Thursday, 21 August 2014

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

This was my 2014 summer holiday read (Tenerife, if you're asking) on account of its immense, breeze-block proportions and I could not have picked a better one. It's a book that demands a fast, intensive reading because it takes place over a short period of time, every segment ends on a cliffhanger and it is just incredibly absorbing. I loved the intricacy of this book and was blown away by the storytelling skill and the sheer vision that unravelled through the story. Let me join the queue of people wanting to shake Stephen King's hand and declare him a genius.

Under the Dome begins 11:44 AM on Saturday October 21st of an unspecified year; the small Maine town of Chester's Mill is suddenly and inexplicably separated from the outside world by an invisible and semi-permeable barrier of mysterious origin. The immediate and unexpected appearance of the barrier causes a plane crash, a lorry collision, a multi car pile up resulting in several fatalities, a severed hand and subsequent bleed out and a bisected squirrel. The borders of Chester's Mill are undeniably closed, and you are either trapped on the inside or trapped on the outside, though it's a while before this can be realised (the in/out rather than the this side/that side). Former army Captain turned fry-cook Dale Barbera, 'Barbie' to his friends, is on his way out of Chester's Mill after a car park ruckus with the town's troublemakers when the barrier comes down. He's the first on the scene of much of the action and remains the main character and hero, albeit reluctantly at times, throughout.

Having said that, there is no central narrative. It's the story of the town and its inhabitants, rather than a person. King spins the story in his omnipotent narrator fashion, looking down on Chester's Mill like the bacteria in a petri dish and picking up and leaving off the actions and thoughts of various characters periodically. The story frequently switches from resident to resident and from group to group, creating connections, overlapping and combining and framing events in ways that the reader can begin to assemble the pieces of Chester's Mill long before any of its residents can see the full picture. We follow the interweaving stories of Barbie, representative of Marshall law and slander campaign victim; Julia Shumway, the town's newspaper editor and journalist and her Corgi Horace; big Jim Rennie the town's ambitious second selectman and master manipulator; his psychopathic small town bully-boy son Junior and his twisted friends; Rusty Everett, the put-upon physician's assistant and familyman and 'Scarecrow' Joe McClatchley, the 13-year old strategy wizard and computer genius. These main characters are supported by a rich and authentic supporting cast, including an atheist Reverend, middle class drug addicts, stranded academics, holiday makers, jacks of all trades and some bloody brilliant dogs.

It's an ensemble novel, full of brilliantly crafted normal people living perfectly ordinary lives until the dome. Families, sassy old ladies, small time cops and skater kids and hoards of regular Joes. They are so well constructed, that even the characters introduced simply to die mere sentences later feel real. We're talking some seriously short character lifespans here, but it's never forgotten that somebody will miss them. Somewhere, the narrative is strengthened or affected by their death.  Amongst other themes, the book is about the corrupting influence of power and the idea that if a state (or town, or village or anything) is cut off and inaccessible in every sense- then effectively, there is no accountability and no consequences. If there is no possibility of personnel entering or leaving the Dome, then it becomes entirely at the mercy of its most powerful and determined residents, as there are always people that will seize an unlikely opportunity from an otherwise tragic situation. Under the Dome also looks at collective behaviour, how otherwise peaceful and neighbourly people can, if the circumstances are manipulated just so, become riotous, murderous and incredibly cruel. Or they can become heroes. It shows how fear and suspicion can bring out the best and the worst in people, and how revealing it can be when people's true selves are revealed. There are such acts of cruelty and violence that it seems that maybe the Dome, for all its transparency, is just the veil that the individuals have been waiting for to finally drop the act of "civilisation" and descend into total barbarism.

For such a long novel, the pages fly by. King builds up an entirely living, breathing (lol) community struggling with their sudden imprisonment and later, their fame and fate. He explores the pressure of being at the centre of a nation-wide media frenzy, the subjects under the microscope for reasons that nobody can fathom and the impotence of the World's political might. The characters are complex and brilliant, the pace is staggering and the prose is unmatched. It is simply a masterpiece. To maintain such a breathless pace throughout such a behemoth of a novel would be impossible for any other author. In places the tension is unbearable and building up to the novel's spectacular finale is kind of exhausting. But it's worth every page. An absolute stunner.

I've gone out and bought about 7 other Stephen King books, based on the jaw dropping quality of Under the Dome and The Shining.

It's also answered a question that's bugged me for years. "Can you love a book, but hate the ending? Or will a disliked ending always taint the preceding plot?" I've swung between Yes and No for years, never quite sure. The answer is yes; you can love a book and completely hate the ending.


  1. For me “Under the Dome” is one of the top stephen king books although it is usually not mentioned in the top 10 lists that you see for this author. I also enjoyed the TV series based on this book.

  2. It's brilliant isn't it? Was blown away.
    Very disappointed with the TV show though...I couldn't cope with the amount of cringe!