For many years now, I’ve been a fan of the works of Stephen King. Back when the TV miniseries of The Stand was in the works, my Uncle Todd implored me to read the book before I watched it. I did so, and I quickly began to make my way through his other works. while several of his earlier works still haven’t quite made it across my read pile, almost everything he’s done in the past 20 years or so has been an immediate read for me. The only difference for his newest novel, Under the Dome, is that I chose to wait a few weeks after the release date so I could read the Kindle edition.
(Brief aside here, this is another great argument for eBooks. In the past, if I wanted to read a book of this enormous size, clocking in at over 1000 pages, it would either take up half the space in my bag or I’d have to carry it around awkwardly outside the bag. Here, the whole thing fits in the handy, dandy eReader at no additional space.)
Under the Dome brings us the story of the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill. On a quiet Saturday in October, the entire town is suddenly and inexplicably surrounded by an invisible barrier, completely solid and impermeable. No solid matter can get in or out, and air and water have very limited permeability. As the people in the town realize that they’re cut off from the outside world, power plays are made and secrets come to light. While King has tried a few more monster-length books, this is the first time he’s attempted a cast quite so expansive since The Stand, and while the book isn’t perfect, I liked it a lot.
Like The Stand, this book follows a large cast and several interwoven storylines. When the dome comes down, a young man named Dale Barbara is on his way out of town after having a run-in with Junior Rennie and his cronies. Junior’s father, Big Jim Rennie, is the town’s second selectman, and the real power behind the government. He’s been up to some shady dealings with a local minister and his local radio station. And a young boy called “Scarecrow Joe” is watching everything with interest. There are several other characters as well, several smaller storylines, and all of them go in and out of each other. We watch as Big Jim’s power grabs become bolder and bolder, as Barbara and his friends try to stand against him, how the people on the outside try to free them from the dome, and how the people on the inside try to figure out where it came from in the first place.
The development of the characters really helps make the book. While some of the lesser characters are a bit two-dimensional, most of the key players are quite well developed. The heroes are sympathetic, but flawed, while the villains of the piece don’t come from outer space, but from the sort of darkness we can imagine dwelling within real people, people we know. I’ve heard several people (who don’t read books) derisively laugh at the concept of this novel, comparing it to The Simpsons Movie. Once you get under the dome, though, you find that the truth is much more like Lord of the Flies — people cut off from the outside world who delve into barbarism.
The big weakness in many of King’s works is that he often doesn’t have a satisfactory ending. I’ve read several of his novels where the monster turns out to have a glass jaw or some deus ex machina swoops in to save the day. Not the case here. While it isn’t the best ending ever, it at least is a satisfying one. It doesn’t come out of left field, and it fits the world he established and the characters he created, and those are two of the most important elements.
While this isn’t going to dethrone The Stand as my favorite King novel, this is definitely my favorite of his in several years. He’s been doing good lately, from Duma Key to UR to this, and I hope the current swell of quality work continues.