Under the Dome by Stephen King
Awesomeness that is worth whatever its price.
First, I don’t read Stephen King novels. Let me rephrase that: prior to this book, I had not read any Stephen King novels. I have read Danse Macabre (and used it for exactly the kind of grad school geekery he professes to detest) and I have read some of The Dark Tower graphic novels (not the same as other novels). I also listened to a recording of Jerry Garcia reading the short story “Chattery Teeth” (lesson learned: never ever ever buy weird stuff at rest stops. lesson 2: never ever ever EVER pick up a hitchhiker.), but again, not a novel. Frankly, I was too scared. Life is hard enough, the news is scary enough, without encountering it in my fiction as well. However, having experienced some hard, scary things in real life, I’m less afraid of things generally. And since reading fiction is, I believe, not only for escapism, but to give readers practice in handling things before real life thrusts it on them (and also for entertainment. And also to build empathy. And also…), my reasons for avoiding Stephen King were poor. I wish I could tell you that I overcame my avoidance of his novels based on reason alone and a more enlightened mind, but it’s just not true. Instead, I turned to King out of desperation.
I left my husband the night before in the ICU, wrapped up like a mummy and almost as lively. That day, I woke up with an insomnia hangover and a sincere desire, as on other occasions, for a personal instant teleportation device. I was plagued by a feeling of helplessness. What can you do when your loved one has people shoving stuff in his brain? When he vomits if he tries to sit up or turns on the lights? When an 80 degree room is too cold for him? Nothing, really. Certainly nothing that a skilled medical professional can’t do better. But I would’ve gone crazy (crazier? I was certainly not my usual self that week) if I hadn’t been there with him, so I did what I could by bringing him flowers (very manly flowers, I promise) and by intending to sit with him until I was kicked out every night. I stopped at the grocery store, grabbed the cheapest, tiniest flowers I could find (– not because I like tiny cheap flowers, you understand, but because he is so utilitarian. Why flowers? I could hear him asking in his post-op croak. They’re just going to die. How much did they cost?). On my way to the register, I passed a table of books and there, in screaming yellow surrounded by menacing darkness, was King’s book. My other options were of the Women Only Want to Read About Sex, Shopping, and Maybe God variety. Those books have their place, I suppose, but having glanced through several during the previous day (one more Chicken Soup for the *&%&in’ Soul and someone was going to lose a face), I decided that was not what I was interested in. So what else could I do? I knew I would need a book to read, this was the only plausible option, and I was already running late for visiting hours. So I bought it. I read it. I loved it.
If life were a Stephen King novel, probably the book would have caused demon possession or eaten me alive or raised an army of the living dead or something, but, happily, none of those things happened (at least, NOT YET). In Danse Macabre, King talks about how (in very rough paraphrase, since my copy is in a box), contrary to popular opinion, horror is actually an exceptionally moral genre. It exists to tell tales that encourage people to stay within the line, to uphold the status quo (i.e. Never ever ever pick up a hitchhiker. Terrible, awful things will happen if you do.). He suggests that horror is actually about comforting ourselves, because it reinforces that all the things we think are good really are good, and the things we think are bad really are bad. In Under the Dome, for example, it’s clear pretty early on who the actual “bad guy” is and who the “good guy” is, and how both of those guys are different from the sort of drama and pain that comes from disinterested cruelty. In the end, the good guys (those who live) get rewarded and the bad guys (those who are left) get their comeuppance– in a really perfect way, too, so that the good guys, while complex characters, are still basically good guys, and the badness of the bad guys is further reinforced.
So yeah, King follows his own advice when it comes to storytelling, at least in this instance. I found it immensely comforting, not only because on some subconscious level my core values were being reinforced, but because these people trapped under the dome (think The Simpsons Movie, but as a supernatural tragedy rather than a dramatic comedy. Also, no slapstick in Under the Dome that I can remember.) had it at least as bad as I did right then, if not worse. I had several terrible options in store for my future, and only one or two good but unlikely ones. These poor suckers, though, were pretty much doomed. I felt like, yeah, ok, this is a book about what you do when something unthinkable and terrible catches you off guard and ruins your life. That is where I am right now. I can dig this. Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul was more of a slap in the face. (Thank you Canfield, et al. My faith is just fine. Life still sucks right now.)
The only thing that I didn’t like about this book (and it’s really a very small thing) was the overall cause of the dome. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, because you should all go read this book right now, so I won’t tell you what it was, but when the cause was first suggested, I thought, “SERIOUSLY? This is the best the master of American horror and one of the best living American authors can do? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Maybe when you all read it, you will roll your eyes, too. Though to be fair, I couldn’t think of a better source either, so what do I know? Maybe after thinking about the book some more, I will grow to love this particular thing.
The book was incredibly suspenseful. The characters had depth. I genuinely cared about them (except for the ones I genuinely loathed– or pitied.). I feel ambiguous about Junior Rennie. He’s a bad’un and no mistake, but then, he’s also so pitiful in so many ways. The fact that I have feelings about these characters, the fact that I feel like I know them, demonstrates how well-drawn they are. The plot was perfect. Honestly, I do not have enough words or skill to praise this book properly.
Why are you still here? Why haven’t you already read this book??? Go read the book. Terrible things could happen if you don’t. 🙂
♦ PS: A quick shout-out to Kristi (and Shanna) over at The Children’s Book Quote of the Day. They do with children’s books what I try to do with whatever I read, except they are way, way better at it. I’m linking here because I want to win a book, but mostly because I should’ve done it a long time ago. Enjoy!