Sunday, August 08, 2010

"Under the Dome" by Stephen King

I read this for SF book club. It is the first book by King I have read. He is an author I always had down as being primarily for teenagers and have long had the idea that there is something a bit deficient about anyone over the age of 20 who is still reading him. Was I wrong? Read on and see.

The first thing to bear in mind about this book is that it is a total porker – 877 pages worth of Stephen King action. Long books by established authors are always a bit off-putting. The fear must always be that the author has become too powerful to edit, with no one able to stop the fruits of their creativity bloating up in a most unwholesome manner. With Under the Dome I was very much afraid that this would be not so much a book as a sprawling monstrosity bearing only the most passing resemblance to a work of literature. The first question with the book really has to be whether its length is a strength or a weakness.

But first let me outline the novel's premise. What happens is that for no obvious reason the small town of Chester's Mill in Maine finds itself sealed off from the outside world by an invisible dome. It rapidly gets a bit Batavia's Graveyard, particularly once Big Jim Rennie (the local Boss Hogg character) sets up a reign of terror after drafting various thuggish friends of his psychopath son onto the local police force. An Iraq war special forces veteran, conveniently in town when the dome descends, finds himself in a race against time to discover the source of the dome and prevent Big Jim from doing all kinds of bad stuff. The book cuts between loads of characters as events unfold from their point of view.

So, back to the length. It does not start so well. As one of my book club pals points out, the first hundred or so pages just seem to be people crashing into the dome. It is hard not to think that King could have got over that in just a couple of pages. After that, though, it picks up the pace. You sometimes hear books described as page-turners. This is one of those – once it got going, the narrative momentum carried me along and I stormed through the book. The length does seem to work, as it allows the story of the town to be unrolled in great detail and from many points of view. I felt ultimately that the book was long because it ought to be, not because no one can edit Stephen King.

I found myself admiring the authors' technique with this, wondering what writing qualities make a book engaging and hard to put down. For all that, this is not really that good a book. A lot of the characters are a bit thin (though not all of them, by any means), the central premise is never really explained that convincingly, and it does feel a bit like he just has nearly everyone die in a huge explosion because he cannot think of any other way to end things. As it rolls along you maybe do not notice these shortcomings, but they are very obvious once you start reflecting on things.

I would not recommend this book, for all that I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. It has however made me interested in maybe reading something else by King. His ability to draw the reader into a compelling story is impressive and would go well with a book where he had thought through things a bit better. There were also a couple of places in the book where he seemed to really up his game, making me feel like I really was in the presence of something other than a skilled hack-writer*. If this were a first novel I would say, "It's not that great, but aspects of it show real promise". I suppose that might mean that his earlier books are better. What say you?

One final pedantic criticism - this book is barely SF! What is it doing in SF book club?

And the next SF book club is on in the Central Library in the ILAC this coming Tuesday at 6.30 pm. The book is Flood by Stephen Baxter. I have not started reading it yet, so you could get a head start on me.

*if you have read the book yourself, I am thinking firstly of the bit where two of the women cops go snooping around the radio station – there is an almost tangible air of non-specific menace throughout that whole section. Secondly there is the "Feeling It" section about women's netball.


Ray said...

I haven't read any Stephen King since I turned 20...

The Stand has a similar structure, lots of different characters dealing with a large event. It was pretty big when I read it and then was released in an even longer 'uncut' edition. I'm amazed to see it's one of his oldest books.

Or you could try Skeleton Crew, a short story collection, or the four shortish novels that were written under the name Richard Bachman.

accentmonkey said...

The Stand is certainly regarded as his masterwork, although I always loved Misery (I imagine you don't need to read this now, though. The film is pretty faithful to the book). His early short stories are fantastic, really gripping and gruesome.

I guess the problem is that a lot of his best books have been filmed by now, so you might be familiar with them.

Andrew Farrell said...

I always got the impression that The Stand was regarded as the best by his fans, who were self-selected to think that More is Better. They've started putting it out in comic book form now - the first collection (out of six) is I think available.

The recommendations that I received were for the original four Richard Bachman novellas (collected as The Bachman Books), and Skeleton Crew (and possibly Night Shift? I don't know anything about his later short story collections), and also The Dark Tower, his odd semi-western mystical ramble. Which is also being adapted for comics, but very slowly (but bizarrely by Peter David!)

ian said...

I have never seen Misery. I should have mentioned, though, that in contrast to my original idea that Stephen King novels are for kids, I have seen and enjoyed many films based on his novels.

I had forgotten that I read and enjoyed a King short story - 'Crouch End', an engaging piece of H. P. Lovecraft pastiche, with a nice London setting.