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The novella that spawned The Thing,


Who Goes There?

Astounding Science Fiction, 1938, 168 pages




Who Goes There?, the novella that formed the basis of the film The Thing, is the John W. Campbell classic about an antarctic research camp that discovers and thaws the ancient body of a crash-landed alien.


Paranoia will destroy ya, but murderous shapechanging aliens will kill you faster. )

Verdict: A fine pulp adventure that was made into three decent monster movies. Who Goes There? is a sci-fi classic that added paranoia about alien dopplegangers to the tradition of weird fiction set in the Antarctic. 8/10.




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Nine short stories from a new horror master: gritty, grotty, grimdark, with words like bloody knives.


The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

Night Shade Books, 2013, 280 pages




Over the course of two award-winning collections and a critically acclaimed novel, The Croning, Laird Barron has arisen as one of the strongest and most original literary voices in modern horror and the dark fantastic. Melding supernatural horror with hardboiled noir, espionage, and a scientific backbone, Barron's stories have garnered critical acclaim and have been reprinted in numerous year's best anthologies and nominated for multiple awards, including the Crawford, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards.

Barron returns with his third collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Collecting interlinking tales of sublime cosmic horror, including "Blackwood's Baby", "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven", and "The Men from Porlock", The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All delivers enough spine-chilling horror to satisfy even the most jaded reader.


Not H.P. Lovecraft. Not Stephen King. )

Verdict: Not every story in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All was 5 stars, but I wouldn't rate any of them below 4. Laird Barron has hit my list of "authors to read more of soon." I'm highly recommending this book, though I am scoring it not quite a 10 because I haven't read his other books yet and am not sure yet that this is his best. If you like your horror dark and two-fisted, like a less prissy, less squeamish Lovecraft, or a contemporary Ambrose Bierce, check this Barron guy out. 9/10.




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Never trust a professor who wants you to stay in a haunted house, and watch out for the quiet ones.


The Haunting of Hill House

Penguin Books, 1959, 246 pages




Past the rusted gates and untrimmed hedges, Hill House broods and waits.

Four seekers have come to the ugly, abandoned old mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of the psychic phenomenon called haunting; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a lonely, homeless girl well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and self-closing doors, but Hill House is gathering its powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own.


Inspiration for every haunted house story since. Investigate this, Scoobies! )

Verdict: A bit dated, not the first and maybe not the best haunted house story ever, The Haunting of Hill House remains a creepy tale perfect for Halloween from an American master of understated horror. 9/10

Also by Shirley Jackson: My review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.




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Genre-savvy teens who know what kind of movie they're in try to survive a slasher.


The Last Final Girl

Lazy Fascist Press, 2012, 160 pages




Life in a slasher film is easy. You just have to know when to die.

Aerial View: A suburban town in Texas. Everyone's got an automatic garage door opener. All the kids jump off a perilous cliff into a shallow river as a rite of passage. The sheriff is a local celebrity. You know this town. You're from this town.

Zoom In: Homecoming princess, Lindsay. She's just barely escaped death at the hands of a brutal, sadistic murderer in a Michael Jackson mask. Up on the cliff, she was rescued by a horse and bravely defeated the killer, alone, bra-less. Her story is already a legend. She's this town's heroic final girl, their virgin angel.

Monster Vision: Halloween masks floating down that same river the kids jump into. But just as one slaughter is not enough for Billie Jean, our masked killer, one victory is not enough for Lindsay. Her high school is full of final girls, and she's not the only one who knows the rules of the game.

When Lindsay chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace the slaughtered members of her original homecoming court, it's not just a fight for survival—it's a fight to become The Last Final Girl.


For everyone who ever watched way too many Jamie Lee Curtis films. )

Verdict: A clever, funny, genre-savvy bloodbath written in an annoying screenplay format. The characters are quirky and expendable, the story is a rollercoaster, the plot is ridiculous but intentionally so. 6/10.




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Boys' Life meets Stephen King.


The Troop

Gallery Books, 2013, 358 pages




Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip - a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. The boys are a tight-knit crew. There's Kent, one of the most popular kids in school; Ephraim and Max, also well-liked and easygoing; then there's Newt the nerd and Shelley the odd duck. For the most part, they all get along and are happy to be there - which makes Scoutmaster Tim's job a little easier. But for some reason, he can't shake the feeling that something strange is in the air this year. Something waiting in the darkness. Something wicked...

It comes to them in the night. An unexpected intruder, stumbling upon their campsite like a wild animal. He is shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry - a man in unspeakable torment who exposes Tim and the boys to something far more frightening than any ghost story. Within his body is a bioengineered nightmare, a horror that spreads faster than fear. One by one, the boys will do things no person could ever imagine.

And so it begins. An agonizing weekend in the wilderness. A harrowing struggle for survival. No possible escape from the elements, the infected...or one another.


This is a writer who knows what Stephen King did best and does it almost as well. )

Verdict: A little scary, and very disturbing, The Troop is an almost perfect horror novel. The plot never slows down, the extras like interviews and news articles all add to the story, and the writing is polished, detailed, and descriptive without ever going off-course. Characters are real and engaging, and they act like real people. While the content may not be to everyone's taste, it gets my highly recommended tag.




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A rippin', bloody bottom-of-the-sea thriller, for fans of monster movies of indifferent quality.


Deep Black Sea

Permuted Press, 2014, 284 pages



It's October, and time to read a few of the horror novels that have been sitting on my shelf!

A gory monster movie in a book - cheap, dump, and entertaining. )

Verdict: Page-turning story with monsters who are freaky and gross, buckets of blood, and an atmospheric, scary, and isolating setting. Unfortunately marred by very mediocre writing, cardboard characters who are too dumb to live, and some suspensions of disbelief that are harder to swallow in a book than a movie. 5/10.




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What might have happened if George R. R. Martin had decided to take over Urban Fantasy instead of Epic Fantasy.


The Skin Trade

WSFA Press, 2013 (originally published 1988), 143 pages




Randi Wade's world is spiraling into a dark labyrinth of secrets and lies. Her only friend is keeping something from her. Innocent victims are being savagely attacked and left for dead, all but their skins. There is an eerie connection between the crime scenes and her own father's murder nearly twenty years before, unsolved to this day. Despite this, Chief of Police Joe Urquhart, her father's former partner and best friend, beckons her to drop the case, drop everything. Is he protecting her, or something else?

As the case unfolds, Randi is pulled ever closer to realizing her darkest fear: that werewolves do exist, and they'll do anything necessary to keep their secrets safe in this once quiet town... Even if it means killing their own. All the while, an eccentric but powerful family watches closely from inside the black iron gates of Blackstone Manor, as the horrendous truth behind it all begins to bubble toward the top.


You'll be waiting a lot longer than Game of Thrones fans for GRRM to finish this series. )

Verdict: Recommended for all horror and urban fantasy fans. As a stand-alone novella, Skin Trade doesn't quite fully develop its world and its characters, but if you like urban fantasy that is not paranormal romance, it might make you wish George R. R. Martin hadn't gotten distracted with that little epic fantasy series of his.




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The classic pulp horror tale of the Old Ones and the awful truth about penguins.


At the Mountains of Madness

Astounding Stories, 1936, 128 pages




A master of terror and nightmarish visions, H.P. Lovecraft solidified his place at the top of the horror genre with this macabre supernatural tale.

When a geologist leads an expedition to the Antarctic plateau, his aim is to find rock and plant specimens from deep within the continent. The barren landscape offers no evidence of any life form - until they stumble upon the ruins of a lost civilization. Strange fossils of creatures unknown to man lead the team deeper, where they find carved stones dating back millions of years. But it is their discovery of the terrifying city of the Old Ones that leads them to an encounter with an untold menace.

Deliberately told and increasingly chilling, At the Mountains of Madness is a must-have for every fan of classic terror.


Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li! )

Verdict: At the Mountains of Madness is a great classic tale of pulp horror and the origin of many tropes that have been repeated ever since. (Lovecraft did not actually invent most of these tropes, he just popularized them.) It will make you want to run a Call of Cthulhu adventure, and shudder when you watch Happy Feet.




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It's your basic Call of Cthulhu adventure in modern Los Angeles.


14

Permuted Press, 2012, 350 pages




Padlocked doors. Strange light fixtures. Mutant cockroaches.

There are some odd things about Nate’s new apartment. Of course, he has other things on his mind. He hates his job. He has no money in the bank. No girlfriend. No plans for the future. So while his new home isn’t perfect, it’s livable. The rent is low, the property managers are friendly, and the odd little mysteries don’t nag at him too much. At least, not until he meets Mandy, his neighbor across the hall, and notices something unusual about her apartment. And Xela’s apartment. And Tim’s. And Veek’s. Because every room in this old Los Angeles brownstone has a mystery or two. Mysteries that stretch back over a hundred years. Some of them are in plain sight. Some are behind locked doors. And all together these mysteries could mean the end of Nate and his friends. Or the end of everything....


It's the apartment building to hell. But NO ZOMBIES. )

Verdict: 14 is not Hugo-worthy, but it's a nice little Call of Cthulhu adventure in a Los Angeles apartment building. There is a little romance, a little death, a little SAN loss. The big reveals make sense, given the necessary suspension of disbelief, and Peter Clines has created a consistent world in need of saving.

Also by Peter Clines: My reviews of Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots.




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The Beats go on the road to stop Cthulhu in this Lovecraft/Kerouac mashup.


Move Under Ground

Wildside Press, 2006, 158 pages




The year is nineteen-sixty-something, and after endless millennia of watery sleep, the stars are finally right. Old R'lyeh rises out of the Pacific, ready to cast its damned shadow over the primitive human world. The first to see its peaks: an alcoholic, paranoid, and frightened Jack Kerouac, who had been drinking off a nervous breakdown up in Big Sur. Now Jack must get back on the road to find Neal Cassady, the holy fool whose rambling letters hint of a world brought to its knees in worship of the Elder God Cthulhu. Together with pistol-packin' junkie William S. Burroughs, Jack and Neal make their way across the continent to face down the murderous Lovecraftian cult that has spread its darkness to the heart of the American Dream. But is Neal along for the ride to help save the world, or does he want to destroy it just so that he'll have an ending for his book?


Lovecraft. Kerouac. Crackfic. )

Verdict: Dense, sometimes almost turgid prose deliberately imitating the style of the first-person protagonist Jack Kerouac, Move Under Ground is deeply weird and succeeds at being exactly what it's supposed to be: the bastard lovechild of a Beatnik Shoggoth orgy, with seminal contributions from two very different generations of writers. The style may or may not be to your liking, but if you're a fan of either half of this bizarre literary cross-breeding experiment, it's short enough that you should consider it worth reading.

Also by Nick Mamatas: My review of Starve Better.
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An EMP wipes out civilization and turns teenagers into zombies.


Ashes

Egmont, 2011, 465 pages




It could happen tomorrow....

An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions. Alex hiked into the woods to say good-bye to her dead parents and her personal demons. Now desperate to find out what happened after the pulse crushes her to the ground, Alex meets up with Tom, a young soldier, and Ellie, a girl whose grandfather was killed by the EMP. For this improvised family and the others who are spared, it's now a question of who can be trusted and who is no longer human.

Author Ilsa J. Bick crafts a terrifying and thrilling novel about a world that could be ours at any moment, where those left standing must learn what it means not just to survive, but to live amidst the devastation.


A post-apocalyptic thriller about getting those damn kids off your lawn. )

Verdict: On the one hand, it's just another YA zombie book. On the other, it's not bad. While Ashes does not win any awards in my estimation for originality or spectacular writing, it's above average, and I actually liked the characters and the story pulled me along, so I'll give it the highest praise I can: I am sufficiently interested to read the next book in the series.




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A ho-hum supernatural thriller about bad guys being Evilly Evil for the sake of Evil because Evil!


Ghost Road Blues

Pinnacle, 2006, 472 pages




Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel

From a master of horror comes an apocalyptic showdown between the residents of a secluded, rural town and the deadly evil that confronts them wherever they turn.

Evil doesn’t die.

The cozy little town of Pine Deep buried the horrors of its past a long time ago. Thirty years have gone by since the darkness descended and the Black Harvest began, a time when a serial killer sheared a bloody swath through the quiet Pennsylvania village. The evil that once coursed through Pine Deep has been replaced by cheerful tourists getting ready to enjoy the country’s largest Halloween celebration in what is now called “The Spookiest Town in America.”

It just grows stronger.

But then—a month before Halloween—it begins. Unspeakably desecrated bodies. Inexplicable insanity. An ancient evil walks the streets, drawing in those who would fall to their own demons and seeking to shred the very soul of this rapidly fracturing community. Yes, the residents of Pine Deep have drawn together and faced a killer before. But this time, evil has many faces—and the lust and will to rule the earth. This struggle will be epic.


Stephen King-lite, for comic book nerds who like to imagine their jock tormentors were literally minions of Pure Evil. )




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The crew of a generation ship encounters an alien vessel that practically screams "Get out!" so of course they poke around.


Ship of Fools

Ace Books, 2001, 370 pages




Home to generations of humans, the starship Argonos has wandered aimlessly throughout the galaxy for hundreds of years, desperately searching for other signs of life. Now a steady, unidentified transmission lures them toward a nearby planet, where the grisly remains of a former colony await the crew. Haunted by what they have seen, the crew has no choice but to follow when another signal beckons the Argonos into deep space — and into the dark heart of an alien mystery.


Scarier than Alien and hella smarter than Prometheus. )

Verdict: I sometimes make fun of books that seem to be Hollywood-bait — "Please, please Ridley Scott, option me!" — but dayyum, Ship of Fools would make an awesome, pants-shittingly scary movie. This is the manuscript that Prometheus should have been.




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Book two of the Newsflesh trilogy is a thrill-ride like the first, though the twists and turns had me cocking my eyebrow a bit more.


Deadline

Orbit, 2011, 420 pages




Shaun Mason is a man without a mission. Not even running the news organization he built with his sister has the same urgency as it used to. Playing with dead things just doesn't seem as fun when you've lost as much as he has.

But when a CDC researcher fakes her own death and appears on his doorstep with a ravenous pack of zombies in tow, Shaun has a newfound interest in life. Because she brings news - he may have put down the monster who attacked them, but the conspiracy is far from dead.

Now, Shaun hits the road to find what truth can be found at the end of a shotgun.


Things can always get worse, even after a zombie apocalypse. )

Verdict: The Newsflesh trilogy is a real page-turner. Even if the story sometimes stretches credibility (come on, it's zombies!), there aren't a lot of books I've read lately that make me want to zoom through them so quickly. Deadline has a few weaknesses that make it slightly less convincing than the first book, but I'm still eager to read book three.

Also by Mira Grant: My review of Feed.




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A finely-crafted traditional ghost story best read alone in a big dark house.


The Woman in Black

Vintage, 1983, 164 pages




The classic ghost story by Susan Hill: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford — a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway — to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow's house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images — a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.


A vengeful ghost, a haunted house, dead children, it's all been done, but Susan Hill does it well. )

Verdict: Save this one for Halloween. Highly recommended for late night reading alone in a dark house!




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A one-armed painter summons demons literal and metaphorical in the Florida Keys.


Duma Key

Scribner, 2007, 609 pages




A terrible accident takes Edgar Freemantle's right arm and scrambles his memory and his mind, leaving him with little but rage as he begins the ordeal of rehabilitation. When his marriage suddenly ends, Edgar begins to wish he hadn't survived his injuries. He wants out. His psychologist suggests a new life distant from the Twin Cities, along with something else:

"Edgar, does anything make you happy?"
"I used to sketch."
"Take it up again. You need hedges...hedges against the night."


Edgar leaves for Duma Key, an eerily undeveloped splinter of the Florida coast. The sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico calls out to him, and Edgar draws. Once he meets Elizabeth Eastlake, a sick old woman with roots tangled deep in Duma Key, Edgar begins to paint, sometimes feverishly; many of his paintings have a power that cannot be controlled. When Elizabeth's past unfolds and the ghosts of her childhood begin to appear, the damage of which they are capable is truly devastating.

The tenacity of love, the perils of creativity, the mysteries of memory, and the nature of the supernatural: Stephen King gives us a novel as fascinating as it is gripping and terrifying.


It's almost like the old King )

Verdict: Duma Key is almost "King-lite" compared to the monster epics he used to write. It shows all of King's writing talent after he learned to keep his id on a leash. A good story that will still give you a little frisson of fear from the old master, but for real batshit King, you need to read his older stuff.

Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey's Story, Cell, and The Shining.




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Ghosts and alcoholism drive a writer crazy during a winter stay at a sinister hotel.


The Shining

Doubleday, 1977, 447 pages




First published in 1977, The Shining quickly became a benchmark in the literary career of Stephen King. This tale of a troubled man hired to care for a remote mountain resort over the winter, his loyal wife, and their uniquely gifted son slowly but steadily unfolds as secrets from the Overlook Hotel's past are revealed, and the hotel itself attempts to claim the very souls of the Torrance family. Adapted into a cinematic masterpiece of horror by legendary director Stanley Kubrick, featuring an unforgettable performance by a demonic Jack Nicholson, The Shining stands as a cultural icon of modern horror, a searing study of a family torn apart, and a nightmarish glimpse into the dark recesses of human weakness and dementia.


The Overlook Hotel is a metaphor that eluded Stanley Kubrick. )

Verdict: The Shining is one of King's better books, possibly one of his best. It's quintessential King. The horror is both supernatural and human, there is quite a bit of subtext, and (unlike many of King's novels) it actually has something like a decent ending. If you've only seen the Stanley Kubrick movie, you should read the book for more depth and less artsy visuals, and a character who's more believable in his madness than Jack Nicholson's demonic ranting. If you haven't liked King's later books, this would be a good starting point to sample his classic horror novels, back when he was writing drunk better than most writers write sober.

Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey's Story, and Cell.




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Ghosts and alcoholism drive a writer crazy during a winter stay at a sinister hotel.


The Shining

Doubleday, 1977, 447 pages




First published in 1977, The Shining quickly became a benchmark in the literary career of Stephen King. This tale of a troubled man hired to care for a remote mountain resort over the winter, his loyal wife, and their uniquely gifted son slowly but steadily unfolds as secrets from the Overlook Hotel's past are revealed, and the hotel itself attempts to claim the very souls of the Torrance family. Adapted into a cinematic masterpiece of horror by legendary director Stanley Kubrick, featuring an unforgettable performance by a demonic Jack Nicholson, The Shining stands as a cultural icon of modern horror, a searing study of a family torn apart, and a nightmarish glimpse into the dark recesses of human weakness and dementia.


The Overlook Hotel is a metaphor that eluded Stanley Kubrick. )

Verdict: The Shining is one of King's better books, possibly one of his best. It's quintessential King. The horror is both supernatural and human, there is quite a bit of subtext, and (unlike many of King's novels) it actually has something like a decent ending. If you've only seen the Stanley Kubrick movie, you should read the book for more depth and less artsy visuals, and a character who's more believable in his madness than Jack Nicholson's demonic ranting. If you haven't liked King's later books, this would be a good starting point to sample his classic horror novels, back when he was writing drunk better than most writers write sober.

Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey's Story, and Cell.




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Cell phone rage turns apocalyptic.


Cell

Scribner, 2006, 368 pages




On October 1st, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and Clayton Riddell, an artist from Maine, is almost bouncing up Boylston Street in Boston. He's just landed a comic book deal that might finally enable him to support his family by making art instead of teaching it. He's already picked up a gift for his long-suffering wife, and he knows just what he'll get for his boy Johnny. Why not a little treat for himself? Clay's feeling good about the future.

That changes in a hurry. The cause of the devastation is a phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse, and the delivery method is a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone. Clay and the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilization's darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage, and a human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature...and then begins to evolve.

There are one hundred and ninety-three million cell phones in the United States alone. Who doesn't have one? Stephen King's utterly gripping, gory, and fascinating novel doesn't just ask the question "Can you hear me now?" It answers it with a vengeance.


Those damn teenagers and their cell phones... )

Verdict: A good zombie novel by one of my favorite writers, though it's far from his best and he pretty much stole most of the plot from himself. Cell reads a bit like one of King's earlier books, when he mostly wrote straight-up horror novels, so I recommend it if you are a fan of his earlier works. As a zombie novel, it's also an interesting new take on the genre, though like a lot of King fiction, you have to kind of roll your eyes and forget everything you know about how stuff actually works. Reality always takes a back seat to plot in Kingland.

Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and Lisey's Story.
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Cell phone rage turns apocalyptic.


Cell

Scribner, 2006, 368 pages




On October 1st, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and Clayton Riddell, an artist from Maine, is almost bouncing up Boylston Street in Boston. He's just landed a comic book deal that might finally enable him to support his family by making art instead of teaching it. He's already picked up a gift for his long-suffering wife, and he knows just what he'll get for his boy Johnny. Why not a little treat for himself? Clay's feeling good about the future.

That changes in a hurry. The cause of the devastation is a phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse, and the delivery method is a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone. Clay and the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilization's darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage, and a human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature...and then begins to evolve.

There are one hundred and ninety-three million cell phones in the United States alone. Who doesn't have one? Stephen King's utterly gripping, gory, and fascinating novel doesn't just ask the question "Can you hear me now?" It answers it with a vengeance.


Those damn teenagers and their cell phones... )

Verdict: A good zombie novel by one of my favorite writers, though it's far from his best and he pretty much stole most of the plot from himself. Cell reads a bit like one of King's earlier books, when he mostly wrote straight-up horror novels, so I recommend it if you are a fan of his earlier works. As a zombie novel, it's also an interesting new take on the genre, though like a lot of King fiction, you have to kind of roll your eyes and forget everything you know about how stuff actually works. Reality always takes a back seat to plot in Kingland.

Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and Lisey's Story.

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