If the stretch of years between Sept. 11 and last fall's Kashmir earthquake has reminded us of anything, it's that history can take a drastic turn in one day. Stephen King jumps into the middle of one such day on the opening pages of Cell, his first full-length novel since he came off what has to be the shortest-ever retirement not involving professional boxing. Happily wandering Boston after selling a comic-book pitch, artist Clay Riddell watches as the world goes mad when a mind-wiping electronic pulse turns everyone using a cell phone into a violent zombie.
Readers who like their social satire subtle will probably jump off here, but that would be a mistake. King wields a chainsaw in Cell's early chapters, making sure that yuppies and religious zealots suffer equally in his apocalyptic new world order, where flesh-ripping has replaced handshakes. But the zombies--or "phone-crazies," as Riddell calls them--soon change, and the book changes with them. Developing into a telekinetic hive mind, they begin flocking together and performing basic tasks for the collective good with only one goal in mind: survival. The flesh-eating monsters that stand in for humanity at its worst give way to a vision of society at its worst, one vague enough to suggest religious extremism (the word "cell" has more than one meaning) or just everyday conformity.
King dedicates Cell to Richard Matheson and George Romero, whom he owes respective debts for I Am Legend and the Night Of The Living Dead cycle. His technophobic premise includes a touch of contemporary Japanese horror, too, but the book's best virtues are purely King. After all these years, he still relies too often on flat characters and flatter dialogue, but nobody else does half as well at suggesting how a nudge can turn everyday life horrific. In Cell, King gives himself a big canvas, drawing on images of 9/11 and Katrina as his characters traipse through a civilization that's collapsed in a convulsive shock, then begun rebuilding itself as something more monstrous. Beneath the unsettling scenes of wreck-strewn highways and soccer fields filled with human swarms lurks a deeper question: Is a civilization that discards its core values worth saving at all? The horrifying answer cuts deeper than any creature King could imagine.