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Literature / Cell

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God's in His heaven, the stock market's riding high, and the world goes on uncaring.

That is, until the Pulse strikes.

Any person using a cellphone is instantly devolved into a rabid, mindless creature that kills everyone and everything around them, using whatever means necessary to inflict damage. The "Phoners", as they're called, kill billions within seconds.

When the Pulse hits, struggling artist Clay is in Boston, having just landed a lucrative deal for his graphic novel. Fleeing the burning city with new friends Tom and Alice, he hopes to return home to Maine to find out what became of his estranged wife and their young son. En route, the surviving Phoners begin displaying (even more) alarming changes in behavior...

Cell was written by Stephen King and published in 2006. It was going to be made into a movie, but after wallowing in Development Hell (possibly because of the bomb that was One Missed Call), and almost taking the form of a TV miniseries starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom had previously worked together on the adaptation of 1408, it was postponed. A film was finally released in August 2016, with Cusack and Jackson still playing lead roles.

Cell provides examples of the following tropes:

  • 90% of Your Brain: After the initial blast of crazy wiped out the higher reasoning of anyone talking on their cell phones at the time of the disaster the Phoners who survive the chaos begin to regain some of their abilities, along with some entirely new ones. The characters develop a theory in-Universe that they are using parts of their brains which had been dormant before.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: The Phoners and their violence.
  • Ax-Crazy: Anyone affected by the Pulse turn into gibbering maniacs driven to attack and kill everything around them, including both each other and in some cases, themselves. When they start grouping into Flocks this lessens somewhat, as they become significantly more methodical with their bloodlust and even begin to actively convert others into Phoners instead of killing them. However, with the Pulse being corrupted into new strains and the death of the Raggedy Man triggering the collapse of the regional Hive Mind, this becomes more of a Zigzagged Trope, with some Phoners simply babbling semi-coherently or wandering with no purpose with only a few retaining a lust for violence.
  • Angrish: After going insane, the Phoners speak in a guttural, angry, growling language. A more perfect example comes from later Phoners, who speak a corrupted, angry variety of English.
  • Arc Words: "Insane", "KASHAWAK = NO-FO", and "DON'T TOUCH!" for the latter half of the book.
  • Author Tract:
    • A fat Holier Than Thou bible-thumper (one of King's more favored sorts of target) accosts the original group as they flee Boston. Clay punches her and Tom gives her a speech.
    • The whole premise of the book was partly born out of King's personal aversion to cell phones. The author's bio in the book ends with this simple sentence: "He does not own a cell phone."
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: A few of the survivors indulge in looting, rape and murder despite not having the excuse of having been driven insane from the Pulse, even right during the initial outbreak.
  • Big Bad: The Raggedy Man, a phoner with powerful psychic powers who serves as their leader. He plots to trick people by guiding them to Tomahawk and turn everyone on the planet to phoners.
  • Brown Note: The Pulse, which drives anyone who hears it insane.
  • Cool Car: There are people who go out of their way to pick up the coolest deserted cars they can and drive them short distances. Clay finds the aftermath of such a race: disemboweled after crashing his Lambo.
  • Cool Old Guy: The Academy head. Tom, later on.
  • Crazy Survivalist: Tom's neighbor, who has a house full of guns, illegal cop-killer ammo, and supplies, but isn't home when he needs them most.
  • Death of a Child: Unsurprisingly, considering the author. Alice is a teenager but very much seen as a vulnerable child rather than a fellow adult by Clay and Tom, despite her capability, and is the only one of the main group to die. Clay's son is a long-gone zombie when they find him at the end, though Clay at least has some hope that he can be cured.
  • Decoy Protagonist: A rare in-universe example. Though the reader follows Clay, it's outright stated that he himself regards Alice as the group's leader, moral centre, and likely Final Girl. She dies halfway through the story.
  • Downer Ending: Movie version, Clay's plan ultimately failed and he becomes yet another zombie at Kashwak.
  • Driven to Suicide
    • One of the two responses victims have to the Pulse. Some become intensely violent toward themselves instead of others, and suicide in the easiest available way (since the opening of the story is set in Boston, this usually involves jumping off of high buildings). For obvious reasons, these Phoners are only present for the first few hours after the initial event.
    • The hotel clerk kills himself after Clay, Alice, and Tom leave. Clay goes back and finds that he has hung himself.
    • The wife of Tom's survivalist neighbor also kills herself after being forced to kill her daughter. Another victim of the Pulse is found to have died from swallowing jagged shards of glass.
    • In the film Ray blew himself up with a homemade bomb he's been wearing.
  • Dying as Yourself: Ray killing himself.
  • Eagleland: Invoked when Clay, Tom, and Alice break into a redneck home. It contains a gun vault complete with a very illegal machine gun and ammo. Which prove to not be examples of Chekhov's Gun.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Raggedy Man/The President of Harvard.
  • Eye Scream: How the Head dies: he's psychically forced to scrawl ten different variants of the word "insane" in other languages, then is forced to stab himself through the eyeball — repeatedly — until his pen hits his brain.
  • Fate Worse than Death: More like fate worse than death, then death. The two thugs who killed Alice are forced to crucify each other, fully aware of what they're doing, for violating the Phoners' demand to not touch an "untouchable".
  • Foreshadowing: Clay, Tom, and Jordan have a dream about being gathered before a massive crowd of Phoners, being declared one by one as "insane" by a Phoner. Alice doesn't have that dream. She doesn't live long enough to experience that event.
  • From Bad to Worse: The book starts off with a traditional zombie apocalypse. Then, slowly, things begin to change for the worse. The zombies begin to develop a Hive Mind, with different Flocks popping up wherever there are a lot of them. Eventually, they become the dominant species on Earth. Then, things start to get worse for them, after an odd turn of events which basically ends with a human computer virus.
  • The Fundamentalist: The fat, older woman who harasses the survivors during the evacuation from Boston, and thinks the disaster is the beginning of the biblical apocalypse. Tom mentions later that his mother and two aunts had been the same when he was a child.
  • Genius Bruiser: Subverted with the President of Harvard. The apparent leader of a large group of Phoners is really just the (figurative) spokesman for their Hive Mind. He isn't any more intelligent than any of the other zombies, except for speaking Latin.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: During Alice's breakdown at Tom's house, Clay thinks about how in the movies, hysterical women always get a slap that immediately calms them down, but for obvious reason he doesn't want to do that. His idea to simply hold her would probably have worked too, but Alice calms down on her own.
  • Hate Plague: The Pulse turns everyone affected by it into homicidal berserkers.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Gay?: Tom's sexuality is explicitly brought up near the beginning, but never actually impacts on the story.
  • The Heartless: The Phoners are people who have had all but their negative emotions and desires stripped away.
  • Hive Mind: The Phoners develop flocking behavior, acquiring a telepathic group consciousness. They eventually start trying to change other humans.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Clay shares some with his Fire-Forged Friend Tom, who's gay.
  • Hope Spot: The movie ending, it seemed as if Ray's plan worked and he is finally reunited with his son, only to turn out to be just an imagination as he is now a zombie at Kashwak.
  • Humanity Is Insane: Discussed - Clay theorizes the phone didn't drive the humans insane - it simply wiped everything out, and the psychos everywhere are simply base humans doing human things. Like stabbing everything. Another character puts it simply:
    "We didn't survive as a species because we were the toughest, or the smartest. We survived because we were the most murderous, craziest fuckers in the jungle."
  • Identity Amnesia: A minor character near the beginning of the book receives an indirect dose of the Pulse from her friend's cell phone conversation, which is still enough to make her forget who she is, where she is, or that she shouldn't run into lampposts.
  • It Can Think: At first, the Phoners appear to be nothing more than mindless berserkers. As the book goes on, they organize into groups and show signs of intelligence. It turns out that they're forming a Hive Mind and are hell-bent on transforming the entire human race.
  • Kill the Cutie: Alice, of course.
  • Laughing Mad: Alice is able to hold herself together until the group reaches Tom's house, then has a hysterical breakdown. She recovers. She does it again when the group kills their first flock, although given her involvement and the fact that she seems exuberant, the latter incident is closer to the Axe-Crazy than hysterical end of the Laughing Mad spectrum.
  • Law of Inverse Recoil: After Alice is fatally injured by hit-and-run hooligans. Another character had picked up an AKS-47 assault rifle from a gun enthusiast's house, but when he fires "Sir Speedy" it empties most of the rounds into the air.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: When Clay activates the rigged bus, it sends body parts raining on them. It also makes sure the Raggedy Man is really dead — his empty hoodie, with a hole where the heart should be, lands on top of a ride's ticket booth.
  • Naked Nutter: A good deal of the phone crazies tear their clothes off during the initial "outbreak". During a lull in the apocalypse, Clay spots a man stark naked, screaming gibberish and stabbing at the air with a car aerial, covered in blood that isn't his.
  • No Ending: When Clay finds Johnny, he tries to fix him by giving him a second dose of the Pulse. The book ends just as he puts the phone to his son's ear. Lampshaded by King in his afterword, in which he thinks it wouldn't be right to fully show the effects.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The protagonists try to give first aid to a couple of thugs who've crashed their car. It doesn't end well.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Phoners. Of course, they're not really zombies. Lampshaded by the main characters actually discussing the fact that they're not calling them zombies.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: After Clay & Co blow up a mass of sleeping Phoners, they are declared "untouchables" and made to report for a ceremonial execution by the appointed head of Phoners, a man in a Harvard hoodie. If anyone else harms one of them they're made to suffer a fate worse than death. Then death.
  • Psychic Powers: The Phoners eventually develop these, a few days after being Pulsed. They communicate through telepathy, have telekinesis and the ability to levitate so that that they can get over cars stalled on the roads.
  • Schrödinger's Gun: When the main characters decide to stay at Tom's house early in the book, Alice finds a boombox sitting in the closet. They debate turning it on to see if they can pick up any radio stations, even though there is a risk of the Pulse being on the radio waves, too. In the end, neither they nor the reader ever find out what would have happened if they had decided to go through with it.
  • Shout-Out
    • There are a lot of references to the work of George A. Romero, and he is directly acknowledged in Stephen King's note at the beginning of the book.
    • Additionally, Clay's graphic novel contains a character called "The Dark Wanderer", whose initials are R.D., and a wizard called Flack. Does This Remind You of Anything?
  • Slasher Smile: The President of Harvard is always smiling an unsettling grin. The protagonists even imagine he died smiling that smile of his, finding one piece of his Harvard sweater to read HAR.
  • Spear Carrier: Several characters, as the protagonists travel to Maine, literally pass in the night and exchange tidbits of info, such as New Hampshire closing its borders and some changes in Phoner behavior.
  • The Stinger: We hear the Pulse again after the movie's credits have ended.
  • Strawman Political: The crazy old lady who the group runs into leaving Boston.
  • Supernatural Phone: The Pulse, which was broadcast over the cell network, turned everyone who were using a cellphone at the moment into Ax-Crazy zombies. Landlines weren't affected.
  • Take That!: King includes digs against both Michael Bolton and Kenny G.
  • Technically Living Zombie: The Phoners aren't actually undead, just indiscrimantely violent and nearly mindless. However, as time passes, the surviving ones begin to "evolve", turning them into something else entirerly.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Averted with Alice who is scared, timid, and kind. Then some teenagers, who had harassed the group earlier, smack her with a brick, damaging her face and hemorrhaging her brain. Same goes for Jordan.
  • Title Drop: Near the end of the book, when the Clay and the other Flock killers are imprisoned at the Northern Counties Expo, Clay passes the time by "drawing" comics in his mind. The one he works on is called Cell.
  • Too Dumb to Live: When Clay separates from the group, he observes a Corvette and another Cool Car racing on the wreck-cluttered highway. Needless to say, one of the cars crashes, disemboweling its occupant spectacularly.
  • The Unreveal: The cause of The Pulse is never actually revealed. The closest thing to an explanation the reader gets is the characters guessing that it might have been a terrorist attack of some sort, but nothing is ever confirmed.
  • Vichy Earth: Lampshaded when the protagonists wonder at what point Les Collaborateurs will outnumber them, making them simple outlaws. Or insane.
  • Voice of the Legion: The Raggedy Man is the representative of a large flock, and is able to use other people as his voice (since he is unable to speak on his own). He does this with almost all of the main characters at one point or another, including with Alice, while she is dying on the side of road after being attacked by Gunner.
  • Zombie Gait: The Phoners don't use a classic zombie shuffle until the first hive-minds are made.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Not with traditional zombies, but the story fits the trope otherwise, especially once the Phoners develop a hivemind and begin trying to convert all surviving humans.
  • Zombie Infectee: Played with. Evolved Phoners have been "infecting" non-Phoners by placing signs directing desperate survivors to no-coverage areas, and infect them with a corrupt version of the Signal. Clay finds his son in such a state, but at the point the boy was infected, the Signal was corrupt enough to render the victim relatively harmless. It's possible they can be reverted with another dose of the Signal, which is what Clay prepares to test as the book ends.