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Saturday 5 December 2009

Under The Dome

By Stephen King

There are people who say that Stephen King is past his best. There are people who say that he has become less sympathetic, more misanthropic since his accident at the turn of the last decade. There are people who say that he can’t write endings. And then he goes and writes “Under The Dome”.

At 877 pages, this is a big book with a capital B, I & G, bigger even than “The Stand” (a lot of people’s favorite King book). But even at that length it doesn’t feel underpowered, slow, or tricked out with padding and accessories. Uh-uh, this book is a souped-up, stripped-down custom car, pedal-to-the-metal, no time for sight-seeing, barely a stop to refill the tanks.

Its size begs comparison with “The Stand”, but the similarities don’t stop there. King has said elsewhere that the failing of “The Stand” was that it had too much space, that the survivors of the Captain Trips flu had the whole of the country’s resources with which to rebuild society. So, in “Under The Dome” he re-addresses the themes of the earlier book, but in a highly compressed environment. Instead of the whole country, the setting is a town of a few thousand people cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious invisible, unbreakable wall. Instead of the months it takes for events to come to a head, the whole passage of this book is less than a week. Instead of unlimited resources, the inhabitants have the contents of the local supermarket, and a rapidly staling air supply.

Spot the other similarities: an outsider/drifter hero, a man with a burden of guilt on his conscience; a religious maniac; an upright, courageous heroine; a sympathetic police chief; a plucky kid genius; a song that is on everyone’s lips; a society that is devolving into Civil War, because of one man’s lust for power.

But “Under The Dome” is more, much more than a rehash. It is also a parable about isolationism, pollution, about politicians claiming the mandate of God, about seeing terrorists in every shadow, and using the threat of terrorism to promote fear, force through fascist policies and take an ever tighter grip on the people.

And more than this, it is a gripping read, and King, whatever failings he may be accused of, is never less than a master of readable prose. As a plot mechanic, he weaves his multiple strands to keep the reader turning the page (and, in this reader’s case, actually shouting out warnings to the characters of what lies around the corner). The characters themselves are warmer than King has created of late - “Duma Key” being a notable example of a less-than-sympathetic lead - and King’s habit of killing his cast offhand and callously that was demonstrated in that book is reined in tightly here. That is not to say that anyone is safe, far from it; but in “Under the Dome”, when King has someone die it serves a purpose both to the narrative and to the reader’s sense of the inevitable (and sometime unjust) nature of death.

King is often dismissed as a “horror” writer. In truth, with books like this he is much closer to the British “disaster” SF novelists of the Fifties (John Christopher and Wyndham, for example), and perhaps “Under The Dome” will go some way to making him appreciated as something more than a horror comic writer with delusions of grandeur.

He still can’t write endings, though. But sometimes it is the journey that counts, not the destination.

Reviewed by Mike Deller


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an episode of 'The Outer Limits' I saw, back in the 90's.

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

Great review - thank you.

I've never thought of King as a horror writer and agree with the comparison to John Wyndham.

Mike said...

Hi Xuxana,

Don't know about the Outer Limits, but the Simpsons get "domed" in their movie


King does claim to have come up with the idea for the story more than twenty years ago, and coincidentally I found a twentyfive year old notebook of mine which had a story idea for domed communities - do you think SK was looking over my shoulder? Hmmm...

Seriously though - King uses McGuffins in the same way Hitchcock did. The "big idea" is only there to make the story happen, and there's a lot of story in the book.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't talking about the dome though :)

Anonymous said...

I've been a fan of King for decades. Horror is merely one aspect of some of his work. People who dismiss him have probably never read his books.

I have duly added Under the Dome to my to-be-read list.

Anonymous said...

...and now I'm reading it.
Fantastic so far!