At a whopping 1100+ pages, Under the Dome by Stephen King is gargantuan. It’s so lengthy they even divided it into Parts I and II.
I finished it within a week. It has been a long time since I read anything that fast – mainly coz with so many things to do these days, I get easily distracted. That’s the thing about King novels though: it’s hard to put down once you pick them up, coz you’re constantly wondering and anticipating what comes next.
A mysterious barrier/dome has descended upon a small Maine town called Chester’s Mill, trapping its inhabitants within.
Things get chaotic. The town’s chief of police, Duke Perkins, approaches the dome, causing his pacemaker to explode. With his death, most of the power goes to Second Selectman ‘Big’ Jim Rennie, an egomaniac who, unbeknownst to many townspeople, runs a drug lab in the outskirts of town. He proceeds to sow fear in order to keep his hold on the town and hide his secrets, using any means necessary…even murder.
He orchestrates a food riot which he uses as an excuse to double the new police force, a dangerously trigger-happy group of his son’s Junior’s friends. He murders the local reverend who was in the drug operation and was on the verge of spilling the beans, as well as Perkins’ wife who had found evidence that her husband was investigating Rennie. To make matters worse, we discover that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree as Junior himself has murdered two friends in a fit of rage… and that he’s also suffering from a brain tumour that causes violent behaviour.
Trapped along with everyone else is former army lieutenant turned short order cook, Barbara ‘Barbie’. Because the army plans to establish him as their inside man, Rennie frames Barbie for the murders and throws him into jail. He makes Barbie into a ‘boogeyman’, blaming him not just for the murders but for everything else – the drug lab, the food riot, etc, further sowing fear among the population so that they are too scared to think straight. Looting, shootings and chaos ensues.
A small group of people are not buying Rennie’s lies, and are trying to expose him and break Barbie out of jail before Rennie can conduct a public execution. They include the town’s physician assistant and his wife, Rusty and Linda, the local journalist Julia, kids Joe, Benny and Norrie (there are always kids in King’s novels: the kind that are smart, resourceful and often overlooked by the adults to their advantage), Reverend Piper Libby and grocery store owner Ed Calvert.
Time is running out, and the survivors struggle in a race against time to figure out the cause behind the dome before supplies run out, and stop Big Jim Rennie from destroying what’s left of town… and them.
Under The Dome is not King’s best novel, but I think readers are willing to overlook that, simply because it’s King. It has his signature heart-pumping, fast-paced action that gets the reader on the edge of their seat.
While it’s a standard apocalpyse story formula, King has done well by focusing on the human relationships in the story, their behaviour, and how far people will go in order to survive.
There are many characters in the novel. While some are developed well, some seem to have fallen short of fleshing out before they die. Andrea Grinnel, the Third Selectman, for instance. She was a very promising character – being next in line behind Jim Rennie, Grinnel was a drug addict due to a back injury, but had risen from her depression and gotten her hands on documents incriminating Rennie which she planned to expose during the townhall meeting. But alas, before she could do anything, she was killed, and had not even passed the documents to anyone – thus destroying the evidence forever and allowing Rennie to lead the rest of Chester’s Mill to their doom.
Big Jim Rennie is one of the most unpleasant villains I’ve ever come across – simply because I recognize such characters in the working world and I can imagine how easy it is for people to turn that way in an extreme situation.
There are, however, major plot holes which I didn’t really fancy. How the dome came about, for instance – and the survivors’ last pitch effort to disable it. It just didn’t seem believable, despite this being a sci-fi/thriller novel where everything is possible.
Overall, Under the Dome is a moderately good Stephen King read, with just the right amount of action and story to keep you turning the pages.