Stephen King’s Under the Dome

Stephen King’s latest–Under the Dome–returns to the Stephen King formula that I adore: take a huge population, a cast that must be creeping toward at least a hundred characters, and make something happen to them, something terrible. Then sit back and watch how they react. I suppose that is pretty much what every story is, but when Stephen King dedicates one of his thousand-pagers to this, he does it all on such a grand scale in his mythical Maine settings and makes the complexity seem easy, child’s play. I felt sorry for the copyeditor that took this book on as a manuscript; their style sheet must have run to more than twenty pages with all the names and details to keep straight.

Under the Dome is a hodgepodge of Stephen King’s usual elements and themes–religion, especially when it’s used to mask evil doings; the end of the world and how people behave when it is upon them; innocence; and a touch of gristle-gore to keep the reader hissing under his or her breath: Ouch! But there are new elements as well that reference the world we now live in today: terrorism and the impact of trashing the environment.

In the sock-shaped town of Chester’s Mill, near Tarker’s Mills (another one of King’s imaginary places), a day begins like any other underneath a clear blue sky on an October morning. Everybody goes about his or her business–good and bad–when suddenly an invisible, impenetrable dome locks into place over the town, effectively sealing Chester’s Mill and the people remaining there inside and keeping everybody else out.

The outside world tries to influence what goes on inside the dome, but Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, who has always been big fish of a little pond, sees his chance to go national and tightens his reins on this town. Anybody who gets in his way is mowed down, and when a death occurs, Rennie eulogizes about how that person in now having supper with the Lord: roast beef and mashed. Rennie controls everybody by marshaling the resources left in the town to his benefit and then having them guarded or doled out by a police force of young town bullies whom he has recruited in the face of this disaster.

King has fun with this story, playfully self-referencing himself–“‘Exactly like in that movie The Mist,’ one blogger wrote”–which few authors can do and get away with, and he uses simple tricks of the trade that I had forgotten could be so effective. With one sentence of foreshadowing about Rusty, one of the town’s good guys and the closest thing Chester’s Mill has to a doctor, I gulped down an extra twenty pages of the book than I had intended before my bedtime: “He did not think to take Big Jim’s chart, an oversight he would come to regret.”

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