Stephen King’s Under the Dome is long. I mean, long. The manuscript weighs in at 8.6 kg and Time magazine quoted King himself saying he’d be “killing a lot of trees” with his next novel. But when you read the book’s premise, and begin to understand what King had set out to do, it begins to make sense…
Under the Dome opens in Chester’s Mill, a small Maine town which is suddenly and inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world by a dome. It’s kind of like a humongous semi-permeable upside-down petri dish, which is fitting, because Under the Dome plays out like a kind of human experiment: what happens when a small town of people is completely cut off from the rest of society and left to their own devices?
This is where the length comes in. King follows the stories of various citizens in the town. We have Dale Barbara a.k.a Barbie (the strong but silent type), a former army captain, who’s actually trying to leave Chester’s Mill just as the dome comes into existence. There’s Julia Shumway, editor of the local paper, who divides her time between flirting with Barbie and organising a splinter group of political activist against the novel’s villain: James ‘Big Jim’ Rennie.
Big Jim Rennie is one of those characters that you absolutely despise but just can’t get enough of. He’s repulsive. Repellent. Abhorrent. And a great bloody read. He is the owner of a used car dealership and takes it upon himself to take control of the town whilst it’s trapped under the dome. He lies, he tricks, he steals, blackmails, intimidates. He monopolises the town’s police force and tries to do whatever he can to take down Barbie, the only other credible threat to Big Jim’s power and natural leader in Chester’s Mill. All whilst preaching the good Lord’s word and professing heavenly guidance. This is all before we even discover his secret drug emporium.
Then another corker of a character: James ‘Junior’ Rennie. Where Big Jim is slippery as a wet rat in his attempts to cover up his sinister intentions, Junior is openly unhinged. He’s a deranged sociopath who we first meet after he’s just accidentally-on-purpose killed his girlfriend, Angie McCain. He hides her in a pantry and frequently revisits over the next few days. To this first body he adds another girl, Dodee Sanders, and refers to them both as his ‘girlfriends’ as they steadily decompose in Angie’s empty house.
Other town members include a doctor, a café owner, a retired supermarket manager, a town drunk, a drug dealer, a farmer’s boy, various members of the police. The list goes on, and it becomes clear the scope of the task King has taken on. He examines the relationships and steadily degenerating order of a town that devolves before our very eyes. He explores how society breaks down when left to its own devices. He explores one man’s hunger for power and the surprising ease with which most of the town falls under his repugnant spell.
King admitted attempting this project much, much earlier in his career, but said the task was too great for him. And after reading, it’s easy to understand why. I fully appreciate the enormity of such a literary endeavour: King has shown an entire town’s reaction to the dome, to being trapped, to being abandoned by the outside world and left to their devices. It’s an incredibly gripping read, and with so many threads and characters to trundle along with, from hero to psychopath, you’ll find yourself reluctant to put it down.