This is an old audiobook review that I wrote for Cell. I originally published it on this site in 2014. And hey, what is old is new again so enjoy!
A long time ago in a college far away, I sat down with a group of other beginning writers and started my first creative writing class. After the instructor went through all the necessary business, he asked the class a very easy question. “What writer has had the greatest influence in your life?”
My answer was Stephen King. The room went silent like I had farted the national anthem.
The instructor didn’t add much but I could feel all of the widened eyes on me. Then, the shaking of heads followed by amused disdain. I wanted to bury myself under the desk. It was my first introduction to the world of literary snobbery.
I grew up reading King with my sister. In high school, his book It was the first book ever to bring me to tears. After high school, I spent the year in Bridgton, Maine, and actually spent time in some of the places he described in his stories.
And while I haven’t been reading with his later work, King feels like a comfy warm sweater. I enjoy reading his stuff, even when I don’t like it.
That said, I was in the mood for a zombie book and my local library was happy to oblige.
What’s it about?
Cell tells the story a of zombie-like apocalypse created by cell phones. Mind you, this was from 2006 cell phones that look as antiquated as wind-up record players.
It all starts in Boston Commons where Clay is celebrating the success of selling his comic book characters to a major publisher. It’s during his moment of victory when everything starts coming undone.
A teenage girl who looks like a pixie tears out the throat of a woman in a pinstriped suit. A man with a knife slashes everyone he can see. Cars careen into each other. Everything starts falling apart around him.
Clay befriends a man named Tom on the street and they both make it to Clay’s hotel before everything comes undone. They take in Alice, a frightened teenager, into their custody, and soon, the three of them flee the city.
Clay desires to return back to Maine to check on the safety of his son and estranged wife. Both Tom and Alice agree to go with him for simple want of anything else to do.
Yet, they discover that the “phone crazies” start showing strange behavior. They listen to terrible music at night and when together, they flock like birds. The survivors quickly realize that the night is the only time to travel.
And travel they do. They make their way through the entire North Shore of Massachusetts. I grew up in this area and I knew every single landmark in the book. It was hilarious when King took his creative license to play, but it was fun to see the places of my first twenty years as a backdrop for an apocalypse. King later apologizes at the end of the book during the author’s note, but I’m guessing most people were flattered that their small town was mentioned.
Ultimately, the group decides to kill an entire “flock” of the phone crazies which causes the crazies to hunt them down, but not kill them. The crazies show intelligence and it becomes clear that the crazies want to make an example out of them in the worst possible way.
And so begins the second part of the book where the characters are herded north where Clay learns the truth of his son and where ultimately, the small group comes head to head with the crazies.
What’s the catch?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of catches. First, this book falls into the typical apocalypse book problem. The first half is interesting as hell. The second half is actually pretty boring.
Next, there’s the relationship between Tom and Clay. They are both fully realized and quite awesome. They nurture a deep friendship throughout the book. They both are strong and different ways and use their strength to support each other.
But here’s the problem. Tom is gay. King doesn’t know how to write him without resorting to tropes. Time and time again, King reminds us of Tom’s sexuality but never in the book does that sexuality have any greater meaning except for jokes.
Finally, there’s the end of the book. King does the unthinkable and provides a “lady or the tiger” ending. I was actually shocked by it, and from the posts placed on similar review sites, other people were shocked as well.
How’s the audiobook?
Campbell Scott does the narration and while there are moments he sounds like he drank too much cough syrup, he does a serviceable job. He does an okay New England accent, but I laughed when he mangled the name of a popular New England amusement park. The park is called Canobie Lake. It’s pronounced “CAN-O-BIE” Lake but he pronounces it as “Ken-Obie” lake.
Also, there are moments where he clearly messed up, and the producers – no joke – hired another narrator to fill in those gaps. It is as bad as it sounds. It’s just a couple of words or sometimes a sentence, but the effect is so jarring that you’ll stop thinking about the story and wonder if your audio player is all messed up.
I don’t want to sound ridiculous, but the production sounds amateur night and should really be corrected. Had I purchased this audiobook instead of loaned it from the library, I would have been ticked off.
The Beautiful: Tom and Clay, strangers at first, become brothers.
The Good: As always, it’s fun to see the world fall apart and King is always good even when he’s bad
The Bad: King’s clunky management of Tom’s sexuality.
The Ugly: Did they really have another narrator fill in the gaps?
Recommendation: Skip it.
Written by: Stephen King
Narrated by: Campbell Scott
Length: 12 hrs and 36 mins
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio