Monday, 27 February 2012

Under the Dome by Stephen King

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.


James Pray said...

This was very much my sense of this book, although I put it down for good before I was out of the introductory arc. It didn't seem like so much a *novel* as a technical exercise conducted by King to explore how big of a cast he could jam into a single narrative (That is, it strikes me as ambitious from a technical standpoint, but not otherwise).

Raquel said...

I'm beginning to wonder if the break down of law and humanity is one of King's favorite subjects, as he also captures it (much better) in The Mist.

Anonymous said...

I haven't really enjoyed any Stephen King books that were written after he got hit by that car. I really loved most of his older work, and the Stand may be in my top 10 but starting with the fifth book in the Dark Tower series, it seemed to me that the magic was gone. The end of the Dark Tower was still readable but after reading Cell and a few other novels written post-accident, I had to give up and never even read Under the Dome.

Unknown said...

I've always been less than impressed by King's writing. He seems to indulge in particularly nasty bits of sexual humiliation. I feel like I need to take a shower after reading some of them, so I gave up on him.

Davieboy said...

Well I take the point about the caricature characters but I lapped it up anyway, a fine easy escapist read, no worrying about "back-stories" and who begat who back in the day etc.
I thought the ending was fine, pretty plausible given the complete implausibilty of the entire concept!
I think with this, Duma Key and particularly the highly recommended 11-22-63, SK is back in fine form.
I normally agree with your reviews, but it's good to disagree sometimes, that's why the world goes round...

Anonymous said...

Not surprised that he started writing it in the '70s.

What's with the '70s and this assumption that civilization's collapse was going to happen in the course of a couple hours (SPOILER ALERT FOR ARIEL: like in Ariel, where a girl is assaulted and gang raped by the neighbors a few hours after the change)?

I have absolutely no faith on the nature of human beings, but, come on, people are not going to become barbarians after a few hours without electricity. At least give them a few days to understand that things aren't going to go back to normal.

RobB said...

I did not read this one, nor any SK novel since the concluding DARK TOWER novel.

I just went to Wikipedia only b/c I was curious as to the source of the dome which turns out to be SF-nal in nature.

This just further cements my thoughts that King's novels with an SF MacGuffin or conceit (TOMMYKNOCKERS, FROM A BUICK 8, DREAMCATCHER) are his weakest.

Anonymous said...

Never did like king.Alot of his male characters no matter what there attitude are always completely irresistible to women.They just blink at a woman and she starts taking her clothes off.Dont know if there is a lot of wish fulfilment going on there.Being a big Richard Laymon fan im really not being ironic or calling pots & kettles here when i say that i always found king incredibly sexist in his attitude towards women.If you dont like king i heartily recommend Richard Laymon.A lot of people cant stand him either but i much prefer him.Give him a go.You could only end up being slightly disappointed lol.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that his writing lost something after his accident. And yes, the fifth Dark Tower book may be the starting point of the downhill road; it was in that book I remember thinking "Oh no, a typical American who just can't deal with the fact that he is a mortal!"...putting himself INSIDE the story, basically killed what was supposed to be one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time and after that -as a long time reader and fan - I never quite forgave him.

That being said, your review actually made me buy Under The Dome (I'm not sure why), this is the first book of him I'm reading after forcing myself to finish last Dark Tower book years ago (boy, those last 3 Dark Towers book do suck, wish we had a Wert review of those series), and I'm enjoying the book so far...

Anonymous said...

Putting my stamp on this page.

I completely disagree with this review. However, I am certain I would disagree, again, with the above reviewer about a book he would find wildly entertaining and a solid read. Everyone has their own cup of tea.

This is the first novel I have read in quite some time now. I am itching to pick up my next one.

Great read! That is if you can put aside the realism about the premise and focus on the events that take place when a society is cut off and striving to survive. But do we not read to stretch our imagination? Imagine reading nothing farfetched? Only reading novels with complete realism? I would find it bland and boring.

Adam Whitehead said...

If you want to read a far-fetched, even cartoonish novel about the breakdown of civilisation, there are vastly superior works (Justin Cronin's excellent THE PASSAGE immediately comes to mind). Or just read King's THE STAND, which wipes the floor with this book.

UNDER THE DOME is an easy read, sure, but it's ultimately a highly unintelligent and dumb novel. It's nothing to do with 'realism', it's to do with the story making sense (or hanging together just enough that you can paper over the problems). In this case it's ridiculous. Society collapsing in four days when they have no idea when the Dome will be lifted makes no sense. A corrupt politician who has spent decades carefully covering his tracks and is already the ultimate power in town 'going public' after the Dome comes down is nonsensical when it might be lifted at any time and he would then go to jail. And he doesn't really gain anything out of it either.

The Writer said...

I didn't hate this book. It's not among King's best, and for a book so long to be so mediocre is a crime in itself, but the pacing was quite good, and I never had any trouble turning the pages. Strictly middle-of-the-road King, but better than his snoozefest FROM A BUICK 8 or the disappointing later DT books.

In regards to the quality of King's writing dipping after the accident: if so, it's back now. He hasn't written a bad book since DOME. 11/22/63; FULL DARK, NO STARS; JOYLAND; and DOCTOR SLEEP all ranged from good to excellent.