Tracing The Trails : Under The Dome
I want to address something right off the bat, so as to clear it out of the way before we delve too far into this. Save for the pilot episode, I have watched nothing of the television series which was inspired by Under The Dome. I say this now because the series has been one particular area of contention among King fans and I didn’t want anyone opening up this review, hoping to commiserate silently with someone who also was shaking their fist at the faceless entertainment corporations. I haven’t seen it and from the start I wanted this project to be as much about the books as possible. I have no doubt that the show took a great deal of liberties and departed from the source material. I can understand the disappointment but all I will say is that any time you are crafting an ongoing series based on the single volume of one novel, there will be inevitable changes. That’s just the way it goes. So if you were someone whose frustration level peaked with the television series, I would just gently remind you that the book is still there on the shelf, right where you left it.
I think Under The Dome is a masterful work. For me, following the conclusion of the Dark Tower series, King proceeded with a line of fairly forgettable offerings. Not that there was anything overly bad or disappointing, just that for the most part, the books between Dark Tower and Under The Dome were a bit on the bland side when held up against the legendary titles of his collection. And apart from the last three Dark Tower books, I think I would trace all the way back to Needful Things as the end of the period when pretty much every book he put out was great. From that point on, it was much more a roller coaster screaming between great and just kind of entertaining.
I thought Under The Dome was a triumphant call back to the height of King’s career and I would rank it overall as one of my favorites. If I were to be stranded on an island and was tasked with choosing three King books to take with me, my immediate choices would be The Stand and IT. As for the third choice, depending on the day, I would likely choose either 11/22/63 or Under The Dome.
The concept for the book is completely bonkers. I’ll be the first to admit that. And if someone were to just explain it to me, I would likely dismiss it out of hand. Oh, an invisible barrier suddenly appears around a small town, sealing everyone inside, huh? Powerful enough to bring planes down and destroy cars? Oh, yeah? Wow, that sounds really stupid.
But the truth is always in the execution and this book was carried out in legendary fashion.
First, I think that the opening is absolutely brilliant and may be one of my favorite openings to a King book. One thing he is a master of is in creating little vignettes and stringing them together as a way of increasing tension and intensity for the story and he does it perfectly here. The dome appears over the town of Chester’s Mill, with no warning or explanation and King proceeds to jump from incident to incident, detailing how various citizens discover the barrier, often in brutal and violent fashion. These opening scenes are gripping and frightening in their abrupt nature, so many people going about the normal business of their lives suddenly finding themselves mortally wounded or blinking away obliviously into unaware death. It is a great metaphor for our own mortality and how quickly things in our lives can just take a turn.
Writing ensemble casts of characters is incredibly difficult. Mainly because you often end up creating a mess of people who really just seem like slightly modified versions of the same two or three characters. King pulls this off in top form and it reminded me quite a bit of The Stand. I have no trouble recalling the characters that made up that cast and similarly, I found Under The Dome to be full of well-rounded, complex characters who all had an incredible amount of depth and complexity. I don’t think there was anyone here who felt like a stereotype or a bland repetition of something we have seen too many times before. I seem to recall King stating that this story had been in his mind for some time and I think that it definitely benefited from having all that time to percolate.
Big Jim Rennie is probably my favorite character from the book, mostly because while he is a monster and the villain of the story, I can also see that he clearly thinks of himself as righteous. And this is how it should be. The bad guy doesn’t really think of him or herself in those kinds of terms. They see themselves as starring in their own story and they think the things they do are justified and correct. Imagining Jim Rennie was horrifying for me, much more so than the prospect of demon clowns or haunted hotels or vampires taking over a small town or rabid dogs and aliens. He scares me because it’s easy for me to imagine that in any small town all across this country, there is likely a version of Jim Rennie. This is a character that should feel familiar because he really exists. Everywhere. He is the guy who will never see the wrong in what he does because he always sees himself as heroic, sacrificing for what he thinks is the common good.
Under The Dome is a brilliant examination of ourselves. It is chilling to see how rapidly any sense of order and rationality abandons the people as they begin to feel progressively isolated from the outside world. The darker elements of the town are also the ones capable of exercising the most power and influence and before long, the innocents of the town find themselves under the thumb of arrogant, self-absorbed bullies. Does any of that sound familiar? Under The Dome is a perfect example of situational fiction. Take a group of characters, put them into an extreme situation and see how they all deal with it. And not surprisingly, you see some people reaching inwards and finding the best parts of themselves. And in others, you find them stripped down to their core and all there is to find is spite, violence and darkness.
I know that the ending to the book is another issue that King fans seem to take task with. I have seen many argue that the way King chose to end this was too easy and that it felt like a fabricated means of bringing the book to a relatively neat conclusion. I have never felt this way. And for me, the reason for this is pretty simple. I don’t see the dome itself or the way the characters deal with the reality of the dome to be an important issue. For me, the core principle of the book comes down to this simple point.
The dome is irrelevant.
The dome is just an excuse to make this story possible. What I think needs to be taken from this is the boiling point within ourselves as a society and how our perceived limits of civility and decency aren’t as fixed within our character as we might like to believe. In others, it’s even less permanent. Look along the road as you drive and any sign you pass giving you directions has the ability to be knocked down if the storm is powerful enough. Maybe a bit childish of a metaphor but the point I’m making is still there. Laws and structure in society only exist as long as the people who are willing to recognize the hold and sway they have over us. How quickly could that change? It’s the question of the hour and one that I think Under The Dome Deals with nicely.
One last point I would like to make is that I respected how King actually took time to evaluate and consider how the environment of the town would be affected by the dome. It’s easy to just say, there’s a barrier around the town that can’t be passed through and move on from there. But King seemed to deal with the actual, practical questions that might arise from such a situation. How high does it go? Can you fly over it? How deep does it run? If air can flow through it, albeit at a much lower rate, how does this affect the atmosphere inside the dome? How does the factor of environmental pollution play into this? We give no thought to the notion of pollutants and smog and smoke, especially in a small town, but if there is nowhere for all that to go, how is the town affected?
I don’t know if any of the scenarios that King presents are scientifically sound. He could have gotten it all wrong. But I appreciated the fact that he tried to take this on and make the universe of this story as authentic and legitimate as he could.
Under The Dome is one of my favorite Stephen King books of the modern era and it is one that I will likely keep coming back to. It is of the quality of all the vintage and classic King and I would hold it up against any one of his other books. It’s that good, in my opinion. Haven’t read it yet? You should get on it. I promise you won’t be disappointed.