I mentioned that all this time laying around due to The Flare has given me a chance to read more than usual. In recent days, I finished a book that has been sitting beside my bed for months, Under The Dome by Stephen King.
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I have never been one to back away from a good piece of artistic horror. King is a favourite author of mine from way back. I am often reminded of this by a particularly embarrassing memory of loudly jumping to his defense when his books were declared “sleaze reads” in a year 12 literature class (I was in year 11 and still pretty stupid, I probably deserved the laughter I received).
In the author’s note, King mentions that he began Under The Dome in the 70s, which would explain why this emotionally wrenching novel feels a lot more like old Stephen King (The Stand, Cujo and, most comparably, Needful Things) than new Stephen King (Cell, Duma Key – which I still loved, btw). The classic King elements of Under The Dome include: the setting of a group of people cut off from the rest of humanity by forces they do not understand; grotesque death scenes; the darkest side of human nature roaming free without restraint; bad guys; good guys; intelligent and useful children; the abuse of power; the power of hope and a mystical element that stretches the imagination right to the very edges of comprehension.
It took me months to finish this 1000+ page whopper of a book. Mostly, this was because I had to read it in small chunks. My problem was thinking about things too much, things being the horrifying and graphic deaths that are splattered across most pages. I tried to find a death count total, however it seems that even internet nerds haven’t added that up for me. To describe the tally simply, it was a lot. No character is safe from the terrifying hands of the grim reaper, an element that, once established, drives a lot of the novel’s suspense. Fictional horror doesn’t usually affect me, however in his masterful manner, King pushed the boundaries of what I could handle (or perhaps I am growing emotional in my old age? I did cry all the way through Up). I found myself in tears at times, and at other times, haunted for days by certain scenes. King’s skill lies in drawing out realistically horrifying reactions from his very human characters. Do they act abhorrently? Yes, of course, it’s Stephen King, duh. Is it believable, even so? Absolutely.
As I sit and recall the things I disliked whilst reading the book, I can’t help realising how they all served a purpose. A couple of hundred pages in, it really felt like the story had too many characters, too much scope and way too many pages. Unlike The Stand, which unravels over a lengthy period of time, Under The Dome is only an apparently epic novel, with the actual story filling out only about a week in its own time. The very length of the book itself helps to create an atmosphere where time passes slowly, which is the case for the characters because the routine of actions that usually fill their days has been interrupted.
Many of the characters are familiar stereotypical staples. Most notably, James “Big Jim” Rennie, the resident devil in a suit, equipped with enough greed to motivate him, enough intelligence to manipulate those around him and a completely twisted set of self serving morals. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d met him before, in Desperation, only in that incarnation he truly was a monster, not just a monstrous person. This time around he rules a syndicate of the stupider of the townspeople from his position of political power as a town selectman (which, let’s face it, I live in Australia and I don’t really know what that means. When I read “town selectman”, I just think “dude with some political sway, on some sort of managerial board”, I’m not even going to look it up, my description sufficed). The advantage of using stereotypes was that King could juggle a huge number of characters, so many that I often had to pause and rack my brain for a semblance of them when they made a second or third appearance in the story. Although the large number of characters frustrated me at first, they served to create a massive scope for the story, many perspectives to look at things from and many situations in which human error can have horrifying consequences.
An aspect that drags the story is the constant thwarting of the good guys’ plans. With dreadful things happening all over town, the persistent failure of sensible behaviour to prevail is like a hammer to any sense of human spirit. Again and again, awful things happen, stupidity causes chaos, bad luck takes the reigns and intelligent action is crushed by greed and idiocy. A lot of these scenes are highly entertaining in horror value and humour, however my spirit had trouble handling all of those whacks. Thankfully, King has woven in some wonderful young characters, whose hope, courage and wit helped to keep me reading. There was also that other, massive, motivating factor. Once you start, there is no completely abandoning this novel, because….what is The Dome?
I am not going to tell you, no way. What I will say is that this book holds most of its power in retrospect. It left me feeling bruised and battered, but also, affected. It gave me a lot to think about, much of that was depressing, but it can be interesting to push one’s mind into that arena within the fictional play zone, to mull over the harsher parts of life on Earth, to wonder how you, yourself would react if thrown into the situation of these characters. There is a lesson to be learnt from reflecting on this book as a whole, or perhaps just a deeper understanding to the clear fable element of Under The Dome in the final chapters.
I wouldn’t say I would rate this amongst King’s greatest work, but if you are a fan, then it is definitely worth your time. I don’t think that I am alone in my feeling that post-The Dark Tower, he had lost a bit of his punch. Cell was rather forgettable and Duma Key was fascinating, but in a more supernatural than horrific style. Like a lot of King’s work, Under The Dome isn’t for the faint-hearted. I found this out by the shocked flutters in my own chest as I read it. This is a book for those who enjoy a bit of fictional violence and an exploration of the more dreadful actions that perhaps they might think of, but never actually carry out. It’s a book for those who like to ponder the whys and hows of both human nature and the world that we live in and aren’t afraid to do that from the dark side.
Best read with a pondering mind, daylight hours leftover for recovery before sleep and an iron stomach.
Love & Chills,
P.S. Thanks so much for your wonderful words of encouragement, I am sorry I am so slow to reply, my hands are getting burny after a page or two of typing but I shall get there soon!