On October 21st, the town of Chester's Mill in Maine is abruptly sealed off from the outside world by a mysterious barrier. Several cars and aircraft crash into the 'Dome', causing serious injuries and several fatalities. The US government moves swiftly to seal off the area and attempt to pierce the Dome through technological means. However, inside the Dome events rapidly deteriorate as a local town politician takes advantage of the chaos to try to take over the town, sparking a chain of events that will end in tragedy.
Originally published in 2009, Under the Dome was notable for several reasons at release. It was King's first really big, one-off horror novel in a considerable number of years. It was also a book that King had been trying to write on and off since 1976, but had bounced off as it was 'too ambitious'. From the writer of the complex Dark Tower sequence and the large, sprawling The Stand, this was an impressive comment. After reading the finished novel, it's also a somewhat baffling comment, as it's a pretty straightforward book.
What we have here is Lord of the Flies retold in a modern American small town sealed off by a weird forcefield. The novel unfolds over four days, during which law and order inside the Dome completely break down, leading to total anarchy. There are numerous deaths, some right-on cultural references that will be dated in a year and some highly implausible plot twists before events resolve in an ending so anti-climactic I seriously wondered if my copy of the book was missing its final pages. King has a reputation for delivering poor endings, but even by his standards this one is disappointing.
Of course, King usually gets away with poor endings by making the journey so unforgettably good (The Stand being a primary case in point). This is not the case with Under the Dome, where the journey is remarkably predictable. Within minutes of meeting each character, the reader can easily sort them into 'good' and 'bad' categories and make a guess as to what role they will play in the inevitable conflict. We have the small-town politician who instantly turns into Stalin the second he thinks he can get away with it, the heroic Iraq War veteran who is out to save the town (aided by his plucky female newspaper editor sidekick), the genius computer-programmer whizkid and a pretty standard ensemble of drunks, nutcases and occasional normal people thrust into a situation out of their control. It would be fairer to call them caricatures rather than characters, actually.
Still, nuanced characterisation is not why you read a big Stephen King horror novel. What you read one of these for is for the premise, the pacing and the scares. In which case you're also in big trouble with Under the Dome. The premise is fairly solid, although once you take away the actual Dome itself you're left with a very standard 'people stuck living together in close confinement' scenario. The variations brought about by the specifics of the Dome (most notably the fact that people can look in from the outside and see the horrors unfolding but unable to intervene) are left chronically under-explored. The pacing is arguably more successful: though 900 pages long, the novel does truck along at a fairly relentless pace, with frequent cliffhangers and plot twists of varying degrees of effectiveness. A slightly cheesy device is that King will end a chapter on a cliffhanger related to something going on across town (usually the sound of gunshots) and then we rewind to see what's actually happened from another POV.
As for the scares, they're pretty much non-existent this time around. There are no monsters tearing up the town, so the book has to rely on the psychological terror unleashed by both the idea of being trapped inside the Dome (which given the Dome is seven miles wide and contains a fully-functioning modern American town with fairly substantial supplies, is not exactly a major hardship) and by the activities of our antagonist, Big Jim Rennie, and his band of evil cops. The problem with this is that Big Jim Rennie is a ludicrous cartoon character (originating somewhere between Dick Cheney and Stalin) who never convinces as a serious character, his insane, necrophiliac and serial-killing son even less so. The bad guys' motivations are totally unfathomable. Since they don't know when the Dome might be lifted, Rennie's power-grab is pointless and seriously risky for himself (which, given the lengths he has gone to to protect his reputation prior to the novel starting, is implausible). King could have tweaked the narrative by perhaps having Rennie responsible for the Dome, which would have made a lot more sense, but as published Rennie's activities are ridiculously unconvincing.
All of this could have been borne as a sort of insane comedy of errors with a masochistic streak (not to mention writing that is often so bad it's unintentionally hilarious) if King didn't tiresomely decide to tread down the obvious path of terrorising his female characters with the threat of sexual assault, and in one scene actually carry it out with a somewhat disturbingly-detailed gang rape scene (which leads to madness, murder and suicide). This scene gains some added WTFness when one of the attackers berates the victim for being a Twilight fan rather than a Harry Potter fan like himself (and of course it is well known that King is a massive Rowling fan and loathes Meyer). If you're going to use sexual assault as a plot point in your novel, a certain level of responsibility to treat it seriously comes attached to it. Here King uses it simply to show how cartoonishly evil his villains are and possibly even as a source of comedy (with the Rowling/Meyer stuff), which is simply unacceptable.
Under the Dome (*) is a remarkably weak novel, almost pornographic in its lingering descriptions of murders, violence and sexual assault and feeble in its attempts to give a decent sense of resolution. Here and there King's old form is visible through the reasonable pacing and at least one brief scene between a prisoner in the Dome and a soldier watching helplessly from outside that shows how badly the premise has been squandered. But overall, a colossal letdown from one of the biggest names in the business.