Under the Dome, novel by Stephen King (2009)  » Books  »
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  • I think he’s the villain for every action movie, James Bond movie, even every children’s film from the beginning of time
  • Characters related to my second problem with this novel
  • I know this is true of all of Stephen King’s work, and of all literature
  • If ‘Under the Dome’ was an early novel, I could understand and I would not take so much issue with the problems, but it’s one of the newer ones

    • by Clive Reames
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      It does pain me to give an overall bad review of a Stephen King novel. I have very much grown up with his works. I became interested in Horror movies before I became a teenager, but I was not allowed to see most of the ones I was interested in. I was, however, allowed to read Horror novels and Stephen King became part of my coming-of-age. I have to say in my years of reading and re-reading his books, I do not think I came across any that I outright disliked. I still haven’t; I don’t think ‘Under the Dome’ is so bad I hate it, but it’s got so many flaws that can’t be ignored. I am a little puzzled by my own reaction to it. I don’t know if this is a flawed novel or that these flaws have always existed in his work (as other critics have pointed out) but I did not see them until now. The story is of the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill becoming isolated from the rest of the world when an invisible barrier descends and settles over it. Anyone or anything caught in between it at the time are cut in half or are outright destroyed. Cars, trucks and even planes and later missiles ram into it but cannot pass through.

      All that seems to pass through are a little bit of air and water evaporated into a fine mist. Electronic devices ranging from mobile phones to pacemakers explode when people carry them too close to the barrier (which later becomes known as the Dome), and it seems to give off a psychic effect to certain individuals. Of course all this is just the setting. It’s the characters that make up the true story of the novel, as well as its problems. We have our main protagonist, Dale ‘Barbie’ Barbara, a former Army Captain turned drifter, who is caught inside the barrier while trying to leave town after an altercation with some of the locals. The sharp and cynical Julia Shumway is the town’s newspaper editor who becomes a go-between for Barbie and the outside world when the Army contacts her. Eric ‘Rusty’ Everett is the assistant physician and family man who worries about


      the surrounding events, more so as his wife is a volunteer police officer. Joseph ‘Scarecrow Joe’ McClatchey is a thirteen year old boy with a flare for science and thinking outside the box, and rallies his best friends to help try to uncover what is going on. So far, they seem typical characters in a Stephen King novel, something many critics of his work in general complain about. Where the novel is not so typical, and where it falls apart a fair bit, is in the novel’s villain, James ‘Big Jim’ Rennie.

      He is really something else. Saying that he’s the villain of this piece is an understatement; I think he’s the villain for every action movie, James Bond movie, even every children’s film from the beginning of time. He is irredeemably evil from the start. When the Dome comes down, he’s scheming, thinking of how to take advantage of the situation. When the police chief is killed early on, Big Jim straight away begins taking over, although as the town’s Second Selectmen he already has most of the town in his pocket. He is not liked by any of our heroes, and it’s made clear early on that any of his supporters are more controlled by him than genuine allies. He uses people without a second thought, and when events take a turn where he has to order people harmed or killed, or even get his own hands dirty and kill someone, he does it instantly. Nothing can stand in the way of him getting complete control. Anyone who stands in his way or are simply inconvenient for him, even his own family, are dealt with without any remorse. As if this wasn’t enough, his a fat, sweaty man, the richest man in town, a sexist, a racist, and a Christian Fundamentalist, always praising God and being careful not to swear outwardly and justifying everything he does as being the Lord’s Will.

      Even with this, his thirst for power sees no end. Throughout the novel when someone dies, he says something to the effect of, ‘They are having a roast beef meal with Jesus now. ’ Later on when he starts to contemplate his own mortality, he thinks, ‘If I can’t sit at the head of the table in Heaven, then let’s forget the whole thing. ’ I know people will argue that many of his works have one-dimensional villains, and they are right, but my goodness, never at this level! I cannot think of another piece of work by Stephen King where the villain is so extreme, or where the hero is so bland for that matter. Again, heroes and villains tend to be the same from novel to novel, but they are never this extreme. I do wonder actually if it’s more obvious here because more focus seems to be put on the villain and less on the heroes than in previous novels. Barbie never seems to have all that much to say or do except for acting sensibly, and for a lot of the novel he’s put aside, while there seems to be no end to Big Jim and his scheming. Stephen King works are known for their huge cast of characters, too huge many will say. It just feels that in the past King had a lot more balance in what traits to give characters, good or bad, and in how much time we as readers spend with them. This all is of course not saying that this will solve the characterisation problems of the story, but a better and more engaging focus on the heroes probably would have gone a long way.

      Characters related to my second problem with this novel. Yes there are a lot of them, many of whom have little to no bearing on the main story. This is a common complaint against his novels, but it has never bothered me before. The thing is, everyone is right, there are too many characters who are inconsequential to the plot of any given novel (I focus more on his novels here; his short stories don’t tend to have this problem for obvious reasons). However, these extra characters were not meant to contribute to the main plot. They were there to colour the landscape of Stephen King’s world. It is one of this ways of telling the story of the community, its history and who populates it. None of these things matter all that much in the end, but it makes us invested ...


      • Under the Dome, novel by Stephen King (2009)
      in King’s world and makes us respond when that world is under threat. Stephen King is always described as being a better storyteller than a writer, and this is one of the ways that makes him a great storyteller. With ‘Under the Dome’, you don’t get so much of that at all.

      Not much time is spent telling us about this world and its characters, so when things being happening to them, we aren’t so invested as we should be. Again, a lot of this can be blamed on the focus on the villain and heroes (or lack there of), but there seems to be more of a problem here. The world does not feel real or organic as in his previous worlds. This world seems to be here to fit the conveniences of the main plot. The many characters are mishandled, introduced well enough for the most part, but more often than not bluntly put aside for later, or cast aside completely. Some are even present right up to the end, but are never developed or really even acknowledged. Some characters are introduced in the final act and aren’t given all that much to do except exist. Really a whole population are subject to the whim and requirements of the plot, and nothing that happens to them feels natural. I know this is true of all of Stephen King’s work, and of all literature. Characters in the end are puppets to the writer after all, but a good writer makes it so that we are invested and involved in the characters and situations, and do not see the writing techniques and plot devices in use.

      Stephen King usually has this talent of letting the story and characters take over and override any complaints a reader may have. As said before, King is known for being a great storyteller, where readers delve into the worlds of his characters and the situations they face, no matter now ridiculous they may be. Here, the writing craft, the plotting and King’s problems of language (he overuses metaphors, and character dialogue does not always ring true, particularly when they use metaphors) are in the forefront. Sadly what you also see is a limit of imagination, which was never

      present in his other work. Another problem I have is related to all this, but is separate at the same time. It is to do with the history of this novel. Apparently King came up with this or at least a similar idea in the 1970s, but he did not feel confident enough to continue with it, following so many characters and building a community like this. He revisited the idea every now and then, and wrote a good portion in 1982, under the name ‘The Cannibals’, where it was being developed as a black comedy. Still nothing really came of it, and it is only in 2009 that ‘Under the Dome’ came to be. All this puzzles me.

      In the time being, Stephen King has written many novels with multiple characters and elaborate plotlines. ‘’Salem’s Lot’, ‘The Tommyknockers’, ‘Needful Things’ deal with the isolation and the eventual destruction of small Maine communities, just like in ‘Under the Dome’. This is not even mentioning his apocalyptic work, including ‘Cell’ and his most celebrated work ‘The Stand’, written all the way back in 1978 but only published in its entirety in 1990. In all these examples, there are multiple characters and storylines to follow on top of the main plot and characters. Why was ‘Under the Dome’ such a challenge? I suppose there are more political undertones in this one as opposed to the other novels, but that shouldn’t be a problem for a writer as prolific as Stephen King. His handling of the characters and their individual situations seemed so much better in the earliest of these novels, ‘’Salem’s Lot’ from 1975, and they stayed consistently good throughout his career. Was it all just leading to this? If ‘Under the Dome’ was an early novel, I could understand and I would not take so much issue with the problems, but it’s one of the newer ones. I just don’t understand. Is this the worst Stephen King novel I’ve ever read? I don’t think I would call it that. I’m not sure I can confidently call any of his novels ‘bad’.

      This one certainly has a lot of problems, but it kept me entertained and it kept me reading. It’s just such a shame that these flaws kept me from really enjoying it.




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The review was published as it's written by reviewer in July, 2013. The reviewer certified that no compensation was received from the reviewed item producer, trademark owner or any other institution, related with the item reviewed. The site is not responsible for the mistakes made. 1729071615170931/k2311a0729/7.29.13
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