical “brainssssss” zombies.  They might bite and stab, but they’re not after your juicy human meats.  After the initial homicidal panic from the Pulse, they quickly start to change and evolve into something entirely different.  You learn how all this happens from a 12 year old character in the book named Jordan, who apparently can figure all this out because he knows computer basics.  As the phone crazies go from individual threats to a hive mind, Clay and his band become targets of the phone crazies new world order.

Thoughts – An effort was made

This book, more than anything else, feels downright frustrating.  From the big flashing TECHNOLOGY BAD sign throughout it, to the one note characters, to the lack of clarity into just how the Pulse happened, and the halting pace of the entire book where things start to pick up only to slow down again to mourn for characters that you don’t really care about all that much about.  Clay is not a very interesting main character to spend an entire book with.  His one and only concern is to get home to his wife and son; no thoughts for other family, friends, coworkers or the greater effect the events that are unfolding around them are going to have on the future.  As eager as Clay is to get home though, there are so many detours that slow the whole book down that at times it seems like the book is trying to replicate a phoner in reboot mode.  As much as the book tries to push the found family trope it falls flat in that effort too.  Despite spending time getting to know random characters, the fact remains that these were people Clay met only a hour to a day or two ago, so any real connection between the characters is somewhat lost.

The beginning of the apocalypse here, which takes at least 100 pages, could be the same as any typical zombie or plague movie or book (think World War Z on a local level only with the most average guy ever instead of Brad Pitt).  It’s not until the phoners start changing to something other than mindless zombies that things really get interesting.  The characters actually start to have some doubts and moral dilemmas about the mass killing of beings that used to be human, but may not be any longer.  The problem is, things also get so convoluted and motivations of the phoner hive mind remain so dim that the big climax and the ending of the book feels supremely unsatisfying as a whole.  

The book may hold more disappointment for me than enjoyment, but it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, nor even the worst Stephen King book, but it’s still not ranked anywhere near the top of my Stephen King must read list.

Cell – A Movie

This may be a rare instance where a movie is actually better than the book it was based off of.  Perhaps it’s because the movie trims all the unnecessary fat and characters from the book to fit it into its hour and a half running time, but the entire premise seems to work better as a movie.  The screenplay is still written by Stephen King and Adam Alleca, and the plot is basically the same as the book, with a few key differences.  

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Don’t worry. It’s still not as exciting as the poster makes it look.

Clay in the movie is played by the ever pleasant and sad eyed John Cusack, who brings a real feeling of humanity to the character of Clay that was lacking in the book.  Clay’s still a graphic artist on his way home to his estranged wife and son, only now the phone Apocalypse starts for him in a Boston airport, which is a much more exciting start than a random street corner.  

Escaping the chaos at the airport for the subway, Clay runs into the movie version of Tom, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who bears pretty much no resemblance to Tom from the book.  Movie Tom is now a subway driving, Vietnam vet, devoice who, like Clay, is caught up in everything going on. To the movie’s credit, there is a throwaway line that Tom is still gay, even if it’s blink and you’ll miss it.  Tom has Clay’s down to earth attitude about the end of the world and it’s easy to understand why they might stick together this time around.  They also find their own traumatized Alice Maxwell, played by Isabelle Fuhrman.  

Bad phones go in the ice box.

Perhaps the biggest change from the book to the film is the sense of solitude the survivors experience while heading north.  Wide shots of isolated cell phone towers in nature add to the feeling, and the low budget independent film look of the movie makes for some realism in a way that World War Z or the Dawn of the Dead remake lacks.  When the leads do run into other normies, instead of the stereotypical Stephen King crazy religious ladies or redneck yokels from the book, you get some likeable average Joe type people who are willing to help Clay’s crew out.  Even character deaths of one-off characters in the movie seem to hold more weight than they do in the book.

Me as a phone crazy broken down to my base instinct to eat marshmallow fluff straight from the jar.

The phone crazies powers are trimmed down from the book as well, and at the same time become much scarier when they start admitting the Pulse (which sounds a lot like an AOL dial-up tone) from their mouths in order to infect remaining normies. At that point it becomes a survival of the fittest species type movie.

I guess it’s scary in an annoying sort of way.

After King changed the ending for the movie from the book because of criticism of the book ending, the movie ending is still just as confusing.  While the book’s ending is a bit more on the hopeful side, in general I still preferred the new movie ending to the book ending.

The wheel uniform changes just like a flock of birds evading a predator. – Dr. Alan Grant
But seriously, don’t ask me what’s going on here cause I haven’t got a clue.

Final Girl Thoughts

If you’re the type of person who needs every plot point explained in great detail, this is definitely not the book or the movie for you.  If you like your apocalypses more on the confusing side, then you might enjoy Cell.  There’s some of the typical Stephen King unusualness that happens, the shadowy figure haunting the mains every step (this time called the Raggedy Man or the President of Harvard or the President of the Internet, whichever you prefer) and characters having psychological breakdowns on the regular.  Cell, both the movie and the book, definitely have that Stephen King mark on them, though they perhaps lack the deeper themes that make for a real Stephen King classic. My recommendation, watch the movie for free on Tubi and skip the book entirely.   3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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Book Reviews

Maeve Fly: A Horror Novel Review

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The evils lurking Los Angeles are unveiled in CJ Leede’s 2023 debut novel, Maeve Fly. The novel is a gruesome love letter and ode to Los Angeles and horror icons, centering on the titular character, Maeve Fly. She is, in short, a Disney Princess and serial killer.

Below the Depths of Anaheim

By day, Maeve Fly works as a princess in “the park.” It is is never named, but obviously Disneyland as depicted by Maeve’s vibrant descriptions of the princesses, furry costumed animals, and movie-themed rides. She plays a Scandinavian princess (Elsa) and genuinely loves the job and her coworker, Kate. In her personal life, Maeve tends to her sick, comatose grandmother, former starlet Tallulah, and her grandmother’s cat.

A stock photo of Los Angeles

Maeve has an ordinary personal life, including going out with Kate and takes biweekly, afternoon trips to a Tiki bar in which she, a man who may or may not be Johnny Depp, and the bartender are the only patrons. Her interests include the macabre and all things horror and Los Angeles history, her love for the city a central theme throughout the novel. When Maeve meets Kate’s brother, Gideon, Maeve’s sense of self unravels.

Mirroring Fiction

The problem with Maeve’s sense of self, however, is that she has no idea who she really is. She adopts the personalities of literary characters, from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground narrator to those in James, Kant and Milton novels.

Maeve is selfish, antagonistic, and very selective of the people she lets in her life. She is an unreliable narrator with an unpredictable temper and ultraviolent tendencies.

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Leede’s prose and writing of Maeve invites a new narrative to the genre. Maeve is persistent in her disgust with how often villains need a tragic backstory as excuse for their monstrous behavior, especially when the villains are women. Leede dismantles that trope and provides Maeve with no reason for her treacherous behavior. It is simply who Maeve is.

An Ode to Horror

Maeve Fly is everything I love in a horror story. It is an unpredictable slasher with comedy and heart. Leede has displayed her talent for writing horror. She has created a story that pays its dues to the genre’s long iconic history — one example is the references to Pyscho or American Psycho — but is wholly unique in it’s own form. From captivating dialogue to visceral depictions of horror history and Los Angeles’ sites, like the La Brea Tar Pits, the novel sucks you in until the very last, bone chilling sentence.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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Book Reviews

Mister Magic

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Released in August of last year, Mister Magic is written by author Kiersten White. And I’m going to give you the warning that I wish I’d have had when I started reading it.

This book deals largely with the systemic issues prevalent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While there are no overt discussions or descriptions of child abuse, I would argue that it’s alluded to.

In the interest of full disclosure, White lets us know in the acknowledgments that she was raised Mormon and is not anymore. I was also raised Mormon and am not anymore. And this book wrecked me.

The story

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Our story begins with a young woman named Val. She’s been living with her father on an off-the-grid farm for most of her life.

When he dies, a mysterious stranger shows up at his funeral. This man, named Marcus, seems to know her right away. She knows him as well, though she doesn’t seem to remember why.

Eventually, he explains that she was on a children’s TV show called Mister Magic. A show that she has no memory of at all.

And this makes sense because there is little to no evidence online that the show exists. There are no clips, no scripts, no cast lists. It’s as if the show vanished entirely when the last episode aired.

Oh, and during that last episode, a kid probably died.

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Desperate to remember her childhood and maybe even reconnect with her mother, Val leaves with her former cast mates for a reunion and podcast taping.

As the Circle of Friends reforms, fans of the show online rejoice. If the cast is getting back together, it must mean Mister Magic is coming back.

And that’s exactly what the mysterious creators have in mind.

What worked

This book shows a world that is all but impossible to describe from the outside. Long before I realized this book was an allegory for Mormonism, I was catching signs. It felt familiar.

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Everyone was a little too nice. Everyone seemed to be holding back a little. Everyone seemed eager to do things for other people, almost like they felt like they had to justify their presence.

I also appreciated that we talked about child abuse without talking about child abuse. Through the book, we learn that one member of the cast, Kitty, is missing. Her disappearance heralded the end of the show, but no one wanted to talk about what happened to her.

This, I thought, was a subtle and brilliant way to talk about abuse without having to go into upsetting details. And in not adding these details, White leaves us to invent them ourselves. Which is always worse.

Sometimes it’s the notes you don’t play that make the biggest impression.

To that same end, there is no real gore in this book. No charred bodies, no blood. No gruesome scenes at all. But I feel like that was intentional. I’ll also point out that in reading other reviews for the book, I noticed that others criticized the character for being rather bland and one-dimensional. Both of those things are likely on purpose, and part of proving a point.

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In the book, each character remembers Mister Magic pulling them back. He taught them the habit of dulling themselves down. Don’t paint in such a wild manner. Don’t shout so loud. Don’t stray too far.

Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t be different.

In the end, Mister Magic managed to do exactly what the very best horror does. It took a real horror that most people do not experience and turned it into a metaphor that everyone can understand. And it doesn’t have to be just former Latter Day Saints members. All survivors of religious abuse will see themselves in this. But we’ll also see all the other lost children, trapped with Mister Magic, and realize we are not alone.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Book Reviews

Monastery Series 7: a Book Review

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Hello again dear readers. Today we are looking at yet another instalment of Monastery. Once again, I’ll be eating my words. Every time I think the story can’t get any crazier, it does and you’ll understand why soon enough. Without further ado, let’s go!

Plot

We start with quite a tension point in the story (then again, it is always tense nowadays). Rocky’s been abducted and the gang is at a loss for words or motivation, all except Thomas, that is. At this point, all they want is to get Rocky back, even if it means abandoning the search for truth. I can appreciate how Thomas is now a foil not only to those hiding secrets but also to his cousins. Without him, there is no story as far as I’m concerned. However, there were some moments where even I thought he could’ve been a bit more tactful around others’ emotions.

We also see that at least for the time being, Rocky is safe. His POV is so well done I wanted to pull him out of the page and give him a big cuddle. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s yet another collateral damage of the family’s mess. 

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Speaking of mess, Cassandra and Francis reach a fascinating opposing point. She’s concerned Francis is showing no remorse over killing George Turner, or over killing an innocent dog. Could Albert please ask around if there is a special circle of hell for people like him? It’s interesting how Cassandra, no matter how messed up she is, still has some sense of right or wrong. As for Francis, someone needs to take that gun off him ASAP as he’s all too happy using it.

As we all predicted, the Nicole-David-Fred love triangle finally blew up, and boy, how did it. Erica goes full-on scorned woman and drugs Nicole. She then parades her in the middle of Monastery for everyone to see in a wedding dress. Threatening to pour acid on her face is just an added touch to the terror.

Although this turns out to be just a mind game on Erica’s part, we get some insightful character revelations. Nicole’s reasoning for toying with the two guys becomes more understandable, although I still cannot excuse it (and I’m speaking as someone who actually likes Elena Gilbert). I think she could use some therapy to sort out the trauma inflicted by her dad’s affair. At this stage of her life, she shouldn’t end up with either guy. David is also at fault and I think he should work on making it up to Fred. If he and Nicole sail off into the sunset now, it would leave a bad taste in a lot of reader’s mouths. Then again, if Fred does decide to take her back, it would be his choice. Something tells me this ordeal is far from over. 

We end series seven of Monastery with Thomas receiving yet another blow when his dad betrays him and destroys all the progress of their investigation. So much for trusting family, or authorities for that matter. What is going to happen now?

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Overall thoughts

I said a lot of my thoughts while discussing the plot of the episode. As usual, Monastery is full of of drama, mystery, and outright terrifying things to keep us on our toes. The one plot thread I am holding in my hand just waiting to see where it leads me is Madam Witch. Her very fairytale-like deal with Cassandra implies she owes her one of the grandkids. Not to mention the implication that Henry has some kind of special powers. I can’t wait to see how that ties into what happened to Albert. The next part can’t come out soon enough!  5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

More thoughts from the author:

1. Something I talked about before in another article about Monastery a little but something that I picked up on in this episode. Cassandra, although definitely not perfect, still seems to uphold some kind of morality within her. Such as how horrified she is when Francis doesn’t feel bad that he killed George. Was this something you considered when writing these characters, someone who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty but still has some kind of empathy vs someone who doesn’t?

Absolutely – that is my favourite type of character! Who doesn’t love an anti-hero with a grey moral compass, but a moral compass nevertheless? Cassandra is capable of the most atrocious acts, but she always has her family’s best interest at heart – or what her idea of their “best interest” should be.

Interestingly enough, we’re slowly learning how Francis is the result of Cassandra being the way she is, and he himself certainly blames her for much. Francis only has his own interest at heart… yet he killed George because of what the old creep had said about Cassandra! Again, grey area.

2. The whole Erica scene is genius on many levels. I actually got a couple of questions in regards to it. One – were you always going to pull the whole ‘none of the torture devices were real’ trick on the readers to toy with their emotions or were you thinking of doing it for real but backed out? Two – I thought the way the town’s residents acted was very fitting of the story and of modern society. What was your intention with having seemingly everyone witness the ordeal?

Funny, I cannot remember whether that mini-twist was always part of the equation, but I concluded that I didn’t want Erica to be hated or irredeemable – I wanted to make it more about the lesson being learned than the payback.

As for the townspeople witnessing the whole thing, there were three reasons I did it: a) the satire, because, has mentioned in previous Q&As, Monastery is a satire of small-town life, and we all know small-town folks love a good scandal; b) the humour, as I went all out in making an over-the-top situation even more over-the-top; and c) plot convenience because, as that all goes down, Francis is shooting up the Keane house and I didn’t actually want any neighbours to know and call the cops as it wouldn’t serve his arc… at this point.

3. The one storyline that I’m still wondering as to how it will tie into everything is Madam Witch and the whole first-born son hints that are very fairytale-like. Are we meant to take it as an allusion to the paranormal in this story (such as the seances they had in the previous episode) and that more is coming? As it is not outright stated since the murder mystery is the forefront with the town not really caring there’s a werewolf roaming around.

There will be a paranormal twist to the murder mystery and how it’s covered up, I promise – after all, one mustn’t forget that Cassandra owes Madam Witch – but we don’t know what she owes her for.

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As for the werewolf, hmm… Been a while since he’s made an appearance, has it not? Wouldn’t it be a darn shame if one of our protagonists came face-to-face with him in the next episode?

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