I’m a longtime fan of Stephen King’s – such a longtime fan that I honestly can’t recall when I started reading the man’s work (probably at too young of an age, but that’s neither here nor there). And while his fiction has had its ups and downs over the years, I’ve nearly always been able to count on him for an entertaining time.
That said, the past few years have been a bit unsatisfying for me as a King fan. The work I’ve enjoyed most has been his short stories, in particular the Everything’s Eventual collection. Novels (which I prefer over short stories) have been a more problematical affair. I have always been left cold by the Dark Tower series, so aside from Lisey’s Story, which I enjoyed (and I realize this is a minority opinion), I haven’t had a King novel really rock my world since Desperation.
But now we have Under the Dome. An idea King originally had in the 1970s has finally come to fruition (aspiring writers take note: don’t throw ANYTHING away!) and it’s telling – the book is pedal-to-the-metal, old-school King.
The small Maine town of Chester’s Mill is having a perfectly ordinary late autumn day when an invisible, impenetrable dome descends over the town. It cleanly severs anything (or anyone) unlucky enough to be in its path. Its invisibility makes it a fatal barrier to cars and planes. It makes any electronic equipment such as cameras, iPods, and pacemakers explode if they get too close. It penetrates the ground so tunneling underneath it is not an option. And it has completely changed life for the several thousand people inside the dome’s confines.
Among those people is the town’s second selectman (and real power behind the throne of local government), Big Jim Rennie, who soon sees the dome as an opportunity to gain control of the town in a way he never has before, free of any outside interference. He’s aided and abetted by his son Junior, whose undetected brain tumor has transformed him from entitled little shit to murderous psychopath. Trying to bring some semblance of order and reason to the situation is ex-soldier and current short-order cook Dale “Barbie” Barbara, who was getting ready to thumb a ride out of town when the dome descended. Barbie’s had a run-in with some locals, primarily with Big Jim and Junior, and this conflict will be the core that drives the situation under the dome, soon making the community itself as toxic as the air inside.
What makes Under the Dome work so well is that its horrors work on many levels. There’s the dome itself – inexplicable, indestructible, and inescapable, as imposing physically as its confining effect is psychologically. There are the personality conflicts inherent in any community, magnified by the fact that those under the dome can do whatever they want without retribution from the outside – these are perhaps the most unsettling horrors, as people learn what their friends and neighbors are really capable of. And there are the environmental effects as the temperature inside rises and the air slowly but surely turns foul.
What’s so impressive about Under the Dome is how well thought-out the consequences of the dome are, yet this never slows down the story. For all its length it’s a lean (and mean) book as King sets the pace early on and doesn’t let up. Moreover, he packs on the sense of foreboding as every step the characters take, no matter how well-intentioned, often ends up making the situation worse for all. It’s a nerve-racking ride at times, but one well worth taking.
The book isn’t flawless. The bad characters are more interesting than the good ones (oh how you’ll loathe Big Jim). Certain characters and situations seem a reprise of ones from earlier King books, and at times it’s hard to keep track of all the people (particularly at the end, when the body count goes into overdrive). The ultimate explanation of the dome is a bit underwhelming – I’d have preferred there to be no explanation at all – but doesn’t detract overall from the story.
But those flaws are minor. It’s a book any King fan will enjoy. I know I did.