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Under the Dome / Stephen King

Scribner / November 2009
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

Stephen King takes the epic route once again in Under the Dome, a novel he’s been trying to write in one form or another since 1978. It was called Under the Dome on that first attempt; when he picked it up a decade or so later he called it The Cannibals, but still couldn’t maintain the momentum to finish it. Last year he dug out the battered old manuscript, fought his way through the roadblocks that had halted earlier attempts, and delivered the finished book to his faithful Constant Readers. Many hailed it as a return to the form that brought early masterpieces like The Stand; some refused to mention it in the same sentence as that beloved title. Many, like this reviewer, found themselves somewhere in the middle.

As the book has now been out for several months and has likely been devoured by King fans, this review is going to be a spoiler-heavy one. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know what happens, read no further.

Still with me? Okay. You’ve been warned.

From what King has detailed in interviews, the main thrust of Dome has remained the same throughout its various incarnations — take a group of people, isolate them, and see what happens. This is not only the intent of the extraterrestrial “children” that we ultimately find are responsible for the plight of Chester’s Mill, but of the author himself. King is less concerned with the “how” and “why” of what happens to this small town – although he does offer an explanation for both in the end, however unsatisfactory it may be – than he is with the reaction of the town’s occupants. In this way, the book plays to both his strengths and weaknesses; his ability to create incredibly realistic, relatable characters and his sometimes inability to drive the story home to conclusion.

When a transparent dome seals Chester’s Mill off from the rest of the world on a bright October day, a lot of things happen. There are accidents, injuries, and death. Panic and disbelief. Acts of courage and acts of cowardice. In short, the kinds of things that always happen when disaster strikes are spelled out in the frantic opening quarter of King’s book.

Then, as often happens in real disasters, things begin to calm down, and the pace slows just a little as people begin to deal with what must be dealt with. A handful of people step forward and begin to take action — some with good intentions, others who are simply trying to parlay the situation into more power for themselves. The rest of the population seems content to sit back and be told what to do, convincing themselves that whatever is happening will end soon.

At this point a trio of characters emerge as focal points in King’s story: there’s Dale Barbara, a cook at the local diner who carries a lot of baggage, including a military background, wherever he goes; Jim Rennie, town selectman and the puppet master pulling the town’s strings; and “Scarecrow” Joe McClatchey, a precocious teenager who is instrumental in discovering the source of the town’s imprisonment. Dale and Joe are the good guys, working (with lots of help, of course) to free the town before things get worse. Jim is the bad guy, and he is as villainous as any creature King has stirred forth from the depths of his imagination; cold, calculating, merciless, relentless in his pursuit of power and money. Rennie takes no pleasure greater than that of manipulating the people around him into doing what he wants, when he wants, and to him the Dome is a godsend.

King mixes these three and their respective companions with the touch of a master chef, blending the ingredients together and playing them off of each other as only he can. As readers, we can almost understand the satisfaction the alien children that have constructed the Dome as a kind of science experiment must feel as they watch the interactions of the people trapped inside. This is Dome’s great strength — watching the townspeople act their best, or their worst, as they try and cope with a situation they have no control over. In that respect, this truly is one of King’s finest hours, right up there with The Stand and Needful Things as examples of how to use large casts in expert fashion.

As things began to really heat up in the last two hundred pages, when a number of explosive situations were racing toward zero, I remember really hoping that King didn’t pull an It and muck up the ending. Alas, it was not to be — at least not in this reviewer’s opinion. While the idea that the Dome was placed there by extraterrestrial kids doing nothing more than the equivalent of human children burning ants with a magnifying glass is an okay one, it just wasn’t worth the buildup. And in the end, when the Dome goes up and our characters, the ones we’ve spent hours and hours and hundreds of pages with at this point, breathe in some fresh air and walk out of our lives, it just felt anti-climactic. King had done such a good job of setting up the destruction and redemption of this small town, I was hoping for a good bit more after the Dome went up.

That ending is what keeps me from loving this book. That being said, I really liked it. No one builds lives out of ink and air like Stephen King, and that command over characterization is on full display here. Jim Rennie, his son Junior, poor, doomed Phil Bushey, “Scarecrow” Joe — these are characters that I’ll think of fondly whenever I think of King’s work. And while the ending (and, yes, the explanation) actually serve the story just fine, they didn’t serve me.

Do I recommend this to those who haven’t read it yet? Wholeheartedly. Opinions are subjective, and what turns me off may be another’s perfect cup of joe. Reading this book isn’t an experience I’d deny anyone, even if I think they may find themselves, like me, looking around at the end and saying, “I was hoping for so much more.”

Purchase Under the Dome by Stephen King.

Posted on Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 07:09PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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