By Lauren Mateer
There’s a reason Stephen King is known as the “King of Horror,” and it isn’t because his surname makes the moniker a half-decent pun. Nor is it because of his supernatural-themed novels. Sure, the vampires in Salem’s Lot are scary, but far more disturbing is the realistically deranged antagonist of Misery, Annie Wilkes.
King is a master of creating horrific tales with an “it could happen to you” atmosphere by putting a few creepy things in an otherwise normal town, and letting human nature run its course. King’s latest novel is no exception.
Under the Dome begins when a mysterious force field cuts off the town of Chester’s Mill from the rest of the world. The dome is of unknown origins and materials; some believe it’s a terrorist attack while others claim it’s more supernatural in nature. The military is quickly called in but can’t destroy it, even with large missiles.
Meanwhile, inside the town, corrupt politician “Big Jim” Rennie takes over the police force and the government offices. He finds himself in a power struggle with Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a former captain in the army who is pulled back into service to deal with the crisis. The situation deteriorates as Rennie and his men exert their control over the town. A resistance forms, creating violent factions among the citizens trapped within the mysterious dome.
Like Carrie, Needful Things and The Shining, Under the Dome contains paranormal elements. However, its true horror is found in the way the residents of the town react. King creates a tense and disturbing mood, combining repressed paranoia and flat-out terror to scare characters and readers alike.
In Under the Dome, King’s strengths are also his weaknesses. His characters are fully realized, but in his efforts to create a realistic small-town setting there are dozens of them, each with a completely fleshed-out back story. It makes the 1,074-page story hard to follow when one has to frequently refer to earlier pages to figure out the difference between Jim, Joe, Junior and Johnny.
The overwhelming number of characters does work somewhat to King’s advantage, as the reader is often uncertain of each figure’s motives. It makes the novel far too complicated to guess the ending. Unfortunately, the payoff is disappointing—a problem found frequently in King’s work.
Those familiar with King’s other novels may also notice a continuity error in that the book is clearly set in the present-day, with references to Lost and President Obama. Yet there are also references to Castle Rock, a fictional town King has used as the setting for many of his novels, though he irrevocably destroyed it in Needful Things, which is set long before the 21st century. It isn’t a huge detraction from the plot of the story, but readers who have read enough Stephen King novels to notice will most likely experience moments of confusion and annoyance.
Despite these problems, King still proves himself as capable of crafting a thrilling and complex story as ever. His skill at description and dialogue make his characters believable and his settings realistic. The plot is solid, and though it doesn’t rank among King’s best creations, it’s still a captivating and chilling story. Under the Dome may not be a masterpiece for the King of Horror, but it certainly proves he isn’t yet ready to surrender his crown.