Thursday, 9 December 2010

Book Review: Under the Dome

Under the Dome – Stephen King – 2010 – 896 pages

First off you should know that Under the Dome is one of Stephen King’s longest novels, at a daunting 336,114 words in total. This review is from the Kindle version, as I couldn’t find any shelves in my home willing to creak under the great weight of this tome – but don’t let the length put you off. This is potentially one of Stephen King’s best, both in its ambition and its depth. For anyone who enjoyed The Stand or The Dark Tower series this is another epic tale of good against evil, set in a small town in the good old U.S. of A. It is also an exploration of cruelty, and seems to be a commentary on democracy and corruption in modern America, and how willing groups of people are to give up their rights when fear takes hold.

It’s difficult to sum up the story in a few sentences, due to how much is going on. The fundamental premise is that quite suddenly and inexplicably an impenetrable barrier blocks off the small town of Chester Mill from the rest of the world. This “dome” comes down so suddenly that anything, and anyone, in its path is cleaved in two. Cue many scenes of destruction and gruesome amputations that the master of horror takes great relish in describing, and does so with his usual excellence. Trapped inside the dome are a huge cast of characters, from Iraq war veteran Dale Barbara (nickname Barbie), to the local used car salesman, and evil incarnate, “Big Jim” Rennie. It isn’t long before Big Jim is using the dome to further his own political ambitions, regardless of the damage it does to the town or the people in it. In fact the terror of the dome coming down is soon replaced by the edge of the seat thrills of watching how the town spirals completely out of control, and all with the permission of the decent townsfolk. Alongside this is the desperate search for where the dome came from, while trying to stay out of Big Jim’s firing line.

Stephen King clearly has a lot he wants to say in this story, and at times it’s easy to get the characters a little muddled and forget who’s done what. But he places helpful internal dialogue in each section so you quickly recall who the character is and what they’ve done, though you have to make sure you pay attention to keep up. This becomes less of a problem further in once you’re more familiar with the cast, but could be off-putting to a casual reader. Sticking with it is well worth it though, as the descent into madness is incredibly compelling, and Mr. King spins some excellent similes, as ever. He also does a great job at expressing what writers do all the time; setting up a world and a situation, then watching what the characters do about it, just as the outside world watch what the town’s residents do to cope with their new found imprisonment. But this reviewer’s take on the story, and in particular the depth of evil these everyday folk resort to, is that Stephen King is showing western democracy in the microcosm of Chester Mill. There are forces of evil at work among us, only interested in their own profit and power, regardless of the cost to the rest of us. As for our attitudes in the west, this is summed up perfectly when one character muses three days into the crisis “who in their right mind would ever have expected this sudden contraction of all resources? You planned for more than enough. It was the American way. Not nearly enough was an insult to the mind and the spirit."

Stephen King took over thirty years to complete Under the Dome having begun it in 1976 but stopping after 75 pages. Not, as he says, because of the huge cast of characters but because of the “technical problems the story presented, especially the ecological and meteorological consequences of the Dome… I was terrified of screwing it up.” I also think it wasn’t the right time. Just as he stopped writing the Dark Tower series, only to take it up again after surviving his accident, the time wasn’t right for this story. But by finishing it and releasing it now he has created a piece of fiction that can be enjoyed just as that, fiction, but can also be seen as a “god-like” view on the world we live in. Let’s just hope we can see the Jim Rennies when they raise their ugly heads, before all hell breaks loose.

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