Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Stephen King is one of the most accomplished authors of all time. He published his first novel, Carrie, in 1973, and over the next 38 years he has produced a mind-boggling 49 novels, not to mention his screenplays, short story collections, and non-fiction books. For those doing the math, that means he’s averaging more than one novel a year. Admittedly, for every The Stand or The Dead Zone, you’ll get a Christine or Thinner, but there’s simply no looking past how prolific this legend’s career has been. It’s popular for literary academic types to beat up on Mr. King for his accessible and simple prose as well as his penchant for the supernatural and other pulp material. What they often overlook, however, is his incredibly rich characterization (among the best in the business) alongside his striking insights into the darker sides of human nature. Real Stephen King fans know that his best work are among his least reliant on horror cliches like ghouls and monsters (It excepted which is terror incarnate). Instead, the terror comes from the darkness inside us all, if horror is even the point. Along side George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, Stephen King’s Dark Tower books have become hallmarks of American fantasy. Similarly, his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand, is a seminal piece of Americana rife with plentiful Biblical symbolism and social allegory. My favorite King novel, Insomnia, has an urban fantasy plot but at its core is a deeply touching tale of old age, loss, and sacrifice. I’m happy to report that Stephen King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is simply the best work he has done in over a decade. Rife with political allegory and a plot that never lets off the gas for its nearly 1100 pages, Under the Dome is King at his very best.
Under the Dome, a door-stopper along the lines of It and The Stand, is one of King’s most ambitious novels to date, even if the action all occurs with the confines of one small Maine Town (for once not Castle Rock or Derry). As retired Army Lt. Dale “Barbie” Barbara is trying to leave the small town of Chester’s Mill after a vicious beating from some local hoods, an invisible but impenetrable dome covers the entire town exactly along the town lines. Planes crash into the invisible barrier and any car that hits the Dome explodes. People working in their gardens or walking along the town’s barrier are cut in half by the quick descent of the bars that have turned this town into a prison. As Barbie (at the urging of his former military superiors) tries to discover the source of the dome, he is also forced to contend with “Big” Jim Rennie, the town’s Second Selectman (which must be Maine’s equivalent of a Deputy Mayor) and used car salesman. Rennie’s a cut throat politician with a dirty streak that would make Dick Cheney blush, and he sees the potential for unchecked power in “his” town now that they’re cut off from the outside world. It’s up to Barbie, as well as local newspaper woman Julia Shumway and physician’s assistant turned town doctor Rusty Everett, to stop Rennie and save this town from the impending ecological and social disasters this Dome is sure to cause. When the local children start having visions of a massive fire and imminent doom, it’s obvious to everyone that time is running short.
George R. R. Martin could really take lessons from Stephen King about how to maintain good pacing over the course of 1000 pages. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books (especially all of the ones after book 1), Martin tends to back load all of the action and actual development into the last couple hundred pages which can make the first 4oo pages or so, a little taxing to read (especially in A Feast for Crows). This book starts out with a series of literal bangs and continues to up the ante non-stop for the rest of the book. Every time you think that there’s no way that Stephen King can make the stakes any higher or increase the tension to more unbearable levels or (especially) take his story to even darker places, he essentially bitch-slaps your misgivings and lays down the acceleration even more. This book is the definition of can’t put down fiction. I read this while at work (where I bar tend and have plenty of free time) and I was averaging something along the lines of 200-300 pages a shift over 6 hour shifts. It inspired me to get the actual work of my job done as quickly as possible so that I could spend as little time away from this tome as I could spare. Over it’s 1000 pages, it would be difficult to recount just how many different action filled moments King provides, but a quick breakdown would include a Roadhouse style bar room brawl, a prison break-out, attempted political assassinations, a shoot-out straight out of The Wild Bunch, and other moments I don’t want to ruin through simple allusion. Needless to say, this plot continues to evolve into a continuing darker and darker place, and what starts out as a more personal and political version of King’s earlier Needful Things metamorphoses into something more akin to Cormac McCarthey’s The Road.
What strikes me the most about the book (even more than its break-neck pacing) is how effective King has become at painting an incredibly political tale. Under the Dome is the logical culmination of his short story The Mist and his novel Needful Things, in how it takes a supernatural situation but rather than that being what causes most of the damage, it shows just how short a period of time before being cut off from society and security turns us back to our baser and more animalistic nature. However, if it were simply those themes at work, then King would just be recycling old material (something he’s been accused of doing in the past, but it isn’t as true as his hater’s think. The only thing From a Buick 8 has in common with Christine is a car. From a Buick 8 is a much more ambitious and interesting novel). Instead, he layers a political allegory on top of his social commentary that is as relevant today as it was two years ago when the book was released and four years ago when he started writing it. “Big” Jim Rennie is a not entirely subtle dig at Dick Cheney (First Selectman Andy Sanders being his puppet George W. Bush), and the dangers and disasters that come when you have the wrong kind of people in office at the wrong moments. It’s a novel about greed and lust for power, and King is expertly able to show how a crisis and an unwitting and scared public are all it takes to create despots like Rennie and the Bush administration. Some people may take umbrage at the fairly one-sided political nature of the novel, but for anyone who has seen our nation’s liberties eroded time and time again in the name of “safety” and “protecting our freedoms”, you’ll appreciate King’s sharp insight.
This should come as no surprise to long time King fans but his characterization and mastery of telling a story from many, many points of view is on better display in Under the Dome than in any of his novels since It and The Stand. It is essentially a book about small-town America, and King wants you to know as much about the citizens inhabiting Chester’s Mill as you can. The story is told from around 20 separate points of view (though the main cast is perhaps a more reasonable five or six characters), and by the time the book ends, you may feel you know the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill as well as you do your own small town. The fact that King is able to accomplish all of this character development and backstory without ever sacrificing the pacing of the novel is a masterful achievement (and something he wasn’t even able to do in the universally lauded The Stand). King’s gift though is not only getting into the minds of his heroes but truly inhabiting his villains. “Big” Jim Rennie and his even more psychopathic son, Junior, are among King’s best villains to date. Their only real competition in that category are recurring King villain Randall Flagg as well as It‘s Pennywise the Clown. Combining Rennie’s utterly evil and despotic tendencies alongside his borderline genius on how to maintain his own power, you get a villain who is more than a match for our heroes and does far more damage to the town of Chester’s Mill than the Dome could ever hope.
For those who can get past their own literary pretensions, it is plain that Stephen King has remained one of the most resounding literary American voices for the last 40 years, with absolutely no signs of slowing down any time soon. Not even his nearly fatal car accident has been able to take the spring from his step. Under the Dome marks, not a return to form which would imply his writing had gotten bad in the last decade, but a return to the masterful heights all of his fans know he is capable of. Even if you’re intimidated by the books remarkable length, you shouldn’t let that discourage you from picking up one of the most powerful works by one of our nation’s best. After I finally finished the book and came to the end of its incredibly shocking final 100 pages or so, I was left with so much to think about and spent the remainder of my shift at work in deep contemplation about what I had just read. For someone who loves the works of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and James Joyce, I should be one of those literary snobs that turns his nose up at the pulp fiction Stephen King writes. I don’t. His ability to transform clear and simple prose that every one can appreciate into tales that cross the border into legitimate artistic expression make him a modern American egalitarian legend. This is King like he hasn’t been in decades, and fan or not, you shouldn’t let this one slide by.
Final Score: A+