Friday, November 27, 2009

Prepare to Meet Your Dome!

Under the Dome
by Stephen King
New York : Scribner, 2009

Stephen King's newest novel, Under the Dome, is probably the best thing he's written this decade. In the very near future, the town of Chester's Mill is suddenly and inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible, impenetrable dome. There is no warning, and several people (and one unfortunate woodchuck) suffer the consequences immediately. For everyone else, the horror escalates rapidly as one thing after another goes wrong; the town's propane supply is mysteriously short, the most powerful politician in town becomes increasingly despotic, and the sky begins to darken, slowly but inexorably.

In the tradition of Needful Things and Tommyknockers, Under the Dome features King's signature style of ensemble casts. Though the story closely follows a handful of characters, the whole town is placed, as it were, under the microscope. Also, like most of King's writing, the horror and tragedy stem from basic human emotions and responses more than on any supernatural malevolence. Though the Dome has created a terrible situation, it is ultimately the actions of the townsfolk which drive the hellish pace of the story; and it is hellish.

Though bulky and somewhat recycled (is there any small town in Maine safe from annihilation?), the story is paced beautifully. There are no lulls in the action, and there are several scenes, including the climactic ending, which truly filled me with dread. One of the best things about this particular story is its horrible inevitability, and while there are some surprises, it is even worse knowing what's going to happen, and watching it still happen anyway.

The best part of this story is its thorough modernity. Under the Dome does not ignore the changing nature of communications technology, and in fact relies on it in several places to advance the plot. The media and military know about what's happening; in fact, the whole world knows, and must watch as the reader watches with sick fascination as calamities descend on Chester's Mill. They helplessly watch as the town shows signs of climate-change in miniature, rape becomes an epidemic, and the drug-culture literally blows up in their faces. If the dome is a trap, it is also a funhouse mirror, reflecting the times in stark relief.

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