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I enjoyed almost all of Stephen King’s work up through about Gerald’s Game, then kinda stopped reading him because his work was getting a little tired.  But, I love horror, zombies included, so I picked this one up.  I was more than a little disappointed.
I’ll just be a little mean up front and get it out of the way: King is trying a little too hard to be cute here and he really needs an editor who can stand up to him and say “Steve, these bits here, here, and here are dumb — change them.”  Some examples: early on, he throws in a lot of special fonts for store names and logos on shopping bags and things like that, and it’s clearly some kind of commentary, but it’s way too twee to be meaningful.  Also, every character — and you really notice it with the two teenagers — speaks in the same manner and with the same cultural references that a well-read fifty-something year old man would use.  That begins to grate once you notice it.
SPOILERS ABOUND: read at your own peril.
The basic premise is a really good one: all of a sudden, all cell phones carry some kind of carrier wave that makes people listening to them become more or less brain-dead, and frequently, homicidal.  So I like the setup.  It’s the execution as we get further in that annoys me.  The characters aren’t bad — just fairly ordinary folk just trying to get by who accompany the protagonist (a cartoonist) traveling from Massachusetts to Maine to reunite with the cartoonist’s son.  As the days pass, it becomes apparent that the cell phone victims aren’t entirely brain-dead and are in fact acting in concert.  They eventually begin to exhibit the hallmarks of sharing a unified consciousness and have access to strange abilities like telepathy, mind control, and telekinesis.  This premise clearly has a lot of potential, but again, execution is not awesome, and not up to King’s early standards.
In some ways, the heart of the plot is the characters trying to figure out what’s gong on with the cell phone-based hive mind: why did it happen, what’s going on currently, what are their plans, how should we react to their likely intentions, etc.  And since this was essentially an unanswered mystery throughout the novel, characters frequently had these intuitive leaps of logic that led them to anticipate what was going on and what they should do about it.  The other characters simply accepted these intuitive leaps and were wiling to act on them as though they were known facts.  That’s lame and unrealistic.  It was definitely a disappointing way to keep the plot moving.
It’s just an aside, and I don’t want to go into a point-by-point comparison, but I can’t help but wonder how heavily influenced King was by Brian Keene’s The Rising.  I read The Rising immediately before this one and found a number of parallels.  I’m not saying the plot or characters were plagiarized, because they’re changed enough that it’s fine, but when you read them back-to-back, one must begin to wonder (and Keene wrote his first by a couple years).  I don’t recommend this one very highly; there’s better Stephen King out there (try his earlier stuff), there’s better contemporary horror fiction, and there’s better social commentary.  I give this one 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Review copyright 2008 J. Andrew Byers