I typically read a few YA or middle grade novels a year, usually when my wife, a YA librarian, finds a book she thinks I’ll find funny. But since my WiP is a scary middle grade novel, I recently asked her to bring some YA horror home. One of the first ones she picked out is Hell Phone, by William Sleator. I think she got it because for me, all cell phones are hell phones. OK, maybe I’m something of a Luddite. But on to the book.
In Hell Phone, Nick is a hard-working teen from a family without much money. He wants a cell phone so he can call his girlfriend, and when he sees an ad for cheap cell phones at a skeevy convenience store, he goes in and walks out with the cheapest one they have. Now the problems start.
Whenever Nick turns the phone on, he gets mysterious calls from individuals who sound malicious or victimized. Then too, there’s the phone’s game section, with selections he’s never heard of before: Torture Master and Don’t Look Back. Soon, he’s following the instructions of one of the callers, Fleck, who claims to be trapped in hell, but thinks he can get out if Nick will gather some electronic items and connect them to the phone. The phone seems to weaken Nick’s willpower, and his changed personality causes a rift between he and his girlfriend and mother.
When Fleck threatens his girlfriend (and reveals details about her no stranger would know), Nick steals the necessary items to keep her from coming to harm. After he puts them together, a beaten and bloodied man appears in front of his mom’s trailer. As you might guess, releasing Fleck from hell was not a good idea. Fleck involves Nick in a conspiracy to gain a large inheritance, and is not above murder to get his way….
The book is definitely a page-turner, and I notice Sleator manages to include conflict on every page–as we’ve seen in previous entries on this blog, that is a requirement for breakout novels. And there are some really cool scenes, especially later on, when we get a glimpse of hell itself. Ultimately, I found the story disappointing, though. The biggest flaw is the characters. Even Nick is not especially well-rounded, and none of the characters besides him are anything other than one-dimensional types. The setting too is under-developed. It sort of feels like a small-town, but we don’t learn anything about it other than the most generic indications of “trailer park”, “high school”, “avenue”, and “apartment complex.”
Also, the central device of the novel is a problem. We never find out exactly why the cell phone works! There’s some handwaving about Fleck being a computer expert and his connection to its previous owner (who does show up), and certainly it’s creepy not knowing much about the phone, but in this case I think we need to know more. If it were some sort of ancient artifact from Hell, a reader could accept that we don’t know how it operates. But a cell phone is modern, coldly scientific. So what makes it effective in the mystical realm of Hell? Is it cursed? Was there a ritual performed to make it work? We don’t really know.
In the end, I might recommend this to a teenager with a particular interest in horror and who has already read everything by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, R.L. Stine, etc., or somebody who, like me, really hates cell phones. But a general reader can skip it with no qualms.