Under the Dome by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The original "Twilight Zone" show featured an episode entitled "Stopover in a Quiet Town." A married couple had gone to a party the night before, had a little too much to drink, and then they awoke the next morning in a strange house. The phone doesn't work, the food in the fridge is plastic, and there is no electricity. When they go outside, they hear a girl laughing, but they can't find anyone in the town. They find a stuffed squirrel in a tree, and they discover that the "grass" is really papier-mache. The laughter sounds again, and they chase it, but still do not find anyone.
Eventualy, they come to a train station and hop on. However, the train makes a circle and returns to the same stop. Once they get out again, they are chased by a giant shadow -- that turns out to come from a hand. This hand belongs to a giant girl, whose parents are aliens who abducted the couple to live in their daughter's toyland. There is no way out.
The question of what people would do if they were trapped with no escape has fascinated writers for centuries. Whether it's Sartre's "No Exit" or "The Simpsons Movie," the ways that people would slowly (or quickly) turn on one another, and social order would break down, have served as a fascinating plot point in work after work.
Stephen King began "Under the Dome" in the 1970's but put it aside until 2007. The story of an inexplicable force field that traps the residents of Chester's Mill inside, while the outside world can look inside (and even hear inside) is an interesting morality tale. There is the prototypical "big fish in a small point" in Second Selectman James Rennie, who sees the dome as an opportunity to create his own empire, and there is the dissident hero, the oddly named Dale Barbara, who was bullied by some townies, who was one hitchhike attempt from leaving the town before the dome appeared, who also happens to be a retired soldier who is stop-lossed when the dome hits, because he happens to know a highly ranked military leader who has been charged with solving the problem of the dome.
As with just about every Stephen King story, there is a diverse cast of characters. There is the crazy meth addict hiding out in the Christian radio station, his depressed ex-wife who thinks he is hundreds of miles away, a merry band of nerdy kids who end up finding the source of the dome, an OxyContin addict who is a town selectman, a sad farm kid who loses the rest of his family to accidental death and suicide, and even a May-November romance, as a couple who happened to be vacationing in Chester's Mill takes in a pair of children whose parents had run out to a convenience store -- just over the city line -- and were not able to get back into the dome.
The plot is one of King's best, snaking back and forth from subplot to subplot, keeping the intrigue hopping for over 1,000 pages, a tough feat in a small town with no way out. One does wonder, though, why it took so long to see the radioactive glow around the apple orchard (I can't tell you more without revealing the source of the dome).
The most gripping character is Rennie, who changes from being a corrupt blowhard to a brutal dictator, willing to stop at nothing to keep power, in a matter of hours. Too many of the characters, though, including the hero, "Barbie," are more types than people -- at least in comparison to masterworks from King's body of work such as "Insomnia" and "It."
As always, though, the enemy is the darkness within each of us -- and the truly random which can come from without.
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