It may been 25 years in the offing (King first had the idea for Under the Dome in 1976 but, according to the short afterword, ‘crept away from it with my tail between my legs after two weeks that amounted to about seventy-five pages’), but – given the short lifespan that appears after the last word of this novel is complete (November 22, 2007-March 14, 2009), you’d be forgiven for thinking it was The Simpsons Movie that prompted Stephen King to return to his earlier idea. Certainly, on the surface of things, there is a degree of overlap: large dome cuts off small American town from the rest of the world. Here is where the similarity ends, though. While the residents of Springfield largely wage a concerted effort against the dome, in Stephen King’s novel, the residents are too busy trying to cope with their town going to hell in a handcart to worry overmuch about the invisible ‘force-field’ that has led to their virtual seceding from the US of A.
We find ourselves in Chester’s Mill, a small community a ways down the road from King’s alma mater Castle Rock. As the novel opens, Claudette Sanders is taking a flying lesson in the company of Chuck Thompson. It doesn’t give too much away to know that the plane they are flying is sliced in two as the dome slides into place (a woodchuck also falls apart on the edge of a road, with blood squirting and pumping, guts tumbling in the dirt and back legs kicking rapidly). Claudette, Chuck and the woodchuck aren’t the only casualties at the opening of a novel that, we’ll see, is positively littered with casualties. There is a murder. Birds strike the dome and create a perimeter of black corpses. A deer is guillotined. Various cars slam into the dome at speed. The sheriff, Duke Perkins, bites the bullet as he approaches the dome for the first time – his pacemaker exploding in his chest. An old lady has her hand severed while gardening and bleeds to death in her husband’s arms. And this is just the first hundred or so pages of the largest novel King has written since The Stand way back in 1978.
Under the Dome is best thought of as a sort of game of two halves (even though the halves are not equal): you have the dome, of course, and the questions raised by that (what caused it? who caused it? is there anything it can’t withstand?); but you also have what Dale Barbara, one of the heroes of the novel, calls ‘the human element’. The human element is what will power most Stephen King fans through the first 700 pages of this novel. The human element is, arguably, what Stephen King thinks about what has happened to America this last decade or so. Because the dome is (of course) a device, a contrivance, that allows him to create a situation in which to examine a metaphorical America, an America cut off from the world, an America led by ruthless exactitude, an America that leads with God and morality on one hand and greed and tin-pot tyranny on the other, an America busy and blindly ploughing through resources that are not going to exist for a whole lot longer. What the dome allows is the ascendance of the town’s second Selectman (a used car dealer called Jim Rennie, quite possibly the most despicable villain King has ever created, he knocks The Dead Zone‘s Greg Stillman into a cocked hat), a man who represents all that is Republican and Fox ‘News’. Rennie quickly takes control of the police force and swells the size of the force with his son (a bully known as Junior, recently thrown out of school and in the loose, early grasp of a brain tumour), his son’s friends and then, as things reach their desperate worst, a gaggle of small-town bullies and corn-poked eedjits more than willing to believe (and more importantly do) just what they’re told. Ranked against Rennie are a small group of a half a dozen or so characters whose work, it is fair to say, is cut out for them. There is the aforementioned Dale ‘Barbie’ Barbara, a short-order cook who we shortly learn has a military background, newspaperwoman Julia Shumway, a medico called Rusty and his wife and part-time police lady Linda. There are some kids – Joe McClatchey and his hope-to-be girlfriend Norrie (King hasn’t sketched kids as good as this since It), among them. And in the middle, there are a lot of easily led, ‘well, there’s no smoke without fire’ types eager to believe whatever the person in authority tells them. King has said that he intended Under the Dome to be a real pedal to the metal read; as far as this storyline (or set of storylines) go, he is bang on the money. This reviewer couldn’t get through the pages fast enough (was eager to get to the money-shot of the come-uppeance – or should that be ‘the money-shots of the come-uppances’ – there are a lot of bastards in Under the Dome). It’s also worth noting that reading Under the Dome was at times like watching The (English) Office in that parts of the book are excrutiating in their awkwardness, you read through split fingers, not wanting the plot to be unwinding as it is.
Now. In the past, there have been perfectly reasonable Stephen King novels that have gone off the rails in the last hundred or so pages. Take The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a fine, slim novel about a young girl who gets lost in the woods. The whole ‘being lost in the woods’ thing is enough to terrify the be-jeebers out of anyone reading the book. But no. Stephen King also introduces a kind of bear made of bees (which, funnily enough, at the time also reminded me of The Simpsons – specifically the episode where Mr Burns adopts Bart and Homer goes to the mansion to reclaim his son and says to Mr Burns, ‘Oh what are you going to do? Set the dogs on me? Or the bees? Or the dogs made of bees that bark and bees come out of their mouths?’). The presence of the dome informs you that there may be dogs made of bees that bark and spew bees at some point in proceedings. This thought lingers in the back of your mind as you make your way through the novel (there is a quiet whisper behind things – ‘don’t drop the ball, don’t drop the ball’). You know that there’ll be something, but you don’t want the ‘oh shit everything has gone mental’ of, say, Black House – you want the scant ‘ooh, there isn’t going to be an explanation’ of, say, Cell.
It’s my pleasure to say that Under the Dome doesn’t drop the ball. This is certainly King’s best novel since Cell (but, given the size and ambition of both the plot and the writing – which really feels at times like King is pushing himself as he has never pushed himself, flirting with a positive Pynchon-ism at times – I’d go further: this is the best King for many a year, the first Stephen King book since my adolescence to have given me the same feeling I had when I read King in my adolescence). Yes, the dome is extraterrestrial. Yes, we get to glimpse the people responsible (they are strange leatherheaded creatures redolent of the string-cheese monsters in From a Buick 8). But, crucially, the novel doesn’t get bogged down in otherworldly booga-booga-booga. This is thanks to that human element. The human element is at the fore. And that, for this reader at the very least, places this novel alongside golden age King like The Shining, The Stand, Salem’s Lot and Christine. Arguably ‘the human element’ is King’s great genius (commingled with a fine smattering of the banal and the prosaic rammed flush up against the inexplicable): King has it in him to bring a community of characters to life and it is when he struggles with a community that he produces his best work (think of the novella, The Mist, which is referenced in Under the Dome, in terms of Darabont’s excellent movie).
Any Cop?: If you’re a fan, beat a hot path to your nearest bookstore. If you’re not and have never been a fan but have flirted with dipping your toe in the water just to see what he’s like, there’s never been a better time.