Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Under the Dome cvr

One bright October Saturday morning, something bizarre happens to the small community of Chester’s Mill, Maine, eastern USA: an invisible but nearly impermeable dome suddenly, without warning, comes into being, enclosing it completely.  The effects are immediate and devastating – two people in a light aircraft crash into it, as do cars, with fatal results.  A woman gardening has her hand severed as the dome, or rather some kind of force field, descends, and bleeds to death.  Animals are cut in two, and birds collide with it.  The structure is immune to all efforts to remove it; casualties begin to mount, and continue to do so as the situation deteriorates.  If that sounds bad, a week later it’s as if Armageddon has arrived in this small township.

It’s a big novel with a large cast, and the story plots their interactions, putting them under the microscope to see how they behave as the crisis escalates.  Chester’s Mill is run by ‘Big Jim’ Rennie, selectman (councillor) and used-car dealer, who has a substantial methamphetamine operation on the side but whose wealth is secondary to his addiction to power.  Big Jim is a monster, a demagogue manipulating the democratic process for his own ends and, worryingly, convincing enough gullible people that he really does have the town’s interests at heart to enjoy substantial support.  He likes being a big fish in a small pond and sees the dome as an opportunity to extend his control, the irony being that because of his self-centredness he cannot think in terms of the wider good.  He dismisses the residents as sheep, and he does have a point.  There is only a small minority opposed to his methods and chief among them, just trying to leave as the dome comes down, is short-term resident Dale Barbara (‘Barbie’), ex-soldier and short-order cook.  Not popular with the Rennie clique, he is nonetheless appointed by the president to run an emergency administration, but Big Jim isn’t going to relinquish the reins that easily.  Meanwhile the military sets up camp, and Big Jim thumbs his nose as they sit impotently outside.

When I was small I can remember seeing a model landscape with a dome over it.  I wonder if King had seen something similar, or perhaps he had looked down from an aeroplane when taking off or landing, seen the landscape spread out underneath, and drawn his inspiration from it.  Either way, it’s a brilliant concept but one that has an inherent flaw.  To make such an impregnable barrier is beyond current technology, so King has to provide an obvious but ultimately unsatisfying cause: aliens.  They possess advanced technology certainly, but those who are actually responsible for the town’s plight are not sophisticated greys who have travelled across space to conduct a rigorous experiment.  The dome’s creators are only children in their race’s terms, on the same level morally as human children.  They have no understanding of the lives they are controlling by putting the dome in place, occupying the same relationship to them that we do in relation to ants; or it could be said:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

They kill us for their sport.

The unknown beings are a stand-in for the author, setting up initial conditions and watching what happens.  In the same way that the ‘leatherheads’ look down on the dome unemotionally, so does King, working out the plot with an equally dispassionate eye.  However, his manipulations do not always ring true psychologically.  In particular there is no panic buying at Food City supermarket, and Rennie has to engineer a riot with provocateurs to get people to behave badly there (after which the building housing the local newspaper, telling called The Democrat, is burned down because of its opposition to his policies).  In real life, with such an uncertain future and no prospect of deliveries from outside, the natural impulse would surely be to hoard, and even after a couple of days the shelves would have been emptied by those with foresight.

Having set up the scenario the ending feels weak, because how do you persuade uncaring beings to remove the dome if you have no ability to force them and you are of no account to them?  King’s solution is glib.  Julia, the Democrat’s owner/editor, communicates through the device that is generating the barrier.  She draws on her and Barbie’s traumatic memories (his from his tour in Iraq during which he witnessed a murder he could have prevented) to show one of the aliens that humans are living creatures who can suffer, and successfully begging it to stop.  If only she had thought of it sooner.  One of the memories she draws on was a time in childhood when a group of fellow pupils assaulted her, threw her trousers on top of a bandstand roof and spat on her.  One of her tormentors came back and looked at her in much the same way Chester’s Mill is being looked at by the aliens, and while showing no pity, for some reason still helped her by giving her an old long pullover in which to walk home.  The situations parallel each other, which suggests that without compassion we are all alien to each other.  It’s frankly a creaky resolution, but no matter, because by then the reader is invested enough to just be glad that the alien finally listens, especially as King is extremely profligate in killing his characters off and the situation is perilous for the handful of survivors, who are being whittled by the minute.

There is a Dickensian feel to the narrative – the reader is even addressed directly on occasion – and this would have worked well in instalments, with plenty of hooks to retain interest (it’s not surprising then to learn that it has been made into a mini-series).  At 880 pages, it could have been trimmed by a couple of hundred, so when King confesses in the afterword that the first draft was even longer, a ‘dinosaur’ of a book (in the sense of BIG rather than old-fashioned) and this is a reduced version, a ‘manageable beast’, the mind boggles at what the full version must have looked like.  There is some flab even with the editorial intervention, but the pace is fast enough, particularly in the second half, to overcome any sense of slackness, and while there is occasionally some clumsiness, there is enough fine writing to more than compensate.

It is a thematically rich novel, much of it exploring concepts of power.  As the dominant resident, Big Jim regards municipal assets as his personal property, perhaps reflecting untrammelled capitalism’s rapacious attitude toward people and resources.  In isolated Chester’s Mill the elected US government’s writ does not run, leaving a vacuum that Big Jim amply fills – and the fact that the number of references to him here far outweighs those to anybody else, while the ostensible hero, Barbie, languishes in the jail on trumped-up charges for much of the running-time, indicates how central Rennie is to the story.  Entrenched in his position, he can swat away criticism or use scapegoats to deflect attention.  His final retreat to the fallout shelter/ bunker as all goes to hell around him has such an obvious parallel that King even mentions Hitler, in case there was any doubt.

Extending the exploration of authoritarianism, it seems likely that King had on his mind Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students arbitrarily assigned to be prison guards abused other students arbitrarily assigned to be prisoners.  Under the dome, some of the bunch of untrained young men given the task of policing the inhabitants also quickly abuse their new powers, though many of them were unpleasant to begin with, the authority sanctioning their normal bad behaviour.  To show that King is ahead of the reader, just as you are thinking ‘this is turning into Lord of the Flies’, he name-checks Golding’s novel.  It could be argued that he goes too far with the grand guignol aspects of the villains’ evil behaviour, that such outliers obscure the message that under pressure, misery comes from small acts, not from flamboyant wickedness.

Religion plays a significant role throughout, generally not for the good.  Big Jim sanctimoniously apes the outward form of religion while willing to commit murder to further his ends, many of his constituents believing that appearance and substance match.  Admittedly the town supports a religious radio station, but it is next to the meth lab which pays for it.  The vicar at one of the two churches has lost her faith, the other, who flagellates himself, is part of Big Jim’s drug conspiracy; he comes to a bad end when he is in danger of finding his conscience.  On the other hand, Chef, in charge of both lab and radio station (religion as the opium of the masses?), and Andy, first selectman but hitherto Big Jim’s puppet, seem to find in God a cause worth dying for.  Warped out of their gourds on drugs, they act from what they see as noble intentions, unfortunately destroying the whole area contained by the dome in the process.  The good guys tend towards the agnostic, or at least religion plays an insignificant part in their lives.  King is suggesting that religion is a cause of harm in the world.

The story too is an allegory of climate change.  The dome is a microcosm of what is happening on a global level, with noxious chemicals pumped willy-nilly into the air.  It is a warning to us that we are destroying our environment.  When it first appears the dome is so clear that it cannot be seen (hence the collisions), but as the week progresses it picks up various residues, then when everything burns and the air unbreathable, it becomes blackened.  Chester’s Mill lasts a mere week before experiencing a catastrophe, and though the earth is much bigger, it is still suffering from ecological degradation at an alarming rate.  Disaster of some kind could strike at any time, without warning, as it did to that small Maine town one Saturday morning, and we are complacent at our peril.  We are all under the dome.

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