I am limping back into reality. That is the only way I can describe the way I feel, after having read Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’ – an 877 page mammoth experience. The book is vintage King, yet, at the risk of sounding clichéd, King has outdone himself once again. I am in awe of the man’s fertile imagination, and his untiring ability to yarn spectacular stories.
The first Stephen King I read was ‘It’. In fact, King was the first ‘horror’ author I had picked up, more out of curiosity. ‘It’ is another lump of a book, and the minute your eyes rest on the first word, you cannot let go. I took two weeks to finish the book, my reading time being limited by office time. But for those two weeks, I was mentally in Derry – Maine. I became a steadfast fan, and many days and nights have been spent in Stephen King’s world – Christine, Carrie, Cujo, Bag of Bones, Insomnia, The Shining ...the list is endless.
I have only one word to describe King’s writing style – three-dimensional. You not only hear and feel the characters; you begin to react to their environment too. His writing style is so fluid, so effortless that is hard to remain uninvolved with the characters and their situation. More importantly, those who seek horror thrills in his books are merely scratching the surface. Delve deeper – and you’ll see the razor sharp focus on human psychology - the horror is not outside, the horror does not come from zombies and ghosts and evil aliens. The horror is always within us. The greed, the violence, the hatred – all covered and wrapped up by civilised society norms – watch them unravel when people are pushed to a corner. What is compelling in King’s flavour of horror is that the ‘horror’ element arises from a very ordinary incident, place or person.
‘Under the Dome’ is too spectacular a canvas – unlike anything I’ve read. This manuscript has sealed and secured Stephen King’s place as the greatest story teller! Only a genius can create book that is about an entire town; and only a genius can compel a reader to get involved with the town folks - politicians, the regular pool-playing feral youth, the dope junkies, the police team, the farmers, the only retailer in the town, the journalist, the doctors – even before you hit 100 pages, you are already living in the town. You know every character by their name, where they live, what they do and how they look. You know every street corner of the town, the lay of the land, the freeways and the high streets.
For all appearances, the story is sci-fi. Chester’s Mill is a small hole-in-the-wall town in Maine. One fine October morning, as everyone is going about their mundane business, an impregnable, invisible dome surrounds the town like a bell jar, physically cutting it off from the world. Chester’s Mill, for all practical purposes is now like a gold fish bowl.
At one level, the story moves on the alien angle. What could have caused this barricade that rises from deep within the earth and goes high up in the stratosphere? The dome is indestructible too – nuke warheads are unable to even scratch the walls. So this alien thread in the story is all about how to destroy this dome. It is fascinating to visualise the consequences of such an event. King has beautifully described the change in weather patterns, the change in the way the sky appears, the excessively bleeding sunsets, the strange appearance of the moon, the invisible pollutants in the atmosphere getting stuck on the dome – like dust particles that stick on to TV screens – it is absolutely riveting. Cleverly, the narration indirectly focuses on the way we are heading. We may not have a dome capped on the earth, but the way we are constantly abusing our environment – I am sure we will all be living ‘under the dome’ soon enough.
But more than the sci-fi angle, the human side of the story offers an incisive insight into social psychology and our political ideologies. Indeed as we reach the catastrophic end, we question our entire outlook about life, and our place in the universe.
All through time, right up until today, countries all over the world have come across dictators and despots – men of such cruelty that Satan would seem tame. We all wonder – ‘How did it come to this? How did this one man grow to become the most feared person? How did this one man grow to control my life?’
‘Under the Dome’ holds us by the hand and shows us how despots rise from amidst us. Big Jim or Jim Rennie is the town Selectman. He’s also a used-cars dealer. Big Jim is the shark you’ll find in every small town, big city and neighbourhood. He is the smarmy politician who mouths ‘greater good’ clichés while arm-twisting businesses and making tonnes of illegal money on the side. Big Jim is the average outwardly respectable, but extremely corrupt leader – as with most politicians around the world. When the Dome falls on Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outer world, the true Big Jim steps out in the open – brutal, manipulative, and psychopathic. Indeed, the Big Jims of the world never get the big picture – it is always about them, their image and their power. This character has been crafted to perfection – from the language to the closet racist opinions to the physical appearance. As we readers sit with Big Jim in his study while he plots his next manipulative move, we are astounded. The manipulations themselves seem needless and childish. Yet, the consequences are significant – strengthening Big Jim’s stronghold on the town layer by layer.
Whenever there is a despot, there is a revolution. But revolutions do not happen overnight. Revolutions have to be clandestine and no one knows on which side one is. As the story unfolds, the reader is introduced to an array of heroes – they are heroes because they stand up against Big Jim – sometimes in spectacularly stupid, naive ways. Principle amongst the hero brigade is Dale Barbara – a decorated ex-army guy who is now a cook in the town’s pub/restaurant called Sweetbriar Rose. When the dome comes down, he is nominated by the President of USA to take control of Chester’s Mill. But Barbara (or Barbie as we shall affectionately call him like all other townies), has his own problems with Big Jim and his hoodlums. Indeed the Dome has changed the dynamics of civilised law of the land. You’d think being an ex-army guy Barbie can go POW WOW and mow down the bad guys. But that won’t happen in real life. And so it does not happen in the book. Indeed, at times you feel like yelling at Barbie – but you know deep down that he is right in remaining subdued and understated. One wrong move and Big Jim can have him executed with impunity. In the piece of land that is cut off from the world, Big Jim’s word is the law.
You’d think the climax will have some phenomenal ‘Independence Day’ type nuke attacks on some alien space ships. But even that satisfaction to the ego is not given. We are brutally shown the mirror – we are like ants in this cosmos – our intelligence, our power, our knowledge – everything is miniscule and insignificant. Our only chance at survival is to beg the superior ones to let us go, have mercy on us and allow us to carry on with our unremarkable lives. And perhaps, live with a little more gratitude thereon.
So there! One masterpiece that weaves crime, horror, social psychology, political science and philosophy. A sumptuous feast!
In the true Guru-Shishya tradition, I hope that someday I will be able to pay King my gurudakshine.
© Sumana Khan - 2011