I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that, after finishing Under the Dome on Saturday afternoon, I set it down on my nightstand, took off my glasses and had myself a little cry. No, not because I’m on some experimental medication, pregnant or going through the changes. This is an emotional book! It’s a scary one, sure, but also gripping, tragic and overwhelmingly bleak.
So, context: Although I’ve known of Under the Dome for years (and of the somewhat hilarious similarities between its plot and that of The Simpsons Movie), I neglected to actually buy the thing until last week. Currently4/7ths of the way through Stephen King’s seven-volume (soon to be eight) Dark Tower series, I’ve basically been King-ed out. It was only after dinner with a friend—I’m a huge sucker for glowing recommendations—that I decided to bite the bullet.
It’s worth noting that, Dark Tower commitment issues aside, I’ve always loved Stephen King. Along with Dean Koontz, one might say he transitioned me from the 200-page Christopher Pike novels of my childhood into sprawling stories with dozens of characters and themes that sailed right over my 10-year-old head. And while King’s writing is often concerned with the supernatural, it’s just as often—if not more frequently—concerned with human nature, with what people do and who they become when pitted against something terrifying, or life-threatening, or world-ending. Some of King’s books—The Green Mile, Carrie, Gerald’s Game—wear this theme on their sleeve, while others couch it in vampires or monsters or ancient spiritual forces. Either way, the man’s got a worldview: As a species, it doesn’t (or wouldn’t) take us long to hit rock bottom.
Although it recycles elements from other King novels, Under the Dome manages to horrify in a new way. The novel focuses on Chester’s Mill, a small town in Maine (natch), where local selectman Jim Rennie is engaged in dirty business dealings that are slowly emptying the public coffers. Which would be bad enough, except one day in October a massive invisible dome descends on the town, killing dozens and trapping the 2,000 people remaining within its borders. The dome, through which very little water or air passes, is indestructible, and inside of it the town begins to fall apart as conditions deteriorate and Rennie grows increasingly power-hungry. On the other end of the morality spectrum, Dale Barbara, a retired military officer and most recently short-order cook at the local diner, joins forces with a small group of dissenters who together try to take Rennie down while simultaneously figuring out how to de-dome their hometown.
Despite its length, Under the Dome is a quick read. The pace is frenetic in its way, (the way that has you up until 2 a.m. telling yourself “just one more chapter”), but King still manages to create fully developed characters, upon whom you wish either immediate safety or unpleasant death, depending where on the aforementioned morality spectrum they fall.
But it’s somewhere between good and evil that Under the Dome is its most riveting. As readers, most of us would face a tragedy like the dome as neither the corrupt local politician or the admirable former soldier. We’d be the townspeople: the local bar owner, the school teacher, the self-absorbed book blogger. So it is in watching these people devolve, transformed by anger and fear into their worst selves, that Under the Dome becomes extraordinarily grim. King’s traditional inclusion of the supernatural enables us to feel removed from their behavior—”well obviously a giant glass dome is never going to land on me“—but astute readers (those who passed middle school) know that whatever plot device King pulls out of his weird decrepit hat of fucked up ideas (which is where I assume King gets his ideas), is just a means to an end, an end that usually involves highlighting how truly shitty people are. And that, my friends, is worth a little cry.
This many words in, I don’t know if I’ve yet articulated the most important point here: I found Under the Dome to be awesome. While it may not remind you why you love people, it is the kind of book that reminds you why you love reading. Not because it’s phenomenally written or spectacularly nuanced, but because it’s addictive. It’s the kind of book you’ll daydream about during the day, or at random times (but totally not in the middle of phone conversations with your mom, because that would be rude.) It’s the kind of book you’ll get excited to pick up again, the kind of book that will make it totally fine that your train is 20 minutes late, or stalled underground, or no longer exists. It’s the kind of book you won’t think twice about carrying around, even though it’s massive, because the alternative is wasting precious reading time on something stupid, like a newspaper or credit card statement. It’s the kind of book you’ll really really want to see made into a movie (or, as reported, a Showtime miniseries.)
Even a thousand pages in, after you’ve reinforced the cover with tape and strongly reconsidered your aversion to e-readers, Under the Dome is still the kind of book you won’t want to put down, and it is definitely the kind of book you’ll be sad to see end.
TITLE: Under the Dome
AUTHOR: Stephen King
PAGES: 1,074 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: I mean, it’s Stephen King.
SORTA LIKE: The Mist meets Desperation
FIRST LINE: “From two thousand feet, where Claudette Sanders was taking a flying lesson, the town of Chester’s Mill gleamed in the morning light like something freshly made and just set down.”