Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Under The Dome
For horror readers of my generation, it’s hard to find much fault with Stephen King. He didn’t create horror, but his success certainly was the impetus and inspiration for a lot of the horror published over the last thirty years. Also his books such as Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and The Stand are classics of the genre. Some readers feel his writing has fallen off in recent years, but I think his later work such as Duma Key holds up with the best of his output. His latest release is Under The Dome.
The book, which is social commentary with a horror background, is something King has been working on off and on in various forms for over thirty years. It is set in the fictional Maine town of Chester’s Mill (not far from Castle Rock, so you would think the residents would have a certain familiarity with strange events), where an impenetrable, invisible dome suddenly descends, to the immediate misfortune of a woodchuck and a passenger plane, and long term for everyone trapped inside. Those trapped inside include (there is a cast of characters at the front of the book, which is invaluable considering the number of people who are featured in the story) Dale Barbara, a former Army officer who has become an itinerant short-order cook after being involved in something in Iraq which compelled him to leave the Army; Andy Sanders, the town’s First Selectman, dim-witted and amiable, and easily led; Big Jim Rennie, the Machiavellian Second Selectman, who actually runs the town and has some dark secrets, Junior Rennie, Big Jim’s sociopathic son, and Julia Shumway, publisher of the town newspaper.
Although the dome is the central event of the novel, it is something of a MacGuffin for the social commentary that is really at the heart of the book. If the residents can’t get out, their days are numbered due to the steady buildup of pollutants in the atmosphere, an obvious depiction of environmental concerns. The more cohesive thread running through the book involves the reaction of the individuals to the crisis. Big Jim Rennie sees it as an opportunity to seize more power, and to use it for personal gain. A de facto police state is quickly in place, and Rennie uses fear to sway the citizens to his side. Although the U.S. government wants Barbara to take over, they have steadily decreasing influence inside the dome.
King has made no bones about the fact that Sanders and Rennie are small town analogues of George W. Bush and Dick Chaney, and it is both realistic and disturbing to see how easily people fall sway to demagoguery. Crisis does not always bring out the best in us. There are obvious overtones of The Lord of the Flies, albeit it with adults reverting to savagery rather than children.
As is often the case with King’s work, the ending is the weakest part of the book, and, while the dome is explained, that is not terribly compelling either. But both of these things are secondary concerns. The book looks at people trapped in a giant fishbowl, with the pressure turned up, and in that King equals the successes of the past.
As everyone has mentioned, this is a long book, clocking in at 1,074 pages. Is it too long? In my opinion, a good book is rarely too long, and a bad book is never short enough. Under the Dome is good enough to give me a couple of late nights reading the thing, and if you are a Stephen King fan, it shouldn’t disappoint you.