I knew what I was getting into. Everyone said that modern Stephen King isn't nearly as good as classic Stephen King, and I accepted this. If you read The Shining and Doctor Sleep within a couple of weeks of each other, you'll be shocked at how much his writing style has changed over the years, forgoing prose in favor of a more simplistic, verbose style that prefers details -- however mundane -- over eloquence. And that can be fine. We evolve as writers over time, and even Doctor Sleep, which wasn't that great, had some surprisingly touching and insightful moments -- unsurprisingly, the best parts were the ones that felt the most personal.
Under the Dome is the longest King book I've read so far, and it was a little intimidating at first glance. Unlike his other books, which take me a few days to breeze through, this one took about a week or so. Open it up, and there's a map of the town, which he's included in other books, but then you flip the page and there's a list of all the people in the town that will be mentioned in the book -- their names, families, and occupations. It's like King's version of Westeros, only set in Maine, where instead of saying "Winter is coming," everyone says "Ayup."
(Spoilers ahead, you've been fairly warned)
What interested me the most about Under the Dome was the idea that, with longer King books, you often get a leisurely paced but thrilling journey with strong character development and great bursts of intensity laced throughout. Books like The Stand and It and Needful Things have all given the reader incredibly satisfying journeys, while the destination -- or climax -- leaves a bit to be desired. It's as if King doesn't really know where the story is headed and writes himself into a corner, then he just writes in some aliens or goblins and uses the power of childhood imagination or mystical intervention to undermine evil and the day is saved. So maybe I should have known better going into this? I guess in that sense, Under the Dome is a King classic, but I should have seen where it was headed.
Under the Dome isn't a bad book or poorly written, and -- as with most of King's work* -- I had a hard time putting it down. There are plenty of female characters and they are prominently featured, smart, and serve a great purpose other than existing as wives and girlfriends. There's a rape scene, but it serves to illustrate what happens under the control of a nefarious dictatorship that deploys its own method of "law enforcement." It's tragic and heartbreaking. King goes to lengths to show that women are more opposed to this new authority than men, and wiser, too, and unfortunately that's the reason why so many of them die so often: because they dare to stand up and say "No."
Where the book loses me is this: a major plot point is a meth factory, controlled in part by the town's new dictator, Big Jim Rennie, and his lackeys. The source of the dome is a mystery for the majority of the book's pages, and after a time, I started to wonder -- and sort of worry -- if the dome wasn't caused by some mutated form of Super Meth. While that would be kind of dumb, it might allow for some of King's wackier ideas, like maybe there would be some weirdo meth gremlins or something.
But no. The dome exists because of aliens. Of course it does. And even worse: alien children, who have placed the dome around the town of Chester's Mill as some twisted otherworldly video game, their own virtual entertainment. I still held out hope that maybe King would at least revive his stupid but amusing shit weasels from Dreamcatcher, but no. The alien kids don't feel anything for us or understand that our lives have value, and this all ties together to the Reverend Piper Libby, who's lost her faith in God. King provides an eye-roll-worthy moment when Libby remarks that all this time she's been praying to someone who wasn't there, when these beings were controlling our fate all along. Couple this with a paramedic's story about trying to stop his friend from burning ants to death with a magnifying glass, and King's inspiration for Under the Dome becomes agonizingly evident: that silly idea that God is an overgrown kid with a magnifying glass, and we're the ants; or the more modern incarnation, that God is playing a video game, and we're the characters. Jesus Christ, indeed.
The climax is written in a frenzied, convoluted style that feels like a missed opportunity to pause and embrace the elegance of its intention: a last ditch desperate attempt at begging empathy. One of our main characters, Julia Shumway, forms a mental link with a solitary alien girl, and shows the alien being her own childhood suffering as well as a harrowing incident in Iraq involving fellow Dome survivor Colonel Barbara, illustrating humanity's capacity for cruelty and its capacity for pain, in an attempt to show them that maybe our kind and their kind are not so different. Not everyone is capable of empathy. The best some can offer is pity, and sometimes that's enough. I get it. But it's so hastily written and tacked on, with no real denouement after over 1,000 pages of an extensive journey with all of these people. Then again, that's King for you, I guess.
* I haven't been writing about all of the Stephen King books I've been reading, but Firestarter was probably the most boring one of them all, and a real slog to get through. I think King wrote that one in his cocaine phase because some of the passages have a manic quality about them, while the content itself is pretty mundane. He also flips between past and present narratives and perspectives sort of aimlessly. It reads like having a conversation with someone who's high on coke and going off on a tangent about something they think is really intellectual. For what it's worth, the book only has one boner, and it only starts to get interesting when that boner happens, about two-thirds of the way through. I should probably post a Stephen King Boner Power Ranking soon.