Under the Dome by Stephen King
Like many people (including my Lady), I first ran into Stephen King as a teenager, and was captivated by books like It, Salem's Lot, Insomnia and The Stand. With the exception of The Dark Tower however, my king reading largely fell off as I got older. I can't really give an adequate reason for this, and judging by the quality of Under the Dome, it's plainly an oversight on my part and one I certainly will be correcting in the future.
One thing I found fascinating about Under the Dome, is the way King takes a comparatively simple premise, and manages to build on it, examine it and explore it in minute and unexpected ways. "what would happen if a small American town were stuck under a glass dome and cut off from the outside world".
The way King deals expertly with this premise, exploring all its ramifications, from planes crashing into the dome and animals cut in half, to the impotence of the rest of the world outside the dome to affect events within, the way the various personalities and political manoeuvrings of a small town suddenly take on new meanings with the town's status as almost a separate biosphere, is one of the book's major strengths. For an author who in the past has brought us gun wielding knights, shape changing monsters and abused teenagers with psychic powers, King's very lack of the supernatural in this book and his concentration for the most part on purely human monsters both born and made is almost surprising.
I disagree strongly with Floresiensis that the large cast of characters isn't a strong point or made the book difficult to follow. Where in the past, people (including myself), have criticised King for an over emphasis on character digressions, especially into the more seamy aspects of a character’s history, concentrating seemingly overmuch on their extramarital affairs or dodgy dealings, the way Under the Dome reveals its cast and progresses through its plot is truly masterful, particularly since King is able to pace his revelations of characters past according to what is going on in the present, rather than having them stall the plot as they have in previous works, nowhere did I feel either that I was reading an extended set of flashbacks or that the claustrophobic air under the dome was too far away.
King stated that one of his intentions in Under the Dome was to create a novel that always had "The pedal to the metal" and he definitely delivers on this promise. The entire book takes place over 5 days or so, and yet very little in the 34 hour length feels wasted or superfluous, even sections which in another novel (especially from an author known mostly for his horror), would seem to exist just for shock or gore value. For example, we are introduced to one particularly nasty character by the two murders he carries out, and yet the consequences of these murders, the mental state of that character, and what part those murders then play in the steamy, hot house hate mongering of the intensifying situation within the Dome is something that genuinely surprised me, particularly since in the hand of another author or even perhaps in King's earlier work the murders would likely just exist for their shocking elements. Part of this economy despite the book's length is undoubtedly the way that King chooses to use very short chapters, giving the action in immediate punches rather than in long expositions, while another significant detail is King's own writing style, honed over a lifetime career and here employed to give just the details, atmosphere and perspective necessary to instantly familiarize yourself with each person and situation you encounter, whether that of a major or minor character, virtuous or vicious, from an old drunk to a teenage hacker to even a dog. It actually surprised me how seamless I found the shifts in view, since generally speaking my preference is for novels that stay close to a few central characters rather than giving more universal perspectives, but as with any masterfully written novel, King proves here that the whole is greater than the some of its parts, and undoubtedly having say the viewpoints of both the competent nurse Rusty and his police officer wife, especially when they violently disagree over certain matters, added nuance to both perspectives and yet more magnification of the unnatural tensions beneath the dome.
While some characters were definitely larger than life (especially the book's villain, the manipulative and religiously effusive Jim Rennie), I didn't feel any were unrealistic, indeed my only minor complaint in terms of character is that the principle romance did feel a little cursory, though this could equally be intentional given that part of what King is showing here is feelings running high in a disastrous situation.
For the most part, the way King evolves and changes his characters is truly wonderful, particularly since it's not always possible to predict exactly where any given character's story or changes will take them, (my lady was quite amused at my first impressions of certain characters), and both redemption and damnation is in the offing, especially when the situation within the dome gets more desperate and the local corrupt politician begins his grab for dictatorship. On the one hand, the very speed that the situation within the dome deteriorates was surprising given that there is no lack of resources, on the other hand, I find it refreshing that King doesn't just replicate the usual clichés of social breakdown due to lack of resources common to so much apocalypse fiction and instead has his breakdowns and changes to society based purely on the personality of his characters, the atmosphere of a small, somewhat insular community, and the ambitions of some highly unpleasant individuals. However, just as many plots are coming to a head, King chooses to have a major disaster occur which literally cuts most of them dead. This disaster, though explained and predicted from the book's beginning at the same time involved two comparatively minor characters who spent most of the book off in left field away from the rest of the cast , and to me felt as if it made a large part of the previous plot feel somewhat superfluous. While it is certainly beneficial when an author is able to have their imaginary world have something of the random, untidiness of everyday life, at the same time, given that so many other plots involving the descent into a dictatorship were coming to the boil, it rather felt as if the book were stopped in its tracks. I do remember reading once that King stated The Stand needed a bomb blast to kick the plot into movement, in Under the Dome however, the bomb feels as if it comes much too early, or at least does a little too much damage to most of the book's structure, especially considering it comes only about three hours before the end.
I have heard people say they found the ending disappointing, though personally I found it quite appropriate, indeed while I disliked the disaster I mentioned previously for terminating plotlines, it did raise the steaks towards the concluding section of the book extremely well and also justify the eventual ending, indeed I give King much credit for knowing just how much information to reveal and no more.
All in all, Under the Dome was a massive roller coaster of a novel, compelling to the point of being addictive, in parts shocking, tragic, touching, beautiful and mysterious. I'm not sure whether you'd classify it as horror, science fiction, character study or something in between, but either way not a book to be missed and likely one which would appeal to fans of a variety of genres. This is an example of King at his absolute best, and definitely a good reason for me to head back into my King collection in the future.
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester's Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener's hand is severed as 'the dome' comes down on it, people running errands in the neighbouring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. Dale Barbara, Iraq vet, teams up with a few intrepid citizens against the town's corrupt politician. But time, under the dome, is running out...
Under the Dome showcases Stephen King at his very best and his very worst. Loyal fans will love this addition to the King catalogue as it is a well-written and compelling read that is strong on characterisation, featuring moments of genuine tension. Some however may find this book over-long and over-indulgent.
As already mentioned, characterisation is King’s forte and in Under the Dome he has had to be really on his game as the dramatis personae reaches in advance of one hundred characters, cast numbers that few have managed with any success.
This is certainly an improvement upon some of King’s releases in recent years and while it will not make the same impact of It or The Stand it will certainly be received with more enthusiasm than Blaze. Keeping track on the large cast of characters will require concentration and some may find the first fifty pages overwhelming but those who stick with it will be amply rewarded as the fascinating premise builds towards a satisfying climax.
Under the Dome will appeal greatly to fans of King’s The Stand and there is no doubting that it is a compelling read and a significant improvement on some of the work he has released recently.
Have you read Under the Dome?
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Under the Dome reader reviews
Xavier from Austria
Just finished The Dome and yes, it is possibly overly long but I really, really enjoyed it. Big Jim was a wonderfully odious villain and the cast was full of interesting characters, and the sub-plots were explored fully and I felt added to - rather than took away from the main story. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to King's legion of fans and I think the way that he looks at the social breakdown of a small town cut off from the rest of the world was fascinating. As was the change in climate a dome would create. Great characterisation as always and the ending was rather amazing.
8.9/10 from 2 reviews
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