With a writer as prolific as Stephen King (or Anne Rice, John Updike, etc), there reaches a point where it’s hard to judge each successive work on its own merits — the impulse becomes to judge it against the rest of the writer’s oevre. Is Pandora better than Tale of the Body Thief, but pales in comparison to Interview with a Vampire? Is this book perhaps good in its own right, but rehashing themes that the author’s already done? Is To the End of Time the actualfax worst book that Updike has ever written? Is Under the Dome on par with King’s early classics, or just one of his potboilers?
Well friends, I have no idea, because I don’t actually read Stephen King! The only other book of his I’ve read was The Dead Zone (oh right, and The Gunslinger, ages ago, but I’ve been told that’s quite different from King’s usual style), so my experience with Under the Dome was largely uncolored by his previous books. And in a nutshell, my experience was:
Stephen King does Battle Royale, and does it fuckin’ aces.
The premise: one sunny autumn morning, an invisible, impermeable barrier suddenly falls over the idyllic Maine town of Chester’s Mill — they can’t get out, no one else can get in, and anything caught in the middle gets sliced in half. Internet, radio, and cellphone signals can pass through the barrier; air and water get through only in near-negligible amounts. The story is about how the people of Chester’s Mill and the authorities outside respond to the crisis, their attempts to crack the dome, and the rising body count as the town starts to realize there may be no way out.
This is a huge book with a huge cast (not quite all two-thousand people in the town, though it sometimes feels like that), but King juggles the multitude of characters masterfully, and I never had trouble keeping anyone straight. The most central protagonist is Dale Barbara, former army captain turned drifter, who’d gotten into an altercation that made it prudent to skip town — and almost made it. The most central antagonist is Jim Rennie, used car salesman and the power behind the throne on the town council, for whom the town’s sudden helpless isolation is a god-sent opportunity to assert ever-increasing amounts of control.
I’ve thought before about how it’s usually much easier to apply adjectives to people in fiction than it is in real life. Fictional characters often have a standout trait on which the rest of their characterization hangs — altruism, ambition, intelligence, selfishness — but people in the real world tend to be a muddier mix, without any one trait being particularly striking. Which can make it hard to write realistic rather than larger-than-life characters, and still make them interesting and make the readers care.
Stephen King can do this. He has a talented writer’s gift for — I hesitate to say “manipulating” the reader, but the characters he wants you to like are genuinely likeable, every time, and the characters he wants you to hate will set your teeth on edge. He knows how to make that happen. (And the ones in the middle, the ones who aren’t bad people but also aren’t particularly admirable, still never fail to be humanized — that you may not approve of their actions, but you can understand them.)
The villains are the only ones who are larger-than-life (and there are more of them per capita than you’d expect in a town of two thousand people), while his protagonists are almost uniformly that realistic human average, with little in their actions to set them apart in terms of personality. Barbara is relatively brave, but that’s as much a product of his experience and skillset — dude was in Iraq, after all — as a product of his nature, and he’s as unnerved by the dome as anyone. Other, comparatively vulnerable townsfolk may be more scared in specific confrontations, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make themselves swallow that fear and do what needs to be done. In fact, the definining traits of King’s good guys would seem to be (1) a moral compass and (2) being brave when they have to be. (With options on (3) not being stupid.)
In the absence of strongly distinct personalities, the reason this works is that they all have strongly distinct histories, and different things/people that they care about. They’re not standouts of personality, but they are the sum of their experiences, they are a human lifetime, and when they die, you feel what’s being lost.
This is the same strategy that Takami Koushun employed in Battle Royale, in which a class of forty kids is dumped on an island and forced to kill each other until there’s only one left standing. The body count is high, and there are no redshirts here. You get to know each and every one of those kids before they die.
(You think George R.R. Martin is uninhibited about killing off characters? He’s got nothing on Battle Royale and Under the Dome.)
The difference between this and Battle Royale (or Lord of the Flies, or Galax-Arena, or House of Stairs) is that it’s happening at home — it’s not the horror of being stolen and thrust unprepared into a nightmare, it’s the horror of seeing the familiar become something terrifying. It makes for some powerfully intense reading, and not least for the claustrophobic, ever-present sense of menace that hangs over every character — the knowledge that no one is safe, that at every moment the town is teetering on the brink of madness, and it would take very, very little to push it over the edge. Stephen King, unsurprisingly, does atmospheric horror like a champ, and as the crisis drags on, the dome itself becomes as threatening as its consequences.
And while the premise (the dome) may be supernatural in origin, but the danger is entirely human. Hell, as they say, is other people.