Under the Dome: An incredibly gripping read

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews Under the Dome by Stephen King speculative fiction book reviews, horrorUnder the Dome by Stephen King

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.

Publication Date: December 12, 2009. On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener’s hand is severed as “the dome” comes down on it, people running errands in the neighboring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when — or if — it will go away. Dale Barbara, Iraq vet and now a short-order cook, finds himself teamed with a few intrepid citizens — town newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician’s assistant at the hospital, a select-woman, and three brave kids. Against them stands Big Jim Rennie, a politician who will stop at nothing — even murder — to hold the reins of power, and his son, who is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry. But their main adversary is the Dome itself. Because time isn’t just short. It’s running out.

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RACHAEL “RAY” MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well — a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette — those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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