by Stephen King1088 pages, Pocket Books
Review by Bill Kirton
Suddenly, one beautiful, normal day, a giant impenetrable dome is clamped over the typical little Maine town of Chester’s Mill. It just appears out of nowhere and seals the residents inside, cutting through anything or anyone who happens to be standing where the edge comes down. It’s made of a transparent material that resists all attempts to breach it. Nothing can get in or out of town.
That’s the situation in Under the Dome but the way in which it’s introduced by Stephen King is, as you’d expect, far more graphic, intense, and chilling. It’s an unseen phenomenon and its presence is conveyed through the experiences of individuals who literally fly or drive into it at speed or have limbs cut through when it’s dropped over the town.
The result is a long, gripping story but one which for me (deep breath) dragged at times. In fact, I wanted to get to the end of it, both to find out what happened and to get it over with. Result? I skipped chunks of text. Let me quickly add that I know that Stephen King genuinely IS a master storyteller, carries out immaculate research and structures his books deliberately to keep readers turning those pages. I’ve read many of his in the past and been totally absorbed by them. Maybe I’m just getting old.
Or maybe this time it was the huge cast. He actually has a roll call of them before the story starts, naming 65 specific individuals as well as a few groups and 3 ‘dogs of note’. Another note at the end tells us that he had the idea as a young man but it was a project that was ‘just too big’ for him. In fact it took him ‘over 25 years to write’. There’s no doubt that it’s a terrific achievement but, with so many people to keep in focus, one of the standard narrative ploys to create suspense is weakened. No one does cliff hangers like Stephen King so, when he’s led us to a breathless ‘How the hell will they get out of this?’ quandary, it’s frustrating that he switches to another group of people going about their daily business. I know that’s exactly what he intends, but here the necessity of keeping all the protagonists in the frame, with all their cliff hangers and the multiple switches back and forth which result, tends to stress the artifice (or even artificiality) of the technique.
But even though the cast is huge, its principal characters are well drawn and distinct. OK, the baddies are really bad and the goodies equally good, but the way their goodness and badness manifest themselves is idiosyncratic and entertaining (although that’s not the word to use for some of the evils perpetrated by the baddies). The main villain, a God-fearing man whose actions are as far from Christian as it’s possible to get, deplores cursing and so, to satisfy the swearing impulse, has to resort to the quaint adjectival construction ‘cotton picking’ and labels women he doesn’t like ‘rhymes with witch’.
I’m being very careful to avoid spoilers, so I need to refrain from commenting in any detail on the supernatural aspect of the story, which is ingenious, interesting but, for me, unconvincing. It’s cleverly handled and the parallels between it and the ‘natural’ world into which it intrudes are telling. I suppose the familiarity I felt with the inhabitants of the town made me want a more ‘realistic’ resolution. The bulk of the story, after all, is about small town politics, power struggles and the havoc that can be wreaked in the name of the electorate when its elected representatives are corrupt. I wanted the resolution to be part of that dynamic without outside interference.
Having said all of which, I still wanted to know what happened next. Perhaps the text-skipping was precisely because I knew that some of these people were there to provide grisly exits, small Stephen King set-piece horror moments. And they were, and they worked. But, as the atmosphere inside the dome worsened and the homicidal actions of the community’s leaders distorted more truths and piled up more corpses, the need was to understand where the dome had come from, who was responsible and how, if at all, it could be removed.
And, despite my reservations, as I recall the experience of reading this book, I have to acknowledge that its grip on me as I did so was real. But the grip was exerted by the warring forces in the community and, even though it was the catalyst for all the book’s events, the supernatural aspect seemed grafted on and separate from their struggles.
Except, of course, that it’s possible to draw a parallel between the actions of the supernatural entities and those of the reader. On which (feeble) cliff hanger and despite some of my remarks seeming negative, I still think this is a very good read.