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)
The Roots Grow Into The Earth
Launching next month The Roots Grow Into The Earth was a delightful read. It’s the premiere novel by horror author Bert S. Lechner. And after reading it, I hope it’s not his last.
The Roots Grow Into The Earth is a collection of nine short stories and novellas, including three previously published stories. The tales are all part of one larger story. A story of darkness, and madness. A story of a creature released that should never have been. That begins then to sink its roots into the Earth and infect innocent people far and wide.
One such example is The Wall. This is the story of a man named Sam and his wife Nat. They have a lovely normal life full of morning coffee and weekend pizza nights. Until Sam notices something on the wall of their home. While it appears to be nothing, a vision starts taking shape. With Sam’s help.
Another story that really moved me was The Orchestra.
Let me first stay that this was not a particularly fleshed out story. We do not see The Conductor before she’s infected. We don’t see the fallout. No real picture is painted for us, it’s more like a sketch.
In the case of The Orchestra, though, this is exactly the right choice. We don’t need to see the whole picture in gruesome technicolor to get what’s happening in this ill fated concert. We understand perhaps too well what’s occurring. And I thought that was brilliant.
I just want to start by gushing over this storytelling style. Short story collections always have a soft spot in my heart. In the case of The Roots Grow, all of the short stories come together to create one truly dark tale.
I also loved the clear Lovecraftian influence of this story. It’s clear that this was something that the author was going for, from interviews and social media comments. But I could tell before I saw any of that.
The story in The Roots Grow is one of madness. But more than that, it’s one of madness and destruction that the victims could not have avoided. There was no being clever enough to avoid these dark roots that touched them. There was no being strong enough, or selfless and good enough. If the roots reach out and touch you, you’ve already lost.
Finally, I want to extend some praise to my favorite character, Joanne. She is dealing with her own madness, her own demons. But she still finds kindness and strength to help others when they need her. Even against some truly dark odds.
What didn’t work
All that being said, I will say that some of the short stories felt incomplete. One prime example is What Lies In The Icy Soil. This appears to be nothing more than the tale of a person possessed by the need to dig. He digs up something that for sure shouldn’t be dug up. But there’s nothing more to the story. We don’t know who this person is. We don’t know who might be missing him, or what might come of this thing he dug up. As a part of the whole story, it fits. But if we are to consider every tale by its own merit, this one doesn’t have much of anything going for it.
That being said, this is one story in a round ten that wasn’t much of anything. The rest of the stories were wonderfully eerie, both on their own and as part of a whole.
The Roots Grow Into The Earth comes out on October 7th. And I think it would be a perfect addition to your Halloween reading list. (4 / 5)
Strange Eons Review: Cornfields and Eldritch Gods
“The elder gods arrived in the sky in early September, like an unholy aurora borealis stretching across a midnight sky. Their vastness blocked the sun, an unending eclipse, a liminal state, a breath that was inhaled but never let go. Lovecraft got it wrong, I think. It was not the sight of the gods that made humanity go mad. It’s what they destroy that hurts us. Somehow, these elder gods, these aliens, had killed time itself.” – Strange Eons by Keria Perkins
Strange Eons is a short story published in Bourbon Penn Issue 30 by Keira Perkins. Perkins, is an Indiana writer of short fiction and poetry that has also appeared in Non-Stalgia and The Heartland Society of Women Writers. Bourbon Penn is an online and print journal that specializes in speculative, odd, and surreal fiction. All issues are available to be read online for free or can be purchased as a paperback from Bookshop.org.
Strange Eons follows a young woman struggling to adjust to a life post-Lovecraftian apocalypse. This is a cozy story, the majority of which takes place as the woman lays in a cornfield and hides from well-meaning but unhelpful family members. While cozy, the piece is ominous, tackling the terror associated with pregnancy. Specifically, the terror that comes from living in a Red State and finding a significant lack of resources or options.
As a Hoosier capable of becoming pregnant, Strange Eons resonated with me. The imagery of cornfields and cicadas were very Indiana. However, so is a young woman covertly asking her sister to drive her to Illinois to receive healthcare. I loved how Perkins merged cosmic horror with the horror of receiving reproductive healthcare in Indiana but also the United States as a whole. All that was missing were predatory billboards advertising fake pregnancy centers! Talk about maddening and terrifying! Throughout the short story, the most horrific part of the young woman’s ordeal is not the eldritch gods appearing but her rather typical, hellish circumstances.
Aside from content, Strange Eons is well-written. It keeps you guessing where the story will go next. If you like a non-tropey cozy take on Lovecraftian horror or have struggled to receive reproductive healthcare, I highly recommend checking out Strange Eons! You can also check out the other stories in this issue of Bourbon Penn here. Or you can see what else Perkins is up to on her website.(5 / 5)
Walking Practice – A Book Review
Walking Practice is Dolki Min’s debut novella about an alien named Mumu, who must learn what it is like to perform as a human. Victoria Caudle, the translator of this unique Korean story, experiments with the English language to properly convey Min’s style. This, complimented with Min’s various drawings of the story’s protagonist, creates a poetic, outlandish reading experience that keeps you hooked from beginning to end.
Walking Practice: Never Enough Practice
After the destruction of their home planet, Mumu crash lands their spaceship in a desolate forest far from human life. They survive by having sex with humans then, with graphic violence and great diligence, eats them.
Mumu has a strict schedule and regimen for this process; they must shapeshift their body to the specific gender and personality their date is attracted to. While this process of gender conformation is a difficult one (as the alien will often tell us), it is nowhere near as hard as the ridiculous habit humans have of walking on two legs. This is one of the many obstacles Mumu must struggle with while playing the game of life.
Mumu is a rich, self-aware character who seems to trust only one human: the reader. They address us directly, asking questions and indulging us with their theories on what it is to live on Earth. They are knowledgeable about the complexities of personhood, and aware that a person’s gender and sex are complex and not one-size-fits-all. After years of experience in multiple genders, the alien theorizes that humans are treated as people as soon as they have a sex and gender assigned to them. However, depending on the sex and gender, that treatment is never equal.
While Mumu performs various genders and personalities to match the sexual desires of their future prey, they do not identify as human. At the end of the day, they go home, stock their human leftovers in the fridge and freezer, and unleash their natural form. Their only priority is their own survival and pleasure (which, arguably, is their most humanlike quality).
“I’ve learned that my face arouses homicidal impulses”
Walking Practice uses horror, science fiction and satire to create a passionate queer narrative. While Mumu is a serial killer who prides themselves on their murderous skills, it is hard not to feel for them when karma strikes back and they are hurt. The poetic elements of Min’s story and Caudle’s translation support our empathy for such a vicious character
Min’s artwork, depicting Mumu’s alien forms, complements Caudle’s stylistic choices. There is enjambment in several paragraphs, (which can be interpreted as the alien either having a flair for the dramatic or genuinely pausing to find the right words), thus enhancing their internal dialogue. There are moments when the Mumu’s stream of consciousness confuses reality from imagination. They will also lose all learned human skills and revert to their mother tongue; words either run together or are spaced apart, and sometimes there are unintelligible symbols. At the surface, it looks like a linguistic nightmare. Once immersed in Mumu’s narrative, it is a work of art.
Walking Practice‘s balance of ambiguity and transparency keeps the reader close while also allowing an array of interpretations. It is an eccentric piece of fiction that plays with the literary status quo, resulting in an entertaining affair with an unforgettable alien. (5 / 5)