:: Article

King of the Novel

By Max Dunbar.


Under the Dome, Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton 2009

That Quiet Little Town is a familiar theme in Stephen King’s fiction. Part of his success rests on his talent for combining the mundane and the supernatural – H P Lovecraft meets K-Mart realism. There’s a UFO under the old Garrick farm. The kindly old bookworm in the flat downstairs turns out to be on the run from an alternate reality. Everyone likes the new curio shop until they find out that it’s owned by the Devil.

The number of quiet little Maine towns in King’s books (Haven, Derry, Ludlow, Castle Rock) can draw accusations that he is working to a formula. But no one knows these places like King does and no one can invoke the fabric of a community quite like King. Having lived in the state all his life, it’s as if he is discovering it over and over again through his fiction. These are his tribe – the farmers, millworkers, barmen, mechanics, cooks, realtors, smalltime cops, their names at once exotic and prosaic: Verdreaux, Berringer, Hargensen, generations of them, born and dying in these little co-ordinates where people work hard and drink hard and everyone recognises each other on the street and everyone gets on reasonably well. It is in such places that the pulse of American lives can be found.

Having created another Yankee cowtown in Chester’s Mill (for the first time a map of the place is included on the book’s sleeve) King proceeds to subject it to a what-if situation. On one autumn day a gigantic invisible dome appears around the town borders. People walk into it. Planes fly into it. No one can get in, or out. Cruise missiles don’t make a dent in the thing. The most powerful acid cannot cut a hole. Why has this happened? We don’t know. King’s credo is what if. What if and just because.

He has said that he does not plot as such, simply throws characters into a situation to see how they react. For most people in Chester’s Mill the Dome is of course a disaster. They can’t leave, can’t trade, are cut off from out-of-town friends and relatives. Precipitation gets through, but only just. The air inside the Dome affects their crops. Food and propane will run out. The last of the rich who summer in Maine find themselves trapped in Chester’s Mill indefinitely.

Yet one man welcomes the Dome – Big Jim Rennie, the Mill’s used car dealer and Second Selectman. Already running the town from below, he uses the Dome as an opportunity to create a ‘municipal dictatorship’. In the author’s term, the town can now ‘secede’ from America. He fills the council with placemen, and recruits the Mill’s thugs and bullies to serve on its police force, to which he grants a troubling amount of powers. Think Glenn Beck in charge of a small town and you’ve got the general idea.

As with many of King’s quiet-little-town stories, a community is menaced by an external evil – but often the monsters, aliens or vampires do little more than liberate the repressed evil that already ferments. Also, too, the dark presence turns out to have existed in the community for centuries, and the townspeople have come to an accommodation with it, even to feel a kind of love for the thing beyond. (‘You may hear sounds like voices, but they are just the loons down towards Prospect. The sound carries. It’s funny.’)  

Iraq veteran turned drifter Dale Barbara has taken a kicking round the back of the local Saturday night roughhouse and is trying to hitchhike out of Chester’s Mill when the Dome comes down. Due to his military record, the President appoints him as a government representative for the duration of the crisis. Big Jim has other ideas. He dismisses the letter of appointment from Obama (‘the bastard had signed it himself, and using all three of his names, including the terrorist one in the middle’) and turns Barbara into the Snowball of Chester’s Mill: murder, riots, all the chaos of the Dome is laid at Barbara’s door.

Under Rennie’s corrupt and incompetent leadership, the town goes to hell – that’s the only way to describe King’s climax. King has a habit of ending his books with big explosions, and he had a great deal of fun dismantling society and killing 99.9% of humanity in The Stand (there’s always been a little of the Trashcan Man in him) but, well, just wait and see.

The Dome itself is wonderfully, painstaking imagined. Once King lays down a what if, he sees it through to the last detail. He can show you the clouds bending around the Dome, the streams that build on its other side, its fisheye sunsets. A messy charred mark hangs in the air from where the plane has hit. After a few days up, the sky develops a layer of dust, a yellowing edge of pollution. The Dome gives you a mild static charge when you first touch it; then nothing. It is sensitive to electrical equipment; the police chief, walking up to inspect the Dome’s surface, dies when his pacemaker explodes in his chest.

When he wasn’t writing the magical Dark Tower books, the Stephen King of the 2000s appeared to be losing his way: a flabbiness, a pouchiness appeared in his fiction. Under the Dome had the potential to be a great concept novel that was poorly executed. Steeling myself for disappointment, I was delighted with the book. Long but compulsively readable, full of insight and imagination, shining with a sheer love of the tale and the Constant Reader, this novel is right up there. He is still the best.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 25th, 2009.