For many, Stephen King is simply a writer that they read once or twice a year, on the same level that they read Grisham novels, or Clancy novels, or whatever. But for me, Stephen King goes beyond simply being an author author whose work I appreciate. Rather, he’s something like a close family relation, in a way, because his books have sort of formed a through-line for much of my life and anything I write about him should start with two stories.
The first is that the first book I ever read – long form novels, anyway, because Fun with Dick and Jane doesn’t count – was Misery. I was twelve and because my parents were divorced I was staying with my Dad during the summer. He had another wife and she had her kids and they rented a house on this lake for a week and we went there and fished and swam and it wasn’t all that memorable except for two things: that fish we pulled up from the stringer that we hung over the side of the boat to keep our catches alive while we were fishing that came back with a huge bite out of it, and the copy of Misery I brought with me. I don’t know why I bought the book – nothing by Stephen King had ever interested me before – but something about the cover when I saw it in the party store near my house, with the man in the wheelchair and that shadowy figure of a massive woman with an axe spread across the wheelchair-bound man, interested me enough that I spend my own money on it, which was no small thing for a twelve-year-old in 1988.
Anyway, I read the book completely over the week and was thereafter hooked on everything King. Between Misery and Dracula, which I read four years later, and then my Kurt Vonnegut phase when I was a senior in high school, I read nothing but Stephen King. The fixation was such that, even though King will not autograph books sent to him by Constant Readers, one Christmas my Gramma Haight sent him a letter asking if he would autograph a book for me and he did – an unabridged copy of The Stand. His was the first of three autographs I have. The other two are by Allen Ginsberg – post-high school poetic phase – and Michael Moore – ongoing liberalism phase.
The second story is a bit sillier but accurately reflects, I think, my compulsion for all this Stephen King . After my wife and I moved into our house I noticed that one of our neighbors on the street backing up against ours, who lived in one of the rattiest houses on his street, bore a striking resemblance to Stephen King. I mentioned this to my wife who thought, sure, they look alike, but who cares because that’s just some guy, that’s not the real Stephen King. For me, I knew it wasn’t King, but it wasn’t just some guy either. He was the walking reflection of a man who wrote a book that my 12 year-old self spent money on and even if he wasn’t the real deal, I sure wanted him to be.
All that being said, when I got a copy of his latest behemoth novel, Under the Dome, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
In a nutshell, Under the Dome tells the story of Chester’s Mill’s, Maine, which wakes up one day to find itself encased in a force-field-like dome, which is more accurately a hamster ball as the dome goes under as well as over. At first, there is some sense of business as usual in the town and everybody thinks that things will quickly sort themselves out and the few tragedies that occurred when the dome dropped, will be swept away. However, as days move on, and hysteria sets in – pushed along by an egotistical, snarling, meth dealing, overreaching and piously-dictatorial used-car-salesman city councilman and his thug-son – everybody becomes unglued, sides are drawn and the worst happens.
At it’s best, Under the Dome shares many qualities and attributes of two other King novels: the door-stop, The Stand, and the novel that got me hooked, Misery. Like The Stand, there is a cast of thousands, people die almost at random, nobody really understands how or why they are in the situation they’re in, and do their best to overcome it. Like Misery, Under the Dome operates as a great, nail-biting melodrama, is a compulsive read and can be downright nasty at times – the way some people are killed when the dome drops rivals the loss of Paul Sheldon’s foot and fingers. Put simply, if Stephen King were a band, Under the Dome would be his cover of Peyton Place.
At its worst, Under the Dome has many of the same qualities of much of his later work – those novels generally appearing after 1992. Where his earlier works tended toward the supernatural – pyrokinesis, telekinesis, ESP, vampires, ghosts – his later works have been wrapped up in bits of unexplained technology, half-assed zombie, strange other worlds, and other more far-fetched crap. Like as not, today you’re just as likely to want to throw his latest novel in the trash when you finish it as you are to want to read it again.
As Under the Dome races along – and race it does – it seems clear that King has only thought of 3/4 of an idea. He’s got the hook, he’s got the conflict, he knows what the big climax is, but he never really came to grips with a good resolution. He had a novel with no ending but faced with the fact that he was laboring on a book, full of pop culture references that was going to cover 1000 published pages, it wasn’t like he could set itaside until something came to him. It was, like many Wall Street companies, too big to fail. So instead of thinking about an ending, or at least one that didn’t try to be happy, he blasted through it and it’s hardly suprising that the whimper it ends with is far from satsifying.
That being said, if you can take being disappointed by the last 50 pages, the first 1020 of the novel are fantastic. King rarely fails in delivering villains who are ripped from real life and the twin villains of Under the Dome, Jim Rennie and Jim Rennie, Jr., are two of his best. They are exactly the type of guys you want to hate, those who act as if powers is their’s by god given right and whol will stoop to nothing to maintain it, even killing the whole town if necesary. For me, what makes them truly disgusting is that many of Rennie’s speechifications could be interchanged with that of a former Mayor of my town. Every time I read Rennie spouting off I thought of the former mayor lecturing the planning commission and being downright shocked that his hectoring, self important tone was not enough to sway them. Every time Rennie spoke I was reminded of how easily it is for the worst people in life to be elected the leader of something and just how near the brink of disaster we are.
WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
If you want to skip the disappointing ending of the novel the best place to put the book up is after Jim Rennie exits the fallout shelter under the Town Hall that he and Carter have holed up in, when the generator has run out of propane. Not much of interest happens beyond this. Some folks live, some folks die, and for some half-assed reason the dome comes down. End of story.