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In King's uneven 'Cell,' evil rings up Boston

Cell, By Stephen King, Scribner, 384 pp., $26.95

''Cell," Stephen King's new Boston-based horror tale, is about an evil phone call that wipes out humanity, leaving a tiny, ragtag band of survivors to battle evil and save the world.

Getting deja vu? That's because King's weighty, marvelous 1978 epic, ''The Stand," is about a mutating flu virus that wipes out humanity, leaving a tiny, ragtag band of survivors to battle evil and save the world.

But ''Cell" is nowhere near as long, thoughtful, or deeply layered as ''The Stand." This is not the problem -- there are plenty of ways for King to serve up Armageddon, and they don't all have to be 1,100 pages long.

King riffs on the ubiquitous Verizon slogan ''Can you hear me now?" in the preface. But the answer, sadly, is no. The book is cacophony, without a clear signal.

''Cell" starts off promisingly enough with what should be the best day of Clayton Riddell's life. His graphic novel, ''Dark Wanderer," has just sold to a Boston publisher.

Clay is strolling down Boylston toward Boston Common on a gorgeous fall afternoon when the Hub is hit by The Pulse -- a horrific cellphone signal that turns everyone with a mobile into a murderous, flesh-eating lunatic.

The resulting mayhem is reasonably entertaining, and King has good fun ripping up the city with runaway Duck Boats, craziness at the Four Seasons, and a crashing Cessna on Charles Street.

Clay and a passerby, Malden resident Tom McCourt, flee to safety. They make a heroic rescue of suburban high-schooler Alice Maxwell, who joins their small band of ''normies," as the unaffiliated call themselves.

Clay, Tom, and Alice make their way on foot through East Boston, up Route 1, through North Andover to Gaiten Academy in New Hampshire. There they find more allies, but also an enormous gathering of phone ''crazies."

Clay pushes homeward to Maine, hoping desperately to find his estranged wife, Sharon, and their son, Johnny. He knows their chances of survival are slim -- Johnny's 12th birthday gift was a little red cellphone.

Meanwhile, a mysterious evil figure called the Raggedy Man is making frequent appearances amid the normies, and we hear some tantalizing but woefully under-explained technobabble about computer worms being responsible for the whole apocalypse. The intriguing possibility of brain rebooting, literally turning The Pulse back on itself, is also introduced, but never really integrated into the story.

Diehard King fans will be pleased to find ''Cell" populated by the author's trademark characters (King's most likable protagonists tend to be downtrodden Maine schoolteachers and thoughtful adolescents), although this cast, while promising, stays two-dimensional, just like Clay's graphic-novel heroes. This may be why the book feels more like the first draft of a blockbuster screenplay, a furious stew of ''Manchurian Candidate" phone-call brainwashing, ''Dawn of the Dead" zombies, and ''War of the Worlds" scorched-earth obliteration.

After spending years on the seven-part ''Dark Tower" gunslinger serial, King appears to be making a return to general horror with ''Cell." It seems we can also expect a lot more in the future. ''Cell" offers an excerpt (in King's own words) of his upcoming novel, ''Lisey's Story," due out in October.

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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