As long-time Stephen King readers know, you should avoid Maine, New England at all cost, lest you want to meet a rather nasty demise.
On paper, the latest horror to befall the US state isn’t as terrifying as, say, a rabid Saint Bernard or a teenage girl with telekinesis. In fact, the plot shares a striking similarity with that of The Simpsons Movie.
One autumn morning in the small town of Chester’s Mill, Maine, an invisible ‘dome’ inexplicably descends upon the town, sealing it off from the rest of the world. A woodchuck is chopped in half; a gardener’s hand is severed at the wrist; cars smash fatally into the invisible barrier and a plane explodes in mid-air.
Things quickly go from bad to worse, and the death rate escalates. As residents speculate about what may have caused the dome, egomaniacal selectman and all-round bad guy, Big Jim Rennie, the man who holds the town in his powerful grip, sees an opportunity to further his political – and criminal – agenda. He quickly becomes a ruthless tyrant, seizing control of the town’s resources and manipulating events to suit his nefarious plans.
Standing in his way is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a short-order cook and an Iraq war veteran, who was leaving town for good on the morning the dome came down. As children start having seizures, with premonitions of a terrifying Halloween filled with murder and mayhem, it’s up to Barbie to take on Big Jim and his personal police force.
Just as Big Jim has Chester’s Mill in his vice-like grip, King will have you in his. King’s usually a fan of build up and back-story, but he’s straight into the action here, and it seldom lets up.
At nearly 900 pages Under the Dome is a hefty tome, but he manages to keep it interesting. There are numerous intersecting sub-plots, and the town of Chester’s Mill is so well realised that you genuinely feel as if you live there, becoming increasingly desperate as the US military tries and fails to break through the invisible barrier.
As frightening as events inevitably become, however, it’s never truly terrifying. It has more in common with Needful Things, King’s twisted social commentary on 1980s excess, which was set in a small town with a similarly large cast of characters, than it does with Carrie, for example. It’s like an epic episode of The Twilight Zone, offering a deep mystery, the best and worst aspects of human nature, and some not-so-subtle themes, namely religion, the environment and, of course, politics.
The political metaphors, in particular, can be a bit on the nose, and the religious speak can become rather irksome. But for the most part Under the Dome is an interesting, darkly ironic fable, with something worthwhile to say about the environment and human nature, even if its primary characters are remarkably one-dimensional.
King’s never been one for writing complicated, morally-grey characters. They generally fall into one of two camps: goodies or baddies. There are no shades of grey. Take chief baddie Big Jim, for example: he’s an evil, sexist and racist Republican, not to mention a hypocritical religious fanatic. He’s even a used car salesman.
Barbie, on the other hand, is your typical square-jawed G.I. Joe. Besides a minor character-arc where he seeks redemption for an atrocity he stood by and let happen in Iraq, he fits the standard action-movie hero archetype: he’s calm in the face of death, he’s resourceful and he knows how to fight, even taking on several guys by himself. He can even dodge bullets shot at close range.
The peripheral characters are more interesting, and serve to ground the otherwise far-fetched premise. It’s a human horror story. The real horror isn’t the dome, but what it brings out in the characters trapped beneath it.
It’s a shame then, that King ditches the humanity in the final act for the metaphysical, even if it does raise a few interesting moral questions. The ending is just not satisfying enough for a novel of this length, which until then has you captivated by the seemingly hopeless plight of Chester’s Mill and its inhabitants.
King has been considering writing Under The Dome for more than 25 years, but hadn’t written it until now for fear of “screwing it up”. He says in the author’s note that he first tried writing it in 1976, but was overwhelmed by the technical issues the story presented, especially the “ecological and meteorological consequences of the dome”. He went on to something else, but the story never left his mind.
It was worth the wait. It’s a very good novel, a riveting read and a welcome return to King’s spiritual home of Maine (his last novel, the creepy Duma Key, was set in Florida).
It’s not vintage King, and not nearly as good as The Stand, his best work to date, but fans won’t be disappointed.
Order Under the Dome now from the Den of Geek Amazon store.