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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 / 5)
A Pilgrimage of Swords, a Book Review
A Pilgrimage of Swords (2019) is the first novel of a grimdark fantasy series (The Seven Swords) authored by Anthony Ryan.
A Pilgrimage of Swords (2019) is the first novel of a grimdark fantasy series (The Seven Swords) authored by Anthony Ryan. The book is technically a novella, running slightly short of a novel-length, but reads like a collection of short stories. This review will cover Subterranean Press’ digital copy of the novella.
Desperate to change his fate, Pilgrim forfeits his name on his quest to meet a mad god. He and his fellow pilgrims travel a dangerous road filled with abominations and horrors in the desperate hope that they might have one prayer answered. With a twisted sentient sword, he fights his darkness and the God’s abominations in the hopes of something better.
What I Liked
As mentioned, this novella reads like a collection of short stories. Each story tackles a specific challenge and region. The strategy works well in building the torment of the journey and keeping the reader consistently engaged.
A voice plagues Pilgrim, constantly antagonizing him at every step of their journey. The style in which this “voice” delivers their intrusive thoughts, while not inherently unique, remains an enjoyable and satisfying read. The voice itself becomes a favored character of mine. Pilgrim and “voice” share a dynamic of brooding hero and antagonizer. Again, not unique, but done with great effect.
Despite the tight word count, several twists effectively engage the reader, helping to add to the world that we only get a glimpse of.
While the supporting cast doesn’t have as much time dedicated to them, they collectively add to the experience with unique perspectives and dynamics.
In terms of horror, the final chapter provides the most stunning examples. This review is spoiler-free, but the build-up certainly exceeds expectations for the first read.
Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings
A Pilgrimage of Swords resides on the lighter side of grimdark high fantasy, but it remains grimdark. The world of A Pilgrimage of Swords is uncaring and cruel, producing characters that reflect that, functioning as opportunists.
Animals do die, and children are equally prone to potential death. Again, not entirely out of character for the setting, but it should be mentioned for readerly consideration.
As the description might indicate, torment and suffering are recurring motifs in the story. While the tortures certainly are sadistic, readers get the aftermath. The novel doesn’t linger in its sadism.
What I Dislike, or Food for Thought
As A Pilgrimage of Swords is a high fantasy novel with light grimdark elements, the horror reflects that concept. There are tense moments, and characters are prone to danger, but genuine horror remains lacking. The novel doesn’t claim itself as such, but our audience should consider this. However, walking gods of madness twisting their environment to reflect their psyche shouldn’t be ridden off too quickly.
While I mostly enjoy the brevity of the story and how the chapters read like short stories, it limits the time we have to invest in the characters and setting. This novel is the first of a continuing series, so this criticism doesn’t inherently apply to the other novels. This first introduction remains easy to recommend for those looking for a quick read, not a long investment.
Many plot beats are predictable and can somewhat underwhelm a reader when the obvious thing happens. I will admit that this isn’t too often a hindrance but compromises to accommodate the tighter word count. Luckily, there are plot twists to minimize this underwhelming predictability, but the chapters could still utilize an extended word count.
The name doesn’t exactly fit this first entry of the series. It might be a perfect name for the series, but this novel’s pilgrimage has little to do with swords.
A Pilgrimage of Swords has a few haunting moments but is an otherwise enjoyable and quick read. If a grimdark set in a high fantasy where cruel gods walk the earth sounds like an interest of yours, this will certainly satisfy that itch. While it remains a little too brief, this is by design and part of a larger narrative.
(4 / 5)
Horror in graphic novels
Creepy Comics Collages by Jennifer Weigel, Part 5
Well, you won’t get rid of me that easily… Ha ha, I lied about coming to the end and the afterlife in the Creepy Comics Collages segment, it was just an opportunity for rebirth. Besides, it’s World Collage Day! So having come into another comic book to rework, here we go again…
Creepy Comics Story 9: The Voice (of God or Reason or perhaps an homage to my ex)
“Come to me my children, the voice of God awaits!… Don’t let them escape!” Please beam me up out of this weird comic collage alternate reality. “God I am your hand! Lift me… to your place. I commend my spirit!” I want to go back to dreaming about starfish.
The computer programmer behind the scenes turns to face us and smiles. “Guardians! This is a place of God!… Come to the true voice of God!” “I am everything.” “Come to the voice!” And the horrific AI generated creatures abide by his every coded word.
Just like last night in the — signs posted for Nightmare, No Exit. The deer spirit faun screams in surprise, “Eeek!” “No! I defy you!” She returns to the form of a little girl with arms outspread to the open sky. “Y’know, a day like today makes all the stuff that happened last night seem just like a bad dream!” The dream seems so real…
Somewhere in the city, the computer programmer sits up at night in pensive monologue, “You try to make a difference… But it doesn’t really matter.”
Creepy Comics Story 10: The City (Metropolis becomes self-aware)
This segment is brought to you by Dead Artists and Talking Dinosaurs. No really, wait for it…
Woooooo Uhhhh Wooooooo Uhhhh… Wump! Uff! Wump! Uff! “She belongs to The City!” The Glenn Fry 1985 hit single looms ominously overhead as Metropolis becomes self-aware. “The City… will live!… The City… will breathe!” The City gasps for air, “Got to… breathe!… Got to… Breathe!“
Her breath is the wind… Her eyes are windows. Her heart pumps fluid through buried plumbing… “I’m The City!” Her mind is The City!
And we have a celebrity appearance by Rich Koz “Son of Svengoolie” WFLD 1973: “I take a nap for 10,000 years and look what happens… some-body builds a city!” Kerwyn chimes in, “Geez! Somebody’s been busy!” And we cut out to a scene of Svengoolie standing alongside his coffin.
Well, that’s all folks. Or is it? For now, any way… until I get more comic books… Duh duh DUHHHH…
If you want to see more art, check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.
Dread Nation, a book review
Imagine if you will, a world in which the Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t just the end of the American Civil War. But that it was also the start of a zombie apocalypse. We’ve now entered the world of Dread Nation.
Written by Justine Ireland and published in 2018, Dread Nation is an alternate-history horror novel that considers what our nation might have looked like if zombies had risen at the actual battle of Gettysburg. What results is a dark, twisted, entertaining novel that is truer to reality than it should be.
Our main character is Jane McKeene, the black daughter of a plantation owner’s wife. She has a fairly comfortable childhood, being raised by her mother and the other women on the plantation as an adored and willful child.
Outside of her family’s plantation, horrors abound. There is the grotesque living dead, of course. But there is also raging racism that leads the leaders of America to do horrifying, monstrous things. Things like taking black and Indigenous children from their families and placing them into schools designed to train them to fight the living dead.
I feel like it would be irresponsible to note here that schools intended to indoctrinate Indigenous children were a very real thing. Children were taken from their families and forced to assimilate into a WASP way of life. They were taught to be servants and told to be grateful for the opportunity. That’s scary enough without zombies, frankly.
By the time Jane is old enough to be taken, there is hope that the zombies are under control. Cities, like Baltimore, are up and running. The well-to-do attend theater and lectures and even bask in electric light.
Under control, of course, is a fragile concept.
Jane is sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat. The girls there are told they’re being trained to be Attendants. Their life will be one of servitude, to stand near wealthy white women and protect them in case of a zombie attack. Jane seems like she’s going to have a decent future. She’s good at her lessons, and good at killing the dead. She’s less good at following the rules. She gets in trouble for sneaking out at night, getting newspapers, and not minding her etiquette lessons.
Worse, she’s often compared unfavorably to Katherine, a classmate who cannot do wrong. She’s an elegant young woman, but perhaps too pretty for her good. She’s refused several Attendant jobs because women find her too pretty to be around their husbands.
When Jane discovers a secret about Baltimore that the mayor would rather no one else know, she and Katherine are thrown on a train and sent to a frontier town far out west, called Summerland. Summerland is run by a racist preacher and his hateful son, who happens to be the sheriff. Jane has to get herself and Katherine out of the town before they’re both killed, either by the living dead or the racist leaders.
This novel was a delightful blend of zombie story and alternate history. And it manages to do justice to both genres.
On the historical side, there are all sorts of delightful details that are just a little wrong. Just a little different than our Civil War buffs will remember. It feels like this world is just a step away from ours, as if we were to trip in our world we might fall right into this one.
It’s the zombie story part though, that of course had my attention. And it should surprise no one that this part was fantastic. The dead are always creeping nearby, always a threat. The simplest actions have to be adjusted because the dead are always there.
What makes a zombie story good, though, is how the living responds to the threat. Who becomes a hero, and who becomes a monster? This is the real attraction to a zombie story. And it’s deeply and richly explored in Dread Nation.
This is the sort of book that is perfectly written, and by the only person who could have done it. Justina Ireland is from Pennsylvania, like me. You don’t grow up in Pennsylvania without understanding Gettysburg. The blood from that battle sunk into the land we were raised on. It’s in our very essence. And of course, Pittsburgh is the home of zombie stories. Ireland picks up the traditions of Romero and does the old man very proud.
Dread Nation is exciting and infuriating. It has enough twists to keep you guessing and just a little touch of magic. It’s honestly the best book I’ve read so far this year.
I will tell you that the story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the sequel, Deathless Divide, is already out. So if you’re going to read Dread Nation, which I highly suggest, make sure you have the second one close at hand.