I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, but, to be honest, I’m still not completely sure how I feel about him. There’s a lot to like and admire about King, but he seems to make the same mistakes over and over again. Every book is a bit of a gamble, you never know if you’ve picked up a gem or a turd until you reach the end. That said, I do think that he’s a highly talented storyteller capable of turning out really top-notch work, so I try to remain hopeful whenever visiting King-country.
Under the Dome is a monumental novel. If nothing else, that must be made clear: this is a big bastard, something like eleven hundred pages. It’s so big they had to split the paperback version in half. But why not? King’s tackling a big story here. If anybody can manage the epic length, it’s him. This is his turf, and King is often at his best when he takes up a significant challenge.
Under the Dome, if you didn’t already know, is about a small Maine town that finds itself suddenly and mysteriously trapped inside an invisible impermeable field (fyi, not actually a dome, but whatcha gonna do, huh?) and cut off from the world outside. Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. Before long, trouble starts, and things get volatile.
There is a huge cast of characters on display here, for the most part well drawn and fully formed. There’s a good handful of cliches present, but King does a great job of fleshing everybody out and getting you inside their heads enough to excuse the stock archetypes. The POV bounces around from person to person, providing a huge variety of perspectives on the events of the novel. I thought that this was one of the great strengths of the book, that even the nastiest pieces of shit had their say and were allowed to offer their interior perspective to the reader. On the whole, I thought this was some of King’s strongest character work; things never got too black-and-white, even with the clear good guys/bad guys dynamic at play. The bad guys might be evil, but they’re evil in a way that makes sense.
The plot rushes along at quite a heady pace, hurtling the reader from crisis to crisis as life under the dome quickly turns to shit. Hell in a hand-basket is the phrase which comes immediately to mind. To be honest, this 1000+ page book was one of the fastest reads of its length I’ve ever encountered. There are no lulls, no dull moments. It’s like an Indian Jones movie, as soon as our heroes stumble out of one disaster they run smack dab into another, and another and another. It made for a quick and exciting read, but I was somewhat disappointed by the scope of the novel. The plot is such a frenzied rush that the story never really has a chance to build up to the epic scope it seems to be aiming at. The whole book takes place over the course of five days. I know, right? Just five days, each one of them shown in painstaking detail. Stuff piles up so fast in this story, it feels like there’s enough going on to fill months of time, which would have allowed the book to explore a bit more of the survival aspects of the story. There’s a lot of talk about conserving supplies and how they’re going to make it cut off from the world outside, but five days isn’t enough time to run out of anything. Hell, there are probably towns that get snowed in for that long every winter. In the end, though, this isn’t really a story about people trying to survive under the dome, it’s more about how their psychological reactions to the event. The book could very well be a great disappointment if you’re expecting the former, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
Now, since this is a Stephen King story, I suppose the issue of horror must be addressed. King isn’t solely a horror writer, but it’s the genre he’s most known for, and horror tends to creep into even his more “straight” novels. This book doesn’t have any monsters or supernatural creatures, and there are no evil clowns or haunted mansions or vampires. That said, this is probably one of King’s most horrifying stories to date. The really creepy frightening thing about this story is that all the shit that goes on under the dome (and quite a lot of truly horrible stuff does go on, believe me) is caused by normal everyday people. The dome itself is not the horror here, the dome merely provides a setting in which the horror of repression, fear, control and brutality can be played out. It’s a microcosm in which we may observe the rise of a tyrant, a cruel and selfish man seizing his opportunity to take power and wield it for purely selfish gain. That’s the story King is really telling, and he does a great job bringing out the horror of it, and capturing the mindsets of those who stand by, unbelieving, as a dictator takes over.
Anybody who’s read a lot of King knows that, while he goes like gangbusters in the idea and set-up bits of the novel, he’s not so great at sticking the ending. Under the Dome, unfortunately, features one of his least satisfying conclusions. I don’t like to spoil plot points, so I’ll be as vague as possible. The actual arc of the book is, as I said, more about the rise of a dictator than about the actual dome. Over the course of the story, we see the line drawn between the two groups getting clearer and clearer. The dictator cements his power, and those opposed to him plan for resistance. All the pieces are painstakingly put in place for an epic showdown between these two groups, that seems to be were everything is pointing. Then there’s a huge unrelated explosion and pretty much everybody dies and the dome is lifted and the book ends. No direct conflict between the opposing forces, no reunions, no aftermath, no denouement, just THE END.
King said of this novel that it was an attempt to write a book which kept the pedal ceaselessly to the metal. He succeeded: Under the Dome is thrilling, fast-paced, action-packed and interesting novel. Pedal to the metal. Might have been a good idea to put on the breaks instead of ramming the story into a wall, but there you go. Better crashing than driving off a cliff, I guess.